When getting ready for the year ahead, it’s a good idea to fill in the gaps in your software collection, especially when there is so much good software you can now get online for free.
Beware however – not all “free” things are really free. First, of course, you should avoid cracked versions of payware, because that can get you into trouble in more ways than one. Another thing to watch for is that some free software is supported by ads, while other software may have undesirable behaviors such as tracking what you do online.
In this guide, we’ve focused exclusively on titles that are 100 percent free, easy to find, useful, productivity boosting, and devoid of any malicious or annoying “extra” content. You may not need all of these applications, but this list is sure to include some titles that will help you work better in some way.
1. Portable Apps
For users of Microsoft Windows, this is a great piece of software. It’s a platform application launcher that allows you to use portable applications instead of installing software on your PC. It’s excellent because this means:
- Less chance of registry corruption and registry bloat
- Fewer vectors for viruses to get into your system
- Applications you can take with you and use on any Windows machine
- No wasted space on your HDD or SSD. Everything can be installed on a thumb drive
- Applications can be updated when a new version becomes available
- All your portable applications are grouped together in a categorized list
Portable Apps is a tiny application itself, and is very easy to use. You can download it straight to a USB drive and have all your applications always with you anywhere you go, and configured just the way you like.
Over 100 applications are available for instant download through the interface, and you can easily create your own portable applications as well. Designers will also appreciate the feature that allows you to add all your fonts to the platform, which also means you can uninstall them from your PC to save even more space.
Overall, what makes the portable apps concept so good, apart from the obvious factor of portability, is that it’s much more organized and tidy than the traditional system of installing software.
You can get it from here and it’s 100 percent free to download and use anywhere you want, as much as you want, and you can also share it with anyone you want. It’s not necessary for Linux, as all Linux applications are portable by default, and not yet available for Mac.
For a free application, Blender is huge on features. Most users will put it to work for what it was originally designed for, which is 3D modeling. However there is another important thing you can do with Blender. It provides a full-featured non-linear video editing system which supports all kinds of features normally found in expensive stand-alone video editing software.
It’s even good enough that it has been used to make feature length movies by major studios. The main competitor in the free of charge video editing space is DaVinci Resolve from Black Magic Design, but that has much steeper hardware requirements, is built with proprietary code, and has more restrictions on what you’re allowed to do.
Blender makes it easy to do all your 3D modeling, 3D and 2D animation, video editing, and more. It’s free, open source, easy to use, portable (on Linux and Windows), and works like a charm. On the negative side, there’s a steep learning curve, but you’ll get that with almost any professional 3D modeling software. The big difference here is the $0 price tag, huge support community, and total freedom to install it any way you want.
You can get your copy from the official Blender website or download it through Portable Apps. Blender is also included with most Linux distros. There’s an OSX version, too.
GIMP is almost a replacement for PhotoShop, and it’s certainly a lot more affordable at $0. The two applications are often compared side by side, but this isn’t really fair to either one, since they’re designed for different purposes.
PhotoShop is primarily intended for using in the CMYK color space, although you can wrangle it into saving images in RGB. GIMP on the other hand is designed for the RGB color space from the outset, and needs a lot of push and shove to get it to co-operate with saving anything in a CMYK color profile.
That difference aside, the only real drawback to GIMP is that it doesn’t currently provide native support for creating primitives. You can do it, but nowhere near as easily as it can be done in PhotoShop. Then again, there are many things that seem to be much easier to achieve in GIMP.
Deciding which of these two giants will suit your needs best is not an easy choice. To make it a bit easier, the biggest factors to consider are learning curve, support, and cost. That last factor is easy to assess because GIMP is free and PhotoShop requires a monthly subscription.
When it comes to learning curve, PhotoShop may be ahead because most online photo editing tutorials are written with PhotoShop users in mind. Take int account that most PhotoShop plug-ins will work in GIMP, but it’s not a certain thing that many GIMP plug-ins will work in PhotoShop. Thus a tutorial aimed at PhotoShop users may still be relevant to GIMP users (with a few adjustments), but a GIMP tutorial will often be unhelpful for PhotoShop users.
