If you're thinking of buying yourself a computer, you should steel yourself for a nasty surprise -- the software for your pretty new system can cost you a bundle. (Think hundreds for just an operating system and applications to write documents, create spreadsheets, surf the Web and read e-mail, and $1,000 or more if you throw in specialty items, such as a drawing program.) Why not skip the massive bill and load up with free stuff instead?
THE BIG O.S. First, you need an operating system. Linux has hundreds, nay thousands, of compatible applications that do everything from send e-mail to edit digital photographs -- all costing absolutely zip. Check out Mandrake Linux (www.mandrakelinux.com): One of the dozens of versions available, it does all you need in an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use environment. The site also provides a list of free compatible software.
Treat yourself to a fully-loaded computer without spending a dime.
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MICROSOFT WORLD. Microsoft isn't as quick to point out free software, but if you decide to use a Windows operating system, there's still plenty to be found (some of these companies also offer Linux-compatible versions; check Web sites for the one you need). Like the more familiar -- and expensive -- core applications, the excellent OpenOffice.org suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet program, database program, presentation program (similar to PowerPoint) and drawing program (imagine a simplified Photoshop). And yes, it can do all the key tasks, from spell-checking your documents to opening Word files.
SURFING AND SENDING. Mozilla (www.mozilla.org/products) offers Firefox for your browsing needs and Thunderbird for e-mail. Firefox is faster and has more features and fewer security concerns than Internet Explorer, while Thunderbird is especially good at filtering spam. Once online, you'll also need a virus-protection application, such as AVG Anti-Virus (www.grisoft.com). AVG scans outgoing and incoming e-mail and compressed files (such as zipped documents) for viruses, allows you to download free updates, and can even scan your hard drive.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. CDBurnerXP Pro (www.cdburnerxp.se) allows you to rip audio CDs and burn video files onto DVDs and even includes a little program that lets you make jewel-case covers. Most interestingly, it also comes with a feature called "overburning" that lets you cram more onto a disc than is normally possible (but no, even this can't help you fit all three "Lord of the Rings" movies on one DVD).
ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS. Now that you've saved all this cash, you'll need a personal finance program. AceMoney Lite (www.mechcad.net/products/acemoney) lets you create and oversee budgets, follow investments, chart your spending habits and even schedule bill-payment reminders. Alas, it can only track one account, so if you have several you must select the one you wish to manage.
FREEBIES FOR ALL. Want a giveaway we didn't mention? Visit www.tucows.comand Download.com. Both have all sorts of interesting applications you probably never thought of and will now never be able to live without. If you persist in yearning after a costly program that is beyond your battered budget, hit eBay. You can get some truly great deals, especially if you don't need the latest version. But buyer, beware: Make sure to get the registration code required to use the software, or your great deal will end up being no deal at all. S.J. Sebellin-Ross