From Avast to Open Office to Gimp and beyond

I can’t believe how many free applications I’ve been using lately. You can really outfit a PC and get real work done on it with these freeware programs. Not little utilities or come-ons to buy a non-crippled version, you can both save money (or in my case, “have applications,” as I’m not going to shell out $100 to $800 for programs for an 8-year-old PC) and be productive with the following:

Avast: Bruce recommended that I use this free program for virus protection. It’s free to home users only, and you must register, but for a free antivirus program that updates automatically, I’m pretty OK with that. It’s been working great so far — updates come down whenever I have This Old PC hooked up to the DSL.

Open Office: We use this at the Daily News after years of telling sources, ” We can’t open up attachments, especially Word files …” Well, now we can — and we can work on documents, spreadsheets (lots of sites like Nielsen Media Research’s press site offer their information in Excel format), “presentations” (I guess this is like PowerPoint), HTML documents (I haven’t tried it yet) and Drawing (also haven’t tried it).

It’s a real Office-like suite of applications that’s being pushed by Sun Microsystems as a kind of Microsoft-annoyer. And I’m sure it’s doing a good job at that. Most people — me included — aren’t tapping into the arcana of Word. I’m just trying to write stuff, and Open Office does great with that. And it works on Windows, Mac OS X and Unix.

The GIMP: The latest program to join my freeware linup is GIMP, which stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program. It’s basically a Photoshop substitute, and for what I need to get done, it works like a charm. Mostly I need to take big photos and shrink them to specific sizes and resolutions for the Web. Again, at the Daily News we don’t all have Photoshop, but many of us have begun working with art — mostly for the Web. I couldn’t figure out how to make GIMP put a black border on a photo, and at one point I just deleted the whole program in frustration. But Daily News web guru Josh Kleinbaum told me that you have to “stroke” the photo. So a “stroke” is a border in photo speak … I never know. Well, first you select your photo, then add the “stroke,” so I’m all good with the GIMP.

The funny thing about installing GIMP is that you need the program itself and something called GTK+ — both available via links at the GIMP site. The program also runs on Windows, OS X and Unix, so you can have a familiar application on every platform you work on.

While I think the trend in computer applications is toward server-based, or more specifically Web-based applications, programs that are installed on individual PCs will still hold sway for years to come.

And when it comes to hardware like This Old PC, an 8-year-old Pentium II MMX at 333 MHz, the whole idea of purchasing new, off-the-shelf applications tuned to 1.8 GHZ processors and Windows XP is nothing short of ludicrous. It’s either scrounge for older, used versions of software that work better with the old hardware, or try these free programs, which are often less laden than their commercial equivalents. And if it doesn’t work, or is too slow, what have you lost? Certainly not money.

These are the major free programs that I use. I’d love to know about others — and I will be on the lookout for them, both for the PC platform and the Mac.