Free, On Purpose

2007-02-04 00:00

These days, whenever you're talking with mostly college-aged or younger people, or those who aren't on the higher end of the income spectrum, there's a couple of extra 'kinds' of free when it comes to software beyond the normal shareware, abandon/freeware, open-source, etc. There's 'free-to-me'/'free-if-I'm-not-caught'-ware. This happens a lot with products that are almost universally considered best in their field at what they do, but are, of course, multi-hundred, sometimes even thousand(!)-dollar software packages. Photoshop is a prime example of a piece of software that almost nobody outside of professionals (who can';t get away with not paying license fees) actually buys. I';m about as useless with graphics as a blind potato, so I';ve not bothered to go find some illegitimate copy, but the point is, there are probably at least as many people who don';t buy it as do.

But it doesn';t have to be like that. I';m not going to say that Adobe should open up and give away their software for free, or that proprietary software is inherently evil (it is metaphysically, but less so practically), but that there are good programs out there that are free, on purpose. And they';re good. Really good. At least, some of them are. I';m a fan of free, because it doesn';t cost money, which I don';t have, really. I';m also a fan of open-ness, which is like free as in freedom (to steal shamelessly from the open-source folks).

When it comes down to it, most people think that free is often second-rate, shoddy, or otherwise inferior; why else would it be free? Chalk it up to intelligent communities, new social forces, or the difference between intellectual property and 'real'; property, but the open-source communities out there have created some amazing things. I';m not going to particularly harp on how awesome they are; but, well, they are awesome. What it comes down to is this, free can be better than anything you could pay for, it can also be much worse. So how do you find what you need, sort the wheat and chaff, so to speak?

You come right here. That';s right, I';m starting a sort of semi-regular review of software that isn';t just free, but good and free. Today I';m going to go over the, in my opinion, holy triumvirate of desktop applications: the media player, the instant messaging client, and the web browser.

First, because this is such a huge category, each one could take many many articles of its own, I';ll set up a few restrictions. Whatever I find, has to run on multiple operating systems, at least two of the major three (Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux). Secondly, nothing "weird," just normal applications this time. No network streaming music players or text-based web browsers this time. Thirdly, no crippleware, nagware, or abandonware; we want something current, and, if not new exactly, maintained and actively developed. A dead project may work now, but it won';t forever, and I like to use software that works, and will continue to work.

Web Browsers:

Right, I';m not going to say a whole lot about these, as more recently there';s been a bit of a revolution regarding web browsers, with Mozilla';s Firefox gaining a lot of market share. The other major free option (though, unfortunately not open) is Opera, which is currently more web-standards compliant and, I think, much faster and easier on the computer. Firefox does have the advantage of a gigantic user community of very talented people with many extensions, but most of the really usable ones (enhanced tabs, mouse gestures, sidebar bits, and undo-close) are all built right into Opera. I use Opera, so that';s my vote, but many people like Mozilla';s offering, and it definitely has mindshare. Both are available for practically and OS you could run, so try them out, run them both, and choose for yourself.

Instant Messengers:

Here';s where I think a lot of people are missing a truly superior product that is absolutely free: Gaim. It supports any IM protocol you could possibly use including, AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber, GaduGadu, IRC, ICQ, and many more through plugins. It has plugins for history, logging, dynamic profile generation, a psychic mode, new message notification, and is about as configurable as software can get without being overcomplicated. I use it, and if you IM, you should too. Gaim itself is only directly available for Linux and Windows, but a natively ported version, Adium is available for Mac OS X. I';m sure there are some other wonderful free IM clients, but I';ve never had a need for one. If you have some particular love of something like Trillian please let me know, though I';d almost call it crippleware because they have a "pro" product that isn';t free. The only other client that might be as cool as Gaim could be Google Talk, which has voice chat, which is still in development for Gaim. (The other interesting option, though not particularly IM-related, is Skype, Gizmo, and other VOIP systems.)

Media Players:

This is where things get sticky. Everyone has their preference, to a degree. I was a fan of Winamp for a long time, but it got really slow and big and just didn';t impress me much. Plus, I switched my main computer to Linux, so there went that. The most versatile free media player I';ve yet come across is VLC, or Video Lan Client, though nobody calls it that. This little guy has all it';s own codecs, so if you use windows you can play things that won';t with any other player. It';s also incredibly robust on weird and badly formed (corrupted from download or otherwise) video files, as it is designed with streaming video in mind. In fact, VLC comes with the ability to stream audio and video out of the box, no setup required (Though you do need to know what you';re doing). VLC can even play encrypted DVDs, though in the United States this is technically illegal as the libdvdcss library it uses to do so violates the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Complain to your congressperson, or donate here to fight this idiocy. Other than a little hiccough when it comes to the legality of playing encrypted DVDs (your home movies are perfectly legal), VLC is the best overall player I';ve yet to find. One caveat, and this goes for every free media player, is that VLC won';t play DRM-protected/copy-protected music files purchased from most online stores. This is a violation of your fair-use rights and all, but it';s not VLC';s fault, blame the RIAA, MPAA, or whoever passed the laws. Link above applies.

Again, VLC will run on any modern operating system, and runs pretty much identically on all of them. It';s solid, and all-around the best media player money can';t buy. On a day to day basis I use AmaroK for my music playing and mplayer for videos on my Linux machine, but those aren';t widely available for other OSs. Other players that are available that could be of interest include Media Player Classic and Songbird, a music player based on Firefox (above). I really want to check Songbird out sometime, but I';be been quite busy with school and all that. If someone wants to check it out and review it, I would certainly feel like posting it as a follow up. Or, really, anything I';ve missed that you think is essential in one of these three categories.

That';s all for now. More when I get some time to do research.

Next up: Virtualization, try an OS without breaking your computer.

Note: This entry imported via Facebook's Note feature from my old website, much is expected to be broken.