Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Freemind 0.8.0

I've never tried mind mapping software before, dismissing it as new age alternative hippie mumbo jumbo. For those of you who don't know what mind mapping is, it's basically software for brainstorming. Usually, snippets of ideas are encapsulated into clouds and attached to each other depending on their relationships, all gathered around one central idea.

Freemind came heavily recommended by Ubuntu Linux, thus garnering it enough respect for me to try it out. Their website isn't very professional (it's a wiki), and from my past experience, programs requiring Sun's Java Runtime Environment are usually not worth their time or effort.

Freemind proves that you can't judge software by its website. This thing is amazing. I want to run on rooftops and proclaim its magnificence, and the sad part is, I'm dead serious.

My first impression was that of professionalism; from the gorgeous splash screen to the detailed user interface, Freemind does not look like your typical Java Swing ugly codemonkey brew.

However, the user interface is a bit overwhelming at first - there's this huge vertical toolbar on the left filled with crazy icons. Thankfully, they all come with tooltips and are used more as stickers for easy identification of your ideas.

Most of the time, you'll be entering your ideas in nodes, which have parents and children to denote their level, like a flowchart. Nodes are inserted with (*gasp*) the Insert key, and siblings are inserted with the Enter key. You can expand and collapse each level of the tree at will, and all of the controls are extremely intuitive and responsive. In fact, I whipped together a comprehensive plan for Open Source Zoo in about 10 minutes starting from my first exposure to the program.

Speaking of responsiveness, the performance is great, especially for a Java program. I ran Freemind on an old machine with a 1 GHz processor and 768 MB RAM, with absolutely no lag or visible slowdown. There's plenty of export options, like PDF, HTML, SVG, PNG, JPEG, and XSLT, as well as import options, allowing you to use other mind mapping programs, such as Mind Manager, if necessary.

I don't know why you'd want to use anything else though. I really can't praise Freemind enough, you have to try it. It changed my life.

There are two versions of Freemind, a lite and a heavy. Go for the heavy, it's only 8 MB and it supports SVG exporting, which is very nice; that way you can edit your maps with Inkscape and not have blurriness problems.

Official Site:

Monday, June 18, 2007


Democracy is an Internet TV player, and easily best of breed. A very mature and stable code base combined with a friendly user interface and TiVo-like features (such as the intelligence to delete saved old shows to make more room on your hard drive) make this an extremely attractive alternative to cable or satellite TV.

Better yet, you can grab videos from YouTube, Google Video, and other similar sites, and Democracy will even find all your video files so you can have easy access to your entire collection; it plays a variety of video formats including AVI, MPEG, WMV, and Quicktime.

The price certainly doesn't hurt, either - it's completely free. Obviously, you'll need a fast internet connection to take advantage of internet TV, but Democracy downloads the shows you want and you can watch them at your leisure later.

There aren't any commercials, but the caliber of the channels are wide and varied; there's National Geographic, Comedy Central, Adult Swim, and even MSNBC News as well as random stuff like StrongBad and channels about certain heiresses.

Best of all, this allows media to be completely open, so instead of only having the few big conglomerates that dominate television these days, you can get the indie stuff as well as the usual. Hopefully more and better content will be available in the future, but the pickings aren't exactly slim right now, so give it a shot.

Official Site:

Dia 0.96.1

Dia is an open source program designed for drawing diagrams, much like Microsoft Visio. However, it is a poor alternative to Visio, with an overly simplistic user interface and many of the problems that plague GIMP from becoming a viable substitute for Photoshop.

Don't worry, Dia is mature code and runs fast, though while fully functional, the lack of template drag and drop diagramming images makes design a bit of a hassle. It has a decent set of premade images, with support for UML diagrams, database design, etc. but not quite at the level of Visio.

Not recommended yet, but take a look. Hopefully the development team can continue to add features to make it competitive with Visio.

Official Site:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Nvu 1.0

Nvu is a web development program, similar to Microsoft Frontpage or Macromedia Dreamweaver. It's not quite as full featured, but works great to cook up a quick website, especially if you don't want to learn HTML.

Nvu is fully WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), although it has a Developer view so you can see and edit the HTML source being generated.

FTP uploading is there, and it even opens up HTML pages in tabs so you can work on a complete website simultaneously without overrunning the taskbar. Best of all, Nvu supports web templates, so you can create sites that have a unified theme without repasting everything on each page.

