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Free Software I Could Not Do Without

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Karl and I were talking in the car today about the progression of Windows, the upcoming service pack 3 for XP and the extortionate prices charged for the likes of Microsoft Office. This of course got me started on the benefit of free software, although I don’t know who I was preaching to because Karl is as big an advocate as I am!

I have to admit, I do have a bit of a reputation both on and offline for being a stickler about pirate software. While my peers are off wasting their monthly bandwidth allowance downloading the latest copy of Photoshop complete with key generator (or whatever) I don’t need to because I’ve already got adequate solutions on my laptop that are small, fast and efficient. Best of all? They’re free.

As a web developer — no, who am I kidding — as someone who spends 90% of their waking hours on the computer, I often need software to help me do what I want to do. While we all know of the obvious, the likes of Firefox for web browsing and Thunderbird for e-mail, there are some software ‘secrets’ out there that I think everyone should know about and the majority should use.

Word Processing

I ditched OpenOffice a long time ago. While it is free and is a bloody good competitor to Microsoft Office, it started to become bloated and slow even on an ‘up to the job’ machine (my Sony laptop). Instead I use AbiWord. It is of course free (open source), it is compatible with the various versions of MS Word so it’s not a problem if you use something different at school/work. It is very fast and ridiculously small, and best of all it’s available multi-platform (Windows/OS X/Linux).


Everyone needs a good spreadsheet program, even if its just for keeping track of your monthly finances. I use Gnumeric. Originally released as part of the GNOME (think Linux) desktop environment from the GNU people (those guys who do the licenses for software like WordPress and soon, BellaBiblio) it has been ported to windows, and is available on the Getting Gnumeric page. It is fast, it supports the file formats of competitors and according to a comparison PDF published by Computational Statistics & Data Analysis Statistical Software Newsletter it has fixed errors in its statistical functions that remain in Excel: “Microsoft has not fixed its errors through many successive versions“.

PDF Reading/Writing

Ask anyone about PDFs and the first word they’ll think of is Adobe®. The sad thing is (sad that I didn’t know sooner) there are two pieces of software out there better than the Adobe PDF suite. Firstly, for reading PDFs, is the Foxit Reader. No more randomly crashing of the browser because you clicked a link but didn’t realise it was a PDF; no more waiting 3 hours for a PDF to load because you hadn’t realised the update dialogue box had hung in the background. Foxit is a tiny reader (only a couple of Meg in size) and is seriously swift because of it. It has increased my efficiency (particularly at work where I deal with hundreds of PDFs a week) tenfold, and has actually allowed me to bond with the PDF file extension. (Geeky, I know.)

For writing PDFs, I heartily recommend CutePDF. Although I don’t use it at home because I have little need to create the files, it saved my ass at work after I got my new PC and realised I didn’t have any way of printing to PDF any more. The CutePDF website requires JavaScript and looks scarily like the Microsoft website (last time I saw it, anyhow) but its worth that temporary niggle to get the freeware writer.


Finally, and definitely not the least important of the bunch because I use it for everything, there’s Notepad++. Gone are the days when I’d spend 4 hours looking for a missing curly brace in one of my PHP statements or counting up to line 867 to figure out what was causing the parse error in my latest script; the colour coding and line numbering makes it a breeze. It doesn’t have the bloat and annoyingly pointless WYSIWYG features of the “industry standard” (vomit) DreamWeaver, and doesn’t require 3 years of training and a degree in Computer Science to operate (Microsoft Frontpage) — perfect for those of you who want to tinker with web pages but don’t want the cost that goes along with it.

All in all it’s safe to say that 95% of my work is done in freeware/open source software, and I’d be right royally screwed without it. There’s no excuse for not producing top notch work even if you can’t afford the price tag that comes with the so-called “best” (subjective, I’d say) software.

Update (30/Nov): Karl has added a brief post on the free software he recommends too.

Jem Turner +44(0)7521056376

32 comments so far

  1. Ben said:

    I always enjoy finding free software which always measure up to be better than what Microsoft can offer! And it is even better when they are cross-platform. Thanks for these gems… Jem. :P

  2. Grant said:

    Nice, useful post jem. I must say i still have open office and office 2007 came on my machine so im using that the now till it runs out. For php and html/css i use notepad++ thanks to you ;)

  3. Renate said:

    Notepad++ is fab. Makes me wonder how I managed with DW before. At least I now understand why my layouts never validated or were cross-browser compatible. Would you mind pointing me in the direction of a good, free substitute for Photoshop? I’ve heard of at least one (GIMP), but if you’ve got any other suggestions I’d love to hear them.

  4. Vasili said:

    I tried Notepad++ and thought it was okay. Then I downloaded Programmers Notepad 2 which I love! It also uses colored words, line numbers. It also has word-wrap and tabs. But that’s just me ;]

  5. Rachael said:

    I’ve never had a problem with Adobe reader… It’s very fast on my Vista laptop. It’s practically loaded before I’ve even finished double-clicking it. I used Abiword for a while before I found my MS Office disk. Now I have MS Word back. If MS Word ever disappears again, I’ll definitely go back to Abiword. *recommends* I’ve always been a fan of “normal” notepad up until recently, because I found debugging HTML / CSS very easy. However, it gets a little bit tricker when you need to start debugging PHP, and that’s where I found notepad++ useful. I like how it colour codes each part of the language, and how when you click on one curly bracket, it bolds (?) it and shows you where the corresponding opening / closing curly bracket it. Good stuff.

