Free Software GuideOriginal Page URL: http://www.digital-digest.com/articles/Free_Software_Guide_page1.html
Date Added: May 27, 2007
Date Updated: Jun 6, 2007
I recently ran into a dilemma when helping a friend buy a new computer. She had bought a computer, on my recommendations, and all it came with was an OEM version of Windows XP. Obviously, I was obligated to hook everything up, and install all the necessary software. Normally, I would recommend a few commercial products which I would then buy and install, but in this case, budget was tight and so I had to resort to using only free software. To my surprise, what I found was that there are so many free alternatives to good software that there is really very little need to spend a huge amount of money (or any money) and still get a secure and fully functional computer.
This guide will recommend some free software for your computer (not just dealing with digital video) that might just help you save thousands of dollars on commercial software, or at the very least prevent you from becoming a terrorist by using pirated software, so you can concentrate on being a terrorist in Counter-Strike instead. Only freeware and open source software will be listed, no shareware, trialware and whenever possible, no ad-ware either.
Of course, the ultimate method to get a computer that only uses free software is to go Linux, but this guide will cover Windows XP only (and in some extent, Vista) as this is still the OS that most people use and are familiar with. Oh, and to play games and stuff.
So your new computer is plugged in, you've set up the ADSL or cable connection and you are ready to head online to get our free software. But to do this, we will have to venture online, and this means danger. Danger from trojans that sit idly on web pages, ready to strike. Danger from hackers looking for new computers to hack into. Dangers from emails claiming to be from your bank asking you to immediately login to your online banking account or all your money will be gone. The Internet is a scary place for a new computer (and I see the irony of having to go online to read this guide in the first place - hopefully somebody has printed you a copy, or you have access to another secured computer).
So the first thing you should do, apart from disconnecting your computer from the Internet, is to at the very least enable Windows Firewall. Windows Firewall comes free with Windows XP and above, and it is really the first line of defence for a new computer. A firewall does what it sounds like, to put a barrier between your computer and all those people and zombie computers attempting to hack into your system. Windows Firewall is not the best personal firewall around - it doesn't protect you from outbound traffic for example - but it's there already, so click on the "Start" button, go to "Control Panel", click on "Windows Firewall" and enable it.
Your computer is now at least somewhat protected from the Internet (so plug back that network cable). We will be talking about security a few steps later in more detail (and most likely, won't be using Windows Firewall to protect ourselves), but we are somewhat safe, for now.
You should now run Windows Update (Start -> All Programs -> Windows Update) to get your Windows patched up with the latest security fixes. There should be quite a few, and it might take an hour or two, and a few system restarts, to get everything patched up. Don't skip this step though, because old OS vulnerabilities are the first things hackers try to exploit and can render all your other security measures useless.
Web Browser and Email Client
Now that Windows Firewall is running and that Windows is patched up, it's time to get a new browser instead of using Internet Explorer (IE). IE has improved security quite a bit since it was first introduced, but you would be much better off with a different browser. Here are some of the choices:
The next thing to install is an email client (some of the free software we will download require a valid email address). A web based email tool like Google Gmail or Yahoo! Mail might be a good place to start. Getting a free email account to use for online registration is a great way to prevent spam flooding into your primary/ISP email, and makes moving ISPs easier by not having to change your email address whenever you change ISPs.
But sometimes you may need to have a desktop email client (that can also access your online email accounts). You probably shouldn't rely on Outlook Express, although it is free, since like Internet Explorer, security is a problem. Note that browsers like Firefox or Opera above normally include an email client, but with limited functionality. For full functional standalone mail clients, you have a few good choices:
To secure your computer, you need an inbound/outbound personal firewall (a software that scans incoming and outgoing traffic to your computer, to protect from hackers and malware), an anti-virus scanner (to scan web pages, email and files for virus/trojans) and a spyware blocker. There is a great thread on our forum that discusses free security software, you can read this thread here. Be sure to only choose one of each type of security software (eg. 1 firewall, 1 anti-virus, 1 spyware blocker), as if you install multiple software, they might conflict with each other and leave you unprotected. The exception is for anti-spyware, where you can use Windows Defender for realtime scanning, and then Spybot S&D to scan your entire system just in case something has slipped through. At the end of this section, there is also some information on how to protect your online privacy.
If you've followed this guide, you are already using Windows Firewall. We will now examine some better choices for firewall software, since Windows Firewall does not protect you from outbound traffic (traffic from your computer, which might be malware or a trojan trying to spread itself to your friend's computers). Here are the choices:
Comodo Free Firewall
Now for an anti-virus tool. There are also free alternatives to popular commercial choices such as Norton or McAfee:
AVG Anti-Virus Free
Here are some tools that will protect you from spyware, malware and other unwanted software. And yes, we finally have a recommendation of a Microsoft software. A recommended setup is to use Windows Defender for realtime scanning, and then Spybot S&D or Ad-Aware to scan your entire system just in case something has slipped through.
