Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Inkscape and other best free software apps

FREE software! Yes, you can get free software that is quite capable, powerful, and useful for many of the tasks you require software for. Thanks to the OSS (open-source software) movement, you have access to all sorts of software at no charge. Most of this software has been created by volunteer programmers and developers from around the world, some of it is created by programmers that work for donations alone, and there are even some free software products that are developed with corporate funding.

I am a huge fan of various OSS products, and I use a few of these applications on a regular basis. So, I figured I would list some of what I consider to be best-in-class free / OSS products here for anyone looking to

Inkscape is a powerful and rather easy to use vector graphics editor, with capabilities similar to Illustrator, Freehand, CorelDraw, or Xara X. This tool is simply wonderful for sketching out conceptual artwork and so much more. Because it is a vector-based drawing system, anything you draw scales without the pixelation issues that would be present with bitmap-based graphics.

Inkscape .45 was just released, and has further improved on an already wonderful application. Some new features since .44 include:
  • Gaussian blur is the first SVG filter supported by Inkscape. You can blur any object to any extent - yet it remains vector and fully editable. This gives a huge boost to Inkscape as a creative art tool.
  • Display speed and interactivity: not only does Inkscape render faster, but it can now respond to user input before it finished redrawing the screen, which greatly improves the interactivity of the program.
  • History dialog makes it easy to to review your editing session and jump to any step of it, undoing and redoing multiple actions with one click.
  • Several important tool features are added, notably the new selection mode in Node tool and the adjustable rounded caps in Calligraphic pen.
  • Bitmap tracing works better for multi-color traces, sports a redesigned dialog and several new options.
  • Many new extension effects are added, including Color effects and Pattern along path.
  • The Outline mode has got many fixes and improvements, including a keyboard shortcut.
  • Several new commands in Help menu open various Inkscape-related pages in your default browser, making Inkscape reference information more accessible as you work.
  • Dozens of smaller features are added throughout the program, and hundreds of bugs are fixed.
This application should suffice for quite a few uses. I have found the application very handy for working on conceptual ideas and visuals. If you have yet to check this software out, I highly recommend it. You do not need to be a graphics professional to use this software and enjoy the fun that comes with some powerful freehand drawing abilities and more.

This is simply an awesome free text editor. Forget Windows Notepad - that thing is nothing short of an obsolete dinosaur of an editor compared to Notepad++! Though the name of the software would make it sound like a similar application, Notepad++ goes so far beyond the functionality of Notepad.

I use this application for all sorts of things. It's a wonderful code-editor for not being part of an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) and even supports syntax highlighting and code-folding (collapsing code between begin..end regions) for quite a few languages (and custom languages you set up).

For an average non-programmer user, it still offers all sorts of amazing features, including:
  • Multi-Document - edit several documents at the same time.
  • Multi-View - have two views at same time. Use this feature to visualize (edit) 2 different documents at the same time or edit the same document in 2 different places at the same time.
  • Regular Expression Search/Replace supported - this is "intelligent" search/replace, that allows pattern-matching operations.
  • Full Drag ‘N' Drop supported - open a document by drag & drop.
  • File Status Auto-detection - if you modify or delete a file open in Notepad++, you will be notified to update your document (reload the file or remove the file).
  • Zoom in and zoom out - a wonderful feature indeed!
  • Macro recording and playback - You can save several macros and edit their keyboard shorcuts for the next use. This can be a real timesaver on repetitive tasks.
  • TONS of functionality for converting/processing text in all sorts of ways. Like, changing the case of text, changing single-quotes to double-quotes, and so much more (see the TextFX menu after you install it)

If you are a typical desktop computing user that needs some fundamental word-processing and spreadsheet capabilities, but does not want to pay for Microsoft Office, then look no further than OpenOffice.org

This free office-productivity software is bound to meet your needs unless you are really doing some sort of advanced word-processing layouts or are working with a lot of tightly integrated Microsoft-only environment considerations.

Bottom line: don't have an office-suite and want one for free? Download OpenOffice and give it a try.

FireFox (browser)
If you can't stand Internet Explorer (especially IE7), give FireFox a try. It is the only browser I use for 99% of my web-surfing. I have run into just a few sites where for some reason a web-page only works in IE, at which point I suffer through using IE for a moment or two. Likewise, I have found a few sites that render best in FireFox (including my own book-site's pages - and I have no idea why).

VMWARE PLAYER (and pre-built Virtual-Machines / Appliances)
For anyone not familiar with virtual-machine technology, stick with me for a few minutes, and hopefully a lightbulb will go off in your brain :)

How would you like to try out a new piece of software without having to setup a computer and/or install the software? I know I surely love the time-savings of just downloading a pre-built virtual-machine file, and launching that "machine" with VMWare Player. How would you like to browse the Internet with nary a concern about viruses and spyware and such? Try a pre-build Internet browser appliance using VMWare! (perhaps this one, which includes browser, anti-virus, and instant-messaging app). There are so many pre-configured "systems" to try, including various Linux desktop distros and more.

