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.
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“.
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.)
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.