Spybot - Search & Destroy
Ad-Aware SE Personal
Finally, there is the issue of privacy. When you browse websites, a lot of information about your computer is sent over, part of the way the Internet works unfortunately. To protect your privacy, you can use a free anonymous proxy or use an online anonymizer tool like the-cloak. For an easier to setup and more reliable solution, try Tor, which is a package of several tools that will make it impossible to track your online movements. The best thing about Tor is that a Firefox add-on is available that allows it to be enabled and disabled at the click of a button (some sites are not compatible with Tor, and browsing is much slower when using it, so sometimes you may want to disable it). Speaking of Firefox add-ons, there are lots of security and privacy related add-ons for this browser here (NoScript is a good one to get rid of scripts on web pages, which is a main source of malicious code and it also stops ads from displaying).
File Transfer, Search and Backup/Recovery
Now that we've got our browser and security set up, let's take a look at file transfer clients. Starting with FTP:
BitTorrent, despite its reputation as a tool for pirates, is actually quite useful for downloading any sort of large file, be it an Linux ISO or a game demo. Luckily, most BitTorrent clients are free, but here are our picks:
For file searching on your computer, if you are not already using Vista's search features (or not using Vista at all), then there are several choices in terms of desktop searching. The ones I'll spotlight are Google Desktop Search (Vista ready), Copernic Desktop Search and even one from Microsoft, Windows Desktop Search.
Moving on to file backup and recovery. File backup is one of those things that people don't really care about until they find that they need the backup, and usually by then, it is too late. Sometimes you hard-drive manufacturer will provide simplified backup utilities that most will find enough for their backup needs - for example, Seagate and Maxtor HDD owners have DiscWizard/MaxBlast uses the popular Acronis backup engine to provide image based backup (backup the entire hard-drive, sector by sector - great for moving from one drive to another).
You can also use Windows Backup to backup your files, with the Vista version being a bit more useful than the XP version (especially the image based backup features in the Business and Ultimate editions of Vista).
For freeware options, try SyncBack Freeware or EZBack-it-up. Then there is the Nero Suite, which includes Nero BackItUp - even though Nero is commercial software, Nero is bundled with almost everything these days, it can almost be considered free software.
If restoring a backup is no longer an option (ie. you didn't do it, and now you've lost/accidentally deleted some data), you can use a file recovery tool to get at least some files back. File recovery is no alternative to backup though, and in the best cases, you will be lucky if you can get 50% of your files back. You can try using DATA Unerase Personal Edition to see if you can still recover the deleted files (if they had only been recently deleted, there is a good chance of recovery). Also try Undelete Plus.
Office and Productivity
Microsoft Office is an office suite that will almost meet your word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and other office/school related needs. Unfortunately, it is also quite expensive, although the Office 2007 Home and Student edition is quite affordable, and allows you to install it on 3 computers too - but cheap is not good enough for this guide, it has to be free.
There is really only one major free alternative to Microsoft Office (offline anyway), and that is OpenOffice. It offers compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, and supports the latest Windows Vista (as well as other popular OSes such as Linux or Mac OS). The OpenOffice package includes:
If you don't mind editing your documents online, then you can use Google Docs to create your documents and spreadsheet. It's not as fancy as MS Office or OpenOffice, but most of your needs should be met. Plus, it supports both MS Word and OpenOffice document formats. And it's also a great way to share your documents online, allowing groups to edit a single document. Why not sign up for free and try out Google Docs for yourself.
If PDF document creation is what you need, look no further than PrimoPDF. PrimoPDF can convert your existing documents to PDF format through a printer interface (print the document as you would normally, but instead of printing to paper, it prints to a PDF file). Its main features include:
Speaking of PDF, you should probably download and install Adobe Reader. I don't personally like it (a bit bloated, if you ask me), but you really do need it as PDF is used all over the place.
Want to make your own web pages? Starting with a WYSIWYG web page editor, Mozilla SeaMonkey includes Composer, a web page editor. Want something a bit more advanced? Try Nvu, the open source web site editor and manager that aims to rival bigshots like Microsoft FrontPage or Dreamweaver. For a simple blog, you can use the WordPress online service, or download the WordPress package and host it yourself.
You can even host your own website on your computer (ISP permitting), and for that, you need the Apache HTTP server, the most popular web server in the world (and it's free - Windows binary available). For your database needs, try MySQL, also free.
