Get your software for free in two clicks

Downloading packages for nothing can make you big net gains, says David Prosser
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The Independent Online

What does it cost to set yourself up at home with a decent computer, internet and e-mail access, plus all the software you'll need? Buy your computer from a mainstream retailer and you'll pay £1,000 or more. Add in the cost of the software and you might have to double that figure. But you can slash that bill, and avoid further enriching some of the world's biggest companies.

The story opposite explains how to reduce the cost of computer hardware. But the most interesting developments in computers over the past five years have taken place online: with internet access, you can download free versions of software packages, from word-processing packages to games and picture-editing suites - even the operating system that powers your machine. This software is free and it's often much better than the stuff you pay for, plus it's easy to download and use.

Computer users today are the beneficiaries of what started as an underground movement. For 10 years or more, the dominance of companies such as Microsoft has so worried some computer buffs that they've developed their own alternative products and made them freely available.

"Open-source" software is developed by a community of volunteers and is continually improved and updated. The codes that make the programmes work can be accessed, improved made, and then offered back to the original authors. But for most computer users, the software is simply there to be downloaded and installed in preference to costly or inferior commercial alternatives.

The best-known open-source software is Firefox, a web browser that has become so popular that it now has 12 per cent of the global market. Tristan Nito, of Mozilla, the organisation that offers Firefox, says the software is the product of commercial realities and idealistic principles.

Mozilla was set up as a not-for-profit organisation in 1998, after Netscape, the only company that had provided competition to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, conceded defeat in the battle. "The internet is too important to be left to one single company," Nito argues. He points out that once Microsoft had defeated the competition, it stopped investing in Explorer, which has not been updated since 2001 - a lifetime in the computer world.

The first versions of Firefox were launched in 2002, but it has been significantly improved since. "Explorer is now an out-of-date product," Nito says. "We believe Firefox is more reliable, more comfortable, better designed and more adaptable, with more than 1,000 extensions available for people who want to use it in different ways."

He also argues that while Microsoft does not charge for Explorer, it will make money in other ways from users. He predicts that subsequent updates of the browser will only work fully for Microsoft customers who have the latest versions of its other paid-for products. Firefox, on the other hand, has no such compatibility issues.

Other open-source software packages are in open competition with commercial programmes that for which users pay significant sums. For example, 40 million people have downloaded OpenOffice, which offers alternatives to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the Office package for which Microsoft charges several hundred pounds.

Hitesh Patel, business partner manager at the consultancy Red Hat, says: "There is now a good open-source equivalent of almost any software you can think of: there's simply no reason to use products from Microsoft, or the other large companies, if you don't want to do so."

Red Hat itself offers Fedora, a free version of Linux, the operating system that is popular with computing enthusiasts. Most casual users may not be happy to dispense with Microsoft Windows, the standard system on most home PCs, but if you want to do so, you can download Fedora and other Linux systems for free.

"We'd only advise confident computer users to go as far as Linux," says Rob Jones, the editor of PC World magazine. "But with most open-source software, you don't need to be technical to make it work."

The potential fly in the ointment for less confident users is troubleshooting. In theory, if your computer or its software goes wrong, the retailer you bought it from, or the software provider, should offer a helpline where you can get advice on how to fix the problem. That's not the case with open-source software, which might put some people off.

In practice, however, computers are often bought with software installed. So that means going back to the retailer with any problems, often at great expense and huge inconvenience. Moreover, while open-source software providers don't offer a free phone line for frustrated users, there are thousands of user groups operating on the internet. Any problem you encounter has almost certainly affected other people too, and you'll be able to ask for help and advice online.

Open-source software is perfectly legal, even if often resembles very closely the products that are commercially available. To be doubly sure, look for the OSI trademark before you download, which certifies the product is properly licensed.

There are now so many open-source programmes on offer, that no one single site offers a complete directory. The website of the Open Source Initiative, www.opensource.org, offers some links, as well as all sorts of tips and information. In addition, www.download.com and www.sourceforge.net are also worth consulting.

The best open-source packages should take no more than a couple of minutes to download, with easy-to-follow on-screen instructions. Some software is more accessible than others, but since users don't have to pay for any of it, you can give up at no cost if a particular programme is too complicated to use.

The six best free software packages

1. OpenOffice: Microsoft's Office package, including Word and Excel, dominates home and business markets, but it costs £350 or more for the most recent edition. OpenOffice is free, has the same functionality and looks almost identical to Microsoft's offering. It's compatible with Microsoft products, so you won't have a problem moving documents between computers. www.openoffice.org

2. Thunderbird: Most home users don't pay for e-mail applications, but that doesn't mean you can't get a better deal. Mozilla, the group behind the hugely popular Firefox (see below), also offers Thunderbird. It resembles Microsoft's Outlook - and you can import address books from this - but has all sorts of useful extras. www.mozilla.com thunderbird

3. Firefox: This is another Microsoft alternative. The latter's Internet Explorer web browser has not been updated since 2001 - and when a new version is released, experts think users will have to upgrade other Microsoft applications to get the new browser for free. Users of Firefox swear by its reliability and additional functionality, and it works with any application or operating system you care to mention. www.mozilla.com/firefox

4. AVG Anti-Virus: Decent virus protection software is crucial. McAfee and Norton lead the market, but products cost from £40 up, and Save & Spend has received complaints about the former's post-sale service. AVG offers a free package that will suit most home users. Once you've downloaded, AVG sends regular updates. www.grisoft.com

5. ZoneAlarm: Even home computer users need a firewall to insulate computers from outside attack. A firewall in effect closes the door on unauthorised attempts to access information stored on your computer. McAfee's Internet Security Suite is an option, but it costs £49.99. ZoneAlarm, a basic but effective firewall, is yours for nothing. www.zonelabs.com

6. The Gimp: Do you want to make sophisticated alterations to digital images or simply store and organise your photos? The professional software of choice is Adobe Photoshop, which costs more than £400. The Gimp, on the other hand, is free - and very powerful. It should be more than adequate for most home users, and it works on most operating systems. www.gimp.org

How to cut the cost of hardware

* Big computer-retailers routinely advertise and sell hardware packages costing £1,500 or more. But Rob Jones, the editor of PC World magazine, warns: "Most home computer-users spending that kind of money are paying for a high-end machine with capabilities they'll never fully use."

* For people thinking about upgrading their computers, Jones says that buying a new machine could be an even bigger waste of money. Instead, he suggests investigating whether adding memory will give your existing set-up the power you need; upgrades cost as little as £30 and are easy to install.

* If you're starting from scratch, or feel compelled to buy new equipment, Jones suggests that two possible price ranges will suit most home users.

* For about £500, Jones says, you should be able to get a PC with monitor, keyboard and mouse. It would come with 512 megabytes of memory - this is what makes the computer work - and between 80 and 120 gigabytes of hard disk space - for storing files such as documents and pictures. Such a machine would be fine for anyone using it for basic home office work, limited picture and music storage and for e-mail and web access.

* If you want a computer that is also capable of storing plenty of music and photographs, or for home entertainment, Jones suggests spending around £800. That will buy you more memory and space, plus a graphics card, useful for games.

* Use computer magazines and online resources to work out exactly what you want before you go shopping, so you've got the best chance of finding a decent price. Brands such as Dell, Evesham and Mesh are often better value than more fashionable companies such as Sony, Jones suggests.

* Jones advises shoppers not to be seduced by brand names. For example, Intel processors - the bit of the machine that powers it - are heavily advertised, but don't necessarily work any better than AWD processors, the alternative. The latter are more likely to be found in cheaper computers, but this shouldn't put you off.

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