When companies are willing to take individuals to court for illegally copying movies, music and software, how is it that it's possible to get some programs for free? If they're being given away then they must be inferior or riddled with adverts – right?
When it comes to open-source software, the usual cynical rules don't apply. This stuff is genuinely free and much of it is very good. Some of it is better than its commercial alternative. By publishing the source code, the software is open to wide scrutiny and so, in theory at least, it should be safe, secure and constantly improved.
Practically everyone's heard of this browser. The world's second most popular web browser is often said to be more secure than IE and it's definitely more flexible. Due to its open-source credentials, there are hundreds of extensions available to improve security or add extra functions. Firefox gives you the web just the way you want it.
If Firefox is a replacement for IE, Thunderbird is a replacement for Windows Mail/Outlook Express. People choose it over Windows' default option for more security or because it's available in Mac and Linux versions. It also supports extensions and there are a variety of message templates to use with it.
OpenOffice.org is a free alternative to MS Office, replacing Word, Excel and PowerPoint with its own apps that can open Office files and save to the same format. It doesn't provide alternatives for Access, OneNote or Outlook, but there are other open- source apps you can substitute for these.
The GNU Image Manipulation Program provides a free alternative to Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. You can carry out complex graphics tasks using it and it supports multiple layers. Anything that can be achieved in Photoshop you can do in The GIMP. Its drawback is that it's a little tricky to learn.
Make panoramas with Hugin
Hugin matches pricey photo-stitching tools in terms of functionality.
When you're on holiday and come across a beautiful view, it can be frustrating to find that your camera can't squeeze it all in, even if you use a wide-angle lens.
Traditionally, we've attempted to overcome such problems by taking a series of images from left to right and then trying to line up the prints to recreate the view back home.
Digital photography makes it possible to stitch the images together in a more seamless fashion, but it's a tricky job in a photo-editing application and specialist software for generating panoramas can be expensive. That is, unless you use Hugin, which is an open-source application and as such, totally free.
Hugin works by loading up a collection of images in the correct order and then identifying common areas in each image. The more overlap there is, the better results you'll get. Hugin can resize images to fit them together better and it can alter the brightness and contrast so they match. You can choose the kind of lens to use for the final image: a normal image, a panoramic, cylindrical one or a fisheye lens. Your selection determines the shape of the final image.
The Assistant tab makes producing panoramas very easy indeed. You can find out more about the program by going to http://hugin.sourceforge.net. Here you'll find a collection of handy tutorials, an extensive manual and a list of FAQs.Hugin produces a high- quality TIF panorama that you can view in any image application.
Explore the universe with Celestia
Celestia can bring the stars, moons and planets to your desktop. It's a lot like Google Earth for the skies, giving you access to the known parts of the galaxy within a computer-generated environment. When you start the program you'll see planet Earth in its current orientation.
Want to see it spin on its axis? Choose Time > 10x Faster. Repeat this twice so that it's running at 1,000x normal speed and you'll see it majestically turning. You can use this trick to examine the orbits of other objects. Use the Navigation menu to move around space. Choose Select Sol > Go To Selection to zoom in on the sun.
Alternatively, click an object in view and then choose Navigate > Go To Selection. See the annotation to find out about some of the other useful navigation tools to help you find your way around
Protect your PC with ClamWin
Anti-virus protection needn't cost you £30 a year!
ClamWin isn't the only free anti-virus program for Windows, but its competitors are offered commercially as part of a strategy to generate more sales for their paid- for products that invariably contain more features.
ClamWin is open-source and therefore guaranteed to be free for its lifetime. It's a traditional anti- virus application and so you'll also need protection against spyware and a decent firewall, but it offers all the features generally associated with anti-virus programs.
You can set it to update regularly via the internet and run scheduled scans of any part of your system. It'll check outgoing and incoming email for viruses and you can set it to send an email alert if a virus is found, in case you're not at your PC at the time.
The main program window is straightforward to navigate. To scan a drive, select it and click Scan. Click the Internet Update button to obtain the latest virus definitions. To schedule operations, choose Tools > Preferences > Scheduled Scans. Click Add and provide the frequency, time and day for the scan and the drive or folder you want to test.
On the Internet updates tab you can configure the frequency of updates and the time for them to happen. Add an email address to the Email Alerts tab to be notified of virus detections.
