Over the last few weeks, several people have asked me for lists of free software that I use. There are plenty of sources online for this kind of thing, and there are some great sites that give you lists of free applications to perform certain tasks, alternatives to commerical software applications, and reviews of the best freeware applications. So the last thing you need is another list.
But these are the applications that I actually use. I’m limiting this to Windows programs that I run on my computer. So you’re not going to find any kind of instructional software here (like this science list or this math list). There’s also no server software or anything like that. So, with that said, let’s get to the list.
These are programs that fill specific needs that either aren’t met by the operating system, or that are poorly implemented by Windows.
- 7-Zip: Yes, I know. Your computer can already handle ZIP archives without any additional software. And if you do have a special progam to handle zip files, it’s probably Winzip. But 7-Zip has the advantage of being able to open archives in just about any format. Plus, it’s free, it doesn’t nag you to register, and it integrates well with the operating system.
- Foxit Reader: Anyone who is using the web these days has to have a way to read PDF files. Sure, you can get Adobe’s product. My frustration with that route is that it takes forever for Adobe Reader to start up, and it’s constantly trying to upgrade itself. PDF files shouldn’t be that complicated. Foxit works just as well, and it recognizes that there might be other things you want to do with your computer besides reading PDF files.
- PDF Creator: Like reading PDF files, creating them shouldn’t be rocket science either. When Adobe doubled the educational license price for the commercial Acrobat software a few years ago, we switched to free alternatives. PDF Creator doesn’t have all of the features of the commercial programs, but it does what we need it to do — create PDF files. You set it up as a printer, and “print” to a PDF file from any application. It prompts you for a filename, and you’re done.
- AVG Anti-Virus: We license commerical anti-virus software for our school computers, and that license gives staff members the option of installing it on their home computers, too. But when I had a problem with an installation of that application, I found that I could neither reinstall it nor uninstall it. So I switched to AVG. So far, I’ve been happy with it. I’ve also heard that Avast is very good, but I haven’t tried it.
- NAS Backup: Your mileage may vary with this one. If you happen to have a server running rsync laying around (and, honestly, who doesn’t these days? :-)), you can use this program to automate backups from your computer to the server. It works well once you get it set up right, but sometimes getting the configuration tweaked can take a while.
- TrueCrypt: Truecrypt is disk encryption software. Why do you need this? I use it in two ways. First, let’s say you have a flash drive, and you want to keep files on that flash drive that may contain sensitive or confidential information. You can use Truecrypt to encrypt them. So when you leave the flash drive in the computer at the library, or drop it in the parking lot while trying to find your keys, the person who finds it doesn’t have access to your files. I also use it on my laptop to encrypt the entire hard drive. When the laptop starts up, it asks for my super-secret 29-character passphrase. Until I enter that passphrase, the hard drive appears to be unformatted. So I may lose the laptop, but no one’s going to get the data from it. As a school district, we use this software on all laptops assigned to individual staff members. If you want details on how all of this works and why it’s so secure, geek out with this episode of Security Now.
- VNC: This is software that allows remote computer management. There are lots of implementations of this protocol, but we use the TightVNC variety. It’s loaded on every computer in the district, and we can use it to remotely manage those computers to help troubleshoot, perform routine maintenance, and provide support to our staff members and students.
Internet / Interactivity Software
These are applications that I actually use all the time. Every day. All day. The list isn’t long, but these are things that make my work a lot easier.
- Firefox: In a former job, I once told the network manager that I would never use Internet Explorer as long as Netscape survived. Two years later, I was using Internet Explorer, because I didn’t consider version 6 of Netscape as “surviving.” But the pendulum has more than swung the other way with the Mozilla project, and I can’t imaging not using Firefox as my primary browser. Sure, some people are crazy about Chrome. And, yes, I have it installed, too. But the add-ons in Firefox make it worth the slightly slower performance and it’s my default browser of choice.
- Thunderbird: As a Gen-Xer, I’m old enough to have embraced email early, and I’m still shackled to it. Unlike the alternatives from a certain Washington-based software company, this software doesn’t assume that everyone in the world is using the same email client and the same kind of mail server. It also doesn’t assume that I want to use a proprietary format for email attachments (I love those winmail.dat files). Plus, I don’t need a calendar in my email program. The two functions are completely separate. Right now, I have it set up to access seven email accounts, 12 RSS feeds, and three usenet servers. And it just works.
