Free Software: Never Pay for Overpriced Programs Again

Here’s a list of the software we’re going to cover (along with the category it falls under).  If you don’t want to read this feature in its entirety, click one to jump straight to that part.

The world of technology is constantly changing.  There has always been expensive software, but now it has gone even further.  The big names are no longer content to have us pay their big-ticket prices just once.  Instead, they would have us use their cloud offerings (software that runs on the company’s servers over the internet and often works through a web browser).  With this business model you can’t even pay a single sum to purchase the current version of the software.  Rather, these companies would have you sign up to a subscription, which means paying every single year to continue using their product.  This has become such a key component in the field that the industry has even coined a name for it, known as Software as a Service.

Surely there must be a better way?

And there is.  In this feature we will look at some of the key categories of software, discuss some of the commercial offerings and see what is available as a completely free alternative.

Office Suites

Office programs are one of the very cornerstones of computing.  There is no shortage of products competing for your hard-earned money.  However, few would argue that the key player in this area to this day remains Microsoft’s Office suite.  Consisting of a word processor (aptly named Word), a spreadsheet program (Excel), presentation software (Powerpoint), a database program (Access) and a publishing package (again originally called Publisher), this powerhouse of a product is now, at the time of writing, up to its 2019 edition.  Yet even Microsoft is increasingly moving towards a cloud-driven model, offering its Office 365 package, which – you guessed it – is a yearly subscription service.

So, what is available in the free office space?

Being such a popular type of software, as you might imagine, there are several products available.  Here we are going to look briefly at two of them.

LibreOffice

The first is called LibreOffice, and is available to download here.

https://www.libreoffice.org/

LibreOffice is developed by the Document Foundation and his been around for a number of years.  It began when it split from a project called OpenOffice (which is also still around).  The suite consists of Writer (a word processor), Calc (a spreadsheet application) and Impress (presentation software).  It also includes Draw, which – as the name suggests – can be used for drawing and sketching among other things; it’s actually pretty useful for opening and editing PDF documents.  Lastly, the software includes Math which is designed for editing formulas.

LibreOffice is a well-featured office package and should comfortably accommodate the majority of your admin requirements.  By default, the program saves files in open file formats (which simply means they are not proprietary, and can be used by anyone), but you can also opt to save your documents in the more commonly used Microsoft file types, should you sooner.  Speaking of which, compatibility between the two platforms is constantly improving, though you may experience formatting issues in more complex documents.

By default, the program saves files in open file formats (which simply means they are not proprietary, and can be used by anyone), but you can also opt to save your documents in the more commonly used Microsoft file types, should you sooner.  Speaking of which, compatibility between the two platforms is constantly improving, though you may experience formatting issues in more complex documents.

LibreOffice has quite a traditional layout, but there is also a new Notebookbar available, should you prefer a more contemporary look (in a similar vein to Microsoft’s Ribbon).  Both interfaces are shown above for comparison.

LibreOffice is cross-platform and available for Windows, Mac and Linux.  There’s even a file viewer (unfortunately you cannot currently edit your documents) available on Android.  The Document Foundation is also collaborating with a company called Collabora to provide an online version.  However, at the time of writing, this is only available as a Development Edition known as CODE (Collabora Online Development Edition).

ONLYOFFICE

The second free office suite we’re going to cover is called ONLYOFFICE, and is available here.

https://www.onlyoffice.com/en/

ONLYOFFICE is produced by Ascensio System SIA.  Unlike LibreOffice, it already has a fully-functional online version, but this is only available as a free trial and must then be paid for, if you wish to continue using it.  For this reason, you’ll want to download the “Desktop Editors”, which are available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and, unlike the online version, are completely free.  ONLYOFFICE also has an app for both Android and IOS, although unfortunately this only works with the online “cloud” version.

