BOOT CAMP 479 (05/06/07)

Freeware Top Tens. Part 5, Microsoft Alternatives


There is a widely held view that Microsoft is the only game in town when it comes to PC operating systems and software, though the loyal army of Apple users would certainly disagree with that. However, beyond the offerings from the two principle players there doesn’t seem to be that much choice.


In fact nothing could be further from the truth and this week’s foray into the wonderful world of free software we look at some of the low and no-cost alternatives that are helping to keep the big boys on their toes.


You know the drill by now; you install these programs at your own risk, we cannot help with technical queries and please pay the licence fee or make a donation if you like what you find.


Operating Systems

Windows and the Mac operating systems remain the first choice by default for most PC users, and generally speaking they do the job but in the past five years Linux has evolved into a safe, secure and civilised alternative. However, it can still be a minefield for newcomers, not least navigating the vast choice of ‘distributions’.


At the last count there were more than1000 versions of Linux, though it’s not as bad as it sounds as most of them are designed for specialist applications, everything from controlling mobile phones to industrial servers. Nevertheless there are still more than 50 distributions that are suitable for desktop and laptop PCs, providing the same kind of functionality as Windows and the Mac OS; of those around a dozen or so are suitable for novices, and almost all of them are free or ‘Open Source’, yours for the cost of an Internet download.


The distributions we are most interested in share the same 32-bit architecture as Windows, in other words they will run on any reasonably recent Windows PC. Virtually all distributions designed for general use have a Windows like interface so there’s no steep learning curve and most come bundled with a comprehensive range of software, including web browser, email program, games, picture viewer and editor and a suite of MS Office compatible applications (word processor, spreadsheet, AV presenter and so on), suitable for home and office use.


Linux is a great way of putting a retired Windows PC to good use and for relatively painless introduction I suggest trying any of the following: Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, Red Hat, SuSE or Ubuntu. You will find a brief description and links to all of them on the Linux Online website, and if you fancy giving it a try look at Boot Camps 446 - 449, which shows you how to install Mandriva Linux on a PC, either on its own, or in a ‘dual-boot’ configuration with Windows. You can also get a taste of Linux, without changing your existing setup – see this weeks’ Top Tip.



Word Processor

Microsoft Word is difficult to avoid if you need to share or exchange documents with anyone else. But it’s not impossible and a good starting point is AbiWord. It’s another freebie Open Source program and the key advantage is that it can read and write Word Documents and is compatible with a host of other widely used WP programs and document formats, including WordPerfect, Palm, OpenOffice, RTF and HTML, to name just a few. It has a near identical layout to Word and similar set of features with a built-in spell-checker (30 languages), word count, mail merge, advanced layout options, tables, graphics handling, right to left and mixed mode text, import and export to/from pdf. There’s also a huge range of plug-ins to extend its capabilities even further, including text to speech, translation, grammar checker, Thesaurus and many, many more.


Office Suite

For an all-in one office suite, compatible with MS Office with a word processor, spreadsheet, AV presenter, database and so on, try For more details see Boot Camp 470.



Web Browser

Despite some major improvements to Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox continues to be the best free alternative. It has all of the features you are ever likely to need, including tabbed browser windows, pop-up blocking, integrated search with Google (and many other Search Engines), and a huge number of plug-ins. It’s also faster and a lot safer too, with greater immunity to spyware and the other Internet nasties that mostly target vulnerabilities in IE. 




Thunderbird was developed by the same people who brought us the Firefox browser. Once again its lower profile means improved security. However, it also stands on its own merit with lots of useful tools for managing your mail, like ‘tagging’, which lets you flag important messages with reminders. It’s easy to navigate as well with browser-like forward and back buttons, searching though messages is a lot more intuitive and frequent searches can be saved. Thunderbird is compatible with Gmail, there’s built-in phishing protection and an effective junk mail filter. Switching to Thunderbird couldn’t be simpler and it imports all of your messages and account settings from OE and other email programs (though, be warned, going back to OE if you don’t like Thunderbird isn’t as easy…). 


Next Week –  Freeware part 6 – Odds and Ends





Installing two or more operating systems on a PC



Computer software, usually freely available in the public domain where users are encouraged to contribute to its development



Fraudulent attempt to obtain personal details, bank and credit card information etc., by tricking web users into visiting bogus websites through links in emails that mimic messages from legitimate sources 



Several Linux distributions run directly from a ‘Bootable’ CD. Basically this means your PC boots from the CD (or DVD) rather than your hard drive, so no changes are made to your operating system. These are fully functional versions of Linux, with a built-in web browser, word processor and so on, and they can also read the files on your PC, so they can be a useful in an emergency, for getting at an important document etc., should Windows fail to start. There are full details of how to create a bootable Linux CD in Boot Camp 403.


Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at




© R. Maybury 2007, 2905

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