People run into problems on a daily basis that they feel they can solve with their computers, but discover quickly that the mainstream solution costs money, and often times a whole lot of money. Thankfully, free and open source software is here to help solve many of your common software related problems.
Problem 1: I want to play with images but Photoshop is absurdly expensive and really complicated.
Solution: Send in the GNU Image Manipulation Program
Photoshop is an absolutely fantastic tool once you have sold some spare organs to pay for it, and have taken a semester class to learn to use it. You can do really neat things like put lens flares all over the place.
However, for those who are looking to learn a simpler tool that doesn’t cost an ear and a cornea (the arm and leg market is down this quarter), open source software provides the answer with GIMP.
GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an extremely power piece of free and open source software. It allows for working with layers, transparencies, and a whole host of other tools you’ll find in Photoshop. The program itself is a small and simple to install package available online. There’s a host of plugins available for it that let you expand your capabilities even further.
If GIMP is still too complicated for you, there’s alternatives. If you tend to think to yourself “Gee, I love MS Paint, but I want a little more power out of it, look no further than Paint.Net.
Paint.Net isn’t an open source application, but it is free for personal, business, government, and just about everything under the sun use.
Paint.Net is a very simple, straightforward, and powerful drawing and imaging editing tool. While not as robust as GIMP, Paint.Net is an excellent tool for beginners. It’s worth installing both applications side by side as you can take advantage of the features of each.
Problem 2: I need to do a lot of documentation that requires I capture portions of the screen, but the print screen button is annoying and I don’t want to spend money on SnagIt.
I quite literally cannot think of a reason not to install Greenshot on any workstation or personal PC where you could ever conceivably need to screenshot something. Greenshot is free, open source, and astoundingly good. By default, the program will bind itself to the Print Screen key under windows, so you initial a screenshot just like normal. The program will then launch a cursor that lets you specifically select the area of the screen you want to capture. Once you have made your capture, you can launch directly in to an editing program and save the grab for later, or export to any number of applications on your PC. Get Greenshot. It’s how I’m putting together every screen grab on this site.
Problem 3: I need to print to PDFs, and while not as expensive as Photoshop, Acrobat is still costly.
Solution: CutePDF and Ghostscript
CutePDF is a freeware PDF printer driver that uses the (also free) Ghostscript free PostScript language interpreter to let you print documents to PDF.
Cute has a paid professional version that comes with a host of utilities, but their main product is still the free printer driver. CutePDF is freeware for both home and business users. While not open source, the application has been around for quite some time, and should stay free for the foreseeable future.
Problem 4: I’d like to play Pathfinder with my friends, but they live all over the country.
vTable, previously GameTable, installed on your PC as OSU-GT.exe is a whiteboard-style environment that allows you to host a server for other players to connect to and manipulate tokens on a playing field. It additionally includes functions for dice rolling macros, and templates to set up dungeon corridors. It also includes a chat function so you can play without an external communications tool if need be.
vTable is a Java based open source project that has been the boon of online pen and paper role players for some time now, and continues to be about the best product out there for playing games online, both in the realm of free and paid software.
As a Java based application, it can be used across any platform capable of running Java.
One of the best features of vTable is the ability to import custom tokens for play. Simply dragging and dropping images in to the Pogs folder on a given PC and hitting F5 to refresh the list brings up all the necessary custom tokens for play, making the program exceedingly versatile.
Problem 5: My computer is giving me an error!
I’ll let everybody in on a secret. We IT people may know a lot of stuff about computers and technology, but we hardly know everything. Odds are good we had no idea how to fix the problem if it’s comparatively obscure. The secret is you can’t see us over the phone and we’re Googling your error to find a solution. We’re IT professionals not because we have all the answers, but because we know where to look for them.
Problem 6: OK, I Googled it and my OS is shot. I need my files back!
And literally thousands of others.
Linux is normally distributed as a Live CD ISO. What that means is you can burn it to disk (I don’t have an ISO burner program! Get CDBurnerXP, http://www.cdburnerxp.se, free and awesomely good for all kinds of burning), and run the operating system from the disk instead of from your hard drive. With this, you can access your files, copy them to a flash drive, and reinstall your operating system fresh. When you take your PC to a repair center to get your files recovered, this is one of about three different ways they get the job done. It’s always a good idea to keep a live Linux disk around.