Recession Proof Your Software – Go Open Source!
- Comments: 4
- Written on: April 3rd, 2009
While computer hardware prices have plummeted over the past few years, the cost of many popular software programs has soared to all-time highs. But you may not need to open your wallet to get the benefits offered by many high-end software suites.
In fact, a savvy consumer could save as much as $2,000 by selecting comparable open-source programs instead of buying the name-brand titles.
Open-source is a term that refers to software applications that are created by individuals or teams of individuals and distributed freely on the Internet. While open source software is similar to freeware, it differs in that the license allows others to freely add or modify the program to make it better.
I have found that there are hundreds of open-source programs available on the Internet, so for comparison purposes I selected four that appeared to compete directly with fee-based software titles. In this post I will examine open-source counterparts to Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop CS3, Adobe Audition, and Microsoft Publisher to find out if they really measure up.
Challenger #1 – Open Office 2.0 vs. Microsoft Office ($399.99 Retail)
Open Office, available at www.openoffice.org, is an open-source productivity suite that was designed to compete directly with Microsoft Office Professional. It includes a word processor (compare to Word), a spreadsheet component (compare to Excel), and a presentation suite (compare to PowerPoint).
Downloading the 93 MB Open Office installer took a few minutes over a high-speed connection, but is significantly smaller than the multi-CD installation of Microsoft Office Professional. The installer asked us if we wanted to open all office documents with Open Office, but did not default the options. They even included a line that explains that you probably do not want to associate your Microsoft Office files with Open Office it you are just trying the product out.
Open Office Writer. The word processor in the Open Office suite is called Writer. At first glance, Writer looks nearly identical to Word, which makes the program easy to grasp for long-time Microsoft Word users.
Pros: The position of menu options and toolbar buttons closely resembles its Microsoft counterpart, and all toolbar buttons are clean and representative of their respective functions.
Just like Word, Writer is equipped with a real time spell checker that underlines misspelled words and provides a right-click interface to make suggested corrections. The open-source word processor also has all of the drawing features offered by Word.
Cons: When saving a document in Writer, it defaults the document type to a .odt file. These files will not open directly in Word, so if you are planning on sharing documents with others who do not have Open Office installed, you will need to select the “Save As” option from the File menu and select a Microsoft Word format from the drop down list.
Also, Writer does not have the grammar checking options that come standard with Word. Students using Writer in an academic environment may lose a few more grammar points on their term papers than their Microsoft-equipped friends.
Open Office Calc. The spreadsheet component in the Open Office suite is called Calc. Like Writer, Calc is closely styled after Microsoft’s Excel.
Pros: Calc recognizes almost all Microsoft Excel formulas, making it a viable alternative for the casual or small-business spreadsheet user who needs to plan an event or do some light accounting work.
If you print to PDF frequently you will find Calc’s direct support for PDF printing handy. The File menu contains a simple “print to PDF” command that allows you to create PDF documents without the need for Adobe Acrobat Professional or other related products.
Cons: If you email spreadsheets back and forth regularly to others you may find it a little annoying that you can not open a “read-only” spreadsheet without saving it first. If someone sends you a Calc spreadsheet as an attachment, you must first save it somewhere (like your desktop) and open it from there yourself.
Also, advanced Excel users may become frustrated with Calc’s lack of support for some advanced spread sheet commands and functions. If you are using Excel as a replacement for QuickBooks in your business, Calc may not be for you.
Open Office Impress. Open Office’s answer to Microsoft’s PowerPoint is called Impress. When you open Impress for the first time you are greeted with a clean wizard interface to help you start your presentation or open an existing presentation.
Pros: Impress allows you to open presentations created in Microsoft PowerPoint, make changes to the presentation and then re-save it again. This is a handy feature for the cash-strapped student who needs to view a professor’s classroom notes or create a presentation but can’t afford PowerPoint.
Cons: While Impress is great for opening and modifying existing presentations, it showed itself to be the least stable component of the Open Office suite in our tests. Each time we attempted to create a new presentation and add a background effect with the handy wizard, Impress crashed completely. We made two identical attempts with the same result.
In addition, PowerPoint users who are used to a wide variety of background selections for presentation slides will be disappointed with the meager choice of two backgrounds that come by default in Impress.
Conclusions: Open office 2.0 is a viable alternative for the budget conscious user who is familiar with Microsoft Office. Recent updates included with version 2.0 make the suite feel comfortable to the Microsoft Office user. Unless you are a high-octane Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint user, Open Office can save you nearly $400.
Challenger #2 – GimpShop vs. Adobe Photoshop CS2 ($649.00 Retail)
Over the past 10 years Adobe Photoshop has been elevated as the holy grail of photographic manipulation software by professionals and amateurs alike. While there are many low-cost alternatives to Photoshop, few offer the brushes, features, and capabilities that Photoshop lovers have come to rely on.
With that said, open-source developers are hot on Adobe’s heels with the latest version of Gimpshop (available at www.plasticbugs.com). Gimpshop is the latest variant of the GIMP open-source image manipulation program. Gimpshop puts a Photoshop-like interface on the old GIMP application to help Photoshop users feel more comfortable using the open-source program.
Pros: The download and installation sequence for Gimpshop was pretty straightforward and fast – less than 2 minutes form download to use. We found it fairly simple to open a picture, make basic photographic changes to its elements, resize it and save it again.