This product is nothing short of awesome, especially when you factor in how many pre-built and freely available virtual-machine appliances are ready to use with VMWare Player! Just check out the directory of pre-built virtual-machines here. Everything from free operating systems with pre-installed applications, to evaluation software setups are available (including Exchange 2007 eval).

So far, my only complaint with the pre-built virtual appliances has been the availability of them over Bittorrent. Some of the lesser-known or less-used appliances seem nearly completely unavailable for download due to lack of "seeders". Which, brings me to my next application...

Azureus (a BitTorrent client)
This is just one of a handful of BitTorrent clients available, but I happened to take to it so I certainly recommend it. BitTorrent is a peer-assisted digital content delivery platform that enables users to easily publish and download files, and the more people that participate in sharing the files, the faster you can usually retrieve the file of choice.

I have discussed this product before, and I do not recommend using it for sharing any copyrighted material!!! It is great for sharing open-source software, freeware trials, and other non-protected digital material though. It is the primary way I download many of the Linux operating system ISO (CD/DVD Image) files. And, speaking of Linux...

Linux Distributions (many!!)
If you have yet to try Linux out for an operating system, start reading Distrowatch.com and getting a feel for what is available. There is a dizzying number of distributions available now, with one that is bound to fit your tastes for an open-source operating system. I personally prefer OpenSuse and Kubuntu (both use the KDE desktop - which is quite Windows-like and pretty easy for Windows users to get used to).

I have found OpenSuse to be the best as far as recognizing all the hardware in my PC (like the ATI or NVidia graphics cards, NIC, and the like), as well as being the easiest to configure Windows-networking-access in (via Samba).

K-Lite Codec Pack
Have you ever encountered a media-file, CD, or DVD that just won't open or play in Windows Media Player - where you get some crazy message about a codec missing from your system and such!? I have, and it is annoying. What else do I want Media Player for if not to play a DVD or something?

Well, enough of that. I came across this product called K-Lite Mega Codec pack that has all the Codecs (coders/decoders) needed to play nearly any type of DVD on your computer. And, it includes this Media Player Classic component that will take the place of Windows Media Player and make use of these Codecs to allow you to watch that DVD that you own!

So, if you have a problem playing your favorite movie DVDs you own on your computer, give this a try.

If you need an FTP client to upload files to a website, this should do the job. I used to use CuteFTP, which I owned an old version of, and when I was considering whether or not to purchase yet-another-upgrade to the product, I discovered FileZilla.

An instant-messenger client. Think AIM, but without the annoying ADS!
Try it, you'll like it.
And, it enables you to chat with people on all sorts of instant-messaging networks.

Gourmet Recipe Manager
A simple, but powerful, recipe manager. If you love to cook, and want a way to organize your recipes and track nutritional content, and more, this program is worth a look. It can even import recipes from recipezaar and more. Quite cool!

Ever need to quickly find the differences between a couple of text files? Check this program out.

Blender 3D
Want to create your own 3D animated movie? Check this free software out.
Blender .43 was just released, bringing even more commercial level 3D modeling features with it. The power of this application is amazing. Newly available sculpt-modeling abilities, fluid particle animation, and other wonderful improvements should give you all the power you need for your 3D Modeling and/or animation project.

It sure beats paying thousands for a commercial 3D rendering application, especially if you are on a limited budget.

FastStone Image Viewer
If you need a quick way to manipulate some of your pictures/images, this is a decent app. This is freeware (not open-source), but nonetheless you may find it quite useful since it is still, most importantly, free! From their site: it is a "fast, stable, user-friendly image browser, converter and editor. It has a nice array of features that include image viewing, management, comparison, red-eye removal, emailing, resizing, cropping and color adjustments."

That should give you a pretty decent collection of very useful free software to try out for your day to day use. There are many more applications that I use and can recommend, but these will get you started in the open-source / free software arena with some high-quality applications that demonstrate a wide variety of capabilities you can get for free.


DED said...

I use Firefox and FileZilla. Been happy with them both. Inkscape sounds interesting. I don't suppose you know of anything reliable that makes pdf's. Adobe is too expensive (of course). I'm looking into buying CutePDF, but I'm holding off until I absolutely have to do it.

Mike Eberhart said...

Sorry for the delay... I never seem to be able to tell when people post comments to a blog. Can somebody tell me how?

Well, regarding PDF-makers, I have seen a few products on BetaNews that are freeware and supposedly do PDF-Creation (typically as a print-driver you install). But, I have no experience with them. I also thought Open Office has a native PDF-Saving option built in now. Could that perhaps help?