Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Free software Alternatives For Your New PC

You just bought a new desktop, laptop or may be you just happen to re-format one ... What software do you put on it now? Well, with all the free software out there, surely you can do wonders without spending a dime; right? Most definitely! If you've followed ahmadism.com you know that I collect free alternatives to commercial software. And if you know me at all, you also know that friends and family are always bringing me their machines to either fix, or to install some of my collected goodies on them. The latter is the subject of this post.

Now that school is over, it's a few short summer weeks before students shop for laptops and rush mistakenly to purchase commercial software that they think they need or that are pre-installed on their machines for trial basis.

Note: This article is geared towards Windows machines, but most the software I list work on other platforms like the Mac and Linux.

First and foremost, I strongly suggest you uninstall any of the trial antivirus programs that typically come with your machine. I also suggest that you do not rush and buy Microsoft Office. Of course, some students get amazing discounts (as much as 91% off) with their .edu email addresses for Microsoft Office; that's a different story though.

Even with that deep discount, I personally would still consider the much faster and smaller (on your harddrive and in occupied memory space) free alternatives out there.

OK, let's get to it.

In my experience in setting up machines for myself, the family, friends and even extended friends, I've found that the following list is an absolute must:

The first thing I do, as I mentioned, is uninstall any trial software on the machine. Even if it's a full working version for a few months. I then, in Windows XP and Vista, create a restore point.

Next, I rush to install Firefox and use it instead of IE. Although initially, since I'm installing stuff and updating Windows itself, I found myself using both. That, however, doesn't stop me from making Firefox the default browser of choice. And ultimately, after all major Windows updates are installed, I delete all IE shortcuts and suppress it (IE) as best as I can; and then I set up Windonws' Update to prompt me.

There are Firefox extensions/add-ons I absolutely must have right off the bat to help with the rest. Namely, I first install the Download Statusbar. I run it in mini-mode, but configuring this or any other tool is not the focus of this post, but I strongly recommend you learn each one of these tools and become familiar enough with their configuration to allow for optimal customization. Of course, I'm available should you need help with any of these. This Firefox download manager/utility is well-worth it.

Next, I immediately download an anti-virus program. The following are all free alternatives to McAfee, Symantec/Norton, etc.:
  • Clamwin - This is what I use. Only one disadvantage: No real-time protection. It only checks what gets on your machine. For me, though, that is all I needed; especially with OpenDNS set up, which I'll talk about later. Of course, there are those who argue that real-time protection is a must, and I see their point.
  • Avira - Very similar to Clamwin but offers real-time protection. I've not put it to the test yet, but I know it's a very good alternative.
There are others out there like Panda's Cloud Antivirus, the infamous AVG and Avast (home edition is free).

By now I had already realized that the Windows native compression program does an OK job, but was annoying as @#$% to operate. I wanted something with more options. Specifically options to right-click and do things right there and then from the context menu. Now there are many options out there including the commonly cracked WinZip. But why partake in the illegal when you have free alternatives? 7-zip has a huge following, is open source, does an awesome job and best of all is free. Unfortunately, this is the only category where I don't mind shelling out for a commerical software --WinRar is well worth every penny and I highly recommend it. It is my defacto choice.

Next, I take of my "office" needs and install the Microsoft Office equivalent.

In my mind, there are really two alternatives: For the light user, I recommend relying for your "office" processing needs on Google Docs (GDocs). GDocs offers the light-equivalent of Word, Excel and Powerpoint; for free. A more robust option is the open source Open Office (OO). OO is compatible with the Microsoft Office suite, and has word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more.
It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format.

OO is extremely robust and will easily rival that of Microsoft's Office basic suite tool for tool. But it's that robustness that I don't need. And I don't want some thing that's light either. That's where Go Open Office (Go OO) fits in very nicely. Like OO, it's available for Windows, Linux and Mac. Unlike OO and MS Office, however, it is much faster. Go OO is what I personally use and I highly recommend it. Since it's not MS Office, though, it's worth mentioning the obvious --Buttons are called differently, and the interface is slightly different; but nothing that I couldn't overcome in a few minutes. It's fast, compliant, compatible and like most of everything on this page free.

Of course, I still use GDocs; especially since it offers an offline option. There are files I want accessible from any internet connected computer without having to load a portable version of Open Office from a USB or Flash drive. For those, I highly recommend GDocs. For all others, and for local work, I use Go OO. Although, I find myself using GDocs a lot more.

Then comes all the secondary software, as I call them; which are all free, but I still have some alternatives to some of them. These include Acrobat Reader (FoxIt Reader or even PDF Xchange are better, smaller and faster), an mp3 & video player (my choice is JetAudio), a print-screen/screen-capture tool (my favorite is PicPick), Flash Player (I'd keep the original on this one --no alternative) and a print-to-PDF tool --I use PrimoPDF, but there are others like CutePDF and I'm sure many others.

There are so many others I could think of installing, but I try to rely on cloud applications whenever & wherever I can. Other software genres include an mp3 server for me to listen to my collection from anywhere with an internet connect without every having to haul one song. And yes, it streams it (not downloads it), and it's 100% free. Others include remote desktop applications that allow me to troubleshoot all these computers I help set up. Heck, I even have software alternatives for my webcam that beat what usually comes in the box.

I maintain a spreadsheet, which I share with a select few, that lists all these and much much more. And although the spreadsheet, which I share on GDocs, is nearing 100 rows with several entries on each row, I continue to contribute to it every time I come across something.

If you're interested in seeing this spreadsheet simply send me 3 free alternatives to commercial software. I'll send you a view-only invite even if I already have them on the spreadsheet.

It's worth mentioning that although I don't install these on the computers I set up, since they're more personal, I highly recommend them for all:
  1. Digsby - The best "multiprotocol IM client that lets you chat with all your friends on AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber with one simple to manage buddy list." Trust me and don't install Yahoo!, MSN, Google's GTalk. ICQ, etc. separately. It's not worth it. Although, especially Y!'s has some awesome mobile features that I like.
  2. Skype - Best video and VoIP calls any one can make.
  3. I highly recommend you create an account and sign up with OpenDNS. It acts as a firewall and semi-antivirus. I would actually add it to your router (home network) to protect the whole thing. To learn more about it, I strongly recommend you read this post.
  4. A must-have add-on for Firefox called Greasemonkey. Believe me, it will change the way you browse. Imagine customizing Gmail and many others as you visit them automatically.
  5. And finally I cannot recommend this service enough --Dropbox. Believe me, you will find yourself ditching your USB/Flash Drive within a short while of using this service. I could spend a whole article just writing about Dropbox ... actually I did here. If you gain nothing from this whole post, Dropbox alone is well worth it and tops them all.

There is a whole lot here, and I have even more, but I hope you've found it all helpful. As always, I welcome your comments. As a reminder, if you want to be included amongst those who have access to my "free alternatives to commercial software" simply send me an email with 3 of such alternatives and I'll send you back an invite.  ▣

Click here to see other Tueday posts (including the current one).


Unknown said...

Well, i really feel that Universal Document Converter needs to be in that coz it is so much better than the one mentioned in the list and supports so many formats. I request you to please review Universal Document Converter (http://www.print-driver.com) and if you find it good , add it to the list

Umair Ali said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Umair Ali said...

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