Top 10 … er 12 … Free Programs

Chrome has overtaken Firefox to become the best all-round web browser, although in the last year or so Firefox has made marked improvements. Chrome’s advantages over Firefox are speed, stability, and aesthetics. But there are lots of alternatives, notably Webkit (which is both free and open source) as well as OperaSafari and Internet Explorer (which are free but not open source).

LibreOffice (which is a fork of OpenOffice) provides you with a free Office suite that’s highly compatible with Microsoft’s products, and actually has a few extra tricks up its sleeve (such as a dedicated drawing program).

DropBox (not open source) is a small, free, easy-to-use program that gives you a folder that lets you sync files between computers without bothering with USB sticks, keeps old versions of files around for 30 days in case you accidentally delete something, and, perhaps best of all, makes it easy to share files and folders with other people. Alternatively, Amazon has just introduced a similar service called Cloud Drive (web service) that offers more free space (and cheaper additional space) but none of the convenience.

(if you’re a Mac user) or WinSCP (if you’re a Windows user) are both excellent and easy-to-use FTP/SFTP clients. You may also want to try out Filezilla which runs on both platforms.

TextwranglerFor those cases when you need a real text editor (e.g. for programming or editing web pages) you’ll want Notepad++ (on Windows) or Textwrangler (on the Mac, not open source) or Komodo Edit (not open source) on either. If you’re happy using the command line you have plenty of options (and you don’t need my help!).

Darktable IconDarktable is an open source replacement for (and blatant imitation of) Adobe Lightroom, which means it’s also a replacement for Aperture, iPhoto, or the late, lamented Picasa. It’s under active development, and already quite powerful. If you’re familiar with any high-end photography or image manipulation program you’ll pick it up in no time.

vlcVLC is great for playing that weird video file that won’t work in QuickTime Player or Windows Media Player. And it’s just fine for playing the files that will. You may also want to try out MPlayer.

HandbrakeHandbrake is great for ripping DVDs so you can play them from your hard disk (e.g. on a media center computer) or mobile device (iPod, iPhone, Zune, PSP, etc.). It won’t work on some DVDs (but neither will commercial packages).

BlenderFor 3d modeling, animation, and rendering Blender’s features are hard to beat, and its price is impossible to beat. And if you want an unbiased renderer to go with it, look no further than Luxrender.

The GIMPIf you need a free alternative to Photoshop you should look at The GIMP, although Mac users may find the X11 user interface a bit hard to take. If you need an alternative to Illustrator there’s also Inkscape (with the same caveat for Mac users).

AudacityAnd finally, Audacity is a must-have application for anyone who needs to edit or sequence audio files.

Other Software

The programs discussed thus far only scratch the surface of what’s available. All software discussed on this site is organized into categories (what does it do? what does it run on?) and the commercial packages they can replace (OK I need something like Excel…). I hope you find the information on this site useful, informative, and easy-to-find.

All of these programs and services are available for free, but not all are open source. I explain why non-open-source software is mentioned on this site elsewhere.

Open Source Photography Workflow

Photo Workflow 101: Camera to Computer to Cloud

I have a personal interest in photography going back to when I learned to process black and white film and prints at the age of 9, and photography workflows are a huge annoyance (mainly because camera companies are clueless).

At least if all you have is a Mac or Windows PC and lots of money for software the solution is pretty simple. Copy your photos from your camera to the Mac/PC, and backup the Mac/PC (ideally to the cloud, which is pretty tough for pro photographers). Now all you need is to manage a buttload of huge, cryptically named files in proprietary formats using an assortment of programs that all want to suck them into a walled garden and charge you money to look at them.

I was looking into products addressing the real problems of photographers these days when I came across this article, which shows that the same workflow is available for Linux using entirely FOSS software (the core element is Darktable which I recently noted)., so I thought I’d link it. The same photographer provides a guide to GIMP for people who area used to Photoshop (like, basically, anyone who has worked with images for a living).

PPC Media Center

PPC Media Center IconPPC Media Center is a tool for enjoying modern videos on a PowerPC Macintosh running Mac OS X 10.4 (“Tiger”) or 10.5 (“Leopard”). Apparently, some people still have these computers (in fact, I do, in large part not because of the PowerPC CPU but because, via emulation, they’re the only way to run truly ancient 680×0 software, such as the incomparable Studio/32.

