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Free Software! – Part 2 of 2
By Ira Wilsker

            I take a lot of digital photos, and periodically scan other photos and documents with my scanner.  Sometimes my digital photos and scanned images need some editing, cropping, and other enhancements.  An excellent and very popular program used by over 30 million users, Irfanview can do that and much more.  It is available for free download from www.irfanview.com.  Irfanview can open, convert, and edit almost every known image format.  It offers simple controls for image contrast, color, brightness, and hue that concurrently shows both the original image and the corrected image for comparison.  For those who want the simplicity of automation, Irfanview offers a one click option to sharpen or color correct images.  Irfanview has much of the power and features of image editors that cost hundreds of dollars, but is available for free for anyone to use.  Irfanview can also run a scanner, with the images brought directly into the program for any necessary editing.  An optional Irfanview feature, “All Plugins”, can be downloaded and installed, giving the program the ability to play almost all known audio and video formats.  I use Irfanview almost exclusively to edit photos and other images, as well as to play any video and audio files.  It is an outstanding program, and very worthy to download.

            Sometimes it is helpful to know all the facts about the hardware and software installed on a computer.  This is often necessary to troubleshoot hardware and software problems, as well as identify hardware components installed in the computer to locate updated drivers, or replace selected components.  An excellent freeware product that can do all of that and more is Belarc Advisor Free Personal PC Audit.  In addition to detecting and listing the details of all of the hardware and software installed on a computer, Belarc Advisor can also determine if any Microsoft hotfixes are missing, as well as determine the status of any antivirus software installed.  With some Windows operating systems, such as XP Professional (not XP Home), and Windows 2000, Belarc will display its “CIS” (Center for Internet Security) security benchmarks, which show the security status of the computer.  Belarc Advisor can be downloaded for free from www.belarc.com/free_download.html.  Belarc Advisor is free for personal use only; use of the free version on multiple corporate or academic computers is prohibited, as Belarc has a commercial version available for that purpose.

            Almost everyone with a Windows PC has Microsoft’s Internet Explorer installed, and by default, set up as the primary browser.  I rarely use Internet Explorer as my browser, choosing to use instead the free Firefox browser, available for download from www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox.  I am not alone, as over one hundred million other surfers around the world have selected Firefox as their primary or default browser.  The excellence of Firefox as a browser has been recognized by the working press, by awarding it recognition as an outstanding choice.  Firefox version 2 was the C-net Editors’ Choice, and the PC Magazine editors’ Choice.  In many ways, Firefox is a more advanced and feature rich browser than Internet Explorer, and written in tighter code which allows for a smaller, faster loading file, that also loads and displays web pages faster than Internet Explorer.  One very nice feature in Firefox is the ability to incorporate literally thousands of free “Add-ons” or extensions that add usability and features to Firefox.  I use Firefox almost exclusively as my browser of choice, and can strongly recommend it to others.

            Another free program I use frequently is Google Earth, available at earth.google.com.  This is a multi function program that can display high resolution images of almost anywhere on the globe (and also the moon, and soon other planets), track airplanes in flight in real-time, find the best routes between two or more points and display the route on a traditional map or composite photo of the terrain, locate points of interest such as restaurants and hotels, and a myriad of other functions.  The detail of the satellite and aerial photos is amazing, and Google periodically improves them.  Buildings in major cities, and major landmarks around the world can be viewed in high resolution 3-D.  Satellite weather images and real-time weather maps can be overlaid on the images, providing accurate weather information anywhere in the world.  In some major cities, Google Earth can display street level 3-D images showing people and cars on the road, and the buildings along the road.  The quality of many of the maps and images is nothing short of amazing. The best way I can describe Google Earth is that it is just plain fun to play with and very useful.  I have it installed on both my desktop and notebook computers, and use it extensively both at home and when traveling.  It is one of those utilities that you might think that you do not need, but once you have it and use it a few times, you wonder how you did without it.  It is a great program; download it, install it, and play with it for a while.  One warning; Google Earth can be addictive!

            Sometimes we need to find a free program for a specific purpose, and may not know where to look for it.  There are two major download services that I frequent regularly, Download.com and TUCOWS.  Download.com allows the user to locate desired software by the use of a hierarchal menu, or through the use of a search box.  By entering the type of software desired in the search box, and then selecting the “Software” category, hundreds of thousands of software titles will be searched.  Once the preliminary search is completed, the terms can be refined by using the pull down menus displayed at the top of the listings to specify the operating system, and type of license. “Free” is one of the license selections, and selecting “Free” will only display software that can be used for free.  Many of the titles displayed by Download.com display one or more ratings, an editors’ rating, and a users’ rating.  Some titles are also hyperlinked to published reviews, providing even more information on the title.  By primarily selecting software with high ratings, the user can be reasonably assured that he is downloading a quality product.

            TUCOWS is another major source of downloaded and free software (www.tucows.com).  TUCOWS is an acronym for the archaic original name of the service, “The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software”, and pronounced like “2 cows”.  Unlike Download.com, TUCOWS files are not stored on a central server, but are instead stored on dozens of frequently updated mirror sites all over the world, which allow for faster localized downloading of software.  TUCOWS has software for Windows, Apple, Linux, and PDA’s.  Software can be located on TUCOWS either by searching, or through the use of a menu.  Once a category of software is located, it can be sorted by rating, license (free, trial, demo, etc.), and other characteristics.  One cute feature is the rating system used by TUCOWS; it does not use a “star” system like other download sites, but instead uses “cows” to denote the rating of a product, the more cows (five is the best), the better.  On TUCOWS, almost all software is “cow” rated, making it easier to select titles to download.

            There is a way to legitimately download licensed commercial software, with a few strings attached.  The website “GiveAwayofTheDay” at www.giveawayoftheday.com makes available for download a fully licensed and legal version of a commercial software title each day, but only one title per day, and each title is only available for download for 24 hours.  Once downloaded, the commercial software is usable for a typical license term, usually for a year or for whatever the normal duration of the license for that software title.  Be sure to follow the included instructions to register and activate the software.  While licensed and legal, this commercial software does not offer technical support or updates under the terms of the free license.  Every morning I practice the ritual of seeing what is available on this website, and occasionally download the software of the day.  Before downloading software of interest I review the comments and evaluations that are posted; if they are generally positive, then I may download the software; if they are generally negative, then I usually pass on that title.  GiveAway has a companion site that gives away fully licensed commercial games, with a different title every day.  The games can be downloaded from game.giveawayoftheday.com.

            There is a lot of free software available, and much of it is of a quality competitive with its expensive commercial competitors.  If you find free software with legitimate good ratings, then you are generally safe to download it and try it.  If you like it, that is great.  If you do not like it, then uninstall it, and other than a few minutes of time you have lost nothing.  Quality free software should be strongly considered by everyone.  This is one case where the old cliché “You get what you pay for” does not apply.           



Ira Wilsker is the Director of the Management Development Program at Lamar Institute of Technology, in Beaumont, TX. He also host a twice weekly radio talk show on computer topics on KLVI, and writes a weekly technology column for the Examiner newspaper. Ira is also a police officer who specializes on cybercrime, and has lectured internationally in computer crime and security. Ira is a graduate of the Jefferson County (TX) Sheriff's Academy, and has an MBA from the University of Maryland.




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