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The Beginner’s Guide to Free Software (part 1)

November 26th, 2012

Martin

Everyone loves a freebie, and the World Wide Web has provided us with limitless freebies in the form of news, books, music, video and software. The Internet (on which the Web, and other things, runs) has spawned whole new ways of collaborating to produce this free stuff. This is especially true as collaborative tools have become more sophisticated in the last decade.

So with all this free stuff floating around, why pay for any of it? Is it possible to run our entire computer on free software? I want to have a quick look at this question here, so that you can start to make up your own mind.

The uses of your computer

The first thing you need to know when hunting for free software is exactly what you want your computer to do for you. Here are some examples:

  • Write documents;
  • Browse the Web;
  • Read and write emails;
  • Organise, view and edit your photos;
  • Play and rip your own music;
  • Watch DVDs;
  • Play games

In fact, at this point, I’m having trouble thinking of any more central uses for a computer. PCs can do a million and one tasks, but most of us are just using them to do these ones. Even the last three on the list aren’t a priority for lot of people.

The needs of your computer

Of course, you can’t just run your computer with a web browser and a music player to keep you happy. Windows PCs are fickle old things, and the following are also necessary for safe and pleasant use:

  • Anti-virus / anti-malware programs;
  • A firewall;
  • Maintenance software;
  • Backup;

Suddenly you need a suite of tools just to keep your PC in shape, let alone get on with what you’re sitting in front of it to do.

In any case, it’ll come as no surprise to find that you can get free versions of all these types of programs, but one of the most common issues I see with broken PCs and laptops is where the owner has revelled in the colossal menu of free offers online, and become bogged down with redundant, conflicting software, software that came for free but does nothing until you cough up the cash, or – worst of all – viruses and trojans which piggybacked their way onto your machine alongside the downloads you thought you could trust.

How do you find good free software?

You need a guide, some tools to help to distinguish the good from the bad. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that a couple of tips from me might be part of that tool kit. Here’s a few to get you going:

Reputation

There’s no better way to judge free software than on its reputation. The most popular free packages are popular for a reason, and so if millions have decided to install Firefox and use it as a browser in place of the default Internet Explorer, you know that its worth a look.

Open Source Software

One of the fruits of the collaborative Web is Open Source software. The source code – the lines of programming which go into its creation – are open for all to see, download, tweak and run. This fosters an evolution in quality, as well as the occasional revolution.

The best thing about it, making it stand out from ‘ordinary free’ software is that it will always be free, and no one will be trying to get you to pay for it later. So there are no hidden charges, and no ulterior motive for giving it away. Everyone who contributes code benefits from the other millions of lines, and end users who can’t program at all reap easy rewards! (Though you should find a way to contribute if you can, even if only with a voluntary donation).

Word of mouth

This takes many forms, from a friend’s recommendation after years of use, to online reviews from trusted sources (like well-known magazines), to shop or computer fair staff. In a way this is just transferring your trust from the software itself to another (perhaps unfamiliar) source, but it’s often easier to trust a third party source than it is to judge the book by its cover.

The Free Software Market

In a future post, I’ll actually be bold enough to name some names, and pick some of the best free software that you can get today. We’ll start by looking at the core functions for your computer, before moving on to some more exotic and exciting things to get your teeth into. Eventually I’ll pose the question: can you run only free software?

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