People say the best things in life are free. That certainly includes software capable of doing just about everything that major commercial applications can do.
We’ve found 15 “giant killers” that compete well with behemoths such as Microsoft Office and Photoshop. Some of our selections are open-source software, while others are “junior” versions of commercial products, put out by the vendors themselves. All but one are free.
Lots of software companies release demo versions that are little more than teasers for the package they want you to buy. The apps from big-name vendors that we’ve included here are different: With one exception, they are neither “crippled” versions nor time-limited samplers that cease to work at just the wrong moment.
Our Davids are worthy challengers to the Goliaths of the industry. Read on to see how they can help you get work done–easily, and almost at no cost.
Office Suites, Business Applications
When it comes to giants in the land of software, none are as big and powerful as the titans of Microsoft. Of programs foolhardy enough to challenge them, few have returned to tell the tale. But the following programs, though small, possess incredible strength.
The Fifth Element
Most programs that have tried to compete with Office have come from other large companies, such as Sun, with enough cash to try to one-up Microsoft just for bragging rights.
And then there’s Ssuite Office’s The Fifth Element. (Yes, “Ssuite” is spelled correctly, and, no, we’re not talking about a Bruce Willis movie.) The Fifth Element, which has come from South Africa to take on the Colossus of Redmond, is an office-application collection with a wider range than Microsoft Office has.
Any decent suite can do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and e-mail. The Fifth Element also includes a browser, plus tools for managing LANs, holding chats, and making calls using VoIP. For media-oriented tasks, it provides a drawing module, photo and album editors, sound recorders, and MP3 and video players.
That’s not all–it has a search engine, a sort engine, an envelope printer, encryption, and a chess game, too, offering more than 30 programs overall. And if that’s not quite the right combination for you, Ssuite Office supplies several other office-software packages of various levels of complexity, all free.
For all its breadth, The Fifth Element is shallow–and that’s meant in the most complimentary sense. Most operations require you to go no more than a couple of clicks into a menu.
The most common tasks neatly appear at the top levels of the screens, making for quick learning and use. The design is a welcome relief from the madly swirling, morphing menus in Microsoft Office 2007.
One reason for the simplicity, beyond making The Fifth Element a snap to use, is that most of the programs appear to be frankenware, pieced together from publicly available code. That makes them a kludge, but they’re very nice kludges.
Download The Fifth Element (Free)
What would Microsoft Word look like if you stripped it of all the buttons, features, and gimmicks you’ve never used, and if you kicked out the obnoxious menus that forced their way into the 2007 edition like rowdy wedding guests?
Such a stripped-down Word would remind many longtime users of the simpler, faster, easier Word of yesteryear. Instead of merely yearning for the old days, however, you can download a free copy of AbiWord, a Gnu open-source word processor that behaves much like a time capsule for Microsoft Word at its prime.
Regardless of whether the unsung programmers who’ve developed AbiWord intentionally set out to resurrect an older, better word processor, that’s what they’ve done. And it just happens to work with older Word-document formats and older formats from other programs too (though not with the Word 2007 .docx format).
AbiWord’s screen is clean and uncluttered. In the space of two toolbars, AbiWord manages to put within reach 99 percent of the tasks just about anyone needs out of a word processor, including formatting, styles, layout, spelling check, and printing, as well as symbols, footnotes, mail merge, and hooks to insert art.
If you do need something more esoteric, say, math formulas or language translations, you can add them with plug-ins, some of which are ready and waiting while others are under development.
If you have a pressing unique need but you don’t even know how to program your microwave, you can always offer one of the dozens of programmers who volunteer on AbiWord a fee for custom work. Try that with Microsoft sometime.
Download AbiWord (Free)
Open-source groups are not the source of all free software. Atlantis Nova, a commercial program from Sun Solutions, is a great little word processor that does everything–except charge you a bundle.
Atlantis Nova is a Microsoft Word competitor that adheres to the 10/90 theory of software design: It provides the 10 percent of word processing features that most people need to get 90 percent of their work done. And it’s small enough–684KB installed–to fit on a USB thumb drive.
