Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 14:26 UK

The open source alternative

Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Click presenter

Computer factory workers
Installing open source software reduces the cost to the consumer
Staying at the cutting edge of high tech is an expensive business, but if you are about to buy the very latest PC then you might like to know that you do not have to pay through the nose to load it with useful software.

For many years buying a home computer has been synonymous with buying a copy of Microsoft's Windows operating system.

But now, led by the US computer giant Dell, it is getting easier to purchase a PC loaded with a cheaper alternative.

Windows is a significant part of the cost of a new system, so not having to buy it with your machine can save you a packet.

Windows is the market leader, and Mac OS is the equivalent operating system pre-installed on new Apple machines. But for the past year Dell has been selling systems pre-installed with Linux, the free, open source alternative.

Windows look

Linux is the basis for a vast array of other operating systems like Debian, RedHat and Ubuntu.

Ubuntu can be configured to have a similar look to Windows
Developed since 2004, Ubuntu's gained a significant following because of its ease of use. It is downloadable from the internet or available with a support contract for a few dollars.

Paying for free software might sound strange, but the licence under which this software is distributed does allow companies to make money out of it.

It is worth remembering that the programmers creating these open source alternatives are competing directly with Windows, so it is often worth making the desktop environment look familiar to Windows, in order to ease the transition.

Apart from Microsoft's proprietary technology and brands, Ubuntu in particular seems to emulate the Windows experience as closely as possible.

So, if you are buying a new machine or upgrading an old one, a Linux-based operating system is well worth considering, especially if you are on a tight budget.

Browser innovations

But this is a fairly complex way of saving money. There is still plenty of free software to pick from, regardless of which operating system you choose.

Firefox logo
Firefox was developed by the open source community
If you have just bought a computer, although you have shelled out a lot of cash, it might not be loaded with all the software you need.

To browse the web you have got lots of options.

Although Microsoft's Internet Explorer is free to download, it is limited to Windows users. There are countless other browsers, most of which have been ported to all the main operating systems.

The most popular is Firefox, hotly followed by Safari and Opera.

If we're looking at things like tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and auto completing of forms, these are innovations that we saw first of all in free software
Tim Phillips, technology journalist
With hundreds of programmers working on each, they are in a constant battle to be the fastest and most feature-rich browser around.

"Web browsers have been one of the most interesting areas where free software has managed to innovate," says technology journalist Tim Phillips.

"What's happened for a long time is that Microsoft have been so dominant in the commercial internet browser market with Internet Explorer that there hasn't really been room for commercial alternatives.

"So it's been left to enthusiasts and the open source community to take areas where they think browsers could be improved and to put that into their own products.

"If we're looking at things like tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and auto completing of forms, these are innovations that we saw first of all in free software which then were picked up specifically by Microsoft and the wider community," he adds.

So regardless of which operating system you have picked, there is an array of browsers to choose from, each one pushing the boundaries of browsing technology.

Virus protection

But let us not get carried away, using a machine connected to the internet makes you vulnerable to attack, so protecting yourself with anti-virus software is a must.

Media Monkey
Photoshop Express

Grisoft's AVG is a popular antivirus solution and it is free for home users. The company makes its money by selling services to small businesses, so even as a non-paying user you will get regular security updates.

There are other free security solutions on the web, but as with all free downloads, beware of malicious software disguised as a good deal.

"Something like AVG for example is extremely effective. But there are many, many more products that pretend to be free anti-virus or spyware detectors and what they're doing is either installing spyware themselves or they're just detecting it then asking you to pay for something that's going to remove it.

"That's quite cynical and not very helpful if you're trying to run your machine for free," says Tim Phillips.

Business applications

OpenOffice is a free alternative to Microsoft's Office programs, and it is the best value freeware we can find.

It is a fairly big download at more than 100MB, but it gives you a word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation programs.

Crucially, all of them can read and save in formats compatible with Microsoft's Office suite.

Click interview: Computer Active magazine editor, Paul Allen, recommends the best freeware software available

Click's top free software
16 May 08 |  Click
Dell to use Ubuntu on Linux PCs
01 May 07 |  Business

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