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Over the last few years, there are a number of free (as in beer, don’t care about speech) programs that go a long way toward eradicating your dependence upon Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, etc.

Of course, you may be invested in the Windows way of life;  you just want your windows, cause your stuff works, and you really don’t need an up-root right now.

By the same token, if you’re invested in the Mac way of life, you would like to stick with it, that’s fine too.

But you would really like to get free of the Microsoft Office creep, the Adobe Acrobat crunch and the other macro-organisms that feed, periodically on your pocketbook.

What follows is my list of zero-cost software that I use routinely, what it does, what it is an alternative to, and about how much it saves you. It’s all free, it’s all available and it is all “in development” which means that if there are issues, someone’s working on it. I don’t meant that the software here is all buggy, I mean that someone’s watching over it. I deem every thing listed here as ready and daily use, and as an apt replacement for what it replaces.

Also, many of the packages listed below are multi-platform, meaning that they run in multiple OS environments, and if you find yourself using several, as I do, or if you find yourself advising your no-account brother-in-law and your aging auntie, this might help, no matter what OS they run.

Although there are many wonderful things out there in the no-cost software kingdom, I am limiting my list to things that I have used extensively, and that you can download and install with relative ease.


blender.org (replaces Autodesk Maya: savings: about $6000 USD)

OS: Everything you’ve ever heard of.

Named after a techno-pop song about a kitchen appliance that does everything, Blender (aka Blender 3D) is a content and game creation suite that does everything. You can model anything in 3d, render (make a picture of) it from any angle, or animate it to darn near photographic quality. Of course, this takes much time learning to use Blender, but if you just need an illustration of something, you can model and render it without once touching the right hemisphere of your brain. You can make pretty signs and logos in a snap, all shaded and rendered as 3d models. It’s much deeper than all that, but if you need to make pictures, logos, or movies of something, check Blender out. As of this writing, Blender is on the verge of a major release upgrade, to 2.5. If you are just starting out, check 2.5 progress…

There is so much community support for Blender, that if you can’t figure out how to do something, it is a good bet that you can find out by doing a short Google search. If you are enthralled, attend the annual Blender Conference in Amsterdam.

Watch this one-hour Blender overview video from the University of Hawaii to get exposure to Blender, including a screening of the Blender Institute Peach Project movie, Big Buck Bunny

VideoLan Media Player

(replaces Quicktime Player, Windows Media Player: savings: your sanity)


Of course, you don’t pay for Windows Media Player, as such, and you don’t pay for Quicktime unless you’re silly, so saving money isn’t what VLC does for you. It will play practically any video or audio file you can find, it will stream it from one computer to another, it will convert from one video/audio format to another. I have used VLC media player to convert many videos for my iPhone, which makes riding the bus or an airline trip all the more tolerable. Why doesn’t Apple Quicktime convert for iPhone? Hmmm…. Maybe Apple wants to charge you? Hmmm. Anything that I have re-encoded for iPhone also plays on my PSP.


(replaces: numerous tweaky little programs, and ironically, VLC Media Player; Savings: Not sure)

I was originally referred to Handbrake by a co-worker, who uses it to rip DVDs to his iPhone, but I ignored him for a couple of years, since I thought he was talking about for-fee (costs money, not like free beer (mmmmmm beeer….)) software. But he wasn’t. Handbrake is, or should be, in many ways, the Holy Grail of video re-manglers, it offers a cheerful-yet-detailed GUI interface, a command line version, and a cocktail-with-pineapple logo, but most importantly, it offers DYNAMIC RANGE COMPRESSION (DRC), which is what I have been looking for my entire middle-aged life. When I was in college, I had a cheap Sharp cassette player, with light, efficient headphones, which produced enough volume that I could easily listen to music at a level that would mask the noise of a nearby jackhammer or small artillery attack. Nowadays, it’s just about impossible to get a typical DVD rip loud enough that you can easily listen to it on a bus or airliner.  As someone with a background in radio broadcasting, event sound, and recording, I know what I need — it’s called “compression”, which is unfortunate, because the unrelated process of making files smaller is also called “compression”, which makes Google searched for the former all the more difficult. Compression (in the sense of “Dynamic Range Compression” which Handbrake does”)  allows you to boost the softer parts of a recording, and/or soften the louder parts, so that one volume level works for a wider range of loudness. I need a separate post on this…  Handbrake allows encoding for most modern video hand-gadgets, although so far my success with compressing for Android is hit/miss. The advantages of using Handbrake over say, VLC Media Player (which can also convert video) are DRC, and rendered subtitles. My experience so far indicates that it may be typically slower than VLC, which is OK, if you plan ahead.



