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.

Cyberduck (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!).

PicasaPicasa (not open source) is as easy-to-use as iPhoto, offers superb integration with Google’s cloud services (of course), and indexes all the images on your hard disk. If you’re not using a Mac and you use a digital camera it’s virtually a must-have, and even if you are using a Mac (and thus have iPhoto) you may actually prefer it.

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.


Mou IconMou is a very simple program. It lets you write markdown files and displays the rendered page side-by-side with your markdown. That’s it. It’s free (donation-ware).

It’s rapidly become my favorite way of editing short documents. Highly recommended!


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.


EureKalc in actionEurekalc is an “environment for numeric and symbolic calculation, dedicated to solving problems in the field of physics, mathematics, engineering”. I haven’t played with it, but it’s free (at least for now) and it looks pretty nice.


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.)

Acquia Drupal

Acquia Drupal is a free installer that is designed to set up a full working Drupal server (including the entire server stack, such as Apache and PHP) with “one click”. It’s backed up by commercial support services (Acquia).


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.

Open Movie Editor

The Open Movie Editor is, as its name suggests, an open source video editing program. It’s currently available for Linux (only). I haven’t used it, but it looks fairly ambitious.


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.


MyPaint's Mini Brush ListMyPaint is a relatively new open-source alternative to Corel Painter and Art Rage. Unlike many open source programs, its designers are fiercely focused on usability and it shows. Unfortunately, as of writing, MyPaint has not yet been ported to Mac OS X (although they are looking for someone to do the port).

One of the nicest things about the MyPaint website is that they link to a whole bunch of similar (less mature) open source projects. The website is also notably better-designed than a typical open source website, and the forums show some signs of life. Good stuff.


Yafaray is an open source ray-tracing engine for Blender. Note that Blender’s built-in renderer is fully capable of ray-tracing, but Yafary is capable of better output and supports render-farms. Compared to Luxrender it’s much faster, but not unbiased.

Xojo (formerly Realbasic)

Realbasic IconXojo (formerly Realbasic) is a commercial cross-platform software development tool than runs under Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. The Linux “Standard” edition is free.

Xojo is similar in many respects to VB.NET (and Visual Basic) but it’s much more Object-Oriented than Visual Basic, and much less alien than VB.NET. It has the distinct advantage over either of letting you compile Windows, Mac, and Linux versions of a program from a single project (and — modulo captions fitting inside widgets, it just works).

The one downside of Xojo is that it makes creating an application so easy that it has gotten a reputation for producing terrible software (much like Visual Basic).