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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Free Software Suggestions Part 3

This is the third and final installment of the posts on free software that are based on what I use on my PC myself. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 of the posts. As mentioned at the end of Part 2, I am going to talk briefly in this part about software I use for entertainment and games.


  • Entertainment
    • Windows Media Player: This comes free on every windows computer and you can get the latest version from Microsoft’s website. It is not the sexiest media player out there, but is quite adequate for most people. It can handle most formats of audio and video, but might require the installation of a few additional codecs to handle some weird files. In addition to just playing media files, it gives you the ability to play the file at different speeds, adjust the color saturation of the media, use a graphic equalizer to get the sound just right, etc. It also has the ability to rip music from CD’s and to burn audio CD’s from music on your hard drive.
    • K-Lite Codec Pack: Codecs are a contraction of Coders-Decoders. They enable media players to encode audio and video into compact files and then decode them to play them. K-Lite produces an easy to use pack of these codecs that should enable your media player to handle most audio and video files you can get your hands on.
    • VLC Media Player: This is one of the most powerful media players out there with a ton of options that should enable you to do a lot more with your media files than you can with most other players. For instance, this media player enables you to take snapshots of each frame of a video as a series of individual JPEG images.
    • FreeCorder: FreeCorder is a small application that attaches itself to your internet or file browser as a toolbar. This toolbar has controls that allow you to record to MP3 files all sounds that are produced by your computer. This is very useful if you need to record streaming audio off the web (or the audio from streaming video) onto your computer for offline use. On some computers, the audio hardware is set up in such a way that there is absolutely no other way to tap into the audio coming out of the computer (mainly Dell computers), so FreeCorder is your solution out of this conundrum. FreeCorder also breaks up the audio it records into multiple MP3 files based on pauses in the audio, so if you stream an entire album from the web, the resulting recording will be broken up into individual songs for your convenience.
    • Audacity: Audacity is the gold standard when it comes to audio editing. Almost anything you want to do with sound on your computer can be accomplished with Audacity. Like other powerful tools, learning to use it fully could take some time, but if you are into any kind of audio-editing, or into recording podcasts for streaming, etc., this is the tool you need to get familiar with.
    • Windows Media Encoder: Just as Audacity is to audio podcasts, Windows Media Encoder is to video podcasts. Not only can you record video on your computer off your webcam using WME, you can also record what happens on your computer screen as a video directly using WME. You can also stream video out of your computer directly using this tool. This is the tool of choice for putting together training videos showing people how to use software (because of the screen-recording capability).
    • TagScanner: TagScanner is a powerful application for managing and organizing your music collection. Most music file formats have the ability to associate tags with the file that describe the music in terms of artist, album, year of release, etc. TagScanner allows you to edit these tags, organize your music into folders based on the tag information or derive tag information from the folder structure in which your music is stored. The interface can look a little cluttered and noisy, but once you tap into the power of this tool, you will never again use another tag-editing application.
    • Jodix Conversion Tools: Jodix has produced a set of format conversion tools that can come in very handy depending on your needs to port audio and video between different devices. Jodix tools include iPod Video Converter, DVD MP3 Ripper, WMA to MP3 Converter, RM to MP3 Converter and Video MP3 Extractor. Useful tools to have in your toolbox even if you see no use for them right now.
    • FormatFactory: FormatFactory is a more powerful and versatile format converter. You can covert from more formats into more formats with FormatFactory than you can with the Jodix Tools.
    • AnyVideoConverter: This is another format converter tool. In general, I have noticed that there are always multimedia files out there that cause any given tool to choke up, which are handled perfectly fine by a different tool. That is why I have the Jodix Tools, FormatFactory, AnyVideoConverter and other tools in my toolbox. If one does not work for a particular file, I will try with another until I hit upon one that works with that file.
    • MediaCoder: This is the granddaddy of all converters and still one of the most powerful tools out there. Like all powerful tools, it takes time to get to use this correctly, so if your conversion needs are simple and the other tools don’t choke on the file, it may be better to stick to them. But if you want really fine control over the conversion, this is the most versatile tool with the most options for you to fine-tune.


  • Games: I am not a hardcore gamer and do not play very many games. Most of the games I list here would probably not even be considered games by hardcore gamers. I don’t play any online games or multi-player games. None of the games in my list are graphics-intensive. They are classic strategy games and a couple of fun ones I acquired a while back. You would be better off not relying on this post for game suggestions, but I wanted this post to be as complete as possible. In general, if you are hardcore gamer, you know what games you want and there is no way to acquire them legally without paying for them.
    • Pawn: Chess game, as the name suggests. Small size, but plenty powerful.
    • Arasan: Another chess game. This is not as pretty as Pawn, but a lot more powerful and very challenging to beat even when set to play at reduced strength. Read the FAQ for more information about the game.
    • Scrabout: A scrabble game based on the official scrabble board layout. The dictionary has some omissions and adding too many words into it causes the program to become unstable. So, by default, you are playing with more words at your disposal than the computer does. It is still pretty hard to beat! Be careful when you install this game, it does not like spaces in the install folder’s name.
    • Bogout: This is a computerized recreation of the classic word game, Boggle. Download the Bogout.zip file from the link provided and unzip it into any folder you want. It is ready to run with no installation required. This site is a huge repository of classic games which you can browse and download to add to your collection.
    • LaserTank: This is a strategy game in which you move your vehicle over, under and around various obstacles to a final finish point. New levels are being produced constantly by several fans around the world, so you should never run out of levels to play. If you do, create your own levels and add them to the collection.
    • Roll’em Up: Pinball game originally produced as a publicity item by a beer manufacturer. Fun to play and somewhat addictive.

Sometimes free software disappears off the web, temporarily or permanently. Sometimes, the websites that host the free software go down because they don’t have enough financial backing to keep the site going. Other times, companies create a new version of software and decide to discontinue giving away a free version. This makes it important to hold onto copies of good applications you find on the web so that you can reinstall it when you need them (either on a new computer or after a reformat, etc.). What I do is create a folder on my hard drive for software that I have installed on my computer and put all the installation files in this folder. I then create a text file in this folder listing the applications, the installation file name, version number, where I acquired it and other details. This entire folder is backed up along with other important stuff on my computer to an external hard drive on a daily basis.


How do I find free software? The first place I start is a good software site like download.com. At the main page, search for the function you hope to accomplish (“backup” for instance) or put in the name of the software if you know it. Once the search results come up, use the left-hand side panel to narrow your search to Free software (don’t bother with the Free to Try category since they are crippled and/or time-limited. You can also use the left-hand side panel on the main page to search by category of software by function, rather than by a search term. Once you click on a category name and reach the page for that type of software, use the left-hand side panel once more to narrow the search to freeware by clicking on Top Freeware. Other sites to search for software include Tucows, Free Downloads, and Sourceforge (which is the repository for most volunteer-based open-source free software).


If you want information and reviews of free software, head over to Gizmo’s Freeware Reviews Page on the web. Organized into multiple categories by functionality, you can easily find recommendations for practically anything you need for your computer. Everybody’s taste is different and what is the best according to one reviewer may not be the best for you and your particular tastes, interests or requirements. I don’t agree with all the recommendations on this website, but I still consider it a very valuable resource for starting my research into software that I may need. This site also offers newsletters and has a freeware forum where you can post questions and get answers from others on the web.


Another useful site if you are specifically interested in open source freeware (freeware for which the source code is also available for you inspect and/or enhance to make your own custom version of the software) is OSAlt. This site allows you search specifically for open-source alternatives to well-known commercial software. So, if you see your friend using photoshop and you are interested in doing what he/she is doing, but don't want to spend the money to acquire photoshop, you can go to OSAlt, put in photoshop and find that there are several alternatives including Gimp, GimpShop, etc.


Ultimately, your best bet to find freeware that is hard to get is search engines like Google. Google is your friend and will unearth things that are buried in layers of obfuscation. Take full advantage of its power to uncover nuggets of free software that will save you tons of money going forward.


An important guideline to keep in mind when installing freeware is to pay careful attention to what you are doing. Most free versions of paid commercial software are sponsored by companies which want to get their message out. So, you might find that freeware is bundled with toolbars and other extraneous stuff you don’t want. Pay attention during the installation and make sure you uncheck unwanted items when options are presented as to what to install and what to leave out. Don’t complain later if you hit next without thinking or looking during the installation, and then find that your homepage has been redirected, and your browser sports a dozen new toolbars!


Happy computing, and good luck!

1 comment:

Sigma Omega said...

Here's also a guide to help you rip DVD to MP3.

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