The suite consists of three pieces of software: the sensibly named “Document” (word processor), “Spreadsheet” (no explanation required), and “Presentation” (for your slides).  Out of the gate, ONLYOFFICE has a much more contemporary feel.  It also defaults to saving in Microsoft’s proprietary file formats (docx, xlsx, and pptx for Document, Spreadsheet and Presentation respectively).  The straight forward, no nonsense interface may appeal more to beginners than advanced users seeking a plethora of settings and options, but layouts often come down to personal preference.  The decision to put the file open icon (which is confusingly labelled “Go to Documents”) on the far right of the screen, and not in the file dropdown menu, seems odd and may frustrate some users.

Compatibility between ONLYOFFICE and Microsoft Office documents on the whole appears good, and generally seems to experience less formatting issues than with LibreOffice.  However, it doesn’t have as wide a range of tools available as either MS or LibreOffice.  Nevertheless, ONLYOFFICE is very good at what it does.  Certainly, for the average user who requires a decent office package, they will not be left wanting.

The choice between these two free office suites is not clear cut.  Each has its own advantages in certain areas.  Ultimately it will likely come down to personal preference.  Whichever you choose, either will give you a great office experience and fulfil your word processing, spreadsheet and presentation needs.

Photo Editors

Photo editing and manipulation is another of the main stays in desktop computing.  For a long time Adobe’s Photoshop platform led the way; indeed some would argue that that’s still the case.  Photoshop is an industry standard, such is its popularity that we even refer to images that have been digitally enhanced as having been photoshopped.

Adobe is a company that has very much embraced cloud computing. Their “Creative Cloud” subsequently follows the subscription model.  Photoshop continues to be an excellent tool, well-suited to professionals and corporations that can afford the on-going cost.  I would argue that, for most users – whether they be photographers or artists, or simply people with a passion for visual imagery – products such as Photoshop are overkill.

GIMP

Here we’ll take a look at a free imaging application called the GIMP, available here.

https://www.gimp.org/

Perhaps a slightly unfortunate name, GIMP is actually an acronym (for as we all know, you can never have enough acronyms in technology!), and stands for:

GNU
Image
Manipulation
Program

Without getting bogged down into too much detail, GNU is also an acronym, a recursive one this time (what did I just say about acronyms), standing for GNU’s Not Unix.

If you’d like to know more about the GNU project itself, look up a chap by the name of Richard Stallman who has done a great deal to promote free software.

Anyway, let’s not get too sidetracked, back to GIMP.  The program has been around for quite some time, initially starting all the way back in 1995.  It’s in constant development, and continues to add features and improvements with each release.  The software is cross-platform and available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

Useful for all sorts of purposes, from simple picture resizing and cropping, to adjusting the colour balance, saturation and exposure of the image.  It can remove that annoying red-eye, which occurs in photos when the flash is too close to the camera lens in low ambient light.  It can also edit or remove Metadata (details your camera adds to every photo you take; information like camera make and model, image size and resolution, and even the location where the photo was taken).

GIMP works with curves and levels, allowing you to fully adjust the image; right down to the individual colour channels within a picture.  The program is a Raster graphics editor (this basically means the image is made up of rows and columns of dots, more commonly known as pixels).  Digital photos are an example of raster images.

GIMP itself has many features and tools, but you can also add more using a range of 3rd party plugins.  The software works with a wide range of file types: jpeg, bmp, gif, png, tiff, to name just a few, as well as its own (default) xcf files.  You can even open Photoshop files, so long as they don’t contain too many channels.

Like most image editing software, GIMP uses layers which you can build up and combine.  Alpha channels can be added to provide transparency, and there are a range of brush tools available.  Gradients (a gradient is simply a set of colours arranged in a linear order) can be added and blended.  GIMP also has a large selection of filters, both artistic and fun, allowing you to create some truly original images.  It also has the “Cage Transform” tool, which can be used to push and pull an image, creating some very interesting effects.

Wow, that was a lot of technical jargon!  Hopefully your brain hasn’t completely melted at this point.  Let’s take a moment to look at some of the more fun things you can do with GIMP.  The images in the following video were produced using a selection of some of the more “interesting” filters (it also helps if you like cars).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuQIwPl5LXI

As you can see, GIMP goes above and beyond what even the more demanding users are ever likely to need.  As the saying goes, “you’re only limited by your imagination”.  If you’d like to read more about this great graphics editor, click here to read the article Farewell Photoshop… Hello GIMP.

