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"How to be a PC FreeLoader"
Using free software to build a great PC.

by Roy Jones 2008


My trusty Dell D600 was starting to show its age so I decided to treat myself to a new laptop and ordered one of Dell's latest business-class machines. As soon as my new laptop arrived, I started installing the software and tools that I like to have on hand, at home or in the field. When I was done, I'd just configured a very useful portable workstation using only free software.

If you're in the market for a new laptop or desktop, hoping for one in your Christmas stocking or reloading your current computer, here's a list of some of my favorite free utilities for Windows that you might want to consider adding to your own machines.

Productivity
Open Office.org is a free application suite that replaces Microsoft Office and is fully cross-compatible with the Microsoft product.

Web Browser
Firefox - The enormous and growing library of add-ons for Firefox makes it the SwissArmy Knife of Web browsers. A few of my favorite Firefox extensions: News Fox for keeping up with my favorite RSS feeds, FireFTP, a full-featured FTP client, Video DownloadHelper, a good tool for capturing media files, Delicious Bookmarks lets you post bookmarks to Delicious or view your bookmarks with a couple of mouse clicks.

Opera, my other favorite browser, has long beeen known for its speed and flexibility. A nice feature in the current version is "Speed Dial," a page that you configure to load updated graphical links to your favorite Websites.

E-mail
Thunderbird - I'm a bit old-fashioned about e-mail. I still use a local e-mail client as my primary mail handler, rather than a "cloud computing" service such as G-Mail. Thunderbird, like its sister application, Firefox, is a highly extensible application and the number of useful extensions, including calendaring, address book managers, appointment managers, and more, is growing rapidly.

Graphics
Irfanview is a powerful editor and viewer for all the most common graphics formats. Make sure you also install the plug-ins for maximum utility.

GIMP - If you want to be able to do some of the graphics magic you see others doing with PhotoShop, but balk at the price, try the GNU Image Manipulator and Processor or "GIMP." It can do almost anything PhotoShop can do, but it's a free, Open Source product. GIMP information and tutorials are avaialble online and in print.

BlueMarine - When I've been doing a lot of shooting, I need a little help to organize the images after I transfer them from my camera. BlueMarine is a great Java-based application for viewing, sorting, naming, tagging and managing your raw images.

Dia - If you need to lay out a diagram, flowchart, or...as I do for my work and study...map a network, Dia is a good tool with enough basic shapes and objects to do the job. It's not as powerful as Microsoft Visio, but it's adequate for most ordinary charting and diagramming and you can't beat the price.

Multimedia
VLC is an Open Source project that was recently ported to Windows. VLC will play Windows Media, Flash Video, and Apple Quicktime files. It can also play most common audio and streaming media formats, Internet Radio, CDs and DVDs, all with none of the irritating restrictions of the standard proprietary players.

Security
Spybot Search and Destroy - There are a number of free tools for finding and removing spyware, adware and tracking cookies from a Windows machine. Spybot is one of the best of the lot.

AVG is a solid and reliable anti-virus package that's available in a free version. Free means you don't get all the manufacturer support you'd get if you paid an annual subscription, but you still get the virus scanner and access to updated signature files. AVG's footprint in the system is smaller than most, so it doesn't use as much of your system's resources as some other anti-virus products.

What's Running - The Windows Task Manager is a useful tool for keeping track of what programs and processes are running on your PC and how much of your computer's resources are being used. Task Manager also allows you to control processes and shut down misbehaving programs with a couple of mouse clicks. What's Running extends all those capabilities to allow you to monitor all processes, identify their locations on your computer and the maker of the software. It also monitors all the system services and your network connections, giving you a dynamic control panel for all your system's activities. I put this with security applications becuase I use What's Running to locate and track malware activity on infected machines.

IPNetInfo is the best tool I've seen so far for capturing WhoIs data on an Internet site. You simply put in the name of the domain you want to research and IPNetInfo searches WhoIs data and returns the information in a few seconds. If you want to find out quickly who owns a site or where to send a nastygram when one of your files has been pinched, you need this tool.

Communication
Trillian is a solid Instant Messaging package that has two advantages over the IM clients you get from AOL or Yahoo. First, there is no advertising and no annoying widgets. Second, Trillian works with AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and ICQ, so if you have multiple accounts or accounts on more than one service, you can keep them all open in one client.

Skype - I've known about Skype for a long time and but only started using it recently. Now I wouldn't be without it. Skype may be the current "killer app" for Internet communication because it rolls voice, text, file transfer, and telephony into a single package that you can use anywhere you have access to a broadband connection.

40Tude - Back before there were Web-based forums. in fact, before there was such a thing as the Web, Internet users met to exchange ideas and information on UseNet. UseNet is still around and I still participate in some of the groups. 40Tude is the best client I've seen for managing UseNet subscriptions and for posting, reading, and downloading information on the newsgroups.

Utility
Komodo Edit - I'm not a programmer, but I do have to edit code or cobble together a script from time to time and Komodo Edit is a good tool for my purposes, as well as for more advanced coding projects.

Nvu (pronounced "N-view") is the standalone version of the old Netscape Composer. Nvu allows you to assemble a Web page by typing and editing the text and and dragging and dropping images and objects while the Nvu software writes the HTML code in the background. True WYSIWYG editing isn't possible in HTML, but Nvu is about as close to visual HTML coding as you can get. You can also go straight to the code page and write the HTML by hand.

IZArc is a good free replacement for WinZIP or WinRAR. It can create and open all the most common archive file types as well as many of the less frequently used formats.

Biblio Express - Biblio Express is the free version of Biblioscape. This tool was invaluable when I was writing my dissertation and I still keep it handy when I'm writing and need to keep track of sources and references. You fill in the blanks with the bibilographic information for each new source and Biblioscape builds a searchable flatfile database from your input. It will also automatically generate citations in the three most frequently used formats, so you can cut and paste the data into your footnotes or endnotes.

There's my list of good and useful general computer tools. Please note that some of the developers of the software I listed have a link their Websites soliciting donations. Much of this software is created and maintained by people who do it for the love of creating and distributing good software, but, like all the rest of us, they still have to "feed the bulldog," so if you use their stuff, be sure to throw them a few bucks and thank them for their efforts.

Roy, the HP Tech Support Daemon

You can e-mail specific computer questions to Roy Jones at streetleveltech@hotmail.com.


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