Students and professional academic's alike can benefit from free and nearly free software as well as from free and nearly free websites designed to enhance productivity. Few people realize that it is possible to completely outfit a computer with free and nearly software. I will mention some of my favorites that might be relevant to your academic work. Note thissection is still under construction, but I am posting it anyway.
- Free Operating System: Linux has come of age with Ubuntu. Not only is it free, but for most purposes it is quite easy to use and comes with enough free software for most purposes. It is even easy to give it a test drive without actually installing it via the Live CD. (You boot from the Live CD and you are given the option of installing the software or just loading it to see how it works.) And for those who want to give it a more serious try without committing completely, it is easy to set up windows computers to dual boot.
- Free Web Browser: Firefox. Easily modified and expanded with addons, the firefox web browser is generally thought to be safer than Internet Explorer.
- Free Office Replacement: Open Office. I have never used Microsoft Office, and have been a Word Perfect fan since the dos days. But I have recently shifted to Open Office which contains not only a word processor, but spreadsheet, presentation software, and so on. It is quite compatible with Microsoft products, though in my experience, perfect compatibility is often promised and rarely achieved with software. Still, it seems to have converted everything I have needed to convert.
- Free Citation Manager: Zotero. This Firefox addon can be used to collect all sorts of web information, but I find it most useful as a citation manager. Once your sources are typed into the library, you can automatically insert them into Word and Open Office documents in a number of formats with the aid of zotero supplied addons for these word processors. I find it much more convenient than my rather rusty version of Endnote.
- Cheap Automatic Online Backup: I periodically hear about some poor fools who lost their data because they were too dumb to back it up. Data Deposit Box has worked well for me. For an automatic payment from my checking account of $2.00 a month, it automatically backs up the folders I tell it to on line. For this price, I get 2 gigs of backup space. I can use this account for multiple computers and I can access my backup from anywhere I can get an internet connection. If you have lots of data that needs to be automatically backed up, there are better options. But if not, I have been very impressed by Data Deposit Box. Note, this is not a good option for backing up an entire computer. Just use it for your data.
- Fifty gigs of free manual backup: A drive.com will give you all the backup you are likely to need for free, though if you want automatic backup you will have to pay. I use it to store articles I downloaded from the web which I want to keep but do not want cluttering up my computer.
- Free Backup and File Sync: Dropbox. There are a lot of free online backup sites, many with lots of free space. But the free versions rarely (if ever) have automatic backup. Dropbox not only has automatic backup for anything you put in your Desktop 'Dropbox,' but it will automatically sync that Dropbox with Dropbox's on any other computer you have it installed on. Anything I am currently working on goes in the Dropbox and I can work on it on both my home and university computers. I am not sure how much space is in the free version, but it is plenty for the work I do. Of course, I can get all my data from Data Deposite Box. But since the syncby Dropbox is automatic and rapid, it is much easier to use than Data Deposit Box for things I am currently actively working on.
- Anti-malware: Though not strictly productivity software, nothing slows down productivity quite as quickly as a virus or other malware, except, maybe, free beer. I believe in security 'in depth,' that is, layers of different kinds of defense. I will mention some of my favorite free security software. Mac and Linux users tend to be lapse on security, and for a variety of reasons they have been able to get away with it, so far. One of the reasons seems to be that hackers are just more interested in taking down the vast number of windows computers rather than the smaller number of Mac and Linux computers. In any event, I will focus here on some windows security. There are a number of good free anti-virus programs out there, but I prefer to use the payed version of Avira. I believe that there is also a free version. It has caught a fair number of viruses, which suggests I hang around some unsavory places on the web, though in truth, hackers are able to infect quite respectable site. I might in the future mention some of the better thought of free anti-spyware programs, but I have never used them. Next, every widows computer should have a software firewall. I have had good luck with the free comodo firewall, though I disable many of its protections since they can involve annoying and irrelevant warnings and requests. I also have my computer hooked to the internet via a router which, I am told, provides a hardware firewall. Next, I recommend the free threatfire. Apparantly it uses rather different methods to detect malware than traditional anti-virus software. There are also a number of often recommended anti- spyware programs. I do not keep any of them running full time, and only run periodic checks. I must say that none of them have ever found any spyware on my computer, and all of them have given me false positives. So before letting them remove anything from your computer, make sure it really is malware: a google search can help. You do not want to remove something that is not really malware. Typical anti-spyware programs are Ad-Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy, Spyware Blaster, and Spyware Terminator. Be aware that there are a lot of other free products out there, but you should not install just any old program. There are plenty of fake spyware programs out there that actually infect your computer.
- Some final safety advice. If, like me, you simply cannot resist trying out a half douzen or so new programs a week, here are a few tips. First, before clicking on that luscious looked setup program, submit it to one of the online scanners. I have had good luck with Virus Total and Joti's Virus Scan. Finally, you can render your computer quite safe by using programs that will simply eliminate any changes to your computer on reboot, including virus infections. There are two good free ones. Sandboxie is a free program (though they would like you to give a few dollars) that allows you to run a particular program, such as your browser, in a 'sandbox,' that is, in a way isolated from the rest of your computer. Unless you elect to save the contents of your 'sandbox'', it all vanishes, even viruses, when you shut down the sand box. A more general option is Returnil. When turned on, it, in effect, sandboxes your entire computer so all changes are deleted on reboot. When you install it, it will allow you to set up a special part of your drive into which you can save materials you want to save after the reboot. With either program, you can dive headlong into a nest of virtual vipers and, on reboot, your computer is back the way it was. And by the way, both Sandboxie and Returnil can be useful if you just want to test out software to see whether or not it works well on your computer.