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Get to get great software for free

hamba

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Get to get great software for free

Amateur programmers are now giving away some of the world's best software. Rhodri Marsden tests the essential 'open-source' downloads - you'll never pay for the big brands again

OPENOFFICE.ORG

WHAT DOES IT DO?

As the name suggests, it's a suite of office software that includes a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation software (Impress) and a database program (Base), along with other tools.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

One of its aims was to reduce the market share of Microsoft Office; Microsoft still has 95 per cent of the market, but OpenOffice.org reports over 60 million downloads to date. Microsoft Office Professional costs around £370, while the Appleworks suite currently sells for £65.

HIGHLIGHTS

The Ooo experience is so similar to using Word and Excel that you'll make the switch seamlessly and barely notice the difference - and you can open all your old documents. It's also currently free of the viruses that blighted previous versions of Microsoft Office.

DRAWBACKS

It feels slightly slow and sluggish compared to its paid-for equivalents. There's currently no grammar checker. The Macintosh version also requires you to install an additional software package, X11, to get it up and running.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

Can be downloaded from download.openoffice.org. Available in various languages and for various platforms, including Windows 2000, NT & XP and Linux. A new version for Mac, neooffice (neooffice.org), has recently been added. Updates and bug-fixes are released every three months.

GIMP

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It originally stood for Graphics Image Manipulation Program, which describes what it does fairly accurately. Photos and other image files can be edited using the industry-standard methods of working on images in different layers. It can also save files into different formats - good for turning, say a large ".tif" image into a compressed ".jpg" file.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

Adobe Photoshop, which costs around £480, is undoubtedly the market leader. A slew of cheap shareware tools can also perform image-editing - rotating, resizing and so on - to varying degrees.

HIGHLIGHTS

It's a sophisticated and powerful tool that would be impressive even with a price tag; once you've got the hang of it, it's capable of sophisticated graphics work, and particularly adept at handling animations.

DRAWBACKS

The interface isn't particularly intuitive, which doesn't help the learning curve, and most people's editing needs will be taken care of by more user-friendly software. Those used to Adobe software will miss the absence of Photoshop plug-ins and various colour-correction tools.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

Can be downloaded at gimp.org/downloads. Versions are available for Windows 98 and later, and for Mac OS X and Linux. It started life as an undergraduate term project at the University of California in the mid-1990s.

AVG

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It comprises two programs - Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware - which help protect against attacks from viruses and other "malware" on the internet. As per most anti-virus software, it can scan your system periodically, check incoming and outgoing e-mail for viruses and repair certain damaged files.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

AVG also makes pay-for software, so in effect it is undercutting itself with AVG Free. Still, this version has spearheaded the success of the company - there are reportedly over 40 million users of the AVG suite. McAfee (£32) and Norton (£45) are the other major players in the sector, but neither of these offers a free option.

HIGHLIGHTS

In a recent issue of Computer Shopper, AVG Free was rated higher than either of the McAfee or Norton products - indeed, it was described as "roundly thrashing" them. It's particularly adept at detecting spyware, and is compatible with the new Windows Vista operating system.

DRAWBACKS

Technical support isn't offered unless you fork out for the paid-for versions. AVG encourages you to upgrade to its commercial versions for high-speed updates and real-time monitoring of your system. But many see the free version as rock-solid and dependable enough for their needs.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

Available to download from free.grisoft.com for users of Windows or Linux systems. It's the only non open-source selection in this round-up; commerical use is banned by the terms and conditions, so it's for personal use only.

VIDEOLAN

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It's a media player that can deal with virtually all audio and video file formats that you could throw at it - and can apply filters so you can create your own special effects.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

WinAmp, RealPlayer and QuickTime all offer free versions, but you have to fork out between £10 and £20 for the professional versions with extra features. And even if you own these programs, you often have to turn to VLC to play certain awkward file formats.

HIGHLIGHTS

When people stream video they use all kinds of compression tools, and VLC supports a huge number of these. It's a relief to know that there's something out there that will play everything, and can even deal with damaged files that others give up on.

DRAWBACKS

It's not the tidiest of programs, and it lacks the ability to reliably save and export files in different formats, but as a viewing tool it's great.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

Available at www.videolan.org for every operating system. Created by students in Paris, it has been developed under open source since 2001.