Want Photoshop but don't want to pay for it (there's a piracy joke in here somewhere)? No worries, because free alternatives are available:
For 3D, Fractor and Vector graphics tools, have a look at this thread for some freeware inspirations.
Finally back to a topic where I'm not talking out of my you-know-what. Oops ... revealed too much ...
So your new computer now has a great web browser, secure as a safe, you can download things at 100% of your maximum Internet speed, and you've found a neat way to make all your photos look great. So now for the fun part, let's play some music and movies!
Using Windows, you should probably first install Windows Media Player. I know it's not the sexy thing to install Microsoft software, but it is a nice way to get started nevertheless. You should probably also install iTunes for your music purchase needs and your iPod.
Let's start with audio:
Moving on to video playback, specifically DVDs and your AVI/DivX/XviD/H.264/MPG/MKV/OGG/WMV/MOV/RAM and other video files. I could go on all day about which players I like, which codecs you should download, but at the end of the day, it might be just easier to download a codec pack and install that. Codec pack have come a long way, and in the past I would avoid them like the plague, but the newer ones install just the right amount of codec/filters/software and they are easy to select during install and relatively easy to uninstall. The codec pack I am going to recommend is one I've been recommending for a few of my other guides recently, K-Lite Codecs Pack.
Download the pack and use one of the pre-defined install profiles (or follow these instructions). You will end up using Media Player Classic (MPC) to play back most files, including DVDs. MPC is not the prettiest player around, but it works damn well, even for DVD playback.
Other notable free video players include VLC media player, another simple and effective media player that won't require you to install a bunch of codecs. The same deal with MPlayer. For a full featured dedicated free DVD player, you can also try AVS DVD Player.
If you have a multimedia device that supports UPnP streaming (eg. Xbox 360, or the PS3), then you could set up a UPnP server on your computer to share all your photos, audio and video files. Windows Media Player 11 (and Zune) comes with Windows Media Connect, which allows you to share your Windows Media Library, but it will only share formats that WMP (and Zune) supports natively. A better bet is TVersity, which allows you to share pretty much all file formats. You can even use Orb to share your media online.
Want free Internet TV? Try Joost - all you need is a broadband connection and Joost does the rest. Joost currently offers around 2 dozen channels (availability depending on your location), including National Geographics channel (US/Canada only), Comedy Central (US), SI Swimsuit on Demand, Aardman Animation and more.
This section covers creating your own video and audio files, CDs, DVDs. Starting with audio files:
There are far too many free video file creation/editing tools, I mean this entire website is pretty much dedicated to them, but I'll list here some of the more popular ones (DVD authoring/editing tools not included here):
Now on to DVD authoring and editing, again too many to list, but here are some recommended ones:
You would normally use Nero to burn your CD and DVDs, and Nero being bundled with almost everything these days, it can almost be considered free software. But for truly freeware solutions to CD and DVD burning or imaging, look no further than:
You can't talk about computer software and not cover games. Windows XP includes some games. Solitaire, Hearts, FreeCell and Minesweeper should occupy countless hours of your time, especially at work.
Nostalgic gaming is great, to be able to play the games from your childhood. Most people don't have their old game systems anymore, and you might have to search all over the country to find the classic Arcade coin-ops (or if you are mega rich, you can buy a replica). For the rest of us, there's emulators. MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) can bring all the old classics like Space Invaders, Pac Man, Frogger, back to life. Street Fighter II? Mortal Kombat? No problem. Even some newer arcade hits are playable. I'm not going to link to any MAME roms due to their legal status (although is it still illegal if there are no other way to get the game?), but you can find those yourself easily enough.
A lot of the applications I've listed so far are open source, and there are even open source games. Some of these games are clones of existing games, and offer practically the same experience (and sometimes with less bugs). FreeCiv is an open source Civilization II clone, giving you hours of open ended gameplay. Similarly, FreeCol is a Colonization clone. Lincity-NG is a SimCity clone. OpenTTD is a Transport Tycoon Deluxe clone, one of my favourites. You can find a fairly complete list of open source games here.
Even when they are not open source, there are still some free games around. Propaganda aside, America's Army is the most famous, and whatever your politics, you can't argue that AA is a very decent multiplayer first-person shooter. Complete list of freeware games here.
Some commercial games are re-released later on as freeware. ScummVM provides an interface where lots of classic point and click games can be downloaded and played, games like Beneath a Steel Sky, Broken Swords 1 and 2. There is also BC3K, a saga of a game for the completely wrong reasons. Railroad Tycoon is now offered as freeware to promote the new Sid Meier's Railroads! game. A complete list of these types of games can be found here.
This guide only gives you a small sample of all the freeware and open source possibilities out there. There is really no need to buy (or pirate) software unless you have specific needs, and most users will get along just fine with free software.
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