Free and Cheap Software That Outdoes the Big Guys

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Office Suites, Business Applications

When it comes to giants in the land of software, none are as big and powerful as the titans of Microsoft. Of programs foolhardy enough to challenge them, few have returned to tell the tale. But the following programs, though small, possess incredible strength.

The Fifth Element

Most programs that have tried to compete with Office have come from other large companies, such as Sun, with enough cash to try to one-up Microsoft just for bragging rights.

And then there's Ssuite Office's The Fifth Element. (Yes, "Ssuite" is spelled correctly, and, no, we're not talking about a Bruce Willis movie.) The Fifth Element, which has come from South Africa to take on the Colossus of Redmond, is an office-application collection with a wider range than Microsoft Office has. Any decent suite can do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and e-mail. The Fifth Element also includes a browser, plus tools for managing LANs, holding chats, and making calls using VoIP. For media-oriented tasks, it provides a drawing module, photo and album editors, sound recorders, and MP3 and video players. That's not all--it has a search engine, a sort engine, an envelope printer, encryption, and a chess game, too, offering more than 30 programs overall. And if that's not quite the right combination for you, Ssuite Office supplies several other office-software packages of various levels of complexity, all free.

For all its breadth, The Fifth Element is shallow--and that's meant in the most complimentary sense. Most operations require you to go no more than a couple of clicks into a menu. The most common tasks neatly appear at the top levels of the screens, making for quick learning and use. The design is a welcome relief from the madly swirling, morphing menus in Microsoft Office 2007. One reason for the simplicity, beyond making The Fifth Element a snap to use, is that most of the programs appear to be frankenware, pieced together from publicly available code. That makes them a kludge, but they're very nice kludges.

Download The Fifth Element (Free)


What would Microsoft Word look like if you stripped it of all the buttons, features, and gimmicks you've never used, and if you kicked out the obnoxious menus that forced their way into the 2007 edition like rowdy wedding guests?

Such a stripped-down Word would remind many longtime users of the simpler, faster, easier Word of yesteryear. Instead of merely yearning for the old days, however, you can download a free copy of AbiWord, a Gnu open-source word processor that behaves much like a time capsule for Microsoft Word at its prime. Regardless of whether the unsung programmers who've developed AbiWord intentionally set out to resurrect an older, better word processor, that's what they've done. And it just happens to work with older Word-document formats and older formats from other programs too (though not with the Word 2007 .docx format).

AbiWord's screen is clean and uncluttered. In the space of two toolbars, AbiWord manages to put within reach 99 percent of the tasks just about anyone needs out of a word processor, including formatting, styles, layout, spelling check, and printing, as well as symbols, footnotes, mail merge, and hooks to insert art. If you do need something more esoteric, say, math formulas or language translations, you can add them with plug-ins, some of which are ready and waiting while others are under development. If you have a pressing unique need but you don't even know how to program your microwave, you can always offer one of the dozens of programmers who volunteer on AbiWord a fee for custom work. Try that with Microsoft sometime.

Download AbiWord (Free)

Atlantis Nova

Open-source groups are not the source of all free software. Atlantis Nova, a commercial program from Sun Solutions, is a great little word processor that does everything--except charge you a bundle.

Atlantis Nova is a Microsoft Word competitor that adheres to the 10/90 theory of software design: It provides the 10 percent of word processing features that most people need to get 90 percent of their work done. And it's small enough--684KB installed--to fit on a USB thumb drive.

While the free Nova version is not a total replacement for Microsoft Word, it is a delight to use in its own right. You handle most tasks outside of basic typing through icons, which you control by a switch that instantly flips you between two sets of three-line, icon-studded toolbars. Atlantis Nova is perfect for traveling with an underpowered and cramped notebook, and it's not bad on a desktop machine either.

If you need to include specialized content (such as differential equations) in your documents or if you want to create indices and tables of references, you'd best look elsewhere, perhaps in the direction of the new Atlantis Word Processor, the brawnier big sibling of Nova, which costs $35 (with a 30-day free trial); it includes features such as automatic spelling-as-you-type, double precautions against losing documents, drag-and-drop functions, encryption, and a "control panel" to handle complex layouts.

