Computers

The best open source alternatives to your everyday apps

Open source provides a compelling alternative to proprietary software
Open source provides a compelling alternative to proprietary software
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The open source web browser Firefox
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The open source web browser Firefox
Thunderbird is an open source email client
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Thunderbird is an open source email client
The open source VLC media player
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The open source VLC media player
Open source editor Notepad++
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Open source editor Notepad++
A screenshot of LibreOffice's word processor, Writer
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A screenshot of LibreOffice's word processor, Writer
The open source image editor GIMP
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The open source image editor GIMP
Logo of the open source antivirus software ClamAV
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Logo of the open source antivirus software ClamAV
Open source password manager KeePass
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Open source password manager KeePass
Ubuntu running on a Dell XPS laptop
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Ubuntu running on a Dell XPS laptop
Open source provides a compelling alternative to proprietary software
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Open source provides a compelling alternative to proprietary software
Logo of the open source instant messaging app Pidgin
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Logo of the open source instant messaging app Pidgin

There are many compelling reasons to use open source software, where the code behind an app is free for anyone to view or contribute to. There's the obvious benefit that it's free to use. It's arguably more secure (thanks to the many eyes on the source code). It's built solely for the benefit of users. And it may have ethical appeal over an app built by, say, a multinational corporation. This in mind, here are 10 of the best open source alternatives to the software we use on our computers every day.

1. Web browser: Firefox

Developed by the Mozilla Foundation, the Firefox web browser has been a mainstay of web users since its release in 2002.

The open source web browser Firefox
The open source web browser Firefox

Firefox puts privacy front and center. Its Private Browsing mode not only deletes passwords and cookies after a browsing session, it also detects and blocks tracking software now prevalent on the web.

It's also highly customizable thanks to myriad extensions which can enhance bookmarking and password management, YouTube watching, online shopping and almost anything else you can think to do in a browser.

Its latest release, Firefox Quantum, purports to be twice as fast as before, with a memory footprint 30 percent lighter than Chrome. It's also kinder to your laptop battery than Google's heavyweight browser.

Firefox is available for Windows 7 or later, OS X and MacOS 10.9 or later, and Linux.

Firefox

2. Email: Thunderbird

Also the work of the Mozilla Foundation, Thunderbird is to email clients as Firefox is to web browsers: a powerful open source alternative to the likes of Outlook and Apple Mail.

Thunderbird is an open source email client
Thunderbird is an open source email client

As well as email, Thunderbird can be used to read news and blogs thanks to its in-built RSS capabilities.

Like Firefox, Thunderbird can be heavily customized via its suite of add-ons which can add features like instant messaging, calendars or encryption, or simply enhance the look and feel of the app.

And again, just like Firefox, Thunderbird can be downloaded for Windows 7 or later, OS X and MacOS 10.9 or later, and Linux.

Thunderbird

3. Instant messaging: Pidgin

Pidgin aims to be the free one-stop shop for all messaging needs, offering support for a number of messaging networks including AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, IRC, Bonjour and XMPP, with support for more via the use of plug-ins. (And forgive us if you're spotting an open source theme, here.)

Logo of the open source instant messaging app Pidgin
Logo of the open source instant messaging app Pidgin

Sign in to more than one network and you see a unified contacts list so the networks in use are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

Thanks to its global network of contributors, Pidgin has been translated into a vast number of languages, including Irish, Valencian-Catalan and Belarusian Latin.

The latest release has dropped support for MSN, Myspace and Yahoo chat. It's supported on Windows and Linux.

Pidgin

4. Media player: VLC

The ultra-lean and fast VLC player from the VideoLAN Organization has been the go-to media player for open source users since 2001.

The open source VLC media player
The open source VLC media player

VLC plays a host of file types as well as supporting DVD, audio CD and VCD playback. MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264, MKV, WebM, WMV and MP3 are among the codecs supported, with more available thanks to (you guessed it) downloadable plug-ins, which can also be used to customize the appearance of the app.

VLC is available for Windows, MacOS and Linux. It's also available for Android, iOS, Apple TV and a host of other operating systems.

VLC

5. Text editor: Notepad++

Sometimes a full-blown word processor is too much hassle or not fit for the job. Whether it's jotting down some quick notes to writing reams of (presumably open source) code, a simple text editor may be all you need.

Open source editor Notepad++
Open source editor Notepad++

Built as an unofficial homage to Windows' own barebones editor Notepad, Notepad++ adds a number of advanced features from tabbed documents, WYSIWYG editing and syntax highlighting (which is a must for software developers).

Alas, Notepad++ is only available for Windows.

Notepad++

6. Office suite: LibreOffice

But should you need a fully-fledged suite of office apps, the world of open source software has you covered in the shape of LibreOffice. It trumps the open source predecessor Open Office in its superior support for Microsoft Office file formats, including the ability to create and save more recent file types like DOCX and XLSX.

A screenshot of LibreOffice's word processor, Writer
A screenshot of LibreOffice's word processor, Writer

LibreOffice includes a word processor (called Writer, pictured here), spreadsheet software (Calc) and presentation software (Impress) as well as dedicated apps for diagrams and databases.

The software has come a long way over the years, so if you've tried open source office suites in the past and been put off by iffy formatting, modern day LibreOffice may be worth another look.

LibreOffice is available for the Windows, MacOS and Linux triumvirate.

