Free and Cheap Software That Outdoes the Big Guys

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Just Good to Have

Though this last group shares no particular theme, all of these downloads are likely to come in very handy, sooner or later.

Dia

For people who depend on organizational charts to make sense of life, Dia is a savior. A product of the Gnome Project, Dia is best described as a noncommercial counterpart to Visio. Dia doesn't try to take on Visio diagram-to-diagram, polyline-to-polyline, but it does provide more than enough of the usual components--boxes, ellipses, polygons, and sticky connecting lines and arrows--necessary to create office diagrams, chains of authority, and illustrations of electrical circuits. If you need shapes that Dia doesn't have, it gives you instructions on how to add custom objects.

If those tools aren't sufficient for you to diagram everything from the office hierarchy to your children's Little League season, Dia has a few other tricks that can help. One particularly good feature is the ability to work in layers. You can create your diagram as a stack of subdiagrams, a digital representation of drawing the diagrams on sheets of clear acetate. The layers let you extend your diagram into the third dimension, too: Think of the layers as separate blueprints for each story of a office building. You get to see not only how offices are laid out on each floor, but how the floors are connected by wiring, pipes, and elevators.

The program's best trick, though, is Best Fit. Any diagram I have ever drawn, on paper or on a screen, wound up running off the edges because it was too big. Best Fit takes care of such problems in an instant, reducing sprawling diagrams to whatever size they need to be. It makes me look as if my own thinking were organized.

Download Dia (Free)

ClamWin Free Antivirus

Dozens of antivirus programs--Symantec AntiVirus, McAfee Virus Scan, and Kaspersky AntiVirus, to name only a few--have much in common. They all work diligently to intercept the next invasion of computer malware. And annually they all wring as much money as they can out of users in exchange for their services.

You can get protection from viruses without paying a cent. Turn to ClamWin Free Antivirus, an oddly named program that adheres to the Gnu open-source model. It won't charge you anything for virus protection--not now, not a year from now.

What do you get for nothing? A program that, in its latest version, works in Vista as well as in XP, scanning your files for the fingerprints of viruses and spyware identified by a virus database that is updated several times a day. You may schedule or launch scans at your whim. A right-click menu choice provides more-selective scans of specific files or folders. The program also offers integration with Microsoft Outlook for inspecting message attachments that could be carrying dangerous code.

What don't you get? ClamWin does not yet automatically inspect files as you open them. If you download the latest whiz-bang plaything from the Internet, better check it with ClamWin before you open it. That's not a bad trade-off for a free malware checker. Since no single antivirus tool is perfect, you should always use more than one such program anyway. Why pay for them all?

Download ClamWin Free Antivirus (Free)

Pdf995 Suite

Don't be fooled by the Acrobat Reader that Adobe pushes at you every chance it gets. Sure, Reader is free for the download, but it's also passive software, letting you only peruse PDF (Portable Document Format) publications that have been created with a higher species of Acrobat. If you want to extract pages from a PDF, add pages, stamp it with "Approved" or "Burn After Reading," or do any sort of editing, or if you want to create your own PDF documents, first you have to shell out $95 to $450 for a version of Acrobat capable of creating the files.

Instead, get Pdf995 Suite. It's not exactly free; whether you pay, and how much, depends on how you feel about enduring a nagging ad for Pdf955 and other software from the same company. In return for viewing the ads, you get the ability to create standard PDF files by sending the original documents to a virtual printer, a setup that lets you produce PDFs from within any software that can print hard copy. Another module, PdfEdit995, lets you combine separate documents in one PDF, insert comments and bookmarks, add rubber stamps, convert from PDF to HTML, or, to retain just the text, convert to a Word .doc file. Another module, Signature995, encrypts PDFs and adds digital signatures.

Despite that panoply of PDF pleasures, you may grow weary of seeing the same ads each time you use the programs. If that happens, you can banish all of the ads by buying a couple of the modules that make up the suite; each is $10. For $20 more, you can buy every program in the company's arsenal, including such worthy utilities as OmniFormat (which lets you convert among 75 file formats), Photoedit 995 (which provides the usual necessary touch-up tools), BackItUp995, Zip995, and Ftp995 (all of which do exactly what you'd think they would), and a half dozen others.

Download Pdf995 Suite (Free with ads; $30 for the Suite without ads)

Money Manager Ex

Software can become too good--or, rather, too big, too full of features, too complex, and too difficult to work with. One of the nice things about open-source software is that it's still a boutique operation; you don't have hundreds of programmers, testers, focus groups, managers, lawyers, and marketers, each throwing in their two bits' worth.

Money Manager Ex is the Baby Bear of financial managers: Not too big, not too small, not too hard, not too easy--it's just right. For anyone whose finances are big enough to need frequent attention but not so large as to require a dedicated accountant, Money Manager Ex tracks money as it comes in and goes out. It'll let you know how much your investments have earned, when the bills are coming due, and whether your cash flow is flowing down the toilet.

Though the program can import Excel spreadsheets and make reports that let you examine your finances from assorted viewpoints, it can't help you pay bills, make bank deposits or withdrawals, or calculate your taxes. But then, if it could do all that, it would start looking like Papa Bear, and you'd wind up hiding from all the work it would try to get you to do.

Download Money Manager Ex (Free)

Soulseek

Whenever I download new peer-to-peer software for testing, I cringe at the thought of what dank evil lurks beneath the surface of programs that grab, from the Internet, purloined MP3s and movies that opened at the megaplex only last week. Peer-to-peer programs are perfect booby traps: The promise of free music, movies, and software lures all but the saintly to "experiment" with illegal downloads, and often justice is served when the P-to-P software harbors viruses, spyware, and--just as bad sometimes--sloppy programming.

The pristine cleanliness of Soulseek would alone make it the first choice among P-to-P programs. It is open-source, whose proponents approach software development not simply as a task but as a calling to create free software that shall go out unto the world to spread digital delight to all. It and Azureus, an open-source BitTorrent project, are the only two P-to-P programs I feel comfortable using without having first backed up my disk drive and sprayed Lysol into the crevices of my computer.

But here's the really good part: Soulseek has two features that are even cooler than cleanliness. One is a queue that tells you exactly how many other users are waiting to download the same files. Lines stretching out to the hundreds are not uncommon, but neither are copies of the same songs that have no one at all waiting to download them. Which do you choose? If you need a further hint, check out the 'average download speed' column for the swiftest transfers.

The other great feature? With a right-click, you can select 'Download Containing Folder'. This simple, brilliant gem of programming lets you download with a single click all of the songs in another user's folder, which ordinarily equates to a complete album. Want more? Try the Wishlist. Fill it with the songs and artists you can never seem to find. Check back a few nights later, and like a cobbler befriended by elves, you'll find that Soulseek has spent its spare time looking for those elusive tunes. All of these features make Soulseek such an original, clever program that I'm astonished it hasn't been imitated again and again.

I know, you're looking for a catch. There are two, of sorts. If you insist on downloading songs that are beset continuously by loaded queues, send the developer a $5 donation to enjoy cutting to the head of the line for 30 days. The other catch is that this program is for music only. If you want software or movies, you'll have to go back to the seamy side of town.

Download Soulseek (Free)

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