While the free Nova version is not a total replacement for Microsoft Word, it is a delight to use in its own right. You handle most tasks outside of basic typing through icons, which you control by a switch that instantly flips you between two sets of three-line, icon-studded toolbars.
Atlantis Nova is perfect for traveling with an underpowered and cramped notebook, and it’s not bad on a desktop machine either.
If you need to include specialized content (such as differential equations) in your documents or if you want to create indices and tables of references, you’d best look elsewhere, perhaps in the direction of the new Atlantis Word Processor, the brawnier big sibling of Nova, which costs US$35 (with a 30-day free trial.
It includes features such as automatic spelling-as-you-type, double precautions against losing documents, drag-and-drop functions, encryption, and a “control panel” to handle complex layouts.
Download Atlantis Nova (Free)
Microsoft has already declared that it won’t support Outlook Express beyond version 6.0. Your choices, as a result, are to stay with a program in its declining years (wondering when to pull the plug), to lay out $100 or more for stand-alone Outlook, or turn to an e-mail program of the open-source persuasion, such as Thunderbird.
Wait a second, though: Thunderbird is the most well-known free e-mail program, but is it the best? Before you answer that, try Pegasus Mail.
If you’ve never heard of Pegasus, that may be because you don’t live in New Zealand, where it originated. The best reason to use this free program is that is has built-in protection against spam, viruses, Trojan horses, and other things that go bump in the Internet.
But even without that heavy-duty security, it puts other e-mail software to shame. Although at first glance it looks like Outlook or Outlook Express without a calendar and to-do list, closer inspection unearths so many goodies that you’ll soon forget the lack of a mere calendar.
After all, it has encryption, mail merge, multiple address books, annotations, notepads, the ability to circulate messages one person at a time for orderly sign-offs, and (bless it) error messages that offer enough information to help you actually figure out what’s wrong. If you want a certain feature that isn’t built in, chances are good that one of the scores of plug-ins its fans have concocted will do the trick.
You know, those of us in the exciting world of professional computer journalism usually don’t keep using software longer than necessary to write an informed review. Then it’s back to whatever we are more familiar with. Not this time: I kissed Outlook goodbye in favor of this fantastic creation.
Download Pegasus Mail (Free)
Kexi is a Microsoft Access killer of the first caliber. It has one minor drawback: Under Windows you have a limit to the number of rows and tables you can create (at least until Kexi recoups its development costs).
If you can live with that restriction, and you don’t mind going without tech support or a manual, go to town with Kexi (or switch to the unlimited Linux or FreeBSD versions).
Your other alternative is pay $50 to release the Windows limitations and get support. If that seems a bit much, keep in mind that Access is $300 at retail. The $50 for Kexi won’t buy you the cheapest seat at a Little Feat concert.
And Kexi is well worth it, especially if you need to emphasize visuals in a database. Within minutes you can create a relational database with all the flexibility and versatility of Access but with greater ease.
Like Access, Kexi creates the database structure in a series of tables–but without the fussiness that Access imposes in asking you to define far more things than you want to define. My favorite feature of Kexi is that it stores everything from tables to queries to forms in the database, so you can move or share the data and design by moving a single file.
You can use Kexi as a stand-alone or connected to relational SQL database servers. You’ll finally bump into limits, even in the full versions, if you keep pushing the complexity of your design, but Kexi is still a database that fills a deep hole.
Download Kexi (Free demo; $50)
You’ll find absolutely nothing fancy, colorful, exciting, or gee-whiz about the open-source spreadsheet Gnumeric.
But do you believe that a thesaurus is essential to crunching numbers? Microsoft’s Excel has a thesaurus.
Gnumeric doesn’t. How about translating from one language to another? You can do so in Excel. You can’t in Gnumeric. Do you need to calculate the modified Besseli function in (x)? Excel lets you. Gnumeric…oh, hold it…Gnumeric will, too. In fact, when you get down to the more obscure spreadsheet operations that I, and possibly you, have never heard of before, Gnumeric can be as esoteric as the best of spreadsheets.