- Skype: In the last three years, this software has changed my life more than any. If you’re still paying for long distance service, and you’re not calling, say, Mars, you’re missing the boat. Plus, it makes a really good chat client. And it does video. Free video conversations with anyone in the world? Free audio conference calls with a dozen people? Are you kidding? This is how we build collaborative networks.
Once in a while, I have to work with audio, video, or images. When I do, I reach for these tools.
- Audacity: I don’t know anyone who records audio who doesn’t use Audacity at least some of the time. It’s free audio recording and editing software. We started using it with foreign language students a couple years ago, and the AP Test people even encourage its use. My music teachers use and love it. Every podcaster I know who isn’t in love with Garage Band uses Audacity. Just don’t tell Jeff I have it installed. He might put me to work.
- Miro: Speaking of podcasts, this is how I get them. I used to use Juice, but since it hasn’t been updated since, well, people actually started podcasting, it was time to move on. Just to be clear, I don’t love Miro. But since I refuse to use iTunes, it’s the best alternative I have.
- VLC Media Player: I have a hard time finding audio or video formats that VLC can’t handle. It also converts between them, something most media players won’t do. It has replaced Windows Media Player on my computer as the player of choice.
- DVD Flick: Have you ever wanted to take a video file and burn it to a DVD that will play in a DVD player? It’s an annoyingly complicated process, but this program makes it easy. Give it a video file (or a series of them), and it’ll do all the magic converting and encoding and give you a playable DVD. It’s pretty limited in the editing and menu functions, but I rarely (never) need that stuff anyway.
- Irfanview: The old standby for image editing. Years ago, we started installing this program on all of the district’s computers for handling image files. It lets you easily crop and resize pictures, which is what we use it for most of the time. It also lets you adjust brightness and contrast, perform color correction, and convert among various image formats. There are even some filters that allow you to apply certain effects to images. And, it’s easy to use.
- Paint.net: Irfanview doesn’t actually let you do retouching. You can’t add text to images, you can’t copy and paste. There are more powerful programs to do that, but I’m not a graphic designer. I don’t need Photoshop. And while the Gimp is a really powerful Photoshop replacement, it’s too much for me. Paint.net fills the niche nicely. I can do simple editing without causing too much damage. That’s perfect for me.
A big part of my job is centered around network administration. Having these applications in the toolkit has saved me a lot of time. If you’re not a network admin, these probably won’t be that useful to you. It’s also worth noting that most of these can be used for nefarious purposes, but I’m focusing on the positive, productive uses here.
- Putty: Admittedly, unless you use a command-line interface to a server somewhere, you probably don’t need this. But I live on the command line when it comes to server administration, that this is rock-solid software for handling those connections. It also allows you to create ssh tunnels, which can be very useful if you need encrypted tunnels.
- Network Stumbler: If you work with wireless networks, it’s helpful to have an application that can measure signal level with something a bit more precise than a four-bar scale. This application will find any access points within range, give you their MAC addresses, tell you what kind of encryption they’re using, and show a graph of signal strength in real time.
- Nmap: Lots of network problems can be difficult to diagnose, especially with firewalls thrown in the mix. This application lets you see which network ports are open, closed, and filtered on a specific host or network segment. Don’t use this to go blindly scanning people’s networks — that’s considered hostile behavior. But if you’re trying to troubleshoot why certain network applications aren’t working, this can be very useful.
- Wireshark: Network traffic is broken down into packets, which individually traverse the network. When a message is sent from one computer to another, the various packets making up the message can take different paths to get there. Whenever there are network problems, it’s useful to be able to see the packets moving back and forth. Wireshark lets you do that. It captures and analyzes the packets going over the network. While this may not sound like much fun to you, it can be pretty valuable data when there’s a problem.
So there’s the list. Yes, OpenOffice is missing. That’s because I use Microsoft Office most of the time. And I haven’t talked about browser add-ons, even though there are many that I use on a daily basis. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of online tools. But that’s going to have to be another post.