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Free Computing and Internet Software

Easy ways to lower what you pay for computers and software.

There are some secrets that market giants Apple and Microsoft don't want you to know: You don't have to pay them a dime to get a good operating system and productivity software for your personal computer. This is good news for individuals on a tight budget or for small businesses owners who don't want to spend a large amount of money on computer software.

As an example, I am composing this story on a netbook that runs an operating system that cost me $0 and with a word processor that cost me $0. My total cost was $200 for the netbook itself. I don't pay for upgrades to the operating system or productivity software. My total cost will remain $200.

What free equipment and software do you recommend? Tell us in the comments below.

There are many pieces of software that are free to use today, and the following is not an exhaustive guide for each category. But it's a good sampling of some of the most popular choices.

Operating Systems

Linux is a free alternative to MacOS and Microsoft Windows. It has been around since 1991 and comes in multiple variations. The user interface has the look and feel that consumers are used to with Apple and Micosoft and upgrades are free. It’s a great choice to install on older computers because the hardware requirements are light. So it's a good option to install on older hardware as well if you want to keep the machine in service to you as a backup or for special use situations.

Linux comes in multiple variations, but the two most popular are Fedora and Ubuntu. To give it a try, visit the sites and download a copy of the software to CD or thumb drive for the installation.

Office Productivity Software

There are a few options for free software for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. OpenOffice, like Linux, is free and is maintained by an open source community. It comes pre-installed with some Linux versions as the default software. There is also a Windows compatible version available for download on the OpenOffice site.

Google Apps offers a full office productivity suite as well. What's different about this option is that the software is not installed locally to your machine. It's a cloud software service, so you can access it anywhere that you have Internet access (machine independent).

Zoho, like Google apps, is a cloud-based service that offers an office productivity suite.

Email

Don't be fooled to thinking that the email address provided by your Internet service provider is free. It's part of the package you receive for the monthly subscription. The problem with these Internet addresses is that if you change ISPs, then you also have to change email addresses.

A better choice is to use a free service such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or HotMail. With these services, you can keep your email address even if you change ISPs.

Storage
The growth of cloud-based computing has spawned several new services that provide storage space for documents and photos. The providers give a base amount of storage for free each month and then offer additional space at very reasonable prices. That's good news for consumers looking for a backup location for valuable files or for a primary storage location for files.

It also allows consumers to access their data from multiple devices. That’s important because many consumers today are using PCs, tablets, and phones to access Internet-based services.

Popular services today include Amazon Storage, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Apple iCloud.

Computer Reuse

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I'm not just writing about this topic, but I'm a user of free and open source software as well. The computer hardware I have for personal use was purchased. But I use Ubuntu Linux, Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Drive as primary software for personal productivity and writing. Occasionally I compile video for my articles, and I use a free software that runs on Linux for editing and rendering the video files.

I've also converted several computers that were over five years old to a Linux-based computer. Those machines now use up-to-date software, and I didn't pay a dime to re-fit them for use for their second life.

These tools are not a fit for everyone. But the next time you are in the market for a new computing device, you should consider some of the free options available to you.

Andy D July 05, 2012 at 11:57 AM
Nice info, Bob, for folks looking to save a few bucks and/or keep an aged computer doing something useful. I once found OpenOffice to be a decent free alternative to Microsoft Office, but it stagnated for so long that when a fork of its development called LibreOffice popped up, I started using that instead and have continued to do so. Either way, it's been over a decade since I've paid for a copy of an office suite. Truth be told, there have been a handful of times when I'll open a native Word document in LibreOffice and the formatting is a little "off" or I have to learn a slightly different way of specifying functions in a spreadsheet, but -- to me, anyway -- those minor inconveniences are not worth shelling out hundreds of dollars to Microsoft every few years. You asked for some other software I use: 7-Zip: compress/unzip files/folders AutoHotKey: keyboard macro (types out oft-used phrases, etc.) Ditto: clipboard expander Evince: lightweight PDF reader File Hippo Update Checker: notifies me of software updates KeePass: secure password vault (also has an app which runs on my smartphone that can access the same database) Paint.net: Photoshop-like (layer-based) image-editor Stardock Fences: easy organization of Desktop items VLC Media Player: plays pretty much any video/audio file I'm a big fan of FOSS (Free and Open-Source Software) and look forward to more articles like this one. Thank you!
Steve Burns July 05, 2012 at 11:58 AM
Thanks for this info, Andy.
Bob Williams July 06, 2012 at 01:32 AM
@Andy D - Thanks for the comment. I too use LibreOffice as it's bundled with Ubuntu Linux. It's great for when I don't have wi-fi access and need to work locally. Looks like you've found a great toolbox of open source software.
Andy D July 06, 2012 at 02:32 AM
My pleasure, guys. Thanks for making the forum to share the info.
Terry Vegter July 07, 2012 at 02:30 AM
I have finally taken Bob's advise! My daughter has a 4 year old PC that is running Windows XP. She has been complaining to me for a while that the laptop would no longer start-up due to a virus. It was the easiest install I have ever done. I went to the website http://www.ubuntu.com/; (on a Mac computer)... downloaded the software installer and burned a DVD. I inserted the DVD into my daughter's computer and the installer took over; connected to our wifi, and loaded the Office suite that comes with it. Now my daughter is happy... I'm happy; and the world is a better place because of Ubuntu! Thx Bob!

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