www.doceumentfoundation.org (replaces MS-Office, OpenOffice.Org Pro: savings about $220 )

OS: Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Solaris

You might say “hey, my Mac OS X Ocelot comes with Keystone and Wordsmack! I don’t need that!”  Which may be true. But if you want a FREE office suite that replaces MS-Office (which is what Wordstone and Keysmack do) and you want it to be the same, no matter what OS you’re on, LibreOffice delivers. Includes Writer (like Word), Impress (like PowerPoint), Calc (like excel) and Draw (like nothing in MS-Office) as well as the database app most of us don’t install, LibreOffice is a drop-in replacement for the casual user.

I use writer and calc often in Ubuntu-Linux, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Mac OS Leopard. I frequently don’t know which OS I’m in because the Apps are the same.

It saves files by default in “Open Document” format, but it reads and writes MS and other formats very well. I prepare presentations in Impress and run them in the venue’s PowerPoint, no problem.

(Recently, after Oracle bought Sun and made it clear that Oracle made it clear that they: A) don’t understand open source software B) wouldn’t care if they did, the developer community forked a variant of OpenOffice.Org now known as “LibreOffice”. It will be interesting to see how the LibreOffice fares.)


OS: Windows, Linux, Mac OS

gimp.org (replaces: drawing and photo enhancement programs like: Corel Paint Shop Pro, Adobe PhotoShop, others, saves hundreds of dollars)

The GIMP and I have had a bit of an impasse, here and there, it’s very versatile, but my purchased copy of JASC Paint Shop Pro 7 keeps on working on newer systems, so I stick with it, having learned the PSP7 way of doing things. Also, PSP7 came with Animation shop, whose equal in the animated GIF-making arena, I have not found. Unfortunately JASC was absorbed by Corel (why won’t you DIE???) a couple of years ago, and PSP was subsequently ruined.  I bought a copy of PSP 10 — yuck.

So… the GIMP —

Like Blender, there is much community support, and you can do pretty much anything with it, and more, and you need to become enamored of its charms (aka learn to use it) before it’s useful. You can get tips and training in a milllion places on the web, and between GIMP and Blender, there’s pretty much nothing you can’t achieve, graphically.

For free, yo…


OS: Windows, Linux, Mac OS

audacity.sourceforge.net (replaces: Adobe Audition [Syntrillium Cool Edit] saves about $350 USD)

Around the same time I began using JASC Paint Shop Pro (mentioned in the GIMP section, above), I was also using a program called Syntrillium Cool Edit 96, which allows you to do amazing things with audio files, and in its final version (Cool Edit 2000), was a multi-track recording studio, for something like $150 USD. I bought the 2000 version, which still works under Windows 7,  and like the PSP/GIMP thing, I am pretty well versed in the Cool Edit 2000 way of doing things so I tend to reach for it. After Cool Edit 2000, Syntrillium got ingested and the product was completely ruined by Evil Adobe.

