Nine Pieces of Free Software I Use Every Day

my mac barI spend hours each day at one of my two computers – either my desktop Mac (a Mac Mini – the most cost-effective type of Mac) or my Linux laptop. As a result, finding a core set of software to use for the things that I do every day is vital. Also important to me is that this software is cross-platform – I’d like to be able to run many of the same things on my Mac and on my laptop. I’m also pretty frugal, so I like to look for free software options.

After a lot of searching and a ton of trials of different pieces of software, I’ve found nine pieces of free software (both open-source and otherwise) that I use every day on both my Mac and for Linux – and all of these are available for Windows as well. With only a few little exceptions, these software packages are the only ones I use during a given day. I will also say that in many cases, I have donated to the creators of the software – my belief is that you should support what you actually use, and I certainly do use these pieces of software.

Let’s dig in!

Firefox
http://www.mozilla.com/firefox/

My web browser is my primary tool, and Firefox is unquestionably the best option available to me for cross-platform use. It’s stable, fast, and runs every web application and web site that I need without a bit of worry. (Yes, I’m aware that Opera is an excellent browser as well – I just haven’t felt a compelling reason to switch.)

If you’re still using Internet Explorer, I beg you – give Firefox a try. Fewer security issues, fewer popups, and fewer hassles all around.

Key web applications I use through Firefox include Instapaper (a nifty way to save things I want to read later), Evernote (keeping notes; see below), Remember the Milk (checklists), Gmail (email), and GCal (calendars). I keep these sites on the bookmark bar on both my Mac and on my laptop, so the tools I need are available in both places

Evernote
http://www.evernote.com/

I use Evernote for pretty much all my text editing, not only on my Mac and my laptop, but on my iPod Touch as well and also on my parents’ Windows PC. Evernote is basically just a tool to keep notes synchronized across computers. You create a new note, save it, and then you can see it (and edit it) on any other computer with a web browser. Even better, notes can be little pieces of text, web clippings, voice recordings, or pictures. My notes are a mix of post ideas, things to think about, post drafts, and tons of other things – I literally have hundreds of notes at any given moment.

So why do I list this as a separate application? On Macs and Windows PCs, you can download a separate piece of software that allows you to do the same thing much more cleanly and offline, so that I can continue to edit notes and add new ones if the internet is out. When I’m on my Mac, I use the desktop client – when I’m on my laptop or any other computer, I use the website.

iTunes and Juice
http://www.apple.com/itunes/ and http://juicereceiver.sourceforge.net/

Listening to music isn’t that big of a deal – I have a pile of mp3s on both computers, but I often listen to radio stations via the web browser. My big concern is podcasts (for those unfamiliar, podcasts are basically short “talk radio”-style programs you can listen to whenever you want) – I listen to a number of podcasts and I like to be able to access them anywhere.

On my Mac (and on Windows, too), I use iTunes for this. It’s incredibly easy to just browse the podcasts available on iTunes, pick the ones you want, and iTunes will just download them for you so you can listen to them as you please. On Linux, I use Juice for much the same effect, though it’s a bit more difficult. I usually find interesting podcasts on my Mac, then subscribe to them later using Juice. This lets me listen to the podcasts I enjoy wherever I am.

Skype
http://www.skype.com/

I use Skype for both voice chatting (i.e., telephone calls) and video conferences with friends and family on both my Mac and my laptop. You can do this for free to other Skype users or make unlimited calls to phone numbers in the US and Canada (plus an hour’s worth of international calls) for just $2.95 a month. Videoconferencing works like a charm with Skype, which has been essential for some of my work-related opportunities, plus it’s fun to talk to family using it so they can see the kids and so on. It costs nothing if you do this with other Skype users – talk about a good deal!

I waxed ecstatic about Skype in the past – while it hasn’t replaced our phone service as of yet, I use it much more than our normal phone service at this point.

Tweetdeck
http://www.tweetdeck.com/

I’m a Twitter addict. I don’t tweet that much myself, but I follow a small handful of people and love to dive into random conversations on topics that interest me. You can do Twitter via their website, but I often find it cumbersome to do this kind of thing, plus it’s easy to get massively overloaded with people who update too much.

So, I’ve been trying out Twitter clients that help with those problems, and the best one I’ve found (by far) is Tweetdeck. The big feature is “grouping” – I can define my own groups of people on Twitter and just pay attention to that group, like “Personal Friends” or “Interesting Thinkers” or “Fellow Money Bloggers.” This lets me follow certain sets of people closely without getting flooded with minutiae too much. I can also easily search Twitter for topics of interest, browse through conversations on those topics, and dig into conversations to my heart’s content. Yep, I’m a Twitter addict – and Tweetdeck makes it very easy to do what I like.

OpenOffice
http://www.openoffice.org/

Quite often, I need to edit and share documents with friends. I also use spreadsheets to keep track of my money, plus I use presentation software as I begin to engage in speaking opportunities. For most people, this means ponying up for Microsoft Office, but OpenOffice does all that for free – and it works almost identically on my Mac and on Linux (and on my parents’ PC).

OpenOffice includes document creation, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, basic drawing tools, and lots of other little bits – and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Audacity
http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

I’ve been experimenting with podcast recording for a while now, trying to figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. At times, I’ve recorded at my desk and on my laptop using a USB microphone. In both cases, I’ve found that Audacity does everything I need to do – I can edit pieces together, add music snippets, move pieces around, record from the mic, and it all just works.

I tried using GarageBand on my Mac, but it often felt like using an elephant gun when a peashooter would do the trick. Other solutions I tried crashed or had stability issues. Audacity just does the trick whether I’m at home or on the road.

Freemind
http://freemind.sourceforge.net/

What is Freemind? Freemind is basically a workspace where you can jot down little pieces of ideas, connect them together, and organize them really easily. I use this whenever I’m trying to figure out how to organize my ideas for a complex post. Where it is really shining right now, though (and I’m using it a lot lately), is for putting together the basic framework for my next book. I can just take little ideas (keywords or phrases) and move them around in groupings and connections however I wish.

Freemind makes all of this easy. If you’re trying to put together a complex idea, it can be truly invaluable. Better yet, it works on tons of different platforms – I use it on both of my machines and I’ve used it on PCs in the past. If you do creative work or are dealing with a large project, give it a shot.

BOINC
http://boinc.berkeley.edu/

BOINC? BOINC doesn’t really do anything, but it runs more than any other program on both of my computers. To put it simply, BOINC takes your unused computer cycles and contributes them to large research projects, like SETI@home or protein folding. For example, when I’m working, I’m usually not using much of my computer’s processing power – text editing doesn’t really eat up the processor, you know. So I keep BOINC running, and it uses those wasted resources and puts them toward a good cause. It’s a way to be charitable with something you would otherwise completely waste. I run it constantly on my Mac and (when I think of it) on my laptop when it’s plugged into a wall socket.

BOINC keeps track of your progress and lets you see your contributions to whatever projects you choose (I usually contribute to SETI@home). It’s kind of fun to look at the data I’ve helped to analyze and realize that I’m helping a large scientific project go forward – and it only costs me a few pennies in electricity.

One final note… one free application I used almost constantly for Windows was Digsby. It allowed me to keep track of updates on every instant messaging service I use, most of the social networking websites (like Facebook and Twitter), and emails, too. Unfortunately, it’s not yet available for Mac and Linux, so I’m still waiting… but for all you Windows users, this one’s great.

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