software everyone should know about

I run into people all the time who are fighting technology. Not everyone spends as much time in front of a computer as I do; and not everyone has the time I do to fidget with computers. But I think people could save themselves hours of frustration and thousands of dollars if they just knew about a few nifty pieces of software. So, here are my suggested pieces of software that most people don’t know about but everyone should:

  • OpenOffice.org (free)
    • This tops the list because so many people shell out hundreds of dollars for Microsoft’s Office suite when you can get all of the same functionality for free. OpenOffice is an open source office productivity suite with all of the functionality of: Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Access plus a few additional bells and whistles. I, personally, use OpenOffice.org for almost all of my basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation needs. If you rarely do any typing, calculating, or presenting and have a relatively slow computer, another great, free alternative to Microsoft Office is Google Docs; not as powerful as OpenOffice, but for the basic user, more than satisfactory.
  • Picasa (free)
    • I’m often amazed that so few people know about this nice little image manipulation program. If you have a digital camera, you should have Picasa on your computer. I’m not trying to shill for Google here, but it really is one of the most intuitive, simple programs around for basic picture touch-ups: remove red-eye, rotate, crop, convert to black and white, and my favorite feature: batch rename (though there is another piece of software below that does this as well). This isn’t the software for heavy-duty photo editing (i.e., putting people in pictures when they weren’t already there), but for basic maintenance of photos, this is hard to beat.
  • GIMP (free)
    • If you’re into more heavy-duty photo editing, you can shell out several hundred dollars for photoshop, or go with the free alternative – the GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program). It runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac and is extremely powerful. It does take a little getting used to (so does Photoshop), but once you begin to master the functions, you’ll be amazed what you can do with this software.
  • gmail (free – ad supported)
    • You may be asking what you’re supposed to do with your email if you don’t shell out the money for Outlook (when buying Microsoft Office), but this is basically a no-brainer given the features of Google’s gmail. Gmail comes with over 7 gigabytes of storage and allows you to manage dozens of email address all from one user-interface. You can easily search through your email as well using Google’s search technology. This isn’t completely free in that it is ad-sponsored, but the ads are generally so unobtrusive that I don’t even notice them. Plus, all your email is one place… And who has just one email address anymore, right? I manage 7 email accounts from gmail and love it!
  • Firefox (free)
    • Would you like a web browser (that’s what you’re reading this with) that allows you to fully customize it? Are you interested in a web browser that lets you control your music, notifies you when web pages that don’t have RSS are updated, lets you download every link on a page simultaneously (movies, .pdfs, html files, songs, etc.), and blocks ads for you? Then you need Firefox. Given its speed, user-friendliness, and extensive collection of add-ons, there is no other browser available today that even comes close to competing with it.
  • Zotero (free)
    • Are you an academic or student who regularly writes papers with references? Are you still typing out all of your references by hand? It’s time to move to the 21st Century… It’s time to meet Zotero. A relative newcomer to the bibliography management scene, Zotero is one of the most full-featured pieces of bibliography management software around. It can store thousands of references and imports them directly from your browser. It integrates with both MS Word and OpenOffice so you don’t have to keep track of references as you type. And, it’s free and constantly being updated. (Caveat: You have to use Firefox to use Zotero as it is an add-on for the browser. This isn’t really a problem considering they are both free, but just a heads up.)
  • Google Reader (free)
    • Do you read the newspaper? Do you read blogs? If so, I hope you’re letting all of the news and all of the new blog posts come to you rather than you going out to search for them. If not, you’re doing way too much work. You need to study up on RSS feeds, then get yourself an RSS feed reader. I prefer Google Reader, but I’m less picky on this one – I just think everyone should be using RSS feeds given their convenience.
  • Dropbox (2gb free)
