Cybernaut 

Essential (free) software

Sometimes it takes a global economic collapse to truly appreciate that the best things in life are free. whether you’re talking about taking a stroll through the woods, reading a book by the window, or downloading the best free software on the web.

I have thank Lifehacker.com for this list. I stumbled across this site a few years ago, and its contributors have given me more good advice than I know what to do with.

Recently they published a couple of valuable articles: an American Thanksgiving list with 46 free programs to be thankful for, as well as a look back at the Best New and Improved Software of 2008.

Curious, I’ve tried several of the programs they recommended and can give most of them the thumbs-up. Some are PC only, while others are good for Mac, Linux or PC. Some only work with the latest Apple OSX. Some are web-based, and will work with any credible web browser.

And some are obvious like the Mozilla Firefox (www.firefox.com) browser, or Google Gmail (www.gmail.com). Others take a little more commitment, like downloading Ubuntu to run Linux at home.

Here a list of some of the more interesting programs that you might be interested in downloading.

VLC Media Player (www.videolan.org/vlc) — This free cross-platform media player will play pretty much any type of video file, no matter how obscure, and it’s not bad at converting one type of file to another either. Good for people using torrents, backing up DVDs, etc.

Open Office (www.openoffice.org) — If you don’t have money to buy Microsoft Office, Open Office is a sturdy, intuitive, and more than passable alternative. It’s not flashy and has far fewer features, but it gets the job done. The 3.0 update is the best yet.

Launchy (www.launchy.net) — This is a time saving program that lets you create your own shortcuts to open programs, documents, folders, bookmarks, etc. Anything you can navigate to by mouse you can get to quicker with Launchy.

Digsby (www.digsby.com) — Quite simply this program is all things to all people. Seriously. In one handy window you can view updates from social networking sites Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc., get mail notifications from all your online email clients, Gmail to Hotmail to Yahoo, and read and respond to all your instant messenger messages. Digby is a must for anyone who feels their Internet life is spread out in too many places.

CCLeaner (www.ccleaner.com) — For PC only. CCleaner literally is short form for “crap cleaner,” and removes all the unwanted temp files, cookies, memory dumps, installers, and other space wasters from your hard drive. Lifehacker’s reviewer cleared out 1.6 GB of junk in a single swipe.

Quicksilver (www.blacktree.com) — This program takes a while to figure out, unless you can understand the phrase “A unified, extensible interface for working with applications, contacts, music and other data.” Basically, this program helps you streamline your process by simplifying the way you use applications. For example, if you routinely email photos you can just find the photo in Quicksilver and execute a menu command to email the photo — all without opening your email or your photo gallery. Take the tutorial on the website to enjoy this faster.

Gimp (www.gimp.org) — This is a free, open source graphic software program. Though not quite as powerful as Adobe Photoshop, it’s more than good enough for most users.

Dropbox (www.getdropbox.com) — It’s still in beta, but this program lets you sync files between computers, and store information online.

Handbrake (http://handbrake.fr) — The best French contribution to culture since the croissant, Handbrake lets you convert video files into other types of video files while also changing things like resolution, aspect ratio, frame rate etc. Crucial for anyone with an iPod, Sony PSP, or other video-ready portable device.

Evernote (www.evernote.com) — A reminder program that syncs with your computer, portable devices, etc. that is easy to use, and makes sure you’re never late again.

Google Chrome (www.google.com/chrome) — For PC only, this new browser is slowly winning converts from Firefox and Safari. It’s fast, intuitive, and simplifies the browsing experience.

Wesabe (www.wesabe.com) — This online budgeting tool is my pick. It’s not new this year, but new features like graphs and pie charts quickly let me see how much I’m spending versus how much I’m earning, while breaking down my monthly costs in a way that’s easy to digest. For example, I can click on the groceries tab of on the main pie chart, and the system will generate another pie chart that shows where that grocery money was spent.

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