A few years ago, my husband was hurt in a car crash, and for a while, my freelance work was our only source of income. Needless to say, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on software, even though I needed a lot of different functionality for my writing and graphic design. It’s a good thing I could get all the tools I needed without spending a cent, thanks to the Open Source movement.

Here are five free, legal programs I use, love, and think you’ll like too.

Mozilla Firefox and Ad-Ons

By now, most people know about Firefox. Firefox has been my browser for years. My favorite thing is how customizable it is. I can change just about everything in Firefox. My favorite ad-ons are: AdBlock Plus, which gets rid of annoying ads on YouTube and other video sites, as well as all pop-ups, and a research citation organizer.

Pros

  • Faster than IE or Chrome
  • Easy to install
  • Fully customizable
  • Private browsing supported 

Cons
  • Sometimes an update slows things down for a day or two

Where to Get It: Firefox Homepage
Adblock Plus: Adblock for Firefox
Bonus Resource: Best Firefox Ad-Ons Courtesy of MakeUseOf

Open Office

I need office software for my freelance work, but I haven’t used Microsoft Office since before college, thanks to OpenOffice (now called Apache OpenOffice). Open Office is a complete office software package. It includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentation and a drawing program.

Pros:

  • Easy to install
  • Intuitive interface
  • Will do just about anything MS Office will do
  • Ability so save in MS Office document formats

Cons:

  • If you’re used to the tabbed format in MS Office 2003 or later, it may take some getting used to.

Where to Get It: Apache OpenOffice Home Website
User Guides: User Guides (PDFs)User Guides (Text Files)
Bonus Resource: OpenOffice Templates

Scribus

While OpenOffice does have templates available, they are often hard to work with when I’m doing something like brochure design. Scribus is a dedicated desktop publishing software package, and I use it for all my publication design tasks.

Pros:

  • As powerful as MS Publisher
  • Easy to install and use
  • Can save in Microsoft document formats

Cons:

  • Like OpenOffice, the interface may be a bit unfamliar to those used to Publisher.

Where to Get It: Scribus Home Page
User Guide: User Guide Online
Bonus Resource: Keven Pugh’s Getting Started with Scribus YouTube Playlist

The GNU Image Manipulation Program

This one is the first piece of Open Source software I used, way back in my college days, and I still use it today. It’s an image manipulation software package designed to work with bitmap-based images (the most commonly used form of image; all digital cameras save images as some form of bitmap).

Pros

  • Much more powerful than other free (or even low-cost) image manipulation software packages available
  • Easy enough for beginners, powerful enough for skilled artists
  • Able to save in every common image format as well as Photoshop native file format

Cons

  • Not as powerful as Photoshop
  • While you can do most of the advanced image effects you can do in Photoshop, it will take more time and more steps.

Where to get it: Gimp.org
User Guide: Online, English, Other Languages Available
Bonus Resource: Gimp Tutorials, Beginning Through Advance

Inkscape

This last one is software I don’t think most people who aren’t professional artists or serious hobbyists would need, but it’s still good enough that it warrants a place here. Inkscape is a vector image manipulation program (similar to Adobe Illustrator), and I use it when I design logos that need to be used in a variety of publications.

Vector images are based on math, not on pixels, and can be re-sized to any size without losing image quality. Inkscape lets you create and manipulate vector images and export them as bitmaps.

Pros

  • The computer does the math for you; you don’t have to break out a calculator to use this program.
  • Lots of functionality
  • Very easy to make images a specific size
  • Can save in standard vector formats (like Illustrator "ai" file format) and export at bitmap files (like Jpegs and PNGs)
  • Lots of tutorials available online

Cons

  • May be confusing for those used to Illustrator
  • Like all Vector image programs, there’s a learning curve for those not familiar with vector images.

Where to get it: Inskcape Home Page
User Guide Online: User Guide
Bonus Resource: Inkscape Tutorials

This is a guest post by Melanie from Greeley, CO
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