I haven’t tried PPC Media Center, but if you’re trying to keep an old Mac useful it looks like it’s worth a shot.

twitter wdt iconThe author has also created Twitter WDT — a tool for integrating Twitter onto your desktop. Both of these programs are written using AppleScript so they may actually be useful for owners of more modern Macs (AppleScript runs on all Macs dating back to about 1991, although good luck running modern AppleScript on such ancient machines).


Macdown IconLike many recovering word-processor users I have almost entirely switched to Markdown for writing (this includes documentation for software products and comments inside source code), so having a good Markdown editor with live preview is indispensable.

Macdown screenshot.I actually use Ulysses for large projects — and I recommend it highly for managing large writing projects (I’m currently working on the new edition of Learn 3D with Cheetah 3D using it), but I used to use Mou whenever I needed a lightweight tool to create — say — a READ ME file, or track progress on a task. But Mou has gone commercial which left a space for FOSS replacement, which has appeared in the form of Macdown. It works wonderfully (I’ve been using it for over a year at this point) — it’s free. Use it.


Darktable IconDarktable is an open-source Photography workflow tool (in essence, an Aperture/Lightroom clone). It’s very timely since Adobe has switched to an annoyingly expensive subscription model, and Apple has simply stopped working on Aperture. And for Linux desktop users, I don’t know of a serious alternative (even Picasa is no longer supported on Linux).

This is a preliminary entry based on little more than importing a few dozen RAW files from three different cameras (with no problems) and doing a little bit of color correction and experimentation. I encountered no bugs or hiccups, installation was a breeze, and performance was decent (it’s no FastRawViewer!) It doesn’t actually support Undo (!) but all operations are non-destructive and you can simply edit the history directly — but supporting command-Z would be a lot more intuitive. I also couldn’t find simple options for applying an adjustment from one photograph to another (this was literally Aperture’s killer feature when it first came out, and has since been imitated by every program out there).

Screen Shot 2015-12-25 at 7.14.55 PM

Darktable’s interface, workflow, and features borrow strongly from Lightroom. It lacks some basic platform niceties (e.g. proper menus) and its UI is disorganized and sometimes cryptic, but no more so than Lightroom or Aperture really. It’s stable and does the job without fuss, but if you’re a Mac or Windows user there are better cheap and free alternatives in the non-open-source world. If you’re a Linux user or simply prefer open source software, this may be your best option.


Gedit is the GNOME project’s text editor. It’s a programmer’s text editor with most of the functionality you’d expect such as syntax hiliting, tabbed editing, support for lots of programming languages, parenthesis matching, and so on. It lacks regular expression support and it feels a bit clunky, but it doesn’t require X11.

For Windows users, I’d recommend Notepad++ over gedit. Mac users would be better off with TextWrangler unless they’re ideologically opposed to non-open-source free software, in which case perhaps try GNU nano (in terminal) or bite the bullet and learn vim or GNU emacs.


LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice, a free and open source integrated office suite incorporating word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database, and formula editor components.

For Mac users, LibrOffice is a native Mac application (unlike OpenOffice which was an X11 app). has for some time been the best open source office suite available. It’s highly compatible with Microsoft’s ubiquitous office software, has a pretty decent drawing package, and can export directly to PDF. The main problem has been that it was controlled by Sun (and hence now Oracle) which was trying to sell a commercial version of the same product, and had a reputation for snarling attempts to improve it in red tape.

LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice backed by several major developers of (including Redhat, Novell, Canonical (the commercial entity behind Ubuntu), and Google.

Today, Oracle announced it is giving up on OO.o as a commercial endeavour, essentially turning LibreOffice into OpenOffice’s successor.


DropBox is a brilliantly simple freemium file syncing tool. It lets you effortlessly sync files between multiple devices (computers, iPhones, Android Phones, iPads, and so forth). It even keeps old versions of files around for 30 days in case you accidentally delete or change something (and the 30 days becomes “forever” if you pay for the premium service).

All you do is install it and then keep the stuff you want synced in the DropBox folder.

It also lets you share files and folders with other people, and quickly make files available online. (E.g. you can create a video tutorial in your DropBox folder, right-click on it and obtain a public URL to let other people view it.)

Click this link to get DropBox (and give me a referral bonus) or go direct to the site to find out more or get it without giving me a darn thing.


