The very earliest days of the PC revolution were soaked in idealism. People shared their knowledge with one another freely; the very idea of charging for software was an anathema. The early days of the internet had a similar rosy view of the world.
Today, of course, all that has changed. But there are still plenty of idealists out there, sharing their work with the world freely, and asking others to work cooperatively with them. That's the underlying idea behind the open-source movement. People create software, and allow others to download and use it freely, and let them modify it as well.
This idealism can create great software. That's where Firefox got its start, for example. But there's plenty of great, free open-source software beyond Firefox. we've rounded up 20 of our top open-source favourites. Their sophistication and power will surprise you; you'll find everything from a universal instant messaging program to powerful multimedia and graphics tools, security software, and beyond. The programs show that open source adherents aren't wild-eyed zealots - they produce plenty of great software.
Gimpshop: Open-source software has never been known for its photo processing prowess. Until now, that is. Gimpshop is an exceedingly powerful Photoshop look-a-like that has far more features than you, or most people you know, will ever use.
If you're looking to do something as simple as touch up photos, or something far more sophisticated, like work in multiple layers, it has the tools you need. There are also numerous effects and filters, the ability to easily create colour gradients, and plenty more. In fact, if all you want to do is basic photo-retouching, it's probably overkill.
But if you want to indulge your inner artist, there's plenty. The program is based on a long-time open-source favourite, GIMP, but has more fit and polish, and a Photoshop-like identity.
Inkscape: If you're looking for a graphics program that lets you create illustrations and graphics, much like Freehand or Illustrator, then give Inkscape a whirl.
It includes a surprisingly powerful set of tools for creating graphics from scratch, or for editing existing graphics or photographs. You'll find numerous drawing tools, the ability to create layers and combine them, and more.
The program supports the standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format, as well as many others. It imports files from many formats, including .jpg, .png, .tif and others, and exports to numerous vector-based formats and .png.
Democracy Player: Is there some kind of oddball video format that your current media player can't handle? Then try Democracy Player, which will play every video format you've ever heard of, and many you've never heard of as well.
That may be the least of its features, though. Where this player really shines is in its capability to find and play videos. You'll be able to subscribe to video RSS feeds, podcasts, and video blogs, download and save videos from YouTube, find TV shows, and play high definition, full screen videos. You can even download BitTorrent files from directly within it.
MediaCoder:: If you need to convert media files between formats, shrink files with little quality loss, extract audio from video files, or manage multimedia in other ways, this is the program for you. It'll convert file formats, giving you a great deal of control over the output. So, for example, if you have a file that you'd like to convert so it can be played on a portable media player, MediaCoder will do the trick. It can also save you plenty of hard disk space by shrinking media files. There are also lots of extensions you can download that expand the program’s capabilities, such as make it easy to transcode files for specific media players.
Audacity: Here's the program to get if you need to record or edit audio. If all you need to do is record, using the program is a breeze, but if you're going to do audio editing, you'll need to devote a bit of time to it.
You'll be able to combine tracks, cut audio out of tracks, import audio from multiple formats, create audio mixes, add all kinds of very cool special effects, edit ID3 tags, and more. You'll also be able to generate specific tones, and even create background white noise on command.
Media Player Classic: Do you feel that most media players, such as Microsoft's Windows Media Player, have become bloatware, overblown applications that need to be slimmed down to their basics - just playing media?
If so, this is the program for you. The title says it all. It looks and works much like an earlier, classic version of Windows Media Player, way back in the days when it was a simple, svelte program.
In fact, there's not even an installation program; just double-click the file and it runs. Despite its simplicity, it's a great program. It will play just about any kind of media file you can throw at it, and will even play DVDs.
HandBrake: Got a DVD that you want to turn into MPEG-4 format so that you can store it on your hard disk, or make a backup to disc? Then you'll want HandBrake. It grabs video from a variety of sources, including a DVD and a DVD image, and grabs audio from sources as well, including MPEG audio tracks. You'll then be able to output a digital file in a variety of formats, including MPEG-4, AVI, OGM for video, or AAC, MP3, and Ogg Vorbis for audio.
