I'm pretty sure most people are familiar with the phrase "you get what you've paid for" when it comes to free, or very cheap, versions of tools, and to be fair, that's accurate a great many times.
Today, I'm going to introduce you to some software that's FREE and can replace many packages that cost several hundred dollars without sacrificing too many features.
Generally when people think of free software they think of stuff that runs on the linux operating system. While that may have been true a few years ago, it's not so much the case anymore. Authors are coming out with applications that run on Windows and Apple's OSX as well. You may ask why they'd do that? For some it's just the kicks they get out of doing it. For companies, they see the value of "wetting someone's appetite for their product. The trade-off for that free price is sometimes they may include advertisements, or have some of their features disabled compared to a paid version (crippleware), or they affix a price tag to it, hoping the person will find it useful enough that they would pay for it on an honor system (shareware).
The three applications I'm going to mention today are totally freeware. No price attached. No strings attached. There may be add-ons offered by companies, which will enhance your user experience which cost money. But, I'm not going to go into any of those.
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LIBREOFFICE (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.)
Today the gold standard of office suites is, no doubt, Microsoft Office. If you purchase the student or home version, this will typically include a word processing application (Word), a spreadsheet (Excel), a presentation program (PowerPoint) and a note organization program (OneNote). Several years ago, Microsoft made the decision to bring out tiered packages. This allowed them to give you more options the more you pay for them. As a result, Access, their database application was pulled out, and is now only available with the Professional version. You can look at paying between $119 and $349, depending on which suite you purchase.
In the long run, not bad as Microsoft Office is accepted as the standard in pretty much any industry. However, why pay that kind of money if you don't need to?
The best option for people to consider is LibreOffice, from the Document Foundation. LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice, which has been the premiere open source productivity suite for years. (A fork basically is when someone takes a software package and creates their own package, but adds their own improvements moving forward.)
While LibreOffice does not include a notes application, it has equivalents for the other applications included in the basic office package, in addition to database, drawing and simple math editors. LibreOffice will open any .docx files sent to you by others. You can edit them and still save them in a Word format (.doc). A person could use Evernote to make up for the loss of OneNote. In January 2012 PCWorld did a good comparison of Evernote vs. OneNote and actually rated Evernote as a better option.
As far as I'm concerned ANY first year college student should be able to use LibreOffice in lieu of Microsoft Office, and your professor will never know as long as you remember to save your files in Office format (.doc, .xls, etc.)
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THE GIMP (photo and graphics editing)
If you're a professional photo editor chances are you will be using Adobe's Photoshop Suite. This has been around for years, and has carried a triple digit price tag for years due to its acceptance as a standard and not many alternatives doing as much as it can. If there's a graphics format out there, I'd bet Photoshop will be able to open it. Standalone Photoshop is a whopping $699, and the cheapest suite is the Design Standard package, for $1299. However, that includes a whole bunch of other graphical production programs as well, which are generally overkill for anyone that's not in a professional graphics house. Adobe does offer a stripped down program, called Photoshop Elements, which probably gives most people all the items they'd need out of Photoshop, at a LOT less money (currently $99).
If you want a more powerful editing program, then you might want to consider The Gimp. (Gimp stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program – a mouthful for sure, which is why they chose to use the rather ungraceful acronym which has stuck despite suggestions to change it).
It needs to be said that the current released version of Gimp (2.6.12) looks about as alien as it can get when compared to Photoshop. Instead of having a single application window, it's divided into multiple panes. This has its plusses and minuses as it allows you to arrange your desktop as you wish, and you can even close some items that you don't need. Not all hot keys work with the same functions as in Photoshop. However, we're on the cusp of the release of Gimp 2.8. This version will offer you the option of a one window screen, as well as the traditional multi-window interface. Gimp will open standard Photoshop (PSD) files, and allow you to edit on the individual layers. It will also let you work on a whole slew of other file formats, including many of the raw formats produced by the camera manufacturers (I was pleased to see it does Canon's recent .cr2 format when I checked). There was a fork of Gimp called GimpShop, where developers tried to mimic the more familiar PhotoShop interface. However, that has fallen behind in development, and cannot really be recommended anymore. There's plenty of tutorials online (Youtube and many user forums are available).
A big Achilles' heel for some people is that it does not have a robust support for 16bit color-depth formats as Photoshop does. If you don't understand what I'm talking about, chances are you won't miss it. Basically, this has to do with the richness of your photo's detail and how much info is available for editing.
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AUDACITY (audio editing)
I haven't really used any of the paid audio editing applications, such as Garage Band, so it's going to be a little harder for me to compare others to it. However, I'd like to mention a wonderful freeware application that lots of people are using, especially for producing podcasts. It's called Audacity. Don't let Audacity's pretty plain looking website scare you off. This application has a great support community.
Audacity allows you to import many different audio formats, and if you have the correct plug-ins installed you can export in a multitude of options as well. I've personally been using Audacity for years to burn the .mp3 versions of our church's sermons for posting to the web.
It allows you to edit a sound file, removing all those coughs and other imperfections that happen when recording something live, and you don't have the opportunity to go back and do it over. If done properly you honestly cannot tell if something was cut out. You can also copy parts of a file so you can transpose them to other places. For instance, I recently had a situation where a subject gave a verse number wrong. I was able to find another place in the original recording where the correct number was used so I copied it and went back to the original problem. Magically, It's fixed. If something wasn't recorded at a high enough level you can amplify recordings too, and it won't let you over amplify the sound without your actually telling Audacity it's OK to do so. Levels can be equalized. Pitches can be adjusted. All pretty cool stuff!
As I mentioned earlier, there are plug-ins available, written by other users, that allow you to manipulate files in certain ways, or to generate other sounds. At present I'm not aware of any instrument packages to add, so if you're looking at laying down a drum track, or something like that, you should look elsewhere. However, you any instrument that you can hook up to a pre-amp or some sort, or that can use a microphone to record can easily be used with Audacity.
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These were three programs picked at random that I use and thought other people might find useful, in case they wanted to get their feet wet, but didn't want to spend a whole lot of money. I made sure to choose applications that have Windows, Apple (OSX) and Linux versions to make sure that most people reading this will be able to use them. Please note, I don't believe there's IOS (iPad) support as of right now, but I'm sure you'll eventually see that down the road since that's the way it seems Apple is moving for consumers.