AUDACITY

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It's a digital audio editor. On the simplest level it allows you to edit out unwanted sections of audio files and resave them into new formats such as mp3, but it's also capable of "denoising" (i.e. taking out the hiss), adding effects and recording and playing several tracks at once.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

Its nearest competitor for Windows used to be the popular Cool Edit; this was bought by Adobe in 2004, and now, under the name Audition, retails for a cool £260. Sony's Soundforge occupies a similar place in the market, and its "light" version (Sound Forge Audio Studio) sells for about £35.

HIGHLIGHTS

With an add-on module called VST Enabler - also free - Audacity can use hundreds of plug-ins in Steinberg's VST format, which allow you to apply various effects to the audio files.

DRAWBACKS

It doesn't allow you to record and playback Midi tracks as you would with programs such as the Cubase or Logic software families, so its usefulness as a multitrack music-making tool is slightly limited - but it is, neverthless, a handy musical notepad.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

Available from sourceforge.net/ projects/audacity/ for many different operating systems. This one was created by Dominic Mazzoni, who now works with Google.

INKSCAPE

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It's a vector graphics editor. Whereas bitmap graphic editors such as Photoshop are primarily used for image processing and retouching, vector graphics editors are more suited to graphic design, creating logos, images, diagrams and illustrations.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

The two main players are currently Adobe Illustrator and CorelDraw, and neither is particularly cheap. Illustrator is the industry standard at £430, CorelDraw slightly less at £290. Both have steeper learning curves and larger feature sets than Inkscape.

HIGHLIGHTS

One priority of the Inkscape project has been developing an intuitive interface that's easily learnable and consistent across the program. Newcomers to vector graphics may find Inkscape a good introduction to the world of bezier curves and gaussian blurs.

DRAWBACKS

The basic software package doesn't include support for some industry standard file formats such as Adobe Illustrator and PDF; however, add-on extensions have been developed to allow this.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

Available from www.inkscape.org for Mac, Windows and Linux.



continued in next post....
 

hamba

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#2
continued from previous post...


NVU

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It's a web-page creator, based on the WYSIWYG concept ("what you see is what you get"). It requires no actual knowledge of coding, working instead in a graphical format that creates the code in the background.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

Dreamweaver is by far and away the best known of such editors. Adobe now owns this software along with its own HTML editor, GoLive; both retail for around £330. Microsoft's Expression Web is a newcomer at £230.

HIGHLIGHTS

It's easy to use, and caters for most of your needs if you just want to make a simple, well-presented page. The code it generates is neat and tidy, unlike other well-known entry-level HTML editors (yes, we're looking at you, Microsoft Frontpage).

DRAWBACKS

With the advent of online blog templates, most people wishing to create their own space on the internet don't really have the need for HTML editors any longer.

Nvu has also ceased official development - a successor, Composer, is currently being rewritten from scratch.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

It's pronounced "N-View", and it's available for download at www.nvu.com. It was originally developed for Linux, but its success has seen it ported to both Windows and Macintosh systems.

THUNDERBIRD

WHAT DOES IT DO?

It's an e-mail programme and Usenet newsgroup reader, with customisable look and feel, junkmail filters, spell-checker and various security features; it can import your messages from other programs to ensure a smooth switch-over.

WHAT IS IT UNDERCUTTING?

Both Windows and Mac machines have built in e-mail clients (Outlook Express and Mail, respectively) that cost nothing, but "professional" e-mail programs are also available, such as Eudora Pro (£10) and Microsoft Outlook.

HIGHLIGHTS

Just like Firefox, it seems to provoke fierce loyalty amongst its users, who are attracted by the customisable interface and the translations into many languages. A portable version, Thunderbird Portable, allows you to carry the whole client around with you on an iPod or other hard drive or removable disk.

DRAWBACKS

Many people are steering clear of desktop-based e-mail programs altogether, as internet-hosted equivalents such as Google Mail and Yahoo! Mail are accessible from any machine and are developing sophisticated features of their own.

HOW DO YOU GET IT?

The sister project of the increasingly popular Firefox web browser, it's available from www.mozilla.com/thunderbird for Windows 98 and later, as well as Mac OS X and Linux.




Published: 28 March 2007
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited