The Free PC

Computers are expensive.  The hardware alone can make a modest hole in anyone’s budget – let alone software.  Take for example the flavour of the last 10 years; Apple have made software purchases “trendy” via the AppStore.  Who would have thought it?

Anyway, without software, the usefulness of these precious computers is near-zero.  However, software can be an investment by itself.  But what are you actually paying for when you “buy” software?  The short answer is nothing.  You give money to the software vendor in order to gain permission to use their software.  You don’t own a copy of it; you are simply allowed to use it.  My friend recently tried to sell a copy of AutoCAD from his old company (he was the owner of the company at the time of purchase); within a few days, AutoDesk’s lawyers were all over him, because the owner of the software was Company.Inc, not him.

Software can be VERY expensive.  Professional modelling software can be as much as £17k per seat (IES).  However, there is some top pieces of software out there that is free to use.  Yes – absolutely zero cost.  So what’s the catch?  None, although it depends on your usage.  Most free software is still licensed, but under a General Public License (GPL).  Bizarrely, the GPL is a license to prevent people licensing a piece of free software themselves in order to sell/charge for it.  Some software is free for personal use, but is chargeable if you are a company.

So then, if there’s a world of free software out there, and a world of paid-for software, is it possible to make a completely (software) free computer?  The answer is yes, and below is a live list of apps as I find them.  Oh, and by the way – allthe free apps are available on Windows and Linux (apart from anti-virus):

Operating System

Paid-for = Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium (£99)

Free – Fedora 14

The OS is the most fundamental part of your machine.  At its basic level, it allows access to the storage device(s) on your machine, but modern OS’ are so much more; graphical effects and interfaces, access to peripheral devices, and multimedia capabilities.  Windows is still the standard for the home user.  Fedora is a very usable alternative, and offers a lot more applications “bundled” with it.  Fedora even has an app-store, although don’t expect an iTunes interface.

Office Application

Paid-For = Microsoft Office 2010 (£149)

Free – LibreOffice

If you need to create docs and spreadsheets, you’ll need an office suite.  MS Office is again the industry standard, but Libre Office does most of what MS’ creation can do for the home user.

Security

Paid-For = Symantec Anti Virus (£40 per year subscription)

Free = Microsoft Security Essentials

OK, calm down; I know Microsoft Security Essentials isn’t “free”, but part of the price you pay when buying a genuine copy of Windows.  However, compared with the other alternative of paying a yearly subscription to keep viruses out of your machine, I class it as free.  I don’t like AVG by the way.

Encryption

Paid-for = Checkpoint Endpoint Full Disk Encryption (£100 per seat)

Free = TrueCrypt

If, like me, you have a healthy amount of paranoia, you’ll want to scramble your hard drive contents just in case someone thieves your kit.  TrueCrypt is properly amazing; not only can you encrypt your system drive (if anyone puts your hard drive into a caddy to read it as a removable drive, the drive appears blank), you can create encrypted files, or “containers”, that you put your files into.  The containers’ contents can only be accessed if you know the password.  The Checkpoint menthod is not really for home use; corporations will like it though, as you can remotely manage your users.

Screenwriting

Paid-For = Final Draft (£140)

Free = Celtx

I used to use Final Draft for all my scripts, but then Celtx caught my eye.  Originally, I had this on Linux, but a Windows port became available, so I started to use it.  Porting all my scripts across wasn’t that slick, but I did it in the end.  Did I make the right decision?  Hell yeah; not only does the desktop version offer a complete screenwriting experience, there is a version of Celtx for the iPhone and iPad too!  The free online storage service  means you can throw your scripts between your desktop and iPad very easily.  Final Draft, to date, doesn’t seem to be able to match.

Virtualisation

Paid-For = VM Ware (Workstation, £200)

Free = Virtual Box

If you like playing around with new software, or new operating systems, you don’t want the hassle of installing Windows or Linux on your main machine all the time.  Virtualisation allows you to run a computer within your computer, so you can try out the new version of Ubuntu, or see what happens if you encrypt an already-encrypted hard drive – all without risk to your machine.  Virtual Box is a great and free virtualisation app, BUT it is owned by Oracle, and Oracle’s track record with developing and continuing open-source products isn’t fantastic.  VM Ware, in a corporate environment, is the superior product by far, and is invaluable.  Considering the thousands that a good solution costs, I’d expect it to be doing my taxes too.

Email

Paid-For = Outlook (part of Office 2xxx, £149)

Free = Thunderbird

For your information, Thunderbird’s brother, the Firefox web browser, is the main rival to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.  Thunderbird is good for POP accounts, and has some support for web-based mail too.  If you are running an Exchange server though, don’t even bother; you will need Outlook.

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