Finally there is the matter of support. As paying subscribers, PhotoShop users can expect to get instant support for all kinds of problems.
GIMP support is really different. As it’s free, there’s no dedicated hotline you can call to get help with every little problem you face. You’ll need to depend on what’s called “community support”, which basically means using forums to seek answers to your questions.
GIMP is available as a web application, for download from the official GIMP site, and through portable apps. It is included by default in nearly every Linux distro, and is always available in every Linux repository. For OSX, you need to download an installer and copy the launcher into your Applications folder.
InkScape is a competitor to Adobe Illustrator and other similar vector drawing programs. It doesn’t yet come close to the level of Illustrator, but it is way cheaper at $0 and the learning curve is far less steep. InkScape can create browser compatible SVG graphics, including animations.
SVG animation can be used for teaching, special effects, games, and simply for making more impressive images on websites (small footprint and almost infinitely scalable). An often cited example of what can be done with SVG animation and interactivity is the MCDU Emulator Project. This demonstrates that complex systems can be built simply with SVG, and no plug-ins or special players are required.
Inkscape still trails behind Illustrator, but the gap is closing as the Inkscape development community continues to expand. We may some day even see Inkscape take the lead, especially since it is such an easy application to get started with and doesn’t cost anything. It’s available as an installed application on all platforms, and as a portable application on Windows and Linux.
Inkscape is available at the official Inkscape website and also through Portable Apps. It is included in all major Linux distros and will be found in the repositories of others. An installer can be downloaded for OSX.
Drawing technical charts and diagrams is made easier with Dia. It’s quite easy to use and has all the tools you need to make complex technical diagrams quickly. There are basic drawing shapes in the top left corner of the toolbox. The center of the tool box is where all the special items are located for the selected diagram type you’re currently working on. The list of types includes:
- assorted shapes
- flowchart symbols
- UML diagrams
- electric / electronic circuits
- BPMN diagrams
- chemical & engineering symbols
- Cicso computer and networking diagrams
- civil engineering diagrams
- cybernetics diagrams
- database design diagrams
- entity-relationship (ER) diagrams
- function structure (FS) diagrams
- Grane & Sarson symbols
- GRAFCET diagrams
- jigsaw charts
- ladder diagrams
- lighting charts
- logic charts
- isometric map elements
- MSE diagrams
- common network symbols
- pneumatic / hydraulic charts
- SADT/IDEF0 charts
- specification and description language (SDL) chart
- Sybase symbols
To create any kind of diagram, simply place elements on the drawing area and then use connectors to join them together. You can get your copy from the official Dia website, or download it from Portable Apps. The software is also available for OSX.
Pencil2D takes over from Inkscape when you need longer and more complex 2D animations. It fills a similar role to Adobe Flash, but is considerably better for making feature length 2D animated films.
It contains all the tools you need to create professional quality animated cartoons. Paired with a decent graphics tablet, or even hand drawn images scanned in, you can bring your images to life with Pencil2D.
You can find out more about it at the official Pencil2D website, and you can download it either from that site (for all platforms) or from the Portable Apps site if you’re a Windows user.
7. Greenfish Icon Editor Pro
This is both an icon editor and icon extractor. It only works on Windows (but may run on Linux with WINE or POL). It is able to extract and create Windows icons and Mac icons.
There are plenty of different ways to create and edit icons, but this simple tool makes the whole process a breeze. Depending on your skill in operating it, the software is capable of producing icons with a crispness and vibrancy that is rare in icon editing software.
The best way to get this software is through Portable Apps. The official site for the software has been down for a long while.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to have access to software that will give you truly professional results. In the end, your skill as a user is far more important than the software tools that you use for the job. What can be said is that using the right tools for the job will always make it easier than using the wrong tools.
Traditionally people have held the view that free software can never be as good as paid software, but the quality of free software is improving all the time, and because they’re free, you can experiment with them at no financial risk. So why not give some of these free software applications a try? You may be surprised at the quality, and you can potentially save yourself some money if they manage to meet all your requirements.
header image courtesy of Ilona Rybak