by Rob Zorn
Some good, free downloads
This month we thought we might do a quick round-up of some free programmes you can download from the Internet to use instead of others you might normally have to pay for.
Just a couple of matters before we get underway. Firstly, if you haven't downloaded programs from the Internet before, check out this month's Forum question about how best to save them before installing. Secondly, the inevitable disclaimer. It is our opinion these programs are safe to install and use according to manufacturer's instructions. However, we can't be responsible if something goes wrong with the install and causes other problems on your computer. In other words, you download these programs at your own risk, and if you have any doubts about installing them, don't.
Because they're free, and therefore don't have large development budgets, many of these programs won't always do things as well or as easily as their paid-for rivals, but usually they'll do the basics fine, and it'll be with the more advanced features that differences are noticeable.
Why are programs free?
Sometimes these programs are developed by people just for fun, or because they're part of a community (such as the Open Source lot) that shares an interest in a particular type of software. Sometimes free software is a scaled down version of a commercial product and they're hoping you'll like the freebie enough to pay them to get the more advanced features. Sometimes the free programs will have ads included in them. The developers make money from the ads, or from the payment you make them to remove the ads.
What about spyware and stuff?
Some free software will come will spyware or adware bundled inside, especially those free offers that pop up while you're surfing. such as wallpapers and smilies. Stay away from those. If you have any doubt about a program, Google its name and the word "spyware" at the same time and see what comes up. You can also check with Wikipedia which often carries articles on software with bundled malware.
Open Office (www.openoffice.org): Open Office works on most platforms (PC, Mac and Linux) and comes as a free bundle of word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and html editor programs. The interface is very similar to the pre-Office 2007 Microsoft programs and most users should be able to adjust with relative ease. It will open and save documents in Microsoft format, so you can share your stuff with Microsoft users without problems. As you'd expect, it's a pretty big download: 93 Megabytes.
VLC Media Player (http://www.videolan.org/vlc/): This is a highly portable multimedia player that will play just about anything and everything. You can use it instead of Windows Media Player or Real Player. What I especially like about it is that it will play partially downloaded .avi files you might be downloading from a file-sharing network (a legal one of course) before they are fully downloaded. 9.2 Megabytes. Most other media players will simply refuse to do this until the very last frame has been downloaded.
TweakNow Registry Cleaner (www.tweaknow.com/products.html): Your registry is like a hypothalamus telling your computer what to do, so you don't want to fiddle around with it if you don't know what you're doing. However, if you're installing and uninstalling lots of programs, it can get a bit slow and overloaded with unnecessary leftovers. TweakNow removes all the junk, which may help speed up your PC and make it more stable. The scaled-back free standard version will do nicely, but it only works for Windows. 1 Megabyte.
Picasa (www.picasa.google.com): Google's Picasa makes sorting and viewing your photos easy. It scans your hard drive when it first starts up and shows your photos chronologically, then lets you organise them almost any way you like, including writing up hidden labels so you can see all your pictures of a certain theme in one go. It comes with handy basic image editing tools too, like red-eye reduction and photo resizing. The Online Informer has covered Picasa in more details here. It's 4.5 Megabyte download.
Gimp (www.gimp.org): Short for 'GNU Image Manipulation Program', Gimp is a free alternative to big, expensive programs like the famous Photoshop. It can handle photo retouching, image composition and image authoring and works on most operating systems. The Gimp website only has the source code (and most of us won't want to bother with that). To get yourself a version for Windows go to http://gimp-win.sourceforge.net/. It's a 7.5 Megabyte download.
Having anti-virus software on your computer is nothing short of essential
these days, and there are all sorts of ways you can get them, even directly
across the Net. There are a number of free anti-virus programs out there that
will give you basic protection from Net nasties including viruses, worms and trojans.
They just provide the basics, so if you're new to computers we'd recommend
using a paid-for product that gives you wider coverage and an easy-to-use
interface. If you don't want to pay, though, these three are
FileZilla (http://filezilla.sourceforge.net/): FTP programs are used to transfer files up to websites (or to transmit files between any computers which is essentially what uploading a site is all about). FileZilla has recently made quite a reputation for itself as being fast, reliable, secure and and very easy to use. If you've been using WS_FTP, and you're thinking about a change, you may want to check it out. On the download page select FileZilla_2_2_32_setup.exe (3.3 megabytes). FTP is short for "file transfer protocol", by the way.
