Inkscape is a totally free vector art program. It’s pretty robust, but like many open source apps, it feels a little more old-fashioned than Adobe Illustrator, it’s retail cousin. For instance, if you apply a gradient to a shape in Inkscape, you can’t move it; you have to put your gradient on a new shape, place that over the existing shape as you see fit and mask it. Throwback functionality like this will make newbies and users who depend on illustrator‘s simplicity groan, but with patience you can do everything you can do in illustrator in Inkscape.
…Except edit .Ai files. Yes, while Gimp can edit PSDs and OpenOffice can edit Microsoft’s native formats, you can’t switch content between Illustrator and Inkscape so easily. While this limitation may hurt inkscape’s commercial applications (only a little, since it can make .SVG files) it is no barrier to using this excellent free tool for home art projects.
7.5/10 (and it’ll go up as the program improves, I’d wager)
As a Photoshop user of the old school I approached GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) with caution. I’d heard a lot of negative press about it- that it was not as feature rich as Photoshop, that it lacked Photoshop’s vast reserves of file types, filters, and pizazz, that it was not a worthwhile product. Even the official GIMP website warned me that my Windows install was totally unsupported, in a kind of wet-noodle down-with-Microsoft-and-get-Linux gesture.
Imagine my surprise when GIMP turned out to be pretty awesome.
First the bad stuff. The (unsupported) Windows build is not at all stable. Running in fullscreen can cause your tool palettes to vanish when you switch tasks, sometimes the color tools just crash it, and filter previews area bit dodgy. You have to do some quirky old-fashioned stuff like manually adding alpha channels to layers, and selections are a pain to work with. The save dialog could also use some work.
And that’s it for bad stuff. In almost every other respect, GIMP can pull the weight of Photoshop. Blend modes, channel and layer management, a fully-functional history, and an array of filters are all at your disposal. Almost every Photoshop feature can be approximated in GIMP, and personally, I actually like GIMP’s pen tool a bit more than Photoshop’s. GIMP also supports about as many file types as Photoshop, although not all of the same ones. Would I be using Photoshop if it didn’t cost nine hundred million billion dollars? Maybe, but for a free product GIMP is above and beyond.
Caveat: I didn’t have much trouble learning GIMP because I’m used to image manipulation programs, but for a first-timer it could be more daunting than Photoshop. Do some tutorials, read some articles, and you’ll get the hang of it.
I recently rebuilt my computer, and even though I had a copy of Microsoft Office 2003 (the last release I like) sitting around, I decided to try just using OpenOffice instead. For those of you who don’t know about OpenOffice but somehow managed to find a blog that reviews it, OpenOffice is an open-source competitor to Microsoft Office providing basically the same features. Don’t get too excited, platform vigilantes- while OpenOffice is free and open, all that code forms the base for new releases of Sun’s StarOffice. And Sun is at least half as evil as Microsoft.
That said, OpenOffice is one of the best free software suites around. It does just about everything Microsoft Office does, plus extra. For instance, its draw application is capable of more features than Visio, including converting bitmaps to vector art, and OpenOffice applications can output to PDF without the benefit of any free or retail plugins. OpenOffice Writer, the chunk most people will be interested in, does everything Word does and can even open and create Word’s .doc files (why you’d ever want to make a .doc file is beyond me). Perhaps the most striking feature of OpenOffice is Spreadsheet, which is almost feature-identical to Excel.
OpenOffice is not perfect. Writer performs noticibly slower than Word, and its spellcheck and autocorrection features feel incomplete and second-rate next to Word’s. When working in the .doc format, Writer is vulnerable to the same poor performance as Word, generating errors in long documents and getting genuinely confused with track changes. As files are passed back and forth between Office and OpenOffice, they seem to degrade somewhat as well. This doesn’t happen when you open a Word document in Writer, but after your files have bounced between the two several times you may notice a font off or some spacing gone here and there. It’s really no worse than what happens when you move files between different versions of Office.
Final verdict: Microsoft Office is a fine suite, but considering it’s free, OpenOffice has nothing to be ashamed of. OpenOffice has come a long way and I’d say it’s ready for prime time. Its adoption by business may forever be nixed because, frankly, American businesses don’t trust open-source applications, but for any user looking to save a few hundred bucks, it’s a great alternative. Businesses should consider this: right now, Office Ultimate is retailing for $679.95. Assuming your business has 300 employees, who all need office software, and assuming Microsoft cuts you a whopping 50% discount, you’d still save over a hundred grand by adopting OpenOffice.
Think about it.
8/10 (9/10 if you’re too poor for anything else)