All in all, Nvu is good for beginner web development, but for the advanced folks, this won't make your life much easier since there's no support for Javascript, AJAX, or ASP. However, it does have a built in CSS editor, and it allows the embedding of PHP, but these features aren't very powerful - pros are better off with their text editor of choice.

Official Site:

Inkscape 0.45.1

Inkscape is a scalable vector graphics editor, similar to Adobe's Illustrator. Scalable vector graphics (.svg files) are images that keep their "resolution" regardless of size, which is awesome since conventional pictures like JPEGs and GIFs get all blurry when enlarged.

Inkscape works a lot like Photoshop/Illustrator/GIMP, with an easy to use albeit slightly cluttered interface due to the multitude of windows instead of a master window. However, it is arguably further along than the GIMP in terms of professional usability. In fact, I'd say it's a decent substitute for Illustrator for general use.

Then again, I'm not a graphics designer. But I LOOOVE the calligraphy pen.

Play around with it, check it out. It's good for designing website banners and t-shirts at the very least.

Official Site:

VLC Media Player 0.8.6

This is it, folks - VLC is the media player on steroids. Without the nasty side effect of steroids. Who needs DVD codecs? VLC plays virtually any media filetype, thanks to its comprehensive library of built-in codecs.

You heard me. No codecs. Don't worry about buying decoders (such as PowerDVD, etc.) to read your DVDs, VLC will play them (and pretty darn well) for free. Don't worry about downloading foreign codecs (possibly filled with malware) to watch ripped movies. VLC's got your back.

VLC also reads zipped/compressed media files, on the fly, with minimal performance impact. Yup, that means if you're too lazy to unzip your files, no biggie. Also, you can stream files that haven't finished downloading yet - instant gratification, no waiting required. This thing is a champion. In fact, VLC can even be made into a server to stream media on a network.

It's also skinnable, with lots of lookalike skins on the main site to emulate Windows Media Player 10, Mac OS X iTunes/Quicktime, and even WinAmp.

The only bad part is occasionally it crashes (albeit gracefully), usually when the computer is low on memory. But then again, we can say the same thing about Windows... Also, the user interface is a bit lacking; seeking through a video is difficult to do precisely.

Despite those shortcomings, it's still highly recommended.

VLC is like a Swiss Army knife, get it just in case.

Official Site:

The GIMP 2.2.15

The GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and is an open source substitute for Adobe Photoshop. You may be asking yourself, "What does GNU stand for?" The answer is, GNU stands for GNU's Not Unix. What can I say, this is the work of computer geeks.

The GIMP is good for stuff that Paint can't quite take care of (such as saving in different file formats than .bmp) and has basic image editing tools, as well as some fun scripts, but it's not quite at the level of Photoshop yet.

The user interface is intuitive, but not streamlined; it opens each image as a separate window, instead of keeping them all within a parent window like Photoshop does. Performance is also lacking, requiring hefty system resources, although the same problem rings true with Photoshop. Graphic designers complain that it lacks some tools, but I'm not a graphic designer so I wouldn't know.

In a nutshell, if you're looking to touch up some family photos, GIMP works great as a Photoshop alternative. But if you're looking to do serious image editing as a graphics designer (or providing the IT infrastructure for graphics design), then you probably want to invest in Adobe Photoshop. For now, at least.

Regardless, it doesn't hurt to find out for yourself, it's free.

Official Site:
http://gimp-win.sourceforge.net (Windows)

Similar software:

OpenOffice 2.2.1

Microsoft Office is expensive. Office 2007 isn't even backwards compatible with older versions by default, due to the .docx extension...

So, if you can't fork over the $150 to buy Office, OpenOffice provides an excellent free alternative. It's got the usual productivity programs, such as a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress), database (Database), and desktop publishing (Draw). All of these programs are structured very similarly to their Microsoft counterparts, and although lacking some of the advanced features provided by Office, let's be honest - who uses them anyways?

Bad news is, the formatting sometimes gets messed up between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office documents, but for the most part things tend to be fine if you make sure to save the OpenOffice documents as their Microsoft equivalents (use Save As and make sure the file extension is .doc to make it Word compatible, .xls to make it Excel compatible, .ppt to make it Powerpoint compatible, etc.). Also make sure to use normal fonts; don't expect fancy fonts to be duplicatible.

