Software on a Budget

We may be in a weak economic cycle, but that doesn't mean you have to forgo upgrading your computer's software. You can keep up with the latest technology by using a wide variety of freeware, shareware, open source software, and free services on the web. I've outlined a few popular options below and invite our readers to submit your favorites as a comment. Interested in learning more about open source and other free software options? Keep an eye on the Lawrence Branch computer class calendar this fall, as Office Guru and I will be offering some new classes covering a variety of software and services.

Office Options. Sure we all need to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint at some point in our work or school lives, but did you know there are two high-end alternatives that let you create new documents as well as open and edit MS Office files? One choice is Google Docs, which lets you work and store your files online. Google offers three applications - documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. If you prefer to work offline or need more options, Open Office may be for you. In addition to word processing and spreadsheets, Open Office features database and graphic design programs.

Audio. If you like to listen to music and tend to download audio files from a variety of sources, check out WinAmp. This media player will organize all of your music and video in one place, including iTunes downloads, so you can sync to your portable player. Maybe you want to go beyond just listening and want to record your own music or transfer old cassettes and records to digital form. Audacity will let you do both. This powerful recording software can even help you clean up the buzz from old recordings. Just attach a microphone, cassette deck or other musical device to your PC using a standard audio jack and hit the record button.

Communication. We all know Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are flourishing as the best way to keep up with friends, family and colleagues for free. But, many of us find it hard to keep tabs on all those sites. If this is you, try out GizaPage, which lets you track your social network pages all on one site. With support for over 40 different applications, you won't be spending all day updating your status. If you are a Twitter fan, it is hard to ignore TweetDeck, free software that gathers your feeds like an RSS reader and alerts you to new posts. It can also track Facebook status updates and allows you to update both Facebook and Twitter at the same time.

Photo. Most online storage services offer their own editing software, but these tend to be limited in what they can accomplish. What sets Picnik apart from the rest is the Create tab. You can use this online tool to add creative features to your pictures, so you can play with various artistic options after doing the usual cropping and rotating. The best part is you can do it all without downloading any software.

Looking for more? There are thousands of free applications online and the best ones are often reviewed on technology blogs and in PC publications. PC Magazine publishes an annual list and you can read all about this year's selections in "The Best Free Software for 2009." For open source software, you can check out SourceForge, which serves as an online clearing house for developers.

- Laura N.


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