Receive podcasts with Juice
The internet is flooded with all manner of interesting multimedia content – so much so in fact, that it can be difficult to keep up with it all. Juice is a media aggregator that enables you to select audio files or podcasts from thousands of available locations. You can then set it to record and save these shows at specific times.
While many podcasts are available for several days, some have a short lifespan and can be easy to miss. The beauty of Juice is that you can schedule recordings to ensure that you don't miss a thing.
It works using RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication) files to manage your subscriptions. You can use Juice's directory to browse through a large selection of providers or enter an RSS URL from any podcast's web page. Usually these are listed under links marked Subscribe.
Find one using your browser, right-click it and choose "Copy Link Location". Back in Juice, choose Tools > Add a feed and paste the URL here. Click Save and then move to the Subscriptions tab to see current available episodes on this feed. Juice isn't fully Vista compatible, but the Ogasa Walrus blog has some handy tips to get it working, which Vista users have found helpful.
Publish documents with Scribus
It's the DTP tool that puts Microsoft's Publisher to shame. Scribus will help you design a page or document for printing, once you have your text and images to hand. While you can enter text into a DTP program, it's better to use a word processor to write your information first, because this minimises the need to zoom in and out of the page to make it fit. Each page is made up of different frames, including text frames, image frames and tables. Start by setting up the format of the document.
Choose File > New to open the New Document dialog to do this. Select Automatic text frames for ease of use and enter the number of columns you want. Click OK and Import text directly from a Word document or text file. Just right-click anywhere in a text frame and choose Get text.
With your text in place, you can add a headline. Select Insert Text frame and drag the frame into place over your existing text. Select the text entry tool and type in your headline. In the Properties dialog, select Text and choose the font size and formatting that you want. To prevent the text flowing underneath your headline, choose Shape in the Properties dialog and check "Text flows around frame".
Use the frame handles to adjust the height and width of the headline. To add an image select Insert Image Frame and drag the frame into its position. In Properties, choose Image > Scale to frame so that it fits. Avoid distortion of the image by ticking the Proportional box. Move back to Shape and tick Text flows around frame.
Get a free operating system!
Linux is the no-cost computing alternative to Windows systems.
No matter how many free programs you install, you'll still have paid for at least one piece of software: Windows. The cost may have been absorbed into the price of the PC itself, but you can't use Windows without having paid for it. To some extent it's Hobson's choice because most PCs come with it preinstalled, but not all do. So if you purchase a PC without its own operating system or you want to try a different one out, enter the world of Linux and get one for free.
There are many different distributions to pick from, and they differ in ease of use, system requirements and what software comes bundled. To check out what's available, have a look at Distro Watch, which provides news on the latest releases, along with information on pretty much every distribution out there, including download links and where to order installation discs by mail.
Ubuntu has become a popular distribution of late due to its ease of use, a very supportive user community and the effects of a marketing budget behind it. It's a good starting point for anyone wanting to give Linux a try, not least because the installation CD is also a live disc. This enables you to try out the OS by booting your computer from the disc without making any changes to your hard drive. There's an install link on the desktop if you want to set it up more permanently on your PC.
Alternative to Windows
One of the most important things to remember about Linux is that it's modular.
Different distributions are made by taking the basic kernel and then adding parts to it. This includes the graphical user interface (GUI) that enables you to select programs and display them in windows. Ubuntu uses Gnome, which uses a series of menus at the top of the screen. If you'd rather have a layout like Windows, choose KDE.
Kubuntu is a version of Ubuntu that uses KDE instead of Gnome, but there are other distributions that use KDE and you can always use more than one window manager with your version of Linux. It's all about choice – with Linux you get it in spades.
Draw vectors with Inkscape
Few open-source tools are as powerful as this vector graphics app.
Graphics programs can fall into two different categories: raster and vector. Raster graphics include photographs and drawings composed of a pattern of pixels. Vector graphics are more concerned with shape.
For example, draw a triangle in a raster graphics program and when you zoom into it you'll see that the sloping sides are stepped. This is a result of the pixels that make up the triangle's side, which produce a noticeable jagged edge. In contrast, a vector program would preserve the triangle shape no matter how big you made it.
Of course, there are times when each approach is appropriate for a particular project, but if you want to create clean lines and shapes then vector graphics is the way to go. Inkscape is a vector graphics program, and a very good one at that.
