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3 free programs that deserve your attention

By: 13 January 2012 2 Comments

Not so very long ago, free programs came in roughly two varieties — buggy garbage and crippled applications that “teased” users by showing them what they could do if they purchased full versions.

Things have changed for the better over the years and it’s very possible to grab a full-featured office suite, an image editor, an audio editor and a PDF writer that can hold their own against commercial products out there. We’ll take a look at those programs in this article and point out up front that they all have flaws but most users probably won’t notice. Besides, it’s hard to complain too much if you’ve got your mitts on a free program that performs almost as well as a commercial counterpart, isn’t it?

So, what are those programs and what makes them so good? Read on.

Office Suite — OpenOffice.org

If you want off the Microsoft Office merry-go-round, OpenOffice.org is a great alternative. And, clearly, that’s what the designers were going for when they developed the office suite. It’s worth mentioning that OpenOffice.org and its derivatives are “must have” programs for Linux users as Office is not native to that particular operating system. Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh users do have access to Office, but they’d do well to take a look at OpenOffice.org, too.

What do you get with OpenOffice.org? At its core, the package is a blow-by-blow answer to most everything in the Office suite. Writer is the packages answer to Microsoft Word, Calc fills in for Excel, Impress looks and acts a lot like PowerPoint and Base is a database that is the rough equivalent of Access. And, here’s what makes OpenOffice.org so great — its components are based on native formats, but the package reads and writes in Microsoft Office formats almost flawlessly. In other words, go ahead and let your office pay for Office — you can open and edit those files at home with the free OpenOffice.org so flawlessly you’ll be amazed at first and then take take that functionality for granted after you’ve used it for awhile.

There will be times when you’ll notice differences in the way Office-native files are formatted, however. If you’ve got a Word document that’s stuffed with graphics, for example, it might not translate well into OpenOffice.org. The formatting problems become obvious in Excel workbooks that are full of irregular column widths and font sizes, too. Finally, few will call Access terribly elegant or easy to use as, well, it’s a database program and those are almost always more than bit complex. Base is as powerful, but considerably more clunky compared to Access, however.

Still, those are minor complaints. OpenOffice.org offers the functionality of Office for free and handles Microsoft-native documents admirably. There are times when the package’s handling of Office documents will let you down, but those times are few and far between. By the way, Office users who are still irate about Microsoft’s decision to change up the toolbars/menu system starting in Office 2007 may find some comfort in knowing that OpenOffice.org has preserved the familiar interface that has been standard for years.

Graphics Editor – GIMP

GIMP may be the worst named piece of software of all time in the eyes of those who are sensitive about slurs against the disabled, but the name of the program is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. I’m not sure if that knowledge helps, but it at least explains the incredibly odd name of the program.

GIMP is, obviously, a challenger to Adobe Photoshop. Like OpenOffice.org, GIMP is a must-have for Linux users as Photoshop isn’t an option for them. Windows and Mac users have access to Photoshop, of course, but they might want to take a look at GIMP, too.

In essence, if you can do it in Photoshop, you can do it in GIMP. The package does what one might expect quite well in terms of cropping, scaling and touching up photos, but it’s quite a bit more powerful than that. Fix flawed photographs with effects available through sharpen and blur masks, select colors to remove, swap from indexed color to RGB or grayscale modes and even use a full array of tools to smudge or erase imperfections. The drawing and painting tools are impressive and labeling photos is a snap, to.

GIMP is based on a series of layers that, once mastered, allow one to shuffle effects and alterations in and out at ease, too.

Is the program perfect? Well, no. For one thing, the GIMP doesn’t handle CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) color separations natively and plugins that exist to force it to do that are crude at best. While most home users might not care about CMYK color, those who deal with professional printers likely will want that as a lot of commercial presses require that format. Photoshop converts to CMYK whereas GIMP doesn’t. That might not be as big of a deal as it used to be, but it’s still an issue.

Also, if someone is up for a graphics designer job and brags about an intimate knowledge of GIMP but not of Photoshop, that looks more than a bit bad. Photoshop is still the gold standard, and that’s how it goes.

Another complaint is that GIMP will not natively read PDF files. That problem is easy enough to deal with by installing Ghostcript to translate PDF files and that method works very well. What isn’t easy to deal with, however, is the lack of documentation for GIMP which is quite a complex program. Still, one can find necessary instructions at the GIMP site, through forums and through tutorials that are common on the Internet.

Finally, the PNG compression is lackluster in GIMP in that the resulting files are quite after they are processed. For whatever reason, PNG files — even at max compression — are considerably larger than those output by similar programs.

Still, GIMP is a heck of a good program with some great features to offer. It might not be as full-featured or respected as Photoshop, but its high end features are more sufficient for most people. Give it a try and you may be surprised at how capable it is.

Sound editor — Audacity

If you’re looking for a free program that can edit multi-channel audio, Audacity is well worth a look. Recording with it is easy, as is cutting and pasting audio, editing multi-tracks at once (speech on one track with music in the background on another, for example) and it is easy to pick up and just use as it sports a very intuitive interface. It runs well under Linux, Mac and Windows and is well supported.

The beauty of Audacity lies in its ability to handle multiple tracks at once. For example, it just plain makes sense to have one track dedicated to, say, speech while having other separate ones that handle music and sound effects. The volume on each track can be adjusted so as to avoid situations where music overpowers voice and there’s even an “auto duck” feature that will limit the volume of music or effects while speech is playing. Once track levels are adjusted and each is edited to satisfaction, the tracks can be mixed down to two, stereo tracks or one mono track quite easily.

Are there problems with it? Well, yes. For one thing, it’s buggy. I’ve had it lock up my underpowered, Linux-powered netbook more than a few times and that’s not surprising. What is a shock is that it’s crashed my 64-bit machine running under Windows a time or two, as well.

Also, the noise reduction available through Audacity is very limited. Pulling out background noise is a hit or miss affair. Leveling audio is hit or miss, too, in that it’s difficult to keep a consistent volume level across a track is a chore — a bit of a problem if you’ve got people located at various distances from microphones. Audacity struggles a bit with longer audio tracks, too, in that selecting large blocks of audio with precision is difficult. Another difficulty is that Audacity doesn’t handle MIDI and can only write in MP3 format if the LAME encoder is installed.

Still, Audacity is very capable. With it’s limitations and problems, Audacity doesn’t rise to the level of high end audio editing programs, but it keeps improving and is very useful.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

2 Comments »

  • Ron said:

    Enjoyed this article. Another free office suit is LibreOffice. It is very similar to MS Office and is available for Windows and Linux.

    I have used GIMP and Audacity for years. The thing I love about Audacity is that you can record directly from your sound card.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Ron — LibreOffice is now the default suite under Ubuntu Linux. As I understand it, LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice.org and I really can’t tell much difference between the two applications. Both of them work very well under Linux, but I’ve not tried LibreOffice for Windows yet.

    And, Gimp and Audacity both represent an incredible value. They might not satisfy “pro” users, but they seem to be developing in a way to eventually satisfy that crowd. For most of us, those two programs are fantastic.

    Thanks for the comment!

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