Media Players

Playing media; this is one of those areas where you just want a piece of software that gets out of your way, sits quietly in the background and does the job.  Historically, two big players in this area were Quicktime (developed by Apple) and Windows Media Player (developed by Microsoft).

But both of these are already free, so why not just use them?

Good question, but for starters they each favour certain file types.  Microsoft adopts its wmv (Windows Media Video) and wma (Windows Media Audio) formats, whereas Apple prefers its mv4 (for video files) and m4a (for audio files).  Another factor is there are several codecs (the software required to play different types of files) missing from each of these players by default, meaning the choice of media files you can play on them is more limited.

What we want is a media player that can handle virtually any file you care to throw at it, and that software is called…

VLC Media Player

Yes, it’s the infamous traffic cone, otherwise known as VLC Media Player.  You can grab it here (if you don’t have the software already).

https://www.videolan.org

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, just about everyone and his/her dog has probably heard of this one.  But while you may already have heard of it, you may even be using it, do you actually realize what a powerful piece of software this is?  Yes, it plays almost any media file you care to mention; it can play your DVDs, it can play your CDs (remember those – apparently we’re all digital these days!)  You know this already.

So what else can it do?

Well how about streaming network feeds.

What does that mean, I hear you ask?

Let’s say there’s a really cool video on YouTube, but its plastered in adverts.  Open VLC, go to the “Media” drop down menu and select “Open Network Stream”.  In the dialogue box that opens, copy the YouTube video’s URL (the www.youtube.com/… bit in the address bar) and paste it into VLC.  Now click the “Play” button and magically your chosen video should begin to play – completely ad-free!

Lovely, what else can it do?

Fancy listening to an online radio station?  VLC has you covered.  Once you’ve opened the media player, scroll down the menu on the left hand side.  Beneath “Internet”, click on “Icecast Radio Directory”.  A list of radio stations will appear.  Just double-click one of them to listen to it.

Now we’re cooking, is anything else possible?

It sure is!  What about downloading a video off the internet?  For this one, go to the site you wish to download the video from and start watching it (NB. This won’t work on every website, and you should also be sure to check the website’s terms and conditions as to whether you are allowed to download their videos).  Now that you’ve copied the URL of the video you want to download, paste it into VLC in the same place as you would if you were streaming it (as in the step we discussed earlier).  The video should now be playing in VLC.

Next, click on the “Tools” menu and choose “Media Information” from the drop down list.  At the bottom of the window that opens is a “Location” box.  Copy the web address from there.

Tone’s Tip. The address could be very long.  So, once you click on it, press Ctrl+A on your keyboard to highlight it all.  Then use the Ctrl+C keys to copy it.

Now open a web browser (e.g. Google Chrome) and paste the address in.  Again, the video should start playing; this time in the web browser.  Look to the bottom right of the video for the three vertical dots.  Click these to reveal the option to “Download” the video.

Cool, can we do anything else… pretty please?

Well, just because you asked so nicely, here’s one last feature for you: how to take a snapshot of a video.  For this one you may want to pause the video first to ensure you get the exact part you’d like a picture of.  Now go to the “Video” drop down list and click “Take Snapshot”.  The image will automatically be saved in your Pictures directory.

And there you have it: quite probably the best media player on the planet.  Go watch some stuff!

Video Editors

Ah, the marvellous video editor; what would YouTube do without it!  Adobe is also a key player in this area, with its Premiere Pro product offering industry-standard editing.  But, again, this is now part of its Creative Cloud platform with all the costs that entails.  So what can the rest of us – who don’t have bottomless wallets – do?  Fear not, as with photo editing, there are some very good free alternatives available.  Here we will look at just two of them.