The important thing is whether Gnumeric gives the right answers. Frankly, I’m no judge when it comes to financial derivatives, Monte Carlo simulations, linear and nonlinear equations, or, for that matter, balancing my checkbook. Gnumeric’s developers had math whizzes in to check the program out, and this application got the same answers as the high-priced spreadsheet did, only faster.
I do give credit to Excel for its fancier and more colorful graphs and charts, no mean consideration if you hope to get approval for your new project by wowing the board with drop-dead graphics instead of merely dead numbers. For pure number-wrangling ability, however, Gnumeric makes installing Excel unnecessary.
Download Gnumeric (Free)
2D and 3D Graphics Tools
Photo and 3D editing tools are the most expensive applications on the market, with some costing many thousands of dollars. Several alternatives, however, do a very good job and cost you nothing.
Photoshop’s popularity is as high as its list price, a stunning $999. (That’s “stunning” as in Taser.) You can, of course, find that package for less, even for free if you are willing to prowl the Internet’s dark alleys looking for a literal steal. PhotoFiltre, on the other hand, will make you an honest artist/designer/photographer, and you don’t have to hock your grandmother’s wedding ring–or your soul–to enjoy it.
The important difference between PhotoFiltre and the more elaborate Photoshop is PhotoFiltre’s simplicity–in use, not in what it can accomplish. Its tools and menus, for one thing, are more evenly distributed, reducing the need to plow deep into the program’s interface just to flip an image 90 degrees.
PhotoFiltre lacks some of Photoshop’s professional abilities, such as handling layers, as well as more arcane features, such as stitching photos into a panorama and altering perspective.
But PhotoFiltre does have an arsenal of plug-ins that provide some tricks of their own, such as a filter that emphasizes shadows, highlights, or both, without your having to select the areas of dark and light.
A beautiful rippling water reflection is only three clicks away. Most effects, in fact, take only a couple of clicks. PhotoFiltre doesn’t have Photoshop’s jam-packed dialog boxes that permit the fatally fastidious to fiddle with a photo for hours. It’s fast. It’s simple. It’s powerful. It works. And it’s free.
Download PhotoFiltre (Free)
So you can’t do everything in PhotoFiltre that you can in Photoshop. That’s just more proof that one-stop shopping is overrated. Take, for example, Photoshop’s autostitching, which Adobe prefers to call “photomerge.”
By either name, the feature attempts to piece and blend together two or more photographs to create a panorama. Photoshop does a decent job of it, although inevitably you must tell the application what photos should go together and in what order, and you have to make sure that up is the same direction in each picture. If you give Photoshop that many hints, it can handle the rest, creating a seamless expanse of photography.
But whether Photoshop is too rich for your pocketbook or you can pay for it from petty cash, you should get to know Autostitch, a free tool dedicated to panoramas.
In addition to producing a panorama with the same perfection found in Photoshop, Autostitch can look at a PC folder packed with pictures and select photos that are screaming to be joined in panoramic splendor.
Created by Matthew Brown and David Lowe of the University of British Columbia, Autostitch comes with a screen full of settings for controlling how the final product should look, but most of them are so esoteric that fiddling with them, trying to unravel their purpose, is the sort of thing that can lead only to madness.
Ignore the controls. Just print panoramas with panache, and thumb your nose at Photoshop.
Download Autostitch (Free)
Maya Personal Learning Edition
Today’s programs for creating animation are amazing. They can turn the most klutsy artist into a Walt Disney or Chuck Jones by automating the intricate, finger-busting work of turning thousands of drawings into a few seconds of animation.
Just as incredible are such programs’ prices: Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 costs $3495 retail, and Autodesk Maya Unlimited 2008 can be yours for a trifling $6995. Or, you can pay nothing. Zilch. Nada. That’ll get you a sizable chunk of what goes into the latest version of Autodesk Maya.
Autodesk must be selling enough of those high-priced programs to feel good about giving away free copies of Maya Personal Learning Edition. The program doesn’t include all the goodies found in its professional counterparts. It lacks the speed with which the other applications render complicated images, and it also omits the newest innovations, such as the latest shaders and skin editors.