Download Atlantis Nova (Free)

Pegasus Mail

Microsoft has already declared that it won't support Outlook Express beyond version 6.0. Your choices, as a result, are to stay with a program in its declining years (wondering when to pull the plug), to lay out $100 or more for stand-alone Outlook, or turn to an e-mail program of the open-source persuasion, such as Thunderbird. Wait a second, though: Thunderbird is the most well-known free e-mail program, but is it the best? Before you answer that, try Pegasus Mail.

If you've never heard of Pegasus, that may be because you don't live in New Zealand, where it originated. The best reason to use this free program is that is has built-in protection against spam, viruses, Trojan horses, and other things that go bump in the Internet. But even without that heavy-duty security, it puts other e-mail software to shame. Although at first glance it looks like Outlook or Outlook Express without a calendar and to-do list, closer inspection unearths so many goodies that you'll soon forget the lack of a mere calendar. After all, it has encryption, mail merge, multiple address books, annotations, notepads, the ability to circulate messages one person at a time for orderly sign-offs, and (bless it) error messages that offer enough information to help you actually figure out what's wrong. If you want a certain feature that isn't built in, chances are good that one of the scores of plug-ins its fans have concocted will do the trick.

You know, those of us in the exciting world of professional computer journalism usually don't keep using software longer than necessary to write an informed review. Then it's back to whatever we are more familiar with. Not this time: I kissed Outlook goodbye in favor of this fantastic creation.

Download Pegasus Mail (Free)


Kexi is a Microsoft Access killer of the first caliber. It has one minor drawback: Under Windows you have a limit to the number of rows and tables you can create (at least until Kexi recoups its development costs). If you can live with that restriction, and you don't mind going without tech support or a manual, go to town with Kexi (or switch to the unlimited Linux or FreeBSD versions). Your other alternative is pay $50 to release the Windows limitations and get support. If that seems a bit much, keep in mind that Access is $300 at retail. The $50 for Kexi won't buy you the cheapest seat at a Little Feat concert.

And Kexi is well worth it, especially if you need to emphasize visuals in a database. Within minutes you can create a relational database with all the flexibility and versatility of Access but with greater ease. Like Access, Kexi creates the database structure in a series of tables--but without the fussiness that Access imposes in asking you to define far more things than you want to define. My favorite feature of Kexi is that it stores everything from tables to queries to forms in the database, so you can move or share the data and design by moving a single file.

You can use Kexi as a stand-alone or connected to relational SQL database servers. You'll finally bump into limits, even in the full versions, if you keep pushing the complexity of your design, but Kexi is still a database that fills a deep hole.

Download Kexi (Free demo; $50)


You'll find absolutely nothing fancy, colorful, exciting, or gee-whiz about the open-source spreadsheet Gnumeric.

But do you believe that a thesaurus is essential to crunching numbers? Microsoft's Excel has a thesaurus. Gnumeric doesn't. How about translating from one language to another? You can do so in Excel. You can't in Gnumeric. Do you need to calculate the modified Besseli function in (x)? Excel lets you. Gnumeric...oh, hold it...Gnumeric will, too. In fact, when you get down to the more obscure spreadsheet operations that I, and possibly you, have never heard of before, Gnumeric can be as esoteric as the best of spreadsheets.

The important thing is whether Gnumeric gives the right answers. Frankly, I'm no judge when it comes to financial derivatives, Monte Carlo simulations, linear and nonlinear equations, or, for that matter, balancing my checkbook. Gnumeric's developers had math whizzes in to check the program out, and this application got the same answers as the high-priced spreadsheet did, only faster.

I do give credit to Excel for its fancier and more colorful graphs and charts, no mean consideration if you hope to get approval for your new project by wowing the board with drop-dead graphics instead of merely dead numbers. For pure number-wrangling ability, however, Gnumeric makes installing Excel unnecessary.

Download Gnumeric (Free)

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