Science & Technology



Helpware: Free vs. commercial software

Harold Glicken, Tribune News Service on

Published in Science & Technology News

If you have money to burn, and you must have the latest versions of name-brand software, today's column will either make you feel superior to the rest of us -- or it will make you wish you had spent your money on things that really matter, like a Lamborghini. But if you can afford a Lamborghini, you have money to burn, and this column might not be for you.

Sometimes the best software is free or far less expensive than the name brands. Other times the name brands are worth it. Here's my take on free versus commercial software:

--Word processing: If you subscribe to the online version of Microsoft Office for Windows, the tab is $100 a year or more than $350 for the Pro version (on Amazon), which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access and Publisher. Or, you can download OpenOffice for free at The package includes a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation editor (Impress), a vector graphics editor (Draw), a mathematical formula editor (Math) and a database management program (Base). OpenOffice is open source software, which means programmers contribute their time and expertise to continually improve the programs. It has the same look and feel as Microsoft Office -- with which it's compatible -- and you can't beat the price. It's available for Macs, too.

--Free Mac software: If you're considering buying a Mac -- or already have one -- icons on the dock point to a word processor (Pages) and a spreadsheet program (Numbers). Macs have other free software, such as a presentation program (Keynote) along with apps I'll deal with later. I'm no fan of Pages; it's designed, I think, for folks who want templates for all kinds of occasions, from faxes to birthday cards. Still, I use Pages for basic word processing. It's compatible with Microsoft Word.

--Email programs: Even when I worked for one of the largest media companies in America, I could never make the free Microsoft Outlook ( work. Instead, I use Mozilla Thunderbird, a free, open-source email program that has become easier to set up and use as it matures through its frequent updates. Setting up mail boxes is simple, even for novices. Thunderbird ( does everything I need from an email program. There are dozens of other free email programs; just Google "free email programs."

--Movie editing: If you're an auteur who wants the very best movie-editing software, look no further than Final Cut Pro X for the Mac for $300. But if you're a weekend cinematographer, your Mac has a free program, iMovie, that handles most chores a hobbyist needs. If you have some bucks left after buying that Lamborghini, Adobe Premiere Elements, for either Windows or Mac, costs about $80 and is more advanced, allowing input from multiple sources, for example. My favorite movie-editing program, if I have extra money to spend, is Pinnacle Studio for Windows for about $80 ( It has more bells and whistles than a circus clown. If I didn't have the cash, I'd settle for iMovie for Macs and be quite happy with it. Unfortunately, Microsoft discontinued and doesn't support its free movie-editing program. But you can download it from any number of sites on the internet. It's a very basic, easy-to-learn editing program. I'm not familiar with other free software -- Google "free movie-editing software" for suggestions.


--Photo editing: Both Windows and Macs come with free software. The Windows program is for organizing photos into albums, but if your inclination is to pay for your Windows software -- and you need to fine-tune a photo -- I like either Adobe Photoshop Elements for $80 ( or Corel PaintShop ( Both have the ability to use layers -- useful for adding text to photos -- and dozens of other tools such as texturing a photo.

--Facetime and WhatsApp: These two free programs will let you video chat across oceans. I like Facetime, which comes with the Mac OS. WhatsApp ( is a free download for smartphones and works on Wi-Fi networks. My grandkids dial me up on Facetime no matter where I am, Wi-Fi network or not.

Which brings us to free phone calls around the planet. Well, sort of free. MagicJackGo comes with a device the size of a fat thumb drive for traveling. While it costs about $90 for three years, you can make free Wi-Fi calls to pretty much anywhere in North America. If both the caller and the call recipient have magicJack devices, even if one of them is across an ocean, the call is free. Otherwise, there are reasonable toll charges. For home use, there's a device that is connected to a Wi-Fi router. I use mine for my fax machine. They're running a promotion featuring a magicJackGo device and a year of service for $35. I can't stress enough that a strong, fast Wi-Fi network is an absolute requirement. On slow networks, your call might sound like your talking in a barrel (

--Free internet browsers: I prefer Safari for the Mac because it's faster than one of its chief rivals, Firefox ( For Windows PCs, there are several good choices: Windows Edge, which comes with Windows 10, is faster than Firefox and more polished. Firefox is available for both Windows and Macs, but runs somewhat slowly on both platforms. For Windows, I like Google Chrome. It's faster than the rest, and its Google creds makes searching a breeze.


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