It does, however, give you the rigging and animation technologies that let characters move with both soft and rigid body dynamics, Maya paint effects, a complete particle system, toon shading, and four renderers. Though you have no tech support to rely on, you can find oodles of documentation, demonstrations, and online discussion groups.
Download Maya Personal Learning Edition (Free)
If Maya PLE doesn’t seem robust enough, take a look at another animation program, Blender 3D. It’s a sterling example of what can be accomplished within the GNU free-software movement, and it can definitely hold its head high when compared with commercial animation programs.
The work it turns out is vividly detailed–check out the screen shots–and movements are convincingly smooth.
Folks frequently use it to build complex avatars and environments on sites such as the IMVU.com 3D chat system. The reason is pretty simple: Blender has all the features you need to produce interactive 3D graphics and games that are compatible across platforms. Its suite of features allows modeling, rendering, and postproduction polishing.
Download Blender3D (Free)
Just Good to Have
Though this last group shares no particular theme, all of these downloads are likely to come in very handy, sooner or later.
For people who depend on organizational charts to make sense of life, Dia is a savior. A product of the Gnome Project, Dia is best described as a noncommercial counterpart to Visio.
Dia doesn’t try to take on Visio diagram-to-diagram, polyline-to-polyline, but it does provide more than enough of the usual components–boxes, ellipses, polygons, and sticky connecting lines and arrows–necessary to create office diagrams, chains of authority, and illustrations of electrical circuits. If you need shapes that Dia doesn’t have, it gives you instructions on how to add custom objects.
If those tools aren’t sufficient for you to diagram everything from the office hierarchy to your children’s Little League season, Dia has a few other tricks that can help. One particularly good feature is the ability to work in layers. You can create your diagram as a stack of subdiagrams, a digital representation of drawing the diagrams on sheets of clear acetate.
The layers let you extend your diagram into the third dimension, too: Think of the layers as separate blueprints for each story of a office building. You get to see not only how offices are laid out on each floor, but how the floors are connected by wiring, pipes, and elevators.
The program’s best trick, though, is Best Fit. Any diagram I have ever drawn, on paper or on a screen, wound up running off the edges because it was too big. Best Fit takes care of such problems in an instant, reducing sprawling diagrams to whatever size they need to be. It makes me look as if my own thinking were organized.
Download Dia (Free)
ClamWin Free Antivirus
Dozens of antivirus programs–Symantec AntiVirus, McAfee Virus Scan, and Kaspersky AntiVirus, to name only a few–have much in common. They all work diligently to intercept the next invasion of computer malware. And annually they all wring as much money as they can out of users in exchange for their services.
You can get protection from viruses without paying a cent. Turn to ClamWin Free Antivirus, an oddly named program that adheres to the Gnu open-source model. It won’t charge you anything for virus protection–not now, not a year from now.
What do you get for nothing? A program that, in its latest version, works in Vista as well as in XP, scanning your files for the fingerprints of viruses and spyware identified by a virus database that is updated several times a day.
You may schedule or launch scans at your whim. A right-click menu choice provides more-selective scans of specific files or folders. The program also offers integration with Microsoft Outlook for inspecting message attachments that could be carrying dangerous code.
What don’t you get? ClamWin does not yet automatically inspect files as you open them. If you download the latest whiz-bang plaything from the Internet, better check it with ClamWin before you open it.
That’s not a bad trade-off for a free malware checker. Since no single antivirus tool is perfect, you should always use more than one such program anyway. Why pay for them all?
Download ClamWin Free Antivirus (Free)
Don’t be fooled by the Acrobat Reader that Adobe pushes at you every chance it gets. Sure, Reader is free for the download, but it’s also passive software, letting you only peruse PDF (Portable Document Format) publications that have been created with a higher species of Acrobat.
If you want to extract pages from a PDF, add pages, stamp it with “Approved” or “Burn After Reading,” or do any sort of editing, or if you want to create your own PDF documents, first you have to shell out $95 to $450 for a version of Acrobat capable of creating the files.
