Free and cheap software that outdoes the big guys

15 mostly free applications that can credibly replace big-bucks PC software

People say the best things in life are free. That certainly includes software capable of doing just about everything that major commercial applications can do.

We've found 15 "giant killers" that compete well with behemoths such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. Some of our selections are open-source software, while others are "junior" versions of commercial products, put out by the vendors themselves. All but one are free.

Lots of software companies release demo versions that are little more than teasers for the package they want you to buy. The apps from big-name vendors that we've included here are different: With one exception, they are neither "crippled" versions nor time-limited samplers that cease to work at just the wrong moment.

Our Davids are worthy challengers to the Goliaths of the industry. Read on to see how they can help you get work done -- easily, and almost at no cost.

Office Suites, Business Apps

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)

AbiWord

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.

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