There are some very nice extras in here, such as being able to select individual DVD chapters, grabbing subtitles, and more. You get plenty of control over your recording, including selecting the bit rate, maximum file size for video, and bit rate and sample rate for audio.
RogueScanner: Think your home or small office wireless network is safe? Do you have any idea whether any intruders are on it? This free program is a great way to find out.
Run it on a PC attached to your network via Ethernet. (The program won't work in Windows Vista, so you'll need Windows XP.) When you run it, it immediately does a network scan, finding the wireless and wired devices attached to it. For each device, it lists the unique MAC address (a kind of serial number), the IP address, the manufacturer if it can figure it out, and model number if it can find that. It also tells you what kind of device it is, such as a router, printer, PC, and so on. And it will also flag any suspect devices it finds.
Just compare the information it finds to what you know of your network. If there are any wireless devices connected that you don't know about, you may have an intruder.
ClamWin Free Antivirus: Antivirus software tends to be big and bloated, use plenty of RAM and system resources, and generally clog up your system. Worse is that increasingly, antivirus vendors make it difficult to buy antivirus software by itself, and include firewalls, antispyware and other software with it.
If you want a clean, mean piece of antivirus software that does just one thing - protect against viruses - you'll want this program. It has a small footprint, and doesn't take up much system resources.
It will scan your entire hard disk at once for viruses and spyware, or can scan individual files and folders. It also includes a Microsoft Outlook add-in to remove virus-infected attachments automatically from your e-mail. The program has one drawback, though: It doesn't include real-time virus protection.
FileZilla: FTP lives! This file transfer protocol may seem old-fashioned and ancient, but the truth is, it's often the simplest way to transfer files between PCs, or between a PC and a server.
It's especially useful for transferring large files, because ISPs often block email attachments over a certain size. And it's great for transferring groups of files. FileZilla has just about every FTP feature you need. It's a breeze to set up and edit new FTP connections.
The interface is particularly easy to use, so that you can easily navigate external FTP servers and your local hard drive, and transfer files between then. You can also use multiple simultaneous connections to speed up file transfers.
TrueCrypt: Do you have files that you want to keep safe from prying eyes? Then you need this program. It lets you create special, encrypted volumes on the fly, and then place files in those volumes. It uses powerful encryption technology to keep them safe.
This program differs from just about any other encryption program you've used, because of the unique way it creates volumes and protects data. When you save a file to an encrypted volume, you're actually saving it to RAM, rather than to disk, making it even more difficult for anyone to view the volumes or files.
When you turn off your PC, the files become inaccessible, but are encrypted and stored on disk. When you turn your PC back on, you have to remount the volume and type in a password for them to be visible to you again.
7-Zip: Windows includes a built-in archiving utility that can compress and decompress files in the .Zip format, but it's not particularly useful.
If you need to do more than the most basic of archiving tasks with the Windows zip tool, you're out of luck. 7-Zip comes to the rescue. It offers you considerable power over compressed archive creation and extraction, including several different archive formats and compression methods and levels, and lets you create encrypted, password-created archives. The interface is quite configurable, and can even create a two-pane view, which is rare in archiving programs.
And the rest...
AbiWord: Tired of paying megabucks for Microsoft Office when all you need is a good, solid word processor? Then you're in luck.
If you've got straightforward word processing chores, including inserting and handling images, you'll want this freebie. It features a simple, straightforward interface; you won't need to spend hours trying to wrangle your way through ribbons or multi-level menus.
What you need is right in front of you: simple icons and menus line the top of the page, with no clutter. You'll most likely be surprised by the amount of features this free word processor packs in. For example, it handles mail merges; will insert pages numbers, date and time; supports other auto text functions; and has some very nice tools for handling tables. Use this program enough, and you'll find that it's not just a money-saver, but a time-saver as well, because of its utter simplicity.
