The software that enables you to use a computer is a significant cost of owning and running a PC or Mac. This starts with the operating system which controls the basic functions such as Microsoft Vista on PCs and Mac OS on Apple Macs, and continues through to Spreadsheet and Word Processing programmes such as those included in Microsoft Office. On top of this there are other important programmes that every PC/Mac should have such as a Virus Checker, Spyware , etc
And that’s before you start getting into specific programmes you might need such as a Photo editing programme, accounts package and so on.
So how can you get round this?
Well this is a guide from The PC Support Group to help you choose and find the best free software currently available.
Why is some software free?
Most people think that this is either illegal or that the software will be bug ridden and problematic as it’s not an “official” purchased piece of software.
The fact is that free software, often known as “open source” software, has been developed by hundreds or even thousands of dedicated and enthusiastic programmers from around the world who have a mission to produce the best possible software. The sheer scale of these “teams” and their pride often produces better software than that created within the limits of traditional software development businesses.
Sometimes even large corporations offer free software. The reasons for this vary but most commonly you will have to provide your details (e-mail address, etc) and they can then try to persuade you to upgrade to a newer or more functional version. A minor annoyance for you to have access to some great technology for free!
It may seem strange but there is not really any area of software that you cannot trust an equivalent free version, provided it comes recommended by a reputable source, such as The PC Support Group, and you understand any limitations, which are usually clearly defined.
On the subject of limitations, many of the free versions from commercial businesses have certain restrictions but these can sometimes be a benefit, particularly to the basic home user, as they don’t tend to require such powerful computers and are often easier to manage. The less options the less complicated!
What free software is available?
Free Operating Systems
The operating system is clearly the “heart and soul” of your PC so we don’t recommend replacing it with a free version unless you have a reasonable level of competence.
If you think you qualify then the only obvious free operating system available is Linux, but before going down this route there are a number of other potential issues to consider.
Firstly, despite Linux having an estimated 8 million users worldwide, this is a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of millions that use Microsoft XP or 2000 operating systems. That’s a lot of people that know nothing but Windows; support and general knowledge is never going to be as widely available as it is for Microsoft or Apple’s proprietary systems.
Secondly, if you want a PC with Microsoft Windows then every PC vendor will happily supply it installed and ready for use. Unfortunately the same is not true for Linux. Although Dell and Lenovo offer a Linux version (and others are talking about it) it is a much more complicated purchase process.
Thirdly, Linux has nowhere near the level of hardware device support that the Windows operating system offers. This means that your printer, scanner, MP3 player etc may not easily link and communicate with your PC anymore. Before you take the plunge it’s worth checking if the version of Linux you intend to use does support the other devices you wish to use.
Despite these issues, if you are reasonably technical, on a tight budget and willing to put up with these pitfalls then Linux is worth considering.
As Microsoft Windows is the most widely used operating system in the world, many companies have taken Linux and have “wrapped” it to make it look and feel as much like Windows as possible. This greatly eases any transition but leaves you with an array of possible varieties of Linux to choose from.
The most well known of these branded Linux operating systems are Red Hat (www.redhat.com), Debian (www.debian.org) and Ubuntu (www.unbuntu.com) although there are many others.
Of these, Ubuntu has gained a massive following due to its ease of use. It is free to download from the web or available with a support contract for about £10 per month.
Except for those elements of Windows that are proprietary to Microsoft, Ubuntu appears to emulate the Windows experience more closely than other similar offerings, which can be a big advantage if you are already familiar with Windows environment.
Free Web Browsing Software
There are loads of free web browsers to choose from but the most popular ones are Microsoft Internet Explorer (the one that comes with every MS Windows operating system), Firefox, Safari and Opera.
Although IE may be the more familiar to most people, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the newest innovations in browsing technology (such as tabs for viewing simultaneous sites) are being seen on the non-commercial alternatives first, plus these alternatives all work on Mac systems as well as Windows.