Shotcut

First up is Shotcut, available to download below.

https://shotcut.org/

You start by importing your media.  Shotcut allows for importing video tracks, audio tracks or video and audio combined.  The application is a non-linear editor; this basically means you can work with multiple clips in any order, without having to sequentially work your way through adjacent footage to reach the part you’re editing.

This is done, by default, in the lower section of the screen where you have your timeline.  I say by default because in Shotcut you can move the layout around to suit your preference.

Shotcut allows for easy scrubbing (the term in media editing used to describe when you drag the playhead across a video or audio track to reach the part you require) and can quickly cut your video and audio tracks to the required sections.  As well as video and audio files, the software also supports various images, including BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, SVG, TGA, TIFF, and even image sequences (basically allowing for a bunch of images to simulate the effect of being a single video).

There are several easy to use video and audio filters, including transitions such as fading and wiping.  It can auto-rotate your footage and be used to add colour grading.  On the backend the application uses FFmpeg, which is a vast collection of software libraries and programs for handling multimedia (including video and audio) files and streams.  You can learn more about this project here.

https://www.ffmpeg.org/

Shotcut is great for creating YouTube videos.  Check out the following which was produced on this very software.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZrKdizFkDA

It’s also a cross-platform video editor, available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

OpenShot

The second video editing platform we are going to look at is called OpenShot.  You can grab a copy here.

https://www.openshot.org/

This is also a non-linear video editor.  It supports commonly used codecs; WEBM, OGG, MOV, MP4 video and MP3 and AAC audio, to name a few.  Additionally, the program is capable of rendering Blu-ray and DVD video, as well as being able to handle both Full HD and 4K video.  Like Shotcut, Openshot uses the powerful FFmpeg on the backend.

The layout is very straightforward and can also be customised.  There are lots of keyboard shortcuts to speed up your workflow – you can even set your own in “Preferences”.

Media can be imported easily by dragging and dropping it straight into the program, and there are numerous transitions and effects available.  As an added benefit, there is a component called “Animated Title”.  This is a great feature that allows you to create visually stimulating titles.  NB. In order to use it, you do need to have Blender installed on your computer as well.  Blender is an excellent 3D Creation Software (and is also free).  You can read more about it by clicking the link below.

https://www.blender.org/

The following video uses an Animated Title to simulate a Star Wars type of effect at the beginning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RE_BPA2Q6Eg

It’s ridiculously easy to create slideshows using OpenShot: when you add multiple images, a new window opens automatically – this let’s you set lengths and transitions before the photos are even placed on the timeline.  A picture-in-picture effect can be created by resizing your videos and overlaying them on top of each other.  The software also supports chroma key; this can be added as an effect to superimpose part of one image (or video) over another.  Note, the video you want to overlay needs to have a single colour background.

Tone’s Tip. Green is often used in the background when filming a video to use with chroma key.

Like Shotcut, OpenShot is also cross-platform and available for Windows, Mac and Linux.  If you’d like to start learning how to use this versatile video editor, click here to read the Create a Fab Photo Slideshow for Free article.

So, that’s our two video editors: Shotcut and OpenShot.  Again, there is no clear winner in this category.  Of the two, OpenShot edges it with its interface, being that little bit easier to manoeuvre. Shotcut feels that touch more mature, with filters in neatly laid out lists.  I love the Animated Titles feature in OpenShot, but prefer the export mechanism in Shotcut.  Overall, Shotcut comes across as the sensible parent, OpenShot the fun-loving whippersnapper nipping at its heels.  If these products were made by big corporations, I could see a company like Apple bringing out OpenShot and Microsoft releasing Shotcut.  Luckily for us, both applications are free.

Note. These opinions are my own. Your experience may vary.

At the end of the day, both are great video editors.  Whichever you choose, you will be very happy with the results.

File Compression Software

Back in the good old days, when you wanted to compress (shrink) a file, there were two key players in town: Winzip and Winrar.  Both are still around, but neither is actually free – even if you can get away with using the latter beyond its free trial period.  Now you don’t have to, because there’s a new kid in town, and this one is completely free.

