Recently I upgraded my home PC and I thought, well, how about loading it with only freeware/open source software (On top of Windows XP)? So I started looking around and found some excellent freeware, along with a lot of trash. It took some work to evaluate all the applications but in the end, it was worth it.
I have nothing against Micro$oft or any other ISV making money though. It was just that I was on a tight budget and I wanted to see whether it was really possible to live without commercial software. Here is what I have settled on in the end.
Nothing beats good ol’ Winamp (classic) here for playing songs. For cataloging my music collection, I use MPEG Audio Collection. It is very lightweight and can read all types of audio files. It uses Windows default player (winamp here) to play music. Apple’s iTunes is also good but it’s very resource intensive, especially if you choose to normalize the volume. I use both MAC and iTunes as they serve two different purposes. With MPEG Audio Collection, you can catalog all your CDs and search for the songs without needing the original CD. On the other hand, iTunes does not allow you to play songs based on the folders (location) but you can do that in MPEG Audio Collection.
What good is winamp without some music for it to play and again I turned to freeware. There are more sources of legal free music on the internet than we know or care about and that’s where irate comes in. When you run this program for the first time, it will download 10 tracks at random from different sources. You listen to each song and rate it on a scale of 0 to 10. Say you rate country songs higher than Blues. Then the program will start downloading more of country songs. With a little bit of training, the program can give you a hit ratio of 70% or more. And these are not streams or samples or pirated songs. These are free-as-in-beer full songs. And you can just right click on an artist’s name and visit their website.
Even though I got a copy of PowerDVD when I bought my DVD-ROM drive, I don’t use it as I am planning to use only freeware. But this is one area where I was disappointed. I could not find any good DVD players which are also freeware. The best I could find was VideoLan. Its interface is not as eye-candy as PowerDVD but it does play every imaginable file format, even those files that other softwares refuse to play. It’s very lightweight and highly customizable. Don’t be put off by its interface.
I had always used Nero for this but CD Burner XP Pro is an excellent piece of software. It’s hard to believe that something like this is free! It works with IDE, USB, IEEE1384, SCSI CD/DVD recorders, can create bootable discs, iso files, audio CDs etc. And best of all, it has a very powerful CD ripper, featuring ogg and wma, in addition to mp3. It has made me forget Nero and that’s saying a lot.
For viewing image file, I use CDmage. It supports more than 25 formats, including .nrg, .ccd, .iso, and does an amazing variety of things.
The first application that comes to mind in this category is OpenOffice. It should serve you well for almost all of your needs. In case you get a complex layout file that was created in MS Office and OpenOffice is unable to render it properly, you can always download the free viewers for Word/Excel/Powerpoint/Visio from Microsoft site. I tried Abiword also but I did not like its interface that much. And since you’d be installing OpenOffice anyway, there is no need for any other word processor.
There are two choices for browsing the internet. Firefox and MyIE2. I do not prefer firefox that much because of its memory leak problems. Use it for 10 minutes and it would start taking 60-70 MB of RAM. But it’s very secure and comes with a built-in pop up blocker. It is recommended only if you have atleast 256 MB of RAM. Otherwise it’s better to use MyIE2 which is a shell around IE. It also supports tabbed browsing and has many more features than firefox.
Thunderbird from mozilla organization. Though I mostly use gmail/yahoo for personal emails (at home).
Gaim is a multi-protocol IM software, supporting Yahoo, MSN messanger, AIM, ICQ, IRC, and few more. It allows you to compose your messages using its built-in WYSIWYG interface. And if your friends have multiple accounts, it can club them into one single entry which you can expand if needed. It even has RSA encryption (through a plugin). Miranda is another very good IM software.
I use a product (appropriately) called antivir from H+BEDV. It is very light on the resources and gets updated daily. You can also use AVG anti-virus from Grisoft but antivir gives you much more fine-grained control over dealing with viruses.
I use Kerio personal firewall from Kerio technologies. It’s highly customizable and in addition to providing network security, it also provides very good system level security. Meaning it will alert you if an executable tries to launch another executable. And you can create custom access rules for different programs. Zonelabs also gives a free version of their famous zonealarm firewall but free version does not allow you to specify policies for individual programs. Though Sygate personal firewall is also good, you can create only 20 custom rules in free version. Needless to say, do not trust Windows firewall that comes with XP SP2.
7-Zip is the best freeware compression tool out there. Its proprietary compression format 7z claims 30-70% better compression ratios when compared to regular zip format. It even supports rpms and deb formats,in addition to all the other major ones.
irfanview is the best freeware image viewer/editor that I have used till date. It supports any image file format that you have ever heard of. And its editing capablities are more than sufficient for casual users. You can crop/convert/apply filters/get EXIF/create slideshows/change color depth and do many more things. Don’t forget to install the plugins though.
SC-DiskInfo will quickly show you how much disk space is being used by different directories. Run it on ‘Documents and Settings’ folder and be surprised by the amount of space being taken by temp files. It displays the space usage in a very nice bar graph. If you keep wondering where your disk space has gone, get this software.
To recover files that got emptied from recycle bin also, Restoration is a very handy utility. It woks on all versions of Windows and does not need any installation. Just unzip and run it, preferrably from a floppy.
Some other programs that I use are – Spybot Search&Destroy for removing spyware, CmdHere power toy from Microsoft (for Windows XP), free version of Joel Spolsky’s CityDesk for (clean) HTML composing, and Clip Path for capturing the full path of a file/directory to clipboard.
There are many more programs out there than I could ever test. But these should be sufficient for an average home user. And if you like any of these, consider donating some money to the developers. Even five or ten dollars go a long way towards paying bandwidth and hardware costs. You can also help with documentation or programming. At the minimum, send an appreciation email to the developers and thank them. It does wonders for their motivation and encourages them to continue working on the application. Some sites like SourceForge sell T-shirts and you can show your support by buying them. Remember, no help is small help.
Let’s go exploring:
If you want all this software and more on one CD, here are some links to explore –
The Open CD – Offers CDs and free iso images containing most of the applications listed here and many more. Updated regularly.
GNUWin – This is similar to OpenCD but offers a lot more software. It was lagging a bit in terms of updates (at the time of this writing) by abount two months.
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