My Ten Favorite Free Apps

When I help small not-for-profits with web sites I often recommend free apps for preparing content, managing files, and  communicating online.   This CyberKen post covers ten of my favorites:

  1. Open Office
  2. Notepad++
  3. Coffee Cup
  4. Core
  5. 7-Zip
  6. GIMP
  7. IrfanView
  8. ColorPic
  9. Audacity
  10. Skype

Open Office is an office suite paralleling Microsoft Office, but offering  mathematics, drawing, and data base programs besides.  Open Office is cross-platform, meaning that it comes in ready-to-install downloads for several operating systems:  Windows, Solaris, BSD, OpenVMS, OS/2 and IRIX.  Mac users running X-Windows (installed from a Mac system disk) can also install Open Office. Linux users will find Open Office in most Linux distributions.  Open Office reads several file formats produced by Microsoft Office–Word, Excel, and Power Point–and saves to these formats too, so it provides an absolutely free way to exchange files with Microsoft Office users.  Google Apps, which operate by a Web connection, offer a similar array of free programs, but if you have a slow internet connection you may prefer Open Office, which can be used offline.

Notepad ++ is a feature-rich substitute for Notepad, the simple text editor installed on all Windows computers.  For typing notes or first-drafts quickly a nimble program like Notepadd++ is handier than launching a full-featured word processor.  Notepad++ is just as quick as Notepad, but will provide you many more useful features, such as a host of search functions.  Among the free Notepad++ plugins I particularly like Webedit, which lets you apply HTML code to highlighted portions of text, like the much coveted Macintosh text editor, Bbedit.

Speaking of editing HTML, if you want a free what-you-see-is-what-you-get HTML editor, Coffee Cup is hard to beat.  When Coffee Cup launches new users are presented with tips and a welcome screen that make learning your way around a lot easier.  The user interface is well designed to make the coding and deployment of web pages very easy.  Coffee Cup is not just a page editor but also a web site maintenance tool.  It has a built-in FTP (file transfer protocol) program for uploading files, and bookmarking for managing several sites at a time.

Even if you use a web page editor with built-in FTP it’s a good idea to have a stand alone FTP application to back up your whole web site, or upgrade lots of files when a new version of your content management system comes out, such as Drupal or WordPress.  If you run Windows, try the free FTP program called Core.  You can configure several sites and bookmark them with stored passwords so that connecting to any is a snap.  Core runs regular FTP or safe FTP (SFTP), which is preferred for security.  If you want to save time editing files on your server, Core allows you to edit them in place, so you don’t have to download them first, edit them, and then upload them again.

Another great free application for handling transmitted files is 7-Zip. It will extract the files of 24 different compression formats, and archive files using five formats:  7-Zip, Zip (the standard Windows archiving format), Gzip, Bzip2, and Tar. Windows users may wonder why they would ever need to do anything other than zip or unzip folders.  Well, the more you develop an appetite for open source software the more you will encounter downloads from geeks who don’t rely solely on the Windows operating system. Such folk tend to use formats other than Zip to package their offerings. Get 7-Zip so you can unwrap your presents!

So far I’ve covered text editors and file transmission and archiving apps.  Next, let’s take a look at some graphics apps.

I’m a fan of Adobe’s Photoshop, the high-end editing standard for serious photographers.  However, if you don’t have several hundred dollars to lay out, try GIMP (the Gnu Image Manipulation Program) instead.  It will do many of the things Photoshop can but won’t cost you a penny.  GIMP was first released to the public in 1996, so it has gone through nearly a decade and a half of refining by avid open source coders.  There are tons of GIMP tutorials on the internet.  Like PS it’s a complicated application, but there are lots of experienced users out there who have written help files for newbies.  Although GIMP was coded first for GNU operating systems, by now it is cross-platform.  Windows users go here for downloads and instructions for installing GIMP on Windows .

The more photos you take, the more you will need good tools for sorting and cataloguing them, so that you can organize and retrieve them readily.  I can’t say enough good things about IrfanView, a snappy viewing app that does so many other useful things!  To learn more about this very popular application, see my CyberKen posts on how to use IrfanView for sorting and tagging your photos, and how to use Irfanview with Flickr.com and Bulkr to catalogue your photo collection.

Another very useful graphics app is ColorPic, which gives you the hexadecimal code of the color over which your cursor is hovering.  Say you want to design a web page that repeats a color from another page.  How to do that?  Well, you could work with both pages side by side and try matching the colors by eye.  Or, with ColorPic you could grab the hexadecimal code of the color you want to replicate, and then plug that code into the page you’re building to get an exact match. Now which method would you choose?

When you begin to make videos you’ll probably not bother much with the sound track.  You’ll just use the sounds that come with your video clips, and perhaps add a music track underneath.  But to gain more control over your video sound, or to edit tracks for podcasts, try Audacity.  It offers unlimited tracks, and many special effects. In one of my early sound experiments I pieced together recorded bird calls and water gurgling to simulate a walk through a local wooded park.  I achieved this aural illusion with Audacity.  Quite satisfactory!

My final app of my favorite ten, but by no means my least favorite one, is Skype, an audio and video conferencing tool that lets me visit with far flung family for as long as I want, for free!  In 1970 when I called my wife in the states by a satellite connection from Vietnam I thought that was a miracle!  Today I VIDEO chat with one son in London and another in L.A. at no cost whatsoever, and think nothing of it.  Well, not really.  I still think it’s a miracle, and an economic as well as technological one.  These days I’m using Skype for small business meetings online.  The audio connections are almost always reliable, and the video ones are getting better and better.  Skype has inexpensive features called Skype-out, by which you can call land lines and cell phones, and Skype-in, which permits anyone to call you while you’re at your computer, or leave a voice mail if you’re not.  That message triggers an email notice which lets you know you have a message waiting.  Skype-in is a very cheap business phone solution, cheaper than any other I know of.

So, those are my ten favorite free apps.  There are several others I like, but telling about them will have to wait for another post.  Please leave a comment about free apps that you recommend.

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