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My Choice in Open Source Windows Software

11 August, 2009 (22:36) | Applications, Blog, Operating Systems, Reviews, Windows | By: ender

Open Source Windows Software

There are plenty of “What’s the best open source Windows software for …. ?” on the ‘net but since I’m often asked what I personally use, here’s a list along with my reasons for choosing that option:

  • Browser – Firefox – http://www.mozilla.com
    • What’s to say, it’s the top of the heap when it comes to open source browsers. There was awhile where I used Chrome because it was faster, but the new Firefox 3.5 is very fast and I can still use my extensions. Cross-platform so I’ve got the same browser in Linux and Windows
  • Email – Thunderbird – http://www.mozilla.com
    • Again, it’s the gold standard. I really don’t do email in Windows very much anymore. I typically just SSH into my server and use mutt. When I do need to use email in Windows though, Thunderbird is the winner. And it also has lots of useful extensions. Cross-platform so I’ve got the same mail client in Linux and Windows
  • Instant Messaging – Pidgin – http://www.pidgin.im
    • Supports just about every IM/chat protocol. There’s some nice plugins included and more available elsewhere. It’s been solid and stable for me for a long time. When using it in windows, you can enable the included Windows plugin and configure the ability to dock the buddy list. It works great and I’m so used to it, I have trouble using IM software that doesn’t do this.  Also, make sure you choose to install the Aspell dictionary during installation, and it will spell check for you too. Cross-platform so I’ve got the same IM client in Linux and Windows.
  • SSH/Terminal – PuTTY – http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~sgtatham/putty/
    • I’ve been using PuTTY for a VERY long time. It’s supported pretty much everything I’ve ever needed it to do. Supports SSH, Telnet and Serial. As a bonus, it includes binaries for command line scp and sftp. Just put the PuTTY install dir in your PATH and go to town! There’s even a version for Windows Mobile touchscreen phones.
  • Zip/Compression/Archive – 7zip – http://www.7-zip.org
    • Though newer versions of Windows do support zip/unzip by default, it just doesn’t compare to a proper compression utility. 7-zip supports opening  just about any format you can throw at it [including .iso images].  It also can compress to several formats, including the standard .zip and its own .7zip format that is even more efficient. Also supports encryption/password protection of archives.
  • Passwords – KeePass – http://keepass.info
    • In my line of work I have to remember hundreds of passwords. Frankly, my memory isn’t that good. I’ve been using KeePass for some time to store my passwords. It uses strong encryption to protect your data, assuming you assign a strong master password to your password database. If you want to get very paranoid, you can also use a private key file [say kept on a USB drive], or configure it to require both the private key and a password. There are settings to allow you to copy a password to your clipboard, and then have that clipboard auto-clear your password, either after a set period of time, or as soon as you paste it once. That reduces the amount of time your password is kept in memory. It’s a great piece of software. Cross-platform
  • CD/DVD Burner – CDBurnerXP – http://cdburnerxp.se
    • I’ve always been too cheap to buy a commercial burning suite. So I’ve been using CDBurnerXP for quite a few years. It’s always worked great for simple burning processes. You don’t get any fancy multimedia editing and such, but if you just want to burn some files to a disc, or burn an ISO image, or create a basic audio CD, it works like a charm.
  • Simple Editor – GVim – http://www.vim.org/download.php#pc
    • GVim is a Windows GUI version of Vim. I’m a Unix admin so I use vi/vim enough that the commands are second nature to me. I tend to keep trying to use vi key combinations when I try to use notepad. So for simple text-editing I use Gvim. Be warned, the usage of vi/vim is about the least-intuitive program ever written, so this is not a good editor for a beginner! But if you spend the time to learn vi, it is a VERY powerful text editor.
  • Word Processing [Simple] – Abiword – http://www.abisource.com
    • When I need a WYSIWYG word processor in Windows, I typically reach for Abiword. It’s lightweight and works great. This is often what I use for writing papers for school. Cross-platform
  • Office Suite – OpenOffice – http://www.openoffice.org
    • I don’t often need anything much more powerful than Abiword, but when I do I use OpenOffice. Honestly it’s a little bloated sometimes. I use MS Office 2007 at work, and Word and Excel are really decent programs [not that they don’t have their annoying quirks]. But I can’t always afford to drop MS size money on office software, so while it’s a little slower, and not quite as good as MS Office, it’s more than featureful enough for 99% of the users out there. Cross-platform
  • Video Player – VideoLan Client [VLC] – http://www.videolan.org/vlc
    • In the XP days, Microsoft expected you to pay $10 [or more] to be able to play DVDs, or just about any video format other than MPEG1 and WMV. Well VLC will play just about anything. Instead of trying to wrestle with various plugins and codecs to try to get Windows Media Player to play my divx/xvid/h.264 videos, I just use VLC. Cross-platform
  • Image Manipulation [Photoshop] – Gimp – http://www.gimp.org
    • Not a chance in hell I can afford Photoshop. Unless you’re a professional graphic artist, the Gimp will handle anything you need it to do. Cross-platform
  • IRC – Xchat [unofficial] – http://silverex.info/download
    • I don’t IRC directly from Windows very often anymore, but when I do I prefer Xchat. The official version recently went shareware [for the Windows binaries only], but it’s open source, so there are several sources for free versions. Cross-platform so you can use the same chat software in Windows or Linux.
  • XServer – Xming – http://www.straightrunning.com/XmingNotes
    • Sometimes I need to run GUI programs from a remote Unix/Linux box and have it display on my local Windows box. Xming to the rescue [along with PuTTY or some other SSH software]. Chances are if you don’t know about remote X Window sessions, you don’t need this software, but if you do, this works great and you don’t have to pay for Exceed Hummingbird.
  • Audio Editing – Audacity – http://audacity.sourceforge.net
    • One more thing I don’t do a whole lot of, but when my wife started singing in a band, this came in handy as a way to splice together some recordings into a demo medly. You can edit audio files and save them as WAV or [with the right codecs] as FLAC or MP3. Not the most user-friendly piece of software out there but I’m no audio engineer and I was able to figure out the basics. Cross-platform.
  • Network Snooping – Wireshark – http://www.wireshark.org
    • This software will watch your network card and track all the packets going in and out, and give you the ability to trace specific connections. A Windows gui answer to tcpdump/snoop in the Unix world. Extremely handy for tracking down tricky connection problems.
  • Games – Battle for Wesnoth – http://www.wesnoth.org
    • This is a turn-based fantasy strategy game. There’s a ton of included levels and many more 3rd party quests available. It looks good but doesn’t require a ton of hardware. It runs great on my netbook @ 1024×600. [exit button is cropped in the menu, but the in-game graphics are fine]. I haven’t played it for a real long time but it’s fun so far.  I know there are a lot of good open source games out there, but this is the one I”ve been playing lately since I”m on the netbook. Cross-platform.

