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Essential free software

It’s pretty much de rigeur to post lists on your blog. Especially lists of free and open source software. I’m going to make it a very personal list of the free software I could not live without.

The obvious:

  • Ubuntu (OS) – the linux distro your mum can use—it’s perfect for me. Easy to use with plenty of power under the hood when I feel like braving the terminal.
  • Firefox (crossplatform) – yes it’s the best browser (I believe). More to the point it’s a platform that allows you to radically improve your experience on the web, and your productivity. Add-ons like Firebug, the web developer toolbar, mouse gestures, Adblock, NoScript and Stumbleupon are what I really miss when I’m forced to use another browser.
  • Openoffice.org (crossplatform) – will it replace Microsoft Office? Not in the workplace any time soon, but it’s great at home. Personally I slightly prefer the word processor to Word, but I can’t really get on with the spreadsheet or the slideware.
  • GIMP (crossplatform) – not quite a Photoshop replacement, but not far off. Both its promoters and detractors tend to exaggerate, but it more than meets the needs of an amateur photographer like me.
  • Audacity (crossplatform) – great audio editing software. Massively over-specced for my needs, but does the job nicely.

The slightly less obvious:

  • Inkscape (crossplatform) – useful vector graphics editor, with SVG as its native format. It may not be an Illustrator replacement, but it’s being actively developed, and has come on leaps and bounds since I first used it three or four years ago. More than enough for my needs.
  • VLC Media Player (crossplatform) – if there’s a theme in this list it’s for small applications that do one thing extremely well. This is the perfect example—portable, easy to use, comprehensive codec support, it just works.
  • 7 Zip (Windows) – great little compression/archive package. Free, integrates into the shell nicely, and supports a wider range of archive and encryption formats than the archive manager built into the shell.
  • f-spot (Gnome) – excellent photo management software for Linux, with basic editing built in. Supports Flickr and Picasa uploading, amongst others.
  • Notepad++ (Windows) – my favourite text editor for coding. Has all the features you want (like syntax highlighting, regular expressions etc.) without them getting in your way.
  • Filezilla (crossplatform) – great FTP client.
  • Foxit reader (Windows) – a superb replacement PDF reader, small portable and fast. Using this is SO much nicer than Adobe’s bloatware.
  • Password Safe (Windows) – started by the legendary Bruce Schneier, this is a handy little application which securely stores your passwords and related details, protected by a master password.
  • Irfanview (Windows) – small, fast image viewer. Also has nice features like the ability to package a slideshow as a standalone .exe file.
  • Rawshooter – sadly now defunct since Adobe bought Pixmantec. I’ve yet to find a real replacement for this.

The, frankly and undeservedly, obscure:

  • celtx (crossplatform) – stunningly good “media pre-production” software. Even if you just see it as screenwriting software I think this is better than any of the commercial packages I’ve played with…plus it has useful web-based backup and collaboration tools. Marvellous.
  • Mozilla Ubiquity (crossplatform) – I believe this is a glimpse into the future of web browsers. A natural language command line to perform common web tasks (searching, translating, defining, tweeting etc.) in the browser. Try it – you might love it.
  • EasyPeasy (OS) – formerly UbuntuEEE, this is Ubuntu customised for netbooks. Using it has transformed my experience on my Asus EEE. Highly recommended.
  • Q10 (Windows) – ultra-minimalist, portable writing app. A full-screen text editor with a highly customisable appearance, but very little in the way of distractions. Encourages you to get on with writing.
  • ToDoList (Windows) – much more powerful than you might think at first glance. For me the perfect cross between a to do list and project management software.

I think it’s interesting to compare this with the astonishingly short list of commerical software I couldn’t live without:

  • NeatImage (Windows & Mac OSX) – easy to use, powerful and flexible. This is the best noise-reduction software I’ve used, and it costs a measly €25.
  • PTGui (Windows & Mac OSX) – frontend to Panorama Tools, a programme that helps automate the tedious process of stiching photos together to make a panorama. Does what it does very well, though not cheap at €79.
  • Typetool (Windows and Mac OSX) – sorry but Fontforge is just not fun to use. Typetool is a nice compromise for those of us that can’t justify the cost of Fontlab (its professional sibling). At $99 it’s hardly a rip-off for what is a capable and polished product.

There are so few reasons to pay for software these days…except your conscience. I try to donate, where possible, to the developers who create the applications I can’t live without.

Given time more and more open source applications will overtake their commercial rivals in features and functionality. I think that’s a much better future than torrenting a cracked version of Photoshop, laden with malware.

Filed under: Lists, Open source, Software