FreeRIP (www.mgshareware.com/frmmain.shtml): FreeRip is a freeware Windows application that lets you save the tracks on your CDs to MP3 so that you can play them on your portable media devices (this process is known as "ripping") such as your iPod or whatever else you use. It can also handle conversions to and from other formats such as WAV, WMA, Ogg Vorbis or FLAC, which may also be useful for some people. It also connects to an online database and can often work out what CD you're ripping and automatically put titles and artists in the mp3 file names. It's a 1.7 Megabyte download.
NVU Html Editor (www.nvu.com/index.php): It's pronounced NView, and is one of the few free rivals to FrontPage and Dreamweaverthat is of any real value. It's a true WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface with a number of features such as an internal spell-checker and the ability to call W3C's HTML validator from within the product. Those wanting just a simple text-based editor for their html could try PSPad or Crimson Editor which are more like Notepad with colours to help sort your code better.
PDFCreator (http://sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator/): PDFCreator allows you to make a PDF (portable document file that can be read by any computer with Acrobat reader on it) out of just about any other document. It adds a virtual printer on your computer, so just select File, then Print in the document you're working on (e.g. a Word or Open Office document), and choose PDFCreator instead of your default printer. Hey presto, out comes a PDF!
RoboForm (www.roboform.com/): This program was suggested by John Mayes after a recent article on password security. It's a great approach to the problem of generating and remembering a variety of passwords. The passwords are accessible direct from the browser in encrypted form and it is only necessary to remember a master password. There is a limited free version but the paid version is cheap. According to the website it was named PC Magazine Editor's Choice, and CNET Download.com's Software of the Year. It's spyware free, and people tend to say good things about it if you Google it. 2.7 Megabytes to download.
Spybot - Search & Destroy (www.safer-networking.org/en/index.html): Spybot - Search & Destroy detects and removes spyware, the nasty programs that track your surfing behaviour to create a marketing profile that is transmitted without your knowledge to the compilers and sold to advertising companies. There's a pretty good tutorial at the website to show you how to make the program work, and there's also a list of all the application's features. It can also clean usage tracks if you don't want others using your computer to see what you have been working on. About 7 megabytes to download.
FreeMind (http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page): Here's something a little out of the ordinary, but still quite useful. Freemind is a mind mapping software program which lets you brainstorm and link together ideas quickly, creating maps of concepts similar to what you might do on a whiteboard. It could be quite useful when putting together ideas for a new project or organising a brainstorm into a piece of writing. Much better than a pencil and paper, and there's a lots of information about the program's features at the web page. 7.8 megabytes to download.
Gadwin PrintScreen (www.gadwin.com/printscreen/?prnscr): Although you can easily capture an image of whatever is on your screen by just pressing the PrintScreen key, the image you're left with usually has to be edited down to get just the part of it you want. With a program like Gadwin PrintScreen, you can easily do this without having to worry about using another editing program. With Gadwin PrintScreen running, just press the PrintScreen Key, and up pops a console with your screen grab all ready to be edited. A number of nifty editing tools are included so you can crop, colour and re-size your image before saving it in a number of formats. Change the source to rectangular area and the program lets you select just a portion of the screen to capture. 4.5 megabytes to download.
Clipomatic (http://www.mlin.net/Clipomatic.shtml): Ever been working away and copied something to your computer's memory, only to find that you've forgotten and copied something else there when you go to paste it? Clipomatic is a clipboard cache program. It remembers what was copied to the clipboard and allows you to retrieve it, even after you've copied something else there instead. Clipomatic will automatically monitor your clipboard and record its changes. When you want to paste an old item, you just put the keyboard cursor where you would like to paste and press Ctrl-Alt-V. A menu pops up with your clips - you can select one with the mouse or with a single keystroke. The menu then disappears, and the item is pasted.
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