This software is free as in “freedom” and as in “beer.” Score! Image courtesy of Flickr user Lisa B. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 I just recently upgraded my Mac to OS 10.6, and I griped the whole time about having to pay $25 to do so. It was at that point that I realized that there are maybe three pieces of software I pay for, ever–a premium Evernote account, a Cinch license, and the OS itself. The rest of my computing load is done via freeware. With that in mind, here are my favorite free software projects which come in handy as a student.

  1. OpenOffice: People have mixed feelings about OpenOffice (and Shep has relied primarily on GoogleDocs for his year without Microsoft Office), but this is my workhorse for churning out papers. It allows me to tweak the formatting as much as I need, which is why I prefer it to any internet-based text editor. It can run slowly and is sometimes finicky, but the very occasional trouble I have with it is more than worth the ability to edit papers without having to buy software upgrades. Impress, the OO version of Powerpoint, works fine for the very basic powerpoint creation that I have to do in my life. There are also clones for Excel and the rest of the Microsoft Office suite, but I hardly ever use them. If you’re in the 90% of the student population that just uses your productivity suite to churn out papers and powerpoints, OpenOffice is great.
  2. Evernote: We’ve been over this a billion times before, but Evernote is seriously the bomb for collecting all of the ephemera that you need to keep in one place. The only reason that I have a paid account is that I process a bunch of PDFs at the beginning of each semester and it’s nice to have it–the free version of Evernote will be fine for most students.
  3. The Gimp: I rarely use the Gimp because I rarely need to do any complicated image editing. For students who do, though, I recommend using the Gimp at home and moving to school computer labs when you really need to use Photoshop–the inconvenience will be outweighed by the savings. Most of the time, I use an even sadder freeware method for my image creation: I create mockups in OpenOffice’s text editor, blow them up to full screen, and take a screen cap of the part that I need. It sounds dumb, but it works!
  4. Audacity: Unless you’re a film or sound design major, you will probably only ever need to do enough sound editing to crop ringtones for your phone and to edit recorded presentations for foreign language classes. Audacity is free, easy to use once you learn how it works, and allows you to do exactly the level of minimum sound editing that you need to. I’ve converted more technophobic people to this piece of software than anything else on the list.
  5. VLC: I don’t know if this is just me, but when professors send out audio lectures or recorded presentations, there’s a high chance that between their computer, Blackboard, the school’s squirrely wifi, and me something gets corrupted. When iTunes can’t play something for me, I drop it into VLC and the software figures out how to handle it without any intervention on my part. It’s magic for unusual media files.

These five pieces of software allow you to do what you need to with a minimum of effort, which is exactly what you want out of a computer. The fact that they’re free just gives that extra hint of sticking it to the establishment–and isn’t rebellion what college is about?