LibreOffice

7. Image editor: GIMP

GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an open source alternative to Adobe Photoshop and a powerful tool for photographers, designers or artists needing powerful image creation or editing software. (GNU is a license which makes software freely available.)

The open source image editor GIMP
The open source image editor GIMP

It includes numerous powerful features pitched at photographers, including quick fixes for barreling and vignetting, retouching tools, black and white enhancements.

It's an extremely powerful tool which offers a Python development platform to create editing automations. It's available for Windows, MacOS and Linux.

GIMP

8. Antivirus: ClamAV

Antivirus package ClamAV detects not only viruses, but also trojans and malware and keeps an eye on email, Office files, PDFs, software signatures and archive files such as Zip and RAR formats among others. It boasts access to a virus database which is updated several times each day.

Logo of the open source antivirus software ClamAV
Logo of the open source antivirus software ClamAV

A number of job-specific third-party tools have been built to work with ClamAV, including firewalls, proxy servers, file transfer tools and POP3 email servers.

ClamAV is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It needs to be installed via a package or the source code, so it's not as simple as downloading an installer, unfortunately.

ClamAV

9. Password storage: KeePass

Online security is a hotter topic than ever, and with the prevailing wisdom stating not to reuse passwords, keeping on top of all your logins is no easy feat. That's were a password manager like LastPass, 1Password or the open source KeePass comes in.

Open source password manager KeePass
Open source password manager KeePass

It's ultra-secure, using both the NSA-approved AES encryption standard and the Twofish algorithm co-designed by Bruce Schneier.

It's not the prettiest, but KeePass is a lightweight yet powerful app worthy of consideration. It's available for Windows, MacOS and Linux, and can be run from a portable USB stick.

KeePass

10. Operating system: Ubuntu

It's not for the faint of heart, but if you want to go fully open source, your best bet is to run an open source Linux distribution as an alternative to Windows or MacOS.

Ubuntu running on a Dell XPS laptop
Ubuntu running on a Dell XPS laptop

Perhaps the best-known and most user-friendly version of Linux is Ubuntu, which began life as an offshoot of the Linux distro Debian in 2004. It comes with the afore-mentioned Firefox, Thunderbird and LibreOffice pre-installed.

Unlike other Linux distros, software is easily installed by virtue of Ubuntu Software, essentially a built-in software store (with many of its wares available for free).

Though there's never been an easier time to adopt Linux, caution is nevertheless advised. Replacing your currently-installed operating system straight off the bat isn't advised. A dual-OS setup is a good way to test the waters.

Ubuntu

6 comments
jc55
Please please please stop spreading antiquated notions that Linux is difficult to install or operate. People with limited technical knowledge, children, elderly, etc, are impressionable with these kinds of statements and will often choose computers/systems based on word of mouth. It ultimately turns people off of open-source, which is in direct contrast to the purpose of the article.
DFrancis
Inkscape is a vector image editor, which is cross-platform, free and open source. A usable alternative to Adobe Illustrator.
yawood
KeePass is a fantastic program, I have been using it for many, many years. I use it to keep a secure record of credit card numbers, passport numbers, driving licence numbers etc, not just passwords. Firefox has been my preferred browser since it was Netscape many years ago. I still think it trumps all the rest, especially Google Chrome that just wants to force you into everything Google. I will try LibreOffice. I have used Open Office years ago but it left a bit to be desired.
Wombat56
Firefox has blotted its copy book by going towards a "blank screen" user interface against the wishes of many of its users. I use Waterfox instead, which is unfortunately limited to the Firefox's old style add-ons, but at least I can see what I'm doing. Pale Moon is another alternative to those who reject Firefox's current styling. I do NOT recommend a freeware antivirus solution. Clam AV consistently ranks well behind the commercial AV programs in detection rates, at least for the Windows platform. A freeware project does not have the resources to keep up with a rapidly changing threat model. A 2 year, three device license for Kaspersky can be got from eBay for less than $15 AUD or around $11 US. Grit your teeth and pay the money, it's worth it on this occasion. (licenses are likely geoblocked). KeePass is my preferred password manager, Libre Office is my word processor and VLC is my favorite media player. I don't do graphics but I've read that GIMP is powerful but a bit of a pain to learn and use. Paint.net is often spoken of a good freeware graphics program.
Douglas E Knapp
GIMP WAS a pain to learn but it is much better now. You also a have some other art programs to choose from like Krita, Mypaint and for vector Inkscape and for 3d Blender 3d. Note++?? Why? Kate is great, free and works on everything. If you are hardcore go for Vim. Ubuntu is not the number on distro but not bad. Take a look at any of the top 10 on Distrowatch. The classic recommendation is Mint. I personally use Manjaro KDE Linux but it is not quite as easy as the other two to install but it has a rolling release which mean, when it works well, no more installing a new system every few years. I think it should also be said that Linux programs tend to be 10 times smaller than Windows products as well as the data that they store so you can use a smaller computer and it will run faster. A last warning, look up driver info for your printer. A lot of printers work great out of the box but there are still problems in some cases. This can be a deal breaker. Naturally if you know you are going to use Linux just buy a supported printer.
ljaques
I love free and open source software and use Firefox, Thunderbird, MS Security Essentials, PR Grep, and Open Office. And I fell in love with NoteTabPro, a low-priced pay software for editing all things ASCII and code (HTML, CSS, PHP, etc.) The the multiple-document Search and Replace function is awesome, and what it can do with editing out spaces and carriage returns in ascii docs it just beautiful. It was worth the $15 back in '97.