Instead, get Pdf995 Suite. It’s not exactly free; whether you pay, and how much, depends on how you feel about enduring a nagging ad for Pdf955 and other software from the same company. In return for viewing the ads, you get the ability to create standard PDF files by sending the original documents to a virtual printer, a setup that lets you produce PDFs from within any software that can print hard copy.
Another module, PdfEdit995, lets you combine separate documents in one PDF, insert comments and bookmarks, add rubber stamps, convert from PDF to HTML, or, to retain just the text, convert to a Word .doc file. Another module, Signature995, encrypts PDFs and adds digital signatures.
Despite that panoply of PDF pleasures, you may grow weary of seeing the same ads each time you use the programs. If that happens, you can banish all of the ads by buying a couple of the modules that make up the suite; each is $10.
For $20 more, you can buy every program in the company’s arsenal, including such worthy utilities as OmniFormat (which lets you convert among 75 file formats), Photoedit 995 (which provides the usual necessary touch-up tools), BackItUp995, Zip995, and Ftp995 (all of which do exactly what you’d think they would), and a half dozen others.
Download Pdf995 Suite (Free with ads; $30 for the Suite without ads)
Money Manager Ex
Software can become too good–or, rather, too big, too full of features, too complex, and too difficult to work with. One of the nice things about open-source software is that it’s still a boutique operation; you don’t have hundreds of programmers, testers, focus groups, managers, lawyers, and marketers, each throwing in their two bits’ worth.
Money Manager Ex is the Baby Bear of financial managers: Not too big, not too small, not too hard, not too easy–it’s just right. For anyone whose finances are big enough to need frequent attention but not so large as to require a dedicated accountant, Money Manager Ex tracks money as it comes in and goes out.
It’ll let you know how much your investments have earned, when the bills are coming due, and whether your cash flow is flowing down the toilet.
Though the program can import Excel spreadsheets and make reports that let you examine your finances from assorted viewpoints, it can’t help you pay bills, make bank deposits or withdrawals, or calculate your taxes. But then, if it could do all that, it would start looking like Papa Bear, and you’d wind up hiding from all the work it would try to get you to do.
Download Money Manager Ex (Free)
Whenever I download new peer-to-peer software for testing, I cringe at the thought of what dank evil lurks beneath the surface of programs that grab, from the Internet, purloined MP3s and movies that opened at the megaplex only last week.
Peer-to-peer programs are perfect booby traps: The promise of free music, movies, and software lures all but the saintly to “experiment” with illegal downloads, and often justice is served when the P-to-P software harbors viruses, spyware, and–just as bad sometimes–sloppy programming.
The pristine cleanliness of Soulseek would alone make it the first choice among P-to-P programs. It is open-source, whose proponents approach software development not simply as a task but as a calling to create free software that shall go out unto the world to spread digital delight to all.
It and Azureus, an open-source BitTorrent project, are the only two P-to-P programs I feel comfortable using without having first backed up my disk drive and sprayed Lysol into the crevices of my computer.
But here’s the really good part: Soulseek has two features that are even cooler than cleanliness. One is a queue that tells you exactly how many other users are waiting to download the same files.
Lines stretching out to the hundreds are not uncommon, but neither are copies of the same songs that have no one at all waiting to download them. Which do you choose? If you need a further hint, check out the ‘average download speed’ column for the swiftest transfers.
The other great feature? With a right-click, you can select ‘Download Containing Folder’. This simple, brilliant gem of programming lets you download with a single click all of the songs in another user’s folder, which ordinarily equates to a complete album.
Want more? Try the Wishlist. Fill it with the songs and artists you can never seem to find. Check back a few nights later, and like a cobbler befriended by elves, you’ll find that Soulseek has spent its spare time looking for those elusive tunes. All of these features make Soulseek such an original, clever program that I’m astonished it hasn’t been imitated again and again.
I know, you’re looking for a catch. There are two, of sorts. If you insist on downloading songs that are beset continuously by loaded queues, send the developer a $5 donation to enjoy cutting to the head of the line for 30 days. The other catch is that this program is for music only. If you want software or movies, you’ll have to go back to the seamy side of town.
Download Soulseek (Free)