The nature of crowdsourcing is such that many of its products are available free, or almost free. And of course, open source is a form of crowdsourcing so, here are some of my favourites that are completely free:
A credible rival to MS Office, OpenOffice.org includes powerful applications for making text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, diagrams, databases, and HTML and XML documents. It handles complex equations and multipart documents as easily as simple letters and faxes. Even advanced Office users will find the templates, collaborative features, macros, and programming language familiar. Extensible and open source, it lets you both import and save documents in formats as diverse as MS Office formats, PDF, HTML, WordPerfect, XML, and others. However, the default is to save files in the open-standard Oasis OpenDocument XML format for maximum compatibility with other applications. Multilingual and cross-platform, OpenOffice.org is a compelling option for anyone in search of an alternative office suite. A zippier version is available as the OpenOffice.org remix Go-OO.
iTunes is hardly the most graceful jukebox for Windows, but despite the persistent bloat problems, occasional stability issues, and a static interface, it’s hard to ignore what Apple’s jukebox can do, particularly on a Mac. The Genius sidebar makes recommendations based on what other iTunes listeners like, and the Genius playlist is a “smart” list where you choose a song, and then it fills out the rest of the playlist using the same algorithm as the sidebar. Both require an iTunes Store account. The essentials are more or less covered, including enhanced video abilities, ringtone editing for the iPhone, new ways to view your library, iPod integration, smart playlists, CD burning, label printing, the ability to rip files in multiple formats (except WMA), and network sharing. Along with the Album, Cover Flow, and Grid view options, which let you flip through CDs and movies visually, iTunes 9 comes with a number of feature enhancements mostly to improve upon the way you interact with iTunes, your devices, and the iTunes Store. You now can selectively sync specific artists or playlists, or sync your photos by specific albums or faces. Rounding out the feature set are parental controls and a smart-shuffle option. The podcast-catching is functional, but isn’t as advanced as in other players. iTunes 9 offers a laundry list of useful features, with the benefits outweighing the costs.
The volunteer developers of The GIMP have developed a polished, user-friendly, and open-source image editor. Although the separated palette windows may disturb users who prefer traditional layouts, your comfort level should grow as you discover how pain-free the program is. Comparable to Photoshop, The GIMP’s features include channels, layers and masks, filters and effects, tabbed palettes, editable text tools, colour operations such as levels, scalable brushes, revised selection tools, full-screen editing, printing, red eye removal, perspective clone, lens distortion, and more. It even has regex-based pattern matching for power users, but also like Photoshop, it might be much more powerful than what you need.
Mozilla Thunderbird combines smart browsing with sharp innovations aimed at both Web-mail clients and industry standards like Microsoft Outlook. Basics like junk-mail filters, HTML support, multiple identities, and POP, IMAP, and Microsoft Exchange server support load fast and are bolstered by S/MMIE, digital signing, message encryption, and a phishing detector. Interface tweaks maximise message viewing — a necessity in an email reader. Back and forward browser-style buttons, customisable tags, and colours make it a cinch to keep things organised, even across folders. Gmail support is as simple as entering your email address and password; searches can be saved as folders; and Thunderbird supports extensions like Firefox, allowing for serious enhancement tweaks, including everything from calendar and scheduling support to PGP encryption. If your computer comes with Outlook Express or Windows Live Mail, there’s nothing wrong with using them. However, Thunderbird is the only client that brings the utility of Firefox extensions and the developer’s community behind them to secure emailing.
Foxit Reader is everything that Adobe Reader isn’t: lightweight, effective as a Web browser complement, and streamlined. Foxit’s main purpose is to read PDFs, but it also has annotation tools. The interface mimics Adobe’s, so you won’t have to change your reading habits. Text readability is nearly the same, and the 5MB Foxit starts surprisingly fast compared with Adobe. It’s a nice touch that it opens PDFs from the Internet in their own Foxit window, instead of sucking resources from within the browser. Hyperlink clicking is now functional, as is multimedia support, printing highlighted-only sections, and tabbed PDF reading, so you can read multiple PDFs simultaneously and with ease.
Participatory Culture Foundation aims to redefine how people manage and watch their videos. Their open source Miro deserves its praise. It can subscribe to and playback video podcasts while comprehensively managing your saved videos. When you launch the app, a left sidebar hosts a folder tree for managing your videos. The central pane does double duty for viewing videos and searching for new ones. The bottom hosts a search box for parsing through YouTube and other sites, a video control panel, and volume control. Features include full torrent support, so you can download and view torrents in the same app, folder watching to manage only the hard-drive folders you specify for new videos, resumable playback, topic-based channel surfing, video sharing, hosting, and vodcast-creation assistance.
VLC Media Player
A VideoLAN Project, VLC Media Player offers a one-stop solution for the file-format problem. The program supports playback of every major and most minor file types, and can stream media. Because of its open-source foundation, it evolves quickly, with new features and fixes released frequently. Though the interface varies from platform to platform, the Windows version is sparse. Skinning it perks things up, but also seems to cause unpredictable behaviour. Beyond drag’n’drop, the basic task of opening a file is far more confusing than it should be. Overall, though, VLC Media Player is a must-have application for its ability to open just about any type of video file you throw at it.
and of course,
Although there are other options available for VoIP, Skype gets our recommendation for video chat because of its popularity and excellent video compression. Skype 4 has been reworked, stripped down to its core competency of delivering high-quality audio and video calls over the Internet. The improved sound and video quality were notable in our tests, the result of Skype 4.0’s sound engine and bandwidth manager. New in this version is screen sharing, which initiates a video call and broadcasts a recording of your screen — either a portion or the full screen — to one other viewer. You can’t simultaneously see a video of your buddy and their desktop, image quality decreases during screen sharing, and the one viewer limitation prohibits using it as a replacement for collaborative web conferencing. For international callers, this program is a no-brainer solution for slashing those long-distance bills.
Some more free goodies you should not live without.