    • Do you have multiple computers – say a work computer and a home computer? What about a work desktop and a laptop? Do you spend time moving files from one to the other so you can work on them? There is no need to do that if you use Linux, Mac, or Windows.  Enter Dropbox.  Dropbox is a very small, convenient piece of software that runs in the background and keeps your computers synchronized, passing files across the internet almost flawlessly. Save yourself hours and hours of synchronization issues and download Dropbox.  Also, as a major perk over Windows Live Sync, dropbox keeps a copy of your files stored on their servers (all encrypted, of course), in case you accidentally delete your files or your computer crashes.  In other words, using Dropbox you have a real-time backup of all of your important files.  So, even if you’re not syncing files across computers, you should consider syncing your files with Dropbox’s servers as a free backup option.
  • Mint.com (free – ad supported)
    • Tired of paying for yearly updates to Microsoft Money or Quicken, try Mint.com. It isn’t as fully-featured at this point, but it is accessible from anywhere and, if your financial institutions are supported, it’s ability to access their sites is unparalleled. Save some money as you manage your money – sign up for mint.com.
  • Honorable Mentions – I could go on and on about software I think everyone should use, but these last items aren’t as vital as those listed above. I use them all and I use them regularly, but they probably aren’t as important for everyday computer users.
    • utorrent (free) – Study up on bit torrent then give utorrent a try; it’s quick, simple, and not a system-resource hog.
    • MagicDisc (free) – Sometimes it’s faster to emulate a disc drive then to actually put a disc in the drive; this program can emulate with the best of them
    • BatchRename (free) – Ever find yourself needing to rename dozens of files? Rather than do it one at a time, download this simple, free program and let it do all the work for you. It’s not the most intuitive program, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised how often you use it.  There’s a much better batch rename program called GPRename that is available for Linux.  If you were running Linux you’d have access to this one!
    • Omnipage (not free and expensive) – Ever needed to convert a printed page into text? Throw a scanner into the mix and Omnipage will amaze you with its accuracy. If you have an open-source OCR program with functionality comparable to Omnipage, let me know.  OCR is, unfortunately, one of the things that Linux doesn’t do well at this point.
    • Teracopy (free) – WindowsXP’s built in ability to copy files from one location to another works, but it doesn’t tell you what’s going on, and it doesn’t let you pause in the middle of things. Teracopy runs silently in the background but pops up when you need it and works flawlessly (okay, almost flawlessly). Another small piece of software I can’t live without now that I know it exists.
    • WinSplit Revolution (free) – This may not be a good option for you if you don’t have a lot of screen real estate (a small monitor), but if you’ve ever spent time positioning windows around your screen so you can copy and paste, try this nifty little program – it does all the work for you.  Linux has this functionality through an add-on called Compiz Fusion.
    • xplorer2 lite (free) – This is the free version of a souped-up Windows Explorer that is far more functional than Windows Explorer. It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve tried it, you probably won’t go back.  Or if you’re using Linux you can try one of these.  Krusader is probably the most powerful, but it isn’t the easiest to use.  Dolphin is probably the best combination between power use and user-friendliness.
    • Virtualbox – Ever wanted to try out a new piece of software but been worried it might have spyware? Or maybe you’re just worried it will clutter up your computer. Or maybe you have an old piece of software you want to run but don’t have a computer to run it on. Sun’s Virtualbox is a user-friendly way to create a virtual second computer for testing software, etc. You may not use it very often, but when you need to, it’s handy!
    • Audacity (free) – Probably not software most people will need, but if you need to cut up or edit audio files (even song files in .mp3 or .wav format), Audacity is the way to go. It’s powerful but intuitive and free!
    • LogMeIn (free) – Ever needed to control your computer from another computer? Probably not. But if you ever have, this simple, free service works well and comes in handy those times you do need access.  Unfortunately it does not work with Linux.  You can control other computers from a Linux box, but you can’t control Linux boxes with it.  I’m hoping they figure out how to do that soon.
  • I’m still looking for a few pieces of software. If you have any suggestions, please let me know:
    • A free recipe management software. I may even prefer online recipe management, but it should be able to calculate calories and print in an aesthetically pleasing way.

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