Cheap geek: The basics

September 27, 2007

This is the second in a projected series of posts on good, free software. Today the theme is “the basics”: software that provides the basic functionality that few people can do without. I will break the discussion into two main parts: office software, and web browsers.

Office Software

Most people have the need to deal with text documents, often in Microsoft Word format; many people need to handle spreadsheets, often in Microsoft Excel format; many must handle presentations, often in Microsoft PowerPoint format; a few people need to deal with databases, often in Microsoft Access format. But Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access are — you guessed it — not free. Nevertheless, such is the happy state of things, there are free alternatives.

The main alternative, as far as I know, is OpenOffice. It contains a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, and database, all of which are compatible with Microsoft’s software. With OpenOffice you can read Microsoft files sent by your friends, or send files that your friends can read with Microsoft’s software. (This interoperability is not yet a reality for the new Microsoft Office 2007, but they are working on it.) There might occasionally be problems with files that incorporate rarely used features of MS Office, but I myself have not encountered them.

Another option, if you have a persistent internet connection, is to use Google Docs. For this you’ll need a Google account, and you’ll get only word processing and spreadsheet functionality, but you’ll also have the convenience of being able to access your files from anywhere that you can access Google. Your files are stored remotely on the Google servers, and you access and edit them over the web. Initially this might seem odd, but the interface feels very much like that common in desktop software, and I find the service easy to use. I would hesitate, however, to use Google Docs with personal documents; the files are certainly supposed to be secure and private, but mistakes can happen, and there may be wisdom in the view that mistrusts giving Google too much information about ourselves. The choice is up to you.

When I am writing documents, I prefer to edit simple text files in a light-weight word processor. For this purpose, I use either Vim or EditPad Lite. Vim is based on the old Unix program vi, and, like its predecessor, it is the ideal word processor for people who like their software to be as difficult as possible to use — at least at first. The functionality is all tied to keyboard shortcuts, so that you need never touch the mouse, and the shortcuts are wonderfully difficult to guess: xG to move to line x, dd to delete a line, yy to copy text, / to search, and so forth. There is a learning curve, but when mastery is achieved (which phenomenon I have witnessed but never truly experienced) the results are dazzling. Actually, there is a version of the software called gVim that provides a mouse-based interface in addition to the older, more revered keyboard-based one.

As good as vi undoubtedly is, my editor of choice is EditPad Lite. It is a glorified NotePad, in that it can handle only basic text files, but it adds helpful functionality like search/replace, as well as a convenient and intuitive set of buttons in a toolbar. It’s very clean, neat, and easy to use. In fact, I’m using it to write these very words.

Finally, a word about PDF documents. This file format is quite common, and most people have Adobe Reader installed in order to handle it. It’s true that Adobe Reader is free, and in that sense fits under the present rubric, but I don’t like it. It is simply too bulky, and loads too slowly. In its place, I use FoxIt Reader. It is super light-weight, and in my experience it has never met a PDF document it couldn’t open. Highly recommended!

Web browsers

By far the most commonly used web browser is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), now in version 7. Perhaps you are reading this using it. It is free, but I don’t use it, and for two main reasons: first, I find it big and slow, and second, it is the most frequently targeted web browser by Internet ne’er-do-wells, which makes its use risky from a security point of view. All software has bugs, and some of them affect security, but IE, simply because of its huge market share, has attracted the most attention, and new vulnerabilities are found in it all the time. That makes me uncomfortable.

Instead, I use Firefox. In recent months a number of vulnerabilities have also been found in it, but they seem to be patched quickly, and the update process is quick and painless. Firefox is not exactly light-weight, but for some reason it feels more responsive than IE. Perhaps the biggest advantage of this browser is its extensibility: it has been designed such that new features, written by whomever, can be added to it. There are now a large set of Add-ons to choose from, and some of them are really useful. Here are those that I most appreciate:

  • ForecastFox Enhanced: Gives the local weather forecast in the bottom bar of the browser.
  • Get Directions from Google Maps: Highlight any address in a web page, right click, and launch a map showing the location. Very helpful!
  • IE Tab: Some sites, which shall remain unnamed, require that you use IE. This Add-on will, at the touch of a button, make Firefox pretend that it is IE.
  • McAfee Site Advisor: Warns you away from malicious web sites. I’ll discuss this more in a few weeks when I cover security software.
  • Scrapbook: Allows you to save, in their entirety, local copies of web pages. It’s rather like bookmarking, except that instead of saving the location of the page, you save a snapshot of the page itself.
  • Tab Catalog: Shows thumbnail images of all open tabs, which is helpful when quickly jumping from one tab to another when you have many open.
  • Gmail Manager: Monitors your Gmail account, discreetly indicating whether new mail has arrived.

There are many other Add-ons for Firefox, but I haven’t explored them. If you know of any others that are useful, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

In fact, the same goes for anything I’ve written here today. I’m really just shooting the breeze, and am happy to receive recommendations or corrections.

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4 Responses to “Cheap geek: The basics”

  1. Christina Says:

    we have many things in common. It’s nice to see that not only a handful of people use GoogleDocs, McAfee site advisor, FIREFOX!!! They say Firefox users are less than 10% of the entire browser-users… :( That makes me really sad, I wish that people could see how fast it is and a lot more convenient in matter of accessibility. Nonetheless, each with his own wishes, right?

  2. Christina A. Says:


    Can you please illuminate the fast world of free music and tv downloading one day? I have no idea how to do this, no idea if it’s legal or what the case is. Jim and I were given a free Ipod Nano in August and the truth is that we haven’t even taken it out of the package because I have no idea how to use it.

    I’m too cheap to pay for music and don’t really own very many cd’s.


  3. cburrell Says:

    I had intended to shy away from discussing peer-to-peer file sharing software because of the legal issues involved. In Canada, sharing music seems to be legal, but sharing other copyrighted media is illegal. Perhaps when I discuss multimedia software I will touch on this topic, especially by mentioning a few legal sources for digital music, TV, and film. Also, this weekend I hope to put up something about a good site for downloading music legally. Stay tuned.

    I think the explanation for Internet Explorer’s continued dominance of the web browser world is simply that most people don’t care. Too bad for them. And, as I said, an advantage to Firefox’s being less popular is that fewer bad guys try to take advantage of its users.

  4. Adam Hincks Says:

    Craig, vim is my favourite editor for coding. I can see that you are a truly a kindred spirit. My dream is to have a desktop manager that operates wholly on keyboard shortcuts and cuts out the mouse completely . . .

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