Good software is the basis of all PC use, but many professional programs are too expensive for private use. This is where the free software-based applications step in, which, including their source code, are available free of charge on the internet.
This immediately raises the question of quality and functionality. Don’t worry, open source software is often a real competitor to professional products.
In this guide, we present the best open source tools for typical areas of application — from Office, to media editing, to file management and backup.
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Editing documents is part of everyday computer life. With LibreOffice, you get a comprehensive office package for creating texts, spreadsheets, and presentations. The program is an offshoot of Open Office, whose source code was released back in 2000. The project is now being continued as Apache Open Office. The more frequent updates for LibreOffice offer advantages over Apache Open Office.
The current version 7.5 brings improvements to the editing of text documents in Writer, including better formatting control of headings and easier insertion of tables. Colored bookmarks are intended to make navigation and finding sections easier. In the spreadsheet Calc, the extended assistant for formulas and the new functions for diagrams catch the eye. In Draw and Impress, tables can be designed more easily and EMF graphics can be imported more quickly. There is also a dark mode with a dark user interface.
The PDF format is used for cross-device document exchange: The display does not change even with different operating systems and in mobile apps. Additional functions such as markings or notes can be used to quickly document notes or change requests. This also works for group work.
Many users use the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. For the quick display of PDF files, there is the program Sumatra PDF in the open source area. The range of functions includes links to translations via Google Translate and DeepL as well as the insertion of markers with annotations.
Cooperation in teams has changed fundamentally, not least during the Covid era; online video conferences are now commonplace. This has many advantages: You don’t need meeting rooms, there’s no need to travel, and staff can join in on the go. Open Talk is available as a free alternative to Zoom or Microsoft Teams. The system works in the cloud and can be used directly via the website. One finds similar functions to those of the commercial competitors, i.e. telephone dial-in, screen sharing, voting, or recording meetings.
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Many companies have already implemented digital management of work groups. Mattermost is a system for desktop, mobile, and online with, among other things, group chats, project management and the option to share the screen including sound. The options are available for use with a free account on the Mattermost website. For integration into the company IT, the software is required. Support and IT integration are chargeable.
Internet: Browser and email
Messaging, online shopping, and internet banking have become indispensable to many people. A web browser is needed to access such sites. Google Chrome is the favorite of many users, but it has privacy problems. Google’s data collecting frenzy is not limited to internet searches. Ungoogled Chromium offers a solution. This is an open-source version of the web browser in which all access by the search engine giant is disconnected. There are no functional restrictions when surfing, and extensions from the Chrome Web Store also work.
Emails are also part of everyday PC life, they are fast and are also suitable for sending photos, documents, and data of all kinds. Thunderbird is a free mail program with many functions. These include support for multiple mailboxes, different transfer protocols, address book, calendar, and more. For Thunderbird’s 20th birthday this year, the development team has planned a comprehensive modernization.
Photo, video, DTP, and designs
Digital photos are more popular than ever. Editing them is easy with Gimp. It can be used to crop motifs, adjust contrast and brightness, and sharpen images. Layers, masks, and other tools for image montage have long been standard. Since version 2.10, there are tools for cropping and selecting areas, including a tool for removing the background.
Digikam Photo Manager provides an overview of one’s own photo collection. The program offers sorting by keywords, ratings, and colored markers. In addition, metadata is evaluated and the location of the photo can be defined. In addition, there are editing functions and tools for RAW images. You will find even more RAW options in RAW Therapee, including a management for viewing images and numerous tools for developing RAW photos.
For document design with desktop publishing (DTP), the combination of Inkscape and Scribus is suitable. With Inkscape, detailed illustrations can be designed. All important functions for creating curves, objects, or texts are available. Aligning elements, color fills, gradients, or combining graphics are just a few more tools. The program quickly creates scalable logos, infographics, and other designs.
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All this can be used for page design in Scribus. Not only can you create simple flyers or menus, but also extensive layouts for newspapers or magazines using sample pages and self-designed standard elements. Professional printing is achieved via output in PDF format. Inkscape and Scribus import numerous graphic formats such as JPG, TIF, PNG, and SVG.