This one's got potential - OpenOffice is financially backed by Sun Microsystems, who certainly has some interest in reducing Microsoft market share. It's a spinoff of Sun's StarOffice, which is a similar (but not free) office suite. Definitely look for OpenOffice to be a serious contender in the future; it's already a very viable alternative to Office.

Official Site:

Similar software:

Pidgin 2.0.2

Man, I can't stand the stupid AOL Instant Messenger advertisement window, with that annoying "Scroll over to view ad" feature that plays crappy music and blurry videos about things I don't care about.

Make it go away with the open source Pidgin. It used to be called GAIM, but AOL kept hitting them with lawsuits, so they changed their name to Pidgin. Good thing, too, since Pidgin supports multiple instant messaging protocols, not just AIM. Others include MSN, Yahoo, IRC, IRQ, Google Talk, and many more; the best part is you can use these protocols simultaneously. Make sure you spell it right though; I see a lot of misspellings that represent the bird pidgeon. Pidgin is actually a real word that means "a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups who do not share a common language", which makes sense since the Pidgin program supports a lot of different IM protocols. Just a bit a trivia.

Pidgin has an easy to use interface, and I'm guessing since most of you guys will be interested in the AIM functionality, the only feature it's missing is the ability to message folks that are offline. However, they plan to add it in later releases. The other minus is a limited number of smileys, but I don't use them so I don't feel a loss - you might not be able to see some friends' smileys though. Google Talk also seems to be getting popular, here's a link if you want to configure Pidgin for GTalk.

Away messages are easy to set and save, while checking profiles is as easy as holding your mouse over the buddy name. Plus, you can talk while your status is set to Away, which is very nice when you have pesky undesirables that somehow got a hold of your screen name.

Excellent software, grab it now and give it a shot, you'll like it.

Official Site:

Similar software:
Miranda IM


Thunderbird is a free and open source email client counterpart to Outlook, much like Firefox is to Internet Explorer.

Thunderbird is arguably more robust than Firefox; I haven't seen memory leaks or even bugs for that matter. However, some default settings are a bit inconvenient for my university, so your mileage may vary - the "Mark Messages as Deleted" feature is preferred to the "Move Deleted Messages to Trash" because it doesn't require additional disk quota.

There's also automatic spam filtering, but it's Bayesian to the best of my knowledge, which means it uses statistical rules for filtering. Unfortunately, that means you have to feed it ham (which is good email) as well as spam, and it's a bit difficult to set up.

However, my lack of witnessing any bugs whatsoever makes this a very competitive email client, especially considering the amount of viruses that spread through Microsoft Outlook's Address Book feature. Highly recommended to replace Outlook

Official Site:

Similar software:
Eudora (Not recommended.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Firefox is probably the best web browser to date, with plenty of customizations, plug-ins, and add-ons that increase functionality.

It's used extensively by entities requiring high security. In fact, I work at a government research lab and they have completely disabled Internet Explorer and require the use of Firefox exclusively as the web browser of choice.

However, Firefox is not without problems - there are bugs even in the newest version ( at the time of this writing). Notable problems include the propensity for memory leaks. Also, it occasionally exhibits weird behaviors after having too many tabs open, such as not registering keyboard typing or the arrow keys for scrolling.

Don't let the bad news let you down, though; it's definitely one of the top browsers.

Official Site:

Similar software:


Welcome to the Open Source Zoo!

Here we proudly display various open source and freeware programs so you can find alternatives for proprietary software, in an effort to help the open source initiative. I've personally used every piece of software posted here, to ensure good working order - only functional, production level programs are included, and I post my various reactions about them here as well.

All programs listed on this blog are downloadable completely free of charge will be tagged as either open or closed depending on the source code availability. Also, they are classified under their various uses to help users find the software they want fast.

I'm open to suggestions for good open source / freeware programs not included in the zoo. Good is subject to my opinion; remember, I test every program posted here for quality assurance.

If you find a particular program exceptionally useful, please think about donating some money to the development team. Many are actually non-profit organizations, making your donation tax deductible in the United States, and I'll try to label them as such. Remember that the development team spent a lot of time and effort to make a product for you to use for free. At the very least, spread the word, so that their efforts are not in vain.

Enjoy the Zoo!