7-Zip

Welcome to 7-Zip, available here.

https://www.7-zip.org/

I use the term “new” very loosely, as though newer than the other two, 7-Zip has actually been around since 1999.  The program is easy to install; just choose the right version for your computer (32 or 64 bit).  If you’re not sure which version your computer is, it’s very easy to find out in Windows.  Simply open the “Control Panel” and go to “System”.  In the window that opens, look next to System type and it will tell you whether you have a 32 or 64 bit operating system.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed the software (by double-clicking on it and clicking “Install”), you will find a “7-Zip” entry in the Windows Start Menu, and inside this is the “7-Zip File Manager” program.  If you click this, the program will launch.

That’s all very well and good, but why would I want to compress a file (or even a folder full of files) in the first place?

That’s a fair question.  So let’s try and give it a reasonable answer.

Say you have a bunch of photos that you’d like to send to a friend.  Sure you could pop them on social media, but with all the recent security concerns do you really want to?  So why not send them via a cloud sharing service that provides free storage space?  Yes, you could do that too, but, assuming you haven’t got one already, you’ve got to set the thing up first.

Just email them then, surely that’s the easiest way?  Well it probably is, but unless you want to send multiple emails, it’s doubtful all your photos will attach and send with a single email successfully.  The problem is that email providers limit the size of each email, and while this size has increased over the years, it’s still not a big as you might think.

So what’s the answer?

To compress your photos, of course!  If you pop them into a folder on your computer and compress the entire folder, it will shrink its size down to something a little more manageable.  You still won’t be able to go nuts.  Like I said, email providers do have their limits, but you’ll certainly be able to send a few extra snaps attached to the email than without compressing them first.  Just make sure your friend has suitable software to open them as well.  Why not also introduce them to Z-Zip?  It is free, after all!

Okay, so I’ve downloaded, installed and opened 7-Zip.  How do I use the thing?

From the main interface, you can move around your computer’s file system and add or extract any compressed archives.  However, an easier way to deal with a compressed file is to use the right-click menu, and as an added bonus you don’t even have to open the software first to do this.

So how does the right-click menu work?

In order to explain, it’s probably best to use an example.  Let’s say you want to add a file to a compressed archive.  Right-click on the file and you’ll see that you now have a “7-Zip” option.  Hover your cursor over this and click on the “Add to Archive…” entry.  This will open a new window which contains multiple options.  By default, it will create a “7z” compressed file, but you can change this to any of the supported file types (such as the more popular “zip”).

You also have the option to enter a password under the Encryption section, which will password protect your compressed archive.  Again, by default, the software will save your compressed file in the same directory as the original file, but you can change this by clicking on the three dots at the top right.  When you’re ready to create your compressed archive, simply click the “OK” button.  Should you wish to add multiple files to your compressed archive, highlight all the files you want to add before right-clicking on them, then go to “7-Zip” and the “Add to Archive” option (just like you did with a single file).

Opening a compressed archive is as easy as right-clicking on it, going to “7-Zip”, and clicking “Extract Here”.  Alternatively, you can view the contents of a compressed archive by right-clicking on it, going to “7-Zip”, and clicking “Open archive”.  Note, you can add files to an existing archive by dragging and dropping them inside the open archive’s window.  You can also remove files from an existing archive by highlighting them and clicking “Delete”.

7-Zip supports multiple types of compression.  As well as its own 7z file type, it can handle zip files, bzip2, gzip, tar and more.  Unfortunately, the official version of the software is Windows only, but there are unofficial packages available for both Mac and Linux as well.

It’s quite incredible when you consider the range of high quality software that’s available, completely free of charge.  Sadly, we’ve reached the end of this feature, but I hope you’ve found something of use.  If, however, you’re pushed for space on your computer, and don’t want to install additional programs, there are some very useful websites that replicate the kind of functionality previously only possible with standalone software.  If you’d like to discover a few of these, click here to read the Superb Sites: 19 Websites That Are Worthy of Your Time feature.