Krita: Digital painting
Painting, sketching, and coloring are increasingly taking place on the computer. The artists’ illustrations, paintings, or conceptual designs are then available digitally. They can be processed immediately without scanning. With special graphics programs, one can bring one’s ideas to the screen. Krita supports this process with special brush tips, layers, effects, and masks. Animation options can be used to bring animated films to life. In combination with a graphics tablet, the software analyzes the pressure and inclination of the digital pen. The program adopts these values and simulates brush strokes or those of a digital pencil stroke.
The 3D application Blender has existed for almost 30 years. At first, the software was only used internally in film studios. In 2002, Blender became open source and has since undergone rapid development. In addition to the sophisticated modeling and texturing modules, there are functions for animation, compositing, and video editing. Via a plugin interface and scripting, the program can be extended and adapted to one’s own requirements.
The variety of functions has paved the way for the open source solution in many areas of application. Blender is even used in Hollywood film production, for example in the films Spider Man 2 and Wonder Woman. NASA used Blender for its interactive web application Experience Curiosity.
When it comes to video, the VLC media player is unbeatable: There is hardly a format that cannot be played with VLC. The palette ranges from old mobile phone videos to new high-resolution 4K clips. Working with playlists, retrieving online videos and podcasts, as well as streaming in the home network make the software universally applicable. The somewhat hidden functions for converting video are a welcome bonus.
Finally, ShotCut helps with video editing. The software is used for viewing recordings as well as for cutting and arranging. It also comes with a flexible timeline for mixing video, audio, transitions, and effects. Through the integration of the FFmeg framework, a wide variety of video formats can be imported and exported.
Dopamine: Manage and play music
Many users use Microsoft’s media player to manage their own music collection. Although it allows digitalization, playback, and streaming to other devices, the software ties up a lot of system resources. The alternative Dopamine is much leaner and offers many management functions, playlists, and an integrated equalizer. In addition, you can call up song lyrics online and integrate Last.fm and Discord. The portable version is particularly interesting: It is installed on a USB stick, which also contains the music. The program can then be used on different computers and the song database always remains up-to-date. This also works in the local network.
Backing up data and system
Regularly saving important data and the system partition is a must. The backup of documents, photos, or music can be done with Duplicati. After installation and start-up, the tool works in the background; the configuration with data selection, schedule, and so on is done via an interface in the browser.
Hard disks, network drives, USB storage devices, or servers on the internet can be defined as the target medium. In addition to well-known transfer protocols such as FTP or WebDAV, the program also supports access to cloud services such as Dropbox, Amazon, or Google. Duplicati compresses the stored data and encrypts it with AES-256 if desired.
Clonezilla is recommended for backing up a complete partition or hard drive. First, you create a bootable rescue system on CD or USB stick and then use it to create an image of the hard disk or individual partitions. In the event of a hardware failure, restart the system with the help of Clonezilla and restore the image data. To store the backups, use a local storage device or a drive in the network. In addition, Clonezilla can establish connections via NFS or WebDAV to back up the data to a server on the internet.
Onionshare: Send data securely
There are many ways to file-share documents or photos: Exchanging via the cloud or by email often involves security risks; for sensitive data, encrypted connections are better. Onionshare realizes the secure exchange of data with the help of Onion technology. This is used in the Tor browser and anonymizes user information. For the transmission, the tool generates an Onion address for retrieval by the recipient; the encryption of the data itself creates additional security. The sender defines a private key with which the recipient can unlock the transfers. In addition to file-sharing functions, Onionshare has a chat option and a web server that securely delivers the website via the Tor network.
… and other little helpers
The ZIP format combines several files in one package and compresses the data. This speeds up the transfer by mail or via the cloud. 7-Zip has a wide range of functions, it opens and creates ZIP archives and allows files to be added or removed. If desired, the program integrates itself into the context menu of Windows Explorer. This allows the operations for opening and creating ZIPs to be called up quickly. 7-Zip not only supports ZIP files, the tool also reads formats such as RAR, TAR, BZIP2, GZ, ARJ, LHA, LZH, and many more.
Files with sensitive data can be encrypted very easily with AES Crypt. This means you are on the safe side when sending files over the internet. After installation, you will find a new entry in the context menu of Windows Explorer. To encrypt, click on one or more files with the right mouse button and continue with “AESCrypt” in the context menu. In the following window, enter and confirm a password.
The program creates a new file with 256-bit protection that only allows access to the data with a password. To decrypt and open such files, click the right mouse button again, select the AES-Crypt entry and unlock the data with the password.
This article was translated from German to English and originally appeared on pcwelt.de.