You might notice that I’ve labeled quite a few of these with “Cross-platform”. This is one of the great things about open source. I switch quite a bit between Linux and Windows. By using a lot of cross-platform software I’m able to keep mostly the same interfaces regardless of which environment I’m in. As a bonus for those who have never used Linux, if you start using a bunch of good cross-platform software, by the time you do get around to trying Linux, you’ll already be familiar with a lot of the software, so the change won’t be so traumatic. :)


Here are some other good pieces of software that I use that are not necessarily open source.

  • DVD Ripping – DVDShrink –   http://www.dvdshrink.org/what_en.php
    • For ripping DVDs to HD before I convert them to XVID. Can also compress the video while keeping it in proper DVD format but I rarely use this functionality. Mainly I do a re-author, and copy only the main title and the english 5.1 audio. This is freeware, but not technically legal so you can’t actually download the software from the dvdshrink site. You have to search google for the latest release version and download it elsewhere.  It doesn’t support some of the newest DVD Copy protection schemes, so sometimes I have to pull out DVDDecryptor or something but I don’t buy a lot of new DVDs anymore. I manly rip my old ones, so DVDShrink works on most of what I have.
  • Encode DVDs – Auto GordianKnot [AutoGK] – http://www.autogk.me.uk
    • Once I’ve ripped the re-authored DVD to disk [containing ONLY the main title and the English 5.1 soundtrack], I use AutoGK to encode the movie into XVid Format. I know that a lot of people use Handbrake to convert to h.264, but I haven’t had a lot of luck with that in general. Also I’ve found these Xvid videos to be the most compatible all around. I set them to rip to a width of 720 [standard DVD width], and to keep the AC3 audio stream. I typically aim for about 2Gb filesize. This way the resulting video looks good on an HDTV, and with this format, I can stream the video to my Xbox360 [or play from USB HD] and still get surround sound. The Xbox360 is very picky about the audio and this is the best format I’ve found for keeping good video quality and still getting full surround sound.  This software is not frequently maintained recently, but the most recent stable release works great for me.
  • Photo Management – Picasa – http://picasa.google.com
    • I take a fair number of pictures with my DSLR. Between some art-type photos, and pics of the kiddo it ends up being a lot of pictures to manage. I’ve had the best luck with Picasa from Google. It’s simple, and handles both JPGs and the RAW image format my Canon uses.
  • PDF Reader – Foxit Reader – http://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf/reader
    • Acrobat Reader has gotten stupid levels of bloat lately, not to mention the not-infrequent security issues. So I’ve started installing Foxit Reader on my systems. I rarely have to do anything more complicated than read a PDF so this works great.


I’d also like to point you to http://portableapps.com. This site has fully portable versions of much of the software above, and a ton of other applications as well. You can load it onto a USB drive and run your own copy of Firefox, or Thunderbird etc, without having to install it, so you don’t need any kind of admin rights on the the system to run whatever app you want.  I’ve used this to great effect at school, since I don’t trust the browsers on the class computers!

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I’ll add more items if I think of any later.

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