Free Expression

Unlike some of my other posts, this one is about some of the practicalities of reducing costs, specifically, software costs.  As my retirement day approached, one of the very few things we agreed I needed to buy was a laptop.  Prior to that, I’d had one provided through work – more than one, actually, as a large part of my job was centred around the provision of technology in an educational setting, and I was constantly trying out new devices for compatibility with software, our system, student needs.  So there was always one I could use, and I was violating no employment rules by using them for personal as well as business needs.

Because of my work, I’d had the opportunity to try netbooks, chromebooks, ipads, other tablets…and what I wanted was a regular laptop.  My needs were this:  a screen and keyboard that would be big enough for aging eyes and arthritic shoulders – I’d found with the smaller devices, I leaned forward too much to look at the screen and the smaller keyboards made my shoulders and upper back hurt; I needed it to run an office program, primarily a word-processor for my writing and a spreadsheet program for budgeting; some digital-editing software for my artwork, and to do email, and that was just about it.  Oh, and i-Tunes, which I use occasionally.

I bought the laptop itself in February, for about three hundred dollars, a discontinued (I think) Acer Aspire running Windows 8.  I can bounce between just about any operating system without too many problems, so that was ok, even though it was new to me.  It came with a thirty-day trial of Microsoft Office, but I really didn’t want to spend more money on software.  I considered using only Google Docs, but our rural internet isn’t that good, and in experimentation I found the upload speeds just couldn’t handle it reliably.

Again, based on prior experience, I knew that Open Office, (which is open source freeware) would meet my needs, so that’s what I went with. (I could have used LibreOffice, too, and I’m sure there are others out there just as good. This isn’t a plug for Open Office per se, just a post about freeware.)  It’s met all my needs; all the final work on Empire’s Daughter was done on Open Office, including the last submission and conversion to e-book formats.  I still need to ask the Help menu how to do certain things…but to be honest, I found that I was doing that constantly with the last release of Microsoft Word too.  I think I just can’t hold as many things in my brain any more.

Then there was the artwork.  I’d been using Adobe Photoshop Elements, but I wanted to see if I could get by without it.  The quick answer was no, I couldn’t, not entirely.  Paint is a reasonable basic program, but it wouldn’t do what I wanted when it came to digitizing and modifying my pen-and-ink-and-watercolour originals.  I sometimes create entirely in Paint, though, if I’m looking for a simple, folk-art look, shown in the image that accompanies this post.  I couldn’t find a freeware to do the job, so in this case I gave in and bought Photoshop Elements.  But even then, with a bit of judicious on-line shopping, I ended up paying much less than the Adobe download price, and from a reputable office-supply store, so I could be confident it wasn’t pirated.  I just had to wait a few days for the disc and serial number to arrive in the mail.

Another piece of freeware I use on something resembling a regular basis is my tax software.  BD did the taxes up to two years ago, and by the old-fashioned method of pencil and paper and mailed-in returns.  And usually in November. Revenue Canada always owed us money, because of retirement plan and charitable contributions, so they didn’t really care he was seven months late (they even pay interest)…and he always made mistakes, which they always fixed.  Finally (after thirty-five years) I took them over, and immediately went looking for tax software that would do the calculations and e-file for me. Nicely, Revenue Canada lists several, including freeware, on their website.  I couldn’t see paying thirty or forty dollars (every year) for software…so I read up on the freewares, and picked one, and bingo – the taxes get done on time, no calculation errors, e-filed, and the returns deposited in our bank account in about three weeks.

Finally, there is anti-virus software.  From my sister, who was a systems analyst for thirty-five years (after abandoning law, but that’s a story for another day, about why she did so) I learned about Avast, which is the anti-virus freeware she uses.   I haven’t used it yet; I had a Norton subscription I could switch over to the new laptop, so I’m still using that.

But here is where my sense of community responsibility and justice kicks in.  These softwares are the result of hard work, usually by many people, who are offering them to the public for free.  But I can afford to pay at least something for them; I just don’t feel like putting more money in the hands of big corporations than I need to. (But I’m not technologically talented enough to use Linux, or I probably would.) There’s an option to pay something for all of them, but you get to try them out first, and even then you pay only if you wish.

Now here’s the caveat:  do your research!  There’s a lot of free stuff on the internet which is just a method of getting malware into your computer.  I had years of experience and access to a IT department that would help me solve issues when I – or my staff or the students which I worked with – made mistakes. I know how to restore my computer to its previous safe state if I do screw up (and I’ve had to do it).  Make sure your anti-virus is up to date before downloading anything, and if it’s got a website checker, use it.  Freeware isn’t worth it if you have to pay a tech to fix the problems it caused.  (I’m the unpaid computer tech in this household, and BD’s made some major mistakes over the years which ate up quite a few Saturdays…sigh.  I still can’t make his laptop find his printer in the control panel, although it communicates with the printer without issue otherwise.  Puzzling…)

What freewares have you used?  Do you have experiences to share, good or bad?  I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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