So anyways, Audacity is probably more sophisticated now than Cool Edit was then and it’s free, so if you want to record audiobooks, make your own podcasts, make a mix-tape CD with segues and special effects, or anything to do with audio, get audacity.

innotek Sun Oracle VirtualBox

virtualbox.org (replaces: VMWare, Parallels: savings about $80)

Runs on Mac OS X, Windows, Linux (oddly, not Solaris)

Virtualization is all the rage these days, as well it should be. Let’s say you want to run  an Ubuntu Linux desktop, but there are things that you still want to be able to do under Windows XP, for instance. You download VirtualBox, install windows on the virtual host that it provides, and swish! You have a window, within which is Windows. I have used Windows XP running in VirtualBox to do things like syncing my iPhone (usually limited to Mac OS or Windows) and watching a NetFlix Instant movie, which requires Microsoft Silverlight and therefore Windows or Mac OS. Microsoft supports Windows virtualization, but Apple does not allow running Mac OS on anything except Apple hardware. (Update 6/2/2010: Oracle VirtualBox 3.2 now has presets for Mac OS X guests, and it is possible, if not legal to run Mac OS X guests under Windows and Linux, including installing from a retail-version Apple DVD.  But you have to do extra stuff… )

The Free (beer) Linux Distributions


Yggdrasil, Slackware, OpenSUSE, CENTOS, Ubuntu, Debian, etc

OS: They are OSes. And you can run them on regular Intel PCs and Macs, and older PowerPC Macs, as well as other things, and in VirtualBox (above).

(replaces: Mac OS X, MS Windows, RedHat, Solaris, etc. savings: TBD)

Ahhh Linux. The world’s third most popular personal operating system. Wait, not really. Linux is the name of a kernel, which is the nexus/heart/soul of an operating system, and what we generally refer to as “Linux” is any one of the many distributions that abound, out there on the Net.

With a little intestinal fortitude and time, you can set up the average PC as a nice computer workstation, which will probably automatically come with much of the software you are reading about on this page. There are supported ($$) distributions built upon Linux as well, and if you were to try one of them, it is likely that you would spend less than for Windows or Mac OS X to get essentially the same thing, except not full of revenue generating opportunities for Apple or Microsoft.

The Debian distribution specializes in persnicketiness about licenses, for what reason I am sure I can’t figure out, but it’s pretty popular nonetheless. Ubuntu is based on Debian, and is very usable and I use it often.

The distro that I am most familiar with is Slackware, which is the oldest surviving distribution, and has its charms if you want to set up a server and be a Unix-like platform, although it easily installs a desktop environment as well.

Linux distributions tend to be collections of the same software, and usually favor one of two desktop environments, KDE or Gnome, which are largely cross-compatible.  On Linux, they both use XFree86 (a port of X-Windows) as their underlying graphical thingamajig.

There was a time when getting a simple Linux X11 desktop working involved blood sweat and tears, plus knowing what the various scan modes of your monitor were, and getting sound working as well was a triumph. I remember when I installed Slackware 7 in about 2001 and on the first startup after install, KDE played a startup sound through the sound card. It actually startled me like someone sneaking up behind me and yelling “BOO!” because after 7 years of using Linux, I had never considered that such an event would ever happen to me.  It was beautiful. I wept.

Lately, things are a lot more likely to work when you first boot. On a typical PC, I have had many first-boot-working experiences with Slackware, Ubuntu, CentOS, Knoppix, and others over the last few years, yet getting Linux to work on my MacBook Pro 3,1 17″ always requires screwing around. Luckily, there is voluminous advice on-line.

There are numerous alternatives to Linux-based distributions, some quite good, like FreeBSD, or OpenSolaris, yet Linux distros tend to be where the community-based support is largest.


OS: Microsoft Windows, period.

MicroDEM, which comes from the US Naval Academy, and shares a heritage with Terrabase (formerly distributed by the US Army), is a serious tool for working with geographical data of most sorts. You can download a set of elevation data from the NED, crop, it, or combine it with other pieces, overlay it with LANDSAT, Tiger Line, etc, or export it as a Wavefront object for easy import into Blender. If you have geo-data that you want to see, convert, or work with, it’s probably that MicroDEM can close the gap for you. I have used it numerous times to import DEM data into Blender. The interface is a little quirky (OK, a lot quirky), but it’s a very capable program. When I first used its sibling Terrabase, back in about 1999, imports and conversions and big datasets were kind of cumbersome, but the fact that this software has been maintained pretty much as-was over the last 10 years since means that the CPU power and memory capabilities of newer computers make it fly.  I am working on a page about using Microdem and Blender to explore elevation data, please stand by…


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