By Reid Goldsborough
Free has a long and illustrious history in computing, and it’s still alive and well today.
You can’t obtain free PCs, supported by advertising, as you could in the late 1990s. More Web sites today cost to access in part or in whole than in the past. But there’s still plenty of free software available.
Some free software is supported by advertising. Some is available only on a time-limited trial basis in hope that you’ll buy. Some provides features that are unavailable until you buy. Some is available for free with the request that you make a donation to the programmer if you like it. But some is totally free, without any expectation of payment.
Some totally free offerings are small programs made available by programmers because they enjoy programming and enjoy having others benefit from their work. Other totally free offerings are large programs brimming with features made available by companies or groups of individuals who dislike the monopoly pricing enjoyed by some software companies.
Some free software is available as a download through the Internet, after which you install the program onto your own hard drive. Other free software is available for use only while connected to the Internet or, to use the current jargon, “on the cloud.”
Here’s a sampling of the best known, and best, of the free software offerings today:
► LibreOffice (www.libreoffice.org). This is the best of the free Microsoft Office alternatives. It’s a descendent of OpenOffice, which Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems first promoted in the early 2000s. LibreOffice is made available by the Document Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
Available in versions for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, LibreOffice consists of a range of Microsoft Office-compatible productivity programs, including a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation program, database management program, drawing program, and math formula program.
► Google Docs (docs.google.com). This is the leading free cloud office suite, made available from the Web search giant Google. Working within your Web browser, whether it’s Google’s own free Chrome browser or others, you can access a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation program, drawing program, and forms program while connected to the Internet.
Google Docs is best for those who travel frequently or otherwise need to work from multiple locations. It’s also a good way for multiple people to collaborate on the same documents. It can save to Microsoft Office-compatible formats, but it’s not as compatible with Office as LibreOffice.
► Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com). This is the easiest-to-use free distribution, or “distro,” of Linux (www.linux.org), which is an alternative to Microsoft Windows or other operating systems. Linux has millions of fans, which are typically more technically proficient computer users because it’s more difficult to install and learn than Windows, though users report that it’s less prone to software conflicts and virus and other malware attacks.
Another enhanced version of Linux is Linux Mint (www.linuxmint.com). It’s built upon Ubuntu but is more customizable.
► Better Explorer (bexplorer.codeplex.com). If you’re sticking with Windows, and most people do, Better Explorer as its name implies is an improved version of Windows Explorer, the tool included with Windows that helps you organize the files on your hard drive.
An offering from CodePlex, a community of software developers supported by Microsoft who are working on free “open source” programs, Better Explorer among other things provides tabs with which you can work with multiple folders at once.
► Pixlr Editor (www.pixlr.com). This cloud-based program, which you use within your browser window while connected to the Internet, provides many of the same photo editing features as the power-packed Adobe Photoshop. Among other things, you can resize and rotate photos; adjust their brightness, contrast, and color balance; sharpen or blur photos; and add an assortment of special effects from posterization to vignetting.
If you have a slow Internet connection or otherwise want to edit photos while not connected to the net, GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program (www.gimp.org), provides plenty of features but isn’t as easy to use.
► Songbird (www.getsongbird.org). This free music organizer looks and works a lot like Apple’s iTunes but for Android devices as well as desktop browsers. Another option is Google Music (music.google.com), which makes it easy to store and stream lots of songs over the Internet.
► SlimCleaner (www.slimcleaner.com). This free utility program provides tools ranging from cleaning unnecessary files off your computer and optimizing the storage of those you keep to permanently shredding sensitive financial and other files no longer needed to prevent anyone else from accessing them.