DOSBox: If you're a retro kind of a person, you've probably been frustrated by your inability to play old DOS-based games. DOS is long gone from Windows - the command prompt inside Windows isn't truly DOS anymore. Many old games simply won't run from the Windows command prompt. They need true blue DOS.
You can't buy DOS any more, but you can get the free DOSBox, which does a great job of emulating it. Install and run the program, then run any DOS game - or DOS application, for that matter - inside it. When you run DOSBox, it automatically sets any sound-system related variables, so that your sound system will work properly with your old games.
eMule: Contrary to popular belief, not all file-sharing clients are filled with adware or spyware.
EMule is a perfect example of this. This file-sharing program lets you search for, download, and share files with others. It's exceedingly popular, and so there are a vast number of files available to you. In fact, it's the most downloaded file of all time from the open-source site SourceForge.net - more than 332 million downloads and counting.
It has all the features you'd expect in a file-sharing client, including some very nice logging and reporting. Note that some firewall programs, such as Windows Vista's firewall, will block this program from making an internet connection, so make sure to configure your firewall to give it access.
Ares: Here's another P2P file-sharing program, and although it's not as popular as eMule, many people will find it easier to use.
The interface is cleaner than eMule's, it's easier to figure out how to search for files and download them, and it also will download files using BitTorrent, which is probably the most popular file-sharing protocol today. Also useful is that the program includes a built-in media player, as well as chat capabilities and a built-in web browser.
FeedReader: This very good, simple RSS reader does everything you want a reader to do - it makes it simple to subscribe to feeds, manage your feeds, download podcasts, and more. Particularly helpful is that it includes an auto discovery feature that will find feeds on any web page, and subscribe you to them.
This reader has plenty of extras as well, such as keyboard shortcuts, the capability to search through all of your feeds, and support for running the program from a USB flash drive. Note that this version of FeedReader is open source, but there is a newer version, which is freeware, but not open source.
K-Meleon: Most of the world is familiar with the open-source browser Firefox. But Firefox isn't the only open-source browser out there, and as K-Meleon shows, it's not the leanest, either.
When Firefox was released, one of the benefits it touted was that it didn't consume nearly as much memory as Internet Explorer. But those days are gone, with many people complaining about Firefox memory leaks.
K-Meleon is a return to the days of lean, mean browsers. It's fast and lightweight, so won't take up much memory, and loads pages quickly. The browser is built on top of the Gecko engine, which Mozilla uses for Firefox. It gives you all the features you've come to expect in a modern browser, including tabbed browsing, and some nice extras as well.
For example, you can use built-in ‘mouse gestures’, which let you perform tasks such as moving forward or backward through your browsing history, opening a new tab, and so on, by moving the mouse in a specific direction while pressing and releasing the right mouse button. The browser can also be customised easily.
Stellarium: Whether you're a long-time, hard-core astronomy buff, or are just a part-time stargazer, you'll find something in this astronomy program for you.
It displays whatever celestial objects you want, including stars, planets, nebulae, and constellations, and will display the sky in various grids and from different points of view.
Click on any object to get details about it. Celestial objects move across the sky; you can have them move in excruciatingly slow real-time, or else speed them up. Overall, this is a beautiful and visually arresting program. It will draw pictures of the constellations, label them, and even let you change whether you want to see the night sky in darkness, or with some ambient light.
Almost all instant messaging problems have one big problem: They're each an individual island, unable to communicate with one another. If you're an AIM user, for example, you won't be able to communicate with MSN members, and vice versa.
Pidgin solves the problem neatly. It's a simple universal messenger that lets you communicate with multiple IM networks from a single client. You'll be able to connect to AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN, ICQ, and many others. Also useful is that you can also get access to plenty of free plug-ins, including ones that can store a history of your IMs, store notes about buddies, and other handy functions. You may have heard of this program under a different name; until recently it was called GAIM.