The walkthrough below gives you some idea of the advantage of vector graphics. You can use one of a number of preset shapes to draw part of an image. You can then select this shape, change its colour, size and orientation and add other shapes to it.
It's possible to group several shapes together and move or resize them at the same time, thus keeping them all in proportion and saving you time in the process. If one shape overlaps another one then you can change the order they appear by choosing Object > Raise or Lower. It's much like using layers in standard photo- editing programs.
You can also copy and paste groups to quickly produce multiples of any object that you create. Inkscape's object-based approach enables you to reposition any part of your picture without damaging other elements.
Master audio editing with Audacity
Now that you've used Juice to receive and store podcasts, you may have caught the bug and want to record your own. Audacity gives you the equivalent of a multi- track studio so all you need is a decent microphone.
The program offers a range of sound-editing features, but a standout one is Noise Removal. Launch the program and open a file that you've recorded before. Select a section of the track that should be silent, but contains some background noise. Choose Effect > Noise Removal > Get Noise Profile.
Now select the whole track that's affected by this noise and choose Effect > Noise Removal > Remove Noise. Play the track back to see if you've corrected the problem. If you haven't or other aspects of the sound were lost, choose Edit > Undo Noise Removal. Now repeat the removal but adjust the degree of noise removal using the slide control. You may need to use a little trial and error here.
3D modelling in Blender
Even animation giant Pixar uses this incredible free tool.
Where Inkscape dealt with objects in two dimensions to create pictures, Blender works in three dimensions to produce models and scenes, complete with lighting and texture. It's one of the applications used to create CGI (Computer- Generated Imagery) effects and animation and so it takes some learning, but the results speak for themselves. For a full guide to help you learn Blender from scratch check out the WikiBook Blender 3D: Noob to Pro at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Blender_3D:_Noob_to_Pro.
The annotation shows some of the features available in this powerful application, but tackling CGI isn't for the faint hearted. Like any art form it takes time to learn. What's remarkable is that a powerful professional tool such as this is available to anyone to download for free.
Watch movies with VLC
Why rely on any other media player when VLC handles any format?
There are plenty of free media players about, so why should you bother with VLC? Quite simply it's the most flexible and useful media player that you can find. VLC plays pretty much any format you care to throw at it, from flash video to DVDs and most video or audio files in between.
To see the full list of formats that it supports, go to www.videolan.org/vlc/features.html. You can use it to stream files over your network and even to re-encode files from one format to another. It can play back media from video capture cards with analogue or digital tuners.
You can also correct problems such as unsynchronised sound or video interlacing artefacts. VLC media player supports play list files including those in M3U format. You can use its play-list manager to open, edit and save new play lists. It's a one-stop shop for your whole media collection.
Other open-source gems
There's a whole world of feature-rich free tools out there…
MusikCube is an audio player that includes a lightning-fast database of your tracks, enabling you to create dynamic play lists according to your previously observed listening habits. It has a simple interface, too. Install and launch the program and then choose File > Music Library > Add Director y to add your music folder. Now use as your main music player to benefit from the dynamic features.
It's frustrating when a music track has loud bits and quiet bit s or when different tracks are recorded at different volumes. No one wants to be fiddling around with the volume controls when listening to music, especially when doing something else at the same time. MP3Gain analyses music tracks and modifies the gain in them so that you don't have to. How handy is that?
World Wind gives you access to the planet and some of its neighbours too. You can view the world from satellite level or zoom into the globe to see stunning 3D maps that use NASA's topographic data to give a high degree of detail. If you're bored with the Earth, why not explore the moon? Choose File > Moon and give it a spin to see the dark side.
Windows has handled zip files from XP onwards, but zip is just one form of compression. You're still stuck if someone ends you a RAR archive or a file in GZip format. 7-zip handles a range of compression formats files, enabling you to open most files. You can also compress files using five different standards.
One of the problems with the digital age is that files can be recovered after deletion. Computer files need to be overwritten several times to ensure that they can't be recovered. Eraser enables you to do this, adding a secure erase option to the right-click menu and an erase option to the Recycle bin.
If you need to generate HTML web pages or simply need to make edits to existing ones, KompoZer will do the job. It isn't as fully functioned as say, FrontPage, but it's adequate for most uses. You can switch between a preview and seeing the full HTML code for precision editing, or paste in code snippets in normal view.
First published in PC Answers, Issue 191
Now read 40 must-have Windows Vista programs