Sometimes, you just have to cheap out. Whether it’s picking up six-pack of Shasta at the grocery store rather than Coke, a packet of generic acetaminophen at the drug store rather than Tylenol, or a Kia Amanti instead of a Mercedes E-Class, the option to go with “close enough” is everywhere. Do it right, and you’ll save a bundle while never noticing the difference. Do it wrong, and you’ll curse the purchase every day for the next 10 years as you cling to your pleather steering wheel wondering how a seductive pair of headlights tricked you into thinking you were buying a German luxury sedan.
Fortunately, you don’t have to sweat the final decision as much with software. Not only do free alternatives to commercial packages closely replicate – and sometimes even improve upon – their paid cousins, you can try them without any risk. And though not every one of our selections maintain open source code, the ones that do can even be modified, revised and improved by anyone with the skills. So try a freebie before you slap down the MasterCard for that $999 copy of Adobe Photoshop CS4 extended. Just do us a favor and put the savings into the Mercedes fund.
For professional graphic artists, substituting anything for Photoshop is akin to blasphemy. There really is no equal. But if you’re an amateur looking to edit graphics without taking out a loan for the tools to do it, GIMP makes a fine stand-in. You’ll get all the same pencils, airbrushes, and resizing tools, plus advanced options like plug-ins and scripts. The learning curve is most assuredly steeper, though, and you won’t be able to benefit from the quite literal library of books and tutorials out there for the more popular Photoshop.
Microsoft Office is everywhere. Whether you work from a Mac or a PC, in India or Indiana, you’re probably using Word, Excel, PowerPoint and all the other de facto office tools. That makes it all the more difficult to switch, but OpenOffice replicates almost all of the same functionality, menus, and even file formats. It may not look quite as pretty as the blue “ribbon” design Microsoft has been using since 2007, but for fans of the old office, or students who just need to jam out a paper now and then without paying Microsoft, it will do the trick. That said, some of Microsoft’s most tricked-out features – like a function in Word that automatically formats a proper bibliography for you after filling in the required text fields – are missing. You’ll just have to dig out that MLA manual from high school.
Windows alone sucks for burning CDs. Even for the most basic tasks, you’re far better off with powerful disc authoring software. Nero charges $70 for its solution, but ImgBurn effectively does all the same essentials, for free. You can rip discs to image files (like ISO), build a custom disc image from files, and of course, write them to blank discs. It even supports Blu-ray, and works with an incredibly diverse array of image files. Nero 9 can technically do more – like serve as a live TV tuner – but why do you need that when you’re just trying to burn CDs?
The company that brought you the now-ubiquitous Firefox makes an e-mail program, too. And it’s just as good. Besides handling the same e-mail formats as its Microsoft competitor, Thunderbird actually feels faster to us, uses less RAM, and like Firefox, it accepts plug-ins for all the add-on functionality you could ask for from a thriving development community. (For instance, one allows you to select a bunch of e-mails then gather the senders for one massive reply.) Like OpenOffice, it looks a little duller than the real thing, but you can skin it however you choose. The only other glaring caveat: There’s no built-in calendar or task management, so if your colleagues’ incoming meeting requests will fall on deaf ears. Then again, depending on your colleagues, maybe that’s a good thing.