Friday, July 16, 2010

Free Technology

Everyone knows that you can't get very far these days without using a computer. Instead of breaking the bank buying proprietary software, with a little work and willingness to learn, you can find free, compatible versions of many programs. My motto (one of them anyway) is why pay for something you can get (legally) for free. Sure, these versions may not be what you're used to and there may be a bit of a learning curve, but some are actually better than what you would pay for, and they save you money.

Open Office: Open Office allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, database and drawings. It's basically Microsoft Word without the hefty pricetag. Open Office documents are compatible with other programs, so if you need to save something and open it on a different machine to print it, you can do that. It's far more user-friendly than MS Office 2007, which I hate completely. As an aside, at the library where I work, we have MS Office 2007 on the public computers, and I spend a significant chunk of my day-to-day helping people figure out how to do the most basic things like print or single space. Open Office actually just works the way it should.

Google Docs: Google Docs is a very stripped-down version of MS Word or Open Office. Google Docs are handy because you can create documents and share them with people via email. You can give people permission to view the documents, or edit them as well. This came in tremendously handy when I was doing group projects in grad school--everyone would write their own content right into the document and it saved us emailing back and forth and retyping things. I've mentioned google docs before, because that's how I opted to do my budget. Google docs are stored online, so your harddrive doesn't get cluttered up, and you can access them from anywhere you can check email.

Picasa: Picasa is free online photo storage and manipulation software from google. I'm just getting into using Picasa, but it's incredibly handy, and I have friends who have done some pretty impressive things with the photo manipulation tools. Frugal Girl is a Picasa wiz, and has started sharing her secrets. Even if you don't want to do anything with photos beyond storage, Picasa allows you to free up harddrive space by storing things online; and you can share albums with family and friends by invitation.

GIMP: GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program, and I always call GIMP the poor man's photoshop. Honestly, I've never used photoshop, and I doubt I ever will since my needs aren't that exotic. What GIMP does is allow you to crop and manipulate photos; you can insert graphics, paint, splice backgrounds, insert text and a lot more other stuff. I've managed to impress a lot of people with my "design" skills just based on what I've figured out about GIMP. There's a very thorough online help manual, and the commands are quite logical.

Cam Studio: Cam Studio is a groovy little program that seems like it meets a need you don't have. In actuality, what will probably end up happening, is that you'll say someday "I wish I could just show people how I do this thing online..." That's what Cam Studio does. It records your movements on your own computer, and stores them as a movie you can then share with other people. Also, if you have a program or a shortcut that you've figured out, you can record yourself using it so you don't forget. It's pretty handy.

Audacity: Audacity is a sound manipulation program that I haven't actually used too much, but a former boss raved about. Audacity allows you to upload sound recordings and manipulate them. If you do podcasting, you can record in into Audacity and edit out any stammers or long pauses, you can add in background music, you can plug your keyboard directly into your computer and become the next Corey Hart. Plus it's fun to play with.

Celtx: Celtx is a very specific program that perhaps a lot of people won't have a need for, but I have to mention it because as a sometime screenwriter/screenwriting instructor, I just love it. If you've ever done any screenwriting, you've learned pretty quickly that aside from coming up with a brilliant new idea, the hardest part is the formatting. Of course, the formatting also has to be completely perfect or a fantastic screenplay can get thrown out without a second glance, and the writer can spend hours fine-tuning spacing line breaks etc. There are programs that can do that for you, like Final Draft, retailing at $249, or you can download Celtx, for free. Admittedly, I've never used Final Draft, but I've also never needed to because Celtx does everything I need.

This is just a glance at what all is out there as far as free technology. I'm sure there's lots more, and I'd love to learn about it. If you've found something for free that you can't live without, mention it in the comments or send me an email:

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