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Tech Review: How to beat the high cost of software

By Ron Scopelliti

I think most of us are familiar with those “Don’t Eat That – Eat This” articles that you see on websites, teaching you how to replace high-calorie, cholesterol-laden foods with healthier alternatives. My goal this month is to offer two “Don’t Buy This – Download That” options to beat the high cost of software by using open-source freeware.

Freeware, as the name implies, is available to users at no cost, though developers will often ask for donations. Open-source means that the source code for the software is available for modification and redistribution for anyone with the technical skills and ambition to do so.

Both of the alternatives listed below have undergone long development periods, and have a proven track record of safety and reliability. They’re both available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

An Alternative to Microsoft Office

A single-user version of Microsoft Office will cost you between $69.99 and $83.88 per year using the Office 365 Cloud service, depending on which plan you choose. If you’re willing to live without a database program and other conveniences, you can locally install a single copy or Office Home & Student on a single PC for $149.99. To me, either option seems like a lot to pay for an office suite that has become increasingly user-unfriendly since 2003.

While there are online services that offer office suites, I often work in places that have unreliable Wi-Fi, so I don’t want to rely on a cloud-based office suite. While Google’s office suite offers the ability to work offline, there are too many caveats and potential sync problems involved for me to feel comfortable doing so.

For years, the go-to alternative was Open Office suite which was free to download and install on as many computers as users liked. When the developers stopped updating the suite, a number of other developers took the source code and went down different paths or “forks” developing their own updated versions.

One of the most popular and highly-rated versions is Libre Office. It comes with applications to create word processing documents, spreadsheets, slideshow presentations, drawings, and databases. Download time for the 243 MB file from www.libreoffice.org took under a minute, and installation was quick and easy.

Though it’s strictly a personal preference, I like Libre Office’s user interface better than the newest Microsoft Office interface. The controls are more similar to those in Office 2003, offering simple drop-down menus, and large, easy to recognize icons, as opposed to Microsoft’s newer “ribbon” setup, which I find to be poorly organized and difficult to use.

The default in each application is to save files using Libre Office’s formats and extensions. But since all the people I work with use Microsoft Office, I changed the save defaults to Microsoft formats (.docx, .xlsx, etc.). I’ve had no problems going back and forth to work on the same files using Microsoft applications and Libre Office applications.

An Alternative to Photoshop

When it comes to photo processing, photographers and visual artists are faced with a dilemma. Now that Adobe only makes the full version of Photoshop available through its online Creative Cloud service, they can either buy the watered-down Photoshop Elements for $69.99, or pay $9.99 per month for Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography annual plan.

That’s where GIMP comes in. GIMP is an acronym for “GNU Image Manipulation Program.” The download size and time is very close to that of Libre Office, as is the setup time. The download is available at www.gimp.org.

The GIMP installer is about 100 MB. It contains both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the program, and will automatically use the right one for your operating system.

While the controls aren’t drastically different in their functions from Photoshop, they’re somewhat different in their names and layout. Transitioning from Photoshop to GIMP isn’t quite as easy as transitioning from Microsoft Office to Libre Office. The toolbar is a little less intuitive than Photoshop, but that could be based on the fact that I’ve been using various versions of Photoshop for about 20 years, and have used GIMP for about two weeks.

The program only “saves” in its own proprietary format. In order to save a file in a more conventional format like JPG or GIF, you have to use the “export” or “export as” commands. Exporting to a Photoshop PSD format allows you to open the photo in Photoshop and work on it normally. Similarly, opening a PSD file in GIMP hasn’t presented me with any problems so far.

Both Libre Office and GIMP have plenty of online forums and tutorials available if you run into problems, and for those who want to spend actual money, there are a number of books, magazines, and “bookazines” in local bookstores.