  6. Julie said:

    Oh, thanks x a million for the PDF reading program! I personally use Scite (by for my coding. I think it’s quite similar to Notepad++.

  7. Jem said:

    I’ve never had a problem with Adobe reader… It’s very fast on my Vista laptop. It’s practically loaded before I’ve even finished double-clicking it. That’s because it forces a pre-loader into start-up. That just means booting Windows is slower instead.

  8. Emily said:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m useless with finding these free programs, and now I finally have some good software to use on my laptop for writing assignments.

  9. Karl said:

    Renate – try Paint.NET..Free, very PSP with knobs on. Needs .net 1.1 framework, but it’s very good. I might just do one of these on my site as well, for the more “off the wall” programs I use.

  10. Rachael said:

    That’s because it forces a pre-loader into start-up. That just means booting Windows is slower instead. Meh. Windows loads in under a minute. I don’t think that’s too long to put up with… My old computer took about ten minutes to load. I’m a patient person.

  11. Ning said:

    I agree about OpenOffice. Hell, it sure is slow. I often dread opening documents because of the chances of it killing itself (and my computer session). On those desperate days, I even seek online converters to convert Word files to PDF so I can open on Foxit Reader for the ease. While somewhat irrelevant, during my (very often) desperation I’ve also found some online image editors. They can be really horrible, but satisfies enough for a quick fix, for someone who doesn’t want to have the rather heavy-weight Photoshop bagging things down. While most are horrible, has an interface familiar to users of Photoshop and the like, especially with the functionality of layers. Having tried that rather briefly, without a fast computer, drawing with the pencil or brush will just result in disjointed dots (or at most, strokes).

  12. Claire said:

    Thanks for this Jem, I use an awful lot of open source/free software on my PDA (media players/PDF readers/Browsers/Note takers etc – if you ever want recommendations for Windows Mobile [Pocket PC] just give me a shout), but it’s been a while since I looked at OS alternatives for my desktop – you’ve given me a few new ones to try out. :)

  13. Peter Green said:

    “All in all it’s safe to say that 95% of my work is done in freeware/open source software” 95%? You use Microshaft Windblows XP don’t you, surely the O/S counts for an awful lot more than 5% of you of software?

  14. Carly said:

    I use WinSyntax for coding. As long as you save the document first (.html/.php.css/etc) or if you open up an existing document it does the appropriate colouring of things. It also has tabs for ease of browsing and line numbering. It’s also about as fast as notepad to load, no really. I love love love my paint shop pro, and whilst have thought about downloading PS, I don’t have any software on my laptop to do so, nor would I really know how to do it without ending up with a load of bloat & spyware. I stumbled accross a vector drawing (trace bitmap or something) program somewhere that’s free and is meant to be better then photoshop/illustrator cs. I think it was reviewed on – If anyone uses it and it’s good, let me know.

  15. Ilianna said:

    Wow, AbiWord sure is awesome. I got a new laptop, and after the MS Word trial ended, I had no idea what to do. Yum, free downloads!

  16. Belinda said:

    Thanks for the link to CutePDF! I’ve been looking for a free PDF writer for ages and Adobe website information had convinced me that to write anything to PDF would require buying expensive add-ons. Hooray for free alternatives! :D

  17. Jem said:

    95%? You use Microshaft Windblows XP don’t you, surely the O/S counts for an awful lot more than 5% of you of software? Well no, not in this context, this post was specifically about software and not the operating system.

  18. Carly said:

    ^ Bobbi-lee, when I had a go I just bungged a photo in and the results were good, but I don’t know why I’d need to use it really. Unless I draw something and want it vectorizing. …I guess.

  19. Kim said:

    Free software is great! :D Although I must say I do have Microsoft Office, I got it cheap when my laptop was bought for being a student. :) Thanks for the PDF writer link by the way, I’ve been looking for one for quite a while… Guess I didn’t look hard enough, eh?

  20. Dave said:

    I’m having a look at Notepad++ now, I don’t know if it will beat Visual Studio though… (not that free software could compete with something that costs so much) Karls Unlocker recommendation will be a life saver (ironically Visual Studio also likes to lock files). To be honest I’ve never been a fan of free software. I’ve always found it incredibly functional but often not very user friendly (think CVS and GIMP). It’s a trend that’s getting better though.

  21. SarahG said:

    CutePDF is a great piece of software. I use it almost daily. At present we don’t have printers so it’s handy to save receipts and screen shots (when it doesn’t all fit on a print screen of course). I also use it for PDFing quotes and invoices to send to clients. I’ve used Acrobat in the past and that was so slow and insisted on opening Adobe Reader and loading the newly created PDF in there. CutePDF is just like saving your file with a different extension. It’s so quick, it’s fantastic. God I sound sad… :P

  22. Rilla said:

    The only one I use on your list is Notepad++. I can’t be bothered switching to other programs for word/spreadsheet/PDFs. The sites have uglier websites too. :(

  23. nerd. said:

    The one thing that tends to be missing from text editors like Notepad++ that I would really miss from Dreamweaver is the auto-complete (or Intellisense, if you like) on php functions.

    If you know of a free php editor that does that, then you’d be cooking with gas.

  24. nerd. said:

    Thanks Jem, had a quick look but the auto complete seems seriously dodgy.

    Having to press Ctrl+Space I could live with, but when I type phpi then hit Ctrl+space it doesn’t find phpinfo.
    It is there because I can do php -> Ctrl+Space and scroll down to it.

    I tried it with some Mysql functions too and they don’t fare much better. :(

    Ah well it was worth a shot.

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