Cons: Gimpshop’s toolbars and buttons are similarly oriented to those in Photoshop, but the images in the buttons do differ significantly from those in Photoshop. For example, it took us a minute or two to find the crop button because it looks like a knife in Gimpshop. Needless to say, there is a slight learning curve to Gimpshop, even for those familiar with graphic editing software.
Another major difference that will throw long-time Photoshop users a curve ball is the double menu structure. Clicking on the “File” command in the top left corner only reveals an ‘Exit” option. The usual open, save, and save as functions are located in a second-tier file menu.
Conclusions: Gimpshop is a good alternative for the casual home photographer, but may not satisfy the demands of the professional or aspiring professional photographer. If you are just trying your hand at the craft, we would recommend giving Gimpshop a try. It will save you the $650.00 for Photoshop CS2 until you know you need the horsepower.
Challenger #3 – Scribus vs. Microsoft Publisher ($169.00 Retail)
The desire to create and print home made banners, greeting cards, signs, newsletters and brochures dates back to the days of the Apple IIe computer. Desktop publishing software has come a long way since then, and one of the industry leaders is Microsoft Publisher.
Until recently there was not an open-source alternative to Microsoft Publisher. Scribus (available at www.scribus.net) is a little known newcomer on the open-source scene that offers Publisher-like desktop and template publishing.
Unfortunately, installing Scribus reminded us of assembling a bicycle on Christmas night. The software is still considered beta, and there are different installation instructions based on your version of Windows. We had to install a secondary piece of open-source software to ensure Scribus would be able to print properly. There were also warnings about problems with custom fonts and a promise that code improvements are being made daily.
Pros: We were immediately impressed with the sleek look of the loading screen as the program made an initial cache of our fonts and prepared to run. Once it loaded completely, we were greeted by a thorough wizard to assist us in developing a new publication.
It was also very handy to have a single button in the toolbar that allowed us to save our publication as a PDF file without the need for any additional third-party software.
We also got a kick out of playing with the calendar script that allowed us to create single month or multi-month calendar with custom layouts above the fold and the standard boxed days below. This would be a very handy tool for the amateur photographer who wanted to make a custom calendar at home using personal photos.
Cons: We can not stress enough what a hurdle it was to get Scribus installed. The instructions were thorough and accurate, and if they are followed precisely, the program will install just fine. But how often does anyone thoroughly read the instructions before installing a program?
Another drawback is the severe shortage of templates to select from. There were only five templates available as compared to the hundreds of templates available in Publisher 2003. While some may prefer to create their own publication from scratch, sometimes having an example to work from can be helpful.
We mentioned that we liked the calendar creation script that comes with the Scribus package, however placing an image on the top fold of the calendar might be a challenge for the novice user. Unlike Publisher, photos and images can not be easily adjusted by clicking on a corner and dragging the frame to the desired size. In Scribus, images must be sized before they are imported. Also it is interesting to note that while Scribus supports GIMP for editing photos on the fly, it does not support Gimpshop.
Conclusions: While Scribus has potential, it is not ready for prime-time yet. The installation difficulty coupled with a lack of templates makes Scribus a challenge to use effectively. In this case we recommend using the fee-based software, Microsoft Publisher for $169.99.
Challenger #4 – Audacity vs. Adobe Audition ($350.00 Retail)
While Windows XP comes with Windows Movie Maker for basic movie editing, users who want to mix or edit their audio files need third party software to do so.
Adobe recently purchased Cool Edit Pro 2.0 from Syntrillion Software and renamed it Adobe Audition. We were very interested to see if there was any open-source software that could come close to matching this long-time audio powerhouse.
The only real contender in the open-source community we could find was a program called Audacity (available at http://audacity.sourceforge.net). The program installed smoothly and launch in about the same amount of time as Adobe Audition did.
Pros: Audacity allows multi-track recording from multiple input sources and is jam-packed with effects like cross fading, noise reduction, and echo. Importing existing audio from .mp3 format was very easy, and the audio quality of playback was superb.
Like Audition’s wave edit feature, Audacity allows you to zoom in on a particular snippet of audio within a track for up-close editing. A simple “zoom out” command returns the user to the original track view. Once the audio is perfectly polished, it can be saved in mp3, wav, or the programs proprietary .aup format.
Cons: Audacity requires the user to select “add a new track” from the Project menu each time the project demand an additional track. By comparison, Adobe Audition has a large number of empty tracks that are open by default, saving the user a few mouse clicks here and there. There is no keyboard shortcut to add a new track in Audacity, and to the audio professional it will seem unnecessarily laborious to require 2 mouse clicks to add a new track.
Conclusions: We were very impressed with the simplicity and intuitive operation Audacity offered. In many ways, it was easier to use than Adobe Audition with is multitude of bells and whistles.
We would feel extremely comfortable recommending Audacity to our readers as it will probably meet your audio recording, mixing, and production needs while sparing the $349 you would have spent on Adobe Audition. Even advanced recording buffs should find Audacity an asset in any home recording studio.
As we mentioned before, there are literally hundreds of different open-source programs available on the Internet covering just about any purpose you can image. While many still have some room for improvement, our review found that in many cases these free applications are viable enough to save a user hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in unnecessary software purchases.
Before you make your next high-dollar software purchase you might want to do a quick search for an open-source alternative. In many cases, your wallet will thank you!
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