RStudio LogoRStudio is a free, open-source, cross-platform IDE for R. R is a programming language for statistical analysis — it’s aimed at researchers who need to perform statistical analyses of experimental datasets. If you’ve played with the graphical front-end that comes bundled with some versions of R, this is a whole new ballgame. Check out the screenshots, it looks very slick.

R has been getting quite a bit of traction lately (and O’Reilly has published at least one book on it). It’s probably not great for R’s uptake that it’s seen as a “programming language” and not a “stats package”; I’m not sure the kind of people who want a replacement for Excel would be thrilled by the prospect of an “IDE” rather than a “GUI Front End” or somesuch.

I’ll update this entry when I have some time to actually use RStudio.


Avoid staring at this screen
Avoid staring at this screen

Unattended is an open source alternative to Microsoft’s RIS (Remote Installation Services). It’s a tool for people who need to maintain and configure multiple Windows PCs in standard ways. Or, to put it in a nutshell:

When you are finished setting up Unattended, you will be able to boot any PC from a floppy, from a CD-ROM, or directly from the network, answer a few questions, and come back an hour or two later to a fully-installed Windows workstation.


Ninite's interface
Ninite's interface

Ninite is a really neat tool for quickly installing a whole bunch of free and open source software at once. The basic idea is you check off the programs you want and click a button and you get an installer which will install all the stuff you want (and none of the crap, like toolbars, that you don’t) at once without your needing to do anything else. Brilliant.

The Pro version costs $20/month and allows unlimited use, which for my mind falls under “mensch”. (I’m also happy to see that their business model is charging $20/month and not vomiting ads all over their home page.)


PiTiVi is the video editor bundled with Ubuntu, and perhaps the first credible “iMovie equivalent” for Linux. I have not used it, but I am recommending it based on the fact it’s bundled with Ubuntu and the quality of its website (which is literally light years ahead of any of its rivals). Judging from its screenshots it looks like at minimum you can do straightforward A/B edits. And, because it’s FOSS there’s no reason to expect it to be intentionally crippled the way iMovie in particular is (e.g. it’s impossible to do any real compositing in iMovie, for that you need Final Cut Express/Pro).

Unfortunately, PiTiVi is not available for Windows or Mac OS X.


TopMod is a “parametric 3d modeler” meaning it’s a program that creates 3d forms based on mathematical expressions; you can either use it on its own to produce amazing geometry or import models from other programs to perform specific operations (think of it as being a lot like a set of 3d filters). It’s easy to use, stable, and runs fast. Unfortunately, it hasn’t received an update since 2007.


Max LogoMax is an audio utility for Mac OS X. I haven’t tried it, but it appears to be in many respects an alternative to iTunes in that it will rip CD audio, look up track metadata from online databases, and then compress the audio using codecs including MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, and Ogg Vorbis. If you want to build up an audio collection in one of the formats that iTunes doesn’t support (e.g. Ogg Vorbis) this may be the perfect program for you.


LIVES originally stood for the Linux VIdeo Editing System, but it has since been ported to other platforms. Mac OS X users can apparently compile it themselves, while Windows (and Mac) users can run it on a dedicated Linux distro. So, it’s not really very approachable for Windows and Mac users. That said, it seems to be a fairly mature and robust, if not terribly advanced video editing system.


OpenShotVideo in actionOpenShot is an open source video editing suite for Linux (only). OpenShot has a reasonably comprehensive feature set (comparable to, say, Premiere 5). To quote the developer:

I have a simple mission: To create an open-source, non-linear video editor for Linux. Many have tried and fallen before me, but for some reason I feel compelled to try myself. I am documenting my journey in this blog for all to read. It will be a dangerous journey, and I might not make it back alive. Hold on tight, and enjoy the ride! By the way, I’m calling this project OpenShot Video Editor!


Alchemy's UI in action

Alchemy is an open source drawing package for creating randomly augmented image. Think of it as being a bit like Painter on Acid. From the website:

Alchemy is an open drawing project aimed at exploring how we can sketch, draw, and create on computers in new ways. Alchemy isn’t software for creating finished artwork, but rather a sketching environment that focuses on the absolute initial stage of the creation process. Experimental in nature, Alchemy lets you brainstorm visually to explore an expanded range of ideas and possibilities in a serendipitous way.