You can download these browsers from the following sites:
1. MS Internet Explorer – www.microsoft.com/ie
2. Firefox by Mozilla – www.getfirefox.com
3. Safari – www.apple.com/safari
4. Opera – www.opera.com
Free Anti-virus software
Once you’re connected to the internet you instantly becoming vulnerable to attack from various “cyber baddies”. These could be merely interested in causing mayhem for “fun” or could have more sinister intentions such as deleting and/or stealing your data for malicious use.
You therefore need to protect your system and the first piece of important software to use is anti-virus software.
AVG is an excellent anti-virus solution which is free for home users (there is a small fee for commercial users). To download this go to www.free.grisoft.com.
If you find other supposedly free anti-virus software, beware! Some of them are simply viruses themselves that could cause damage to your system, whilst others are free to detect the virus but will then charge you if you require them to actually do anything about it the problem. In other words, they’re not really free.
Free Firewall Software
A firewall is either a physical device or a software program that sits between a computer or a computer network and the internet to control precisely what can enter and leave.
Zone Alarm by Check Point Software Technologies is one of the best pieces of free (for home users and charities) firewall software on the market. The great thing about it is that it virtually configures itself by learning the behaviour of all the other software on your computer and then reacts if any of them start behaving “out of character”, sending or receiving information when they shouldn’t be.
You can download Zone Alarm from http://www.zonealarm.com/store/content/catalog/products/sku_list_za.jsp
Free Spam Filtering Software
Spam (unsolicited and unwanted e-mail) is becoming a major problem for businesses, individuals and even Internet Service Providers.
SpamBayes is an intelligent spam filter and message classifier for Outlook, that automatically categorises your incoming messages into `good`, `spam` and `unsure` and sorts them into the associated folder. The program learns your preferences as you use it so over time you require less and less manual intervention.
The program is easy to use and setup and probably one of the most accurate filtering tools we have come across, with a detection rate of close to 100 percent.
You can download Spam from http://spambayes.sourceforge.net/
Free General Administration Software
Most people use their computers for a fairly basic set of functions: viewing/creating documents using a word processor, tables and calculations using a spreadsheet tool and presentations. All of these are usually combined into a suite of software with the most well known being Microsoft’s Office.
The best free alternative to this is Open Office. You can download this from www.openoffice.org. Importantly, all the programs in this suite of software can read and write to formats that are compatible with Microsoft Office.
Free Media Management Software
It’s one thing to have your digital music on your computer, it’s quite another being able to organise it so you can easily find and play what you want, when you want. That’s when media management software comes in useful.
One of the best free software solutions in this category is Media Monkey (currently available for Windows only).
Media Monkey scans your entire PC to find any music (in just about every popular format) and prepares them ready for you to organise. You then arrange your music using various categories such as artist, genre, and so on. It will even go online to retrieve album artwork.
Finally it will allow you to synchronise your music with your portable music player including the iconic iPod.
You can download Media Monkey from www.mediamonkey.com
Free Photo Manipulation Software
For anyone wishing to manipulate or retouch digital images then Adobe’s Photoshop has been the benchmark for a number of years. Unfortunately the full version (as used by many professionals) is fairly expensive. A great free alternative is Gimp.
Not only does Gimp provide you with the basic functionality required by most amateur photographers such as red-eye removal, special effects like tint, and retouching operations, but it also has more sophisticated features such as perspective and barrel distortion correction.
You can find Gimp at www.gimp.org
Tips on choosing free software
So if you’re not going to use the above recommendations or you want to search the web for other useful free software what hints and tips are there for protecting yourself?
• Only select software recommended by a trusted and reputable source (such as The PC Support Group) – some free software is simply a way of putting spyware on your computer to gather information about you.
• Read the Terms & Conditions carefully – make sure you know why the software is free.
o Make sure that you don’t have to agree to providing information that the provider may sell on.
o Check that it is genuinely free for every aspect of the software you need. E.g. some free anti-virus software detects for free but costs to fix.
o Ensure that you are not agreeing to having to view pop-up adverts or anything else you may find annoying
We hope that you’ve found our recommendations and guidance for selecting free software useful. Of course if you ever need any help with computer support, installing or configuring these or any more standard commercial software then you know who to call, The PC Support Group. Visit www.pcsupportgroup.com or call us on 0845 2233116 for more information.
Author: Philip Bird