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For those on a tight budget, free software like OpenOffice can help people get their work done without breaking the bank.

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Back to school

The over-leveraged parents' guide to cheap software

Last Updated Aug. 28, 2007

There's that moment of letdown you get right after you unpack all those bits and pieces of your kid's new back-to-school computer — and it has nothing to do with the wisdom of your purchase.

It comes with the realization that loading the machine up with software could be almost as expensive as buying the computer in the first place. This becomes particularly apparent as you browse the software aisles — virtually or in the flesh — and see what there is to be had, and how much it costs.

Plugging in the machine and firing it up is often the prelude to a couple of hours of do-it-yourself software installation unless you shell out the money to buy a machine fully configured with software.

What to look for

The key questions to ask, of course, are what the computer is going to be used for and what types of software are a must-have.

After purchase, before you do anything else, the most important software will be your security suite. The big names in PC security, McAfee and Symantec's Norton, both offer good protection from virus attacks and spyware. There are also anti-virus packages that have a free basic version for individual users, such as Grisoft's AVG. In between are packages such as the $40 US Zone Labs Security Suite, which for the money is robust and easy to configure. The downside is you'll have to renew your subscription regardless of your AV choice — annually.

Speaking of security, anti-spyware software is also a good idea. Popular packages include Ad-Aware from Lavasoft, and Spybot, both of which can be found through an online search engine. Basic Ad-Aware is free and Spybot only asks you make a small donation through PayPal, though it too is free. If you opt for the Zone Labs Security Suite, however, take a pass on Ad-Aware since they tend not to co-exist well on the same computer.

Microsoft Explorer is the standard browser that comes with the Windows operating system. A good alternative is Firefox, which is a free download. Firefox is generally thought to be a more robust browser and less prone to opening a window into your system when you surf. I'd keep IE 7.0 as a backup, though, since some websites, especially those handling credit card transactions, don't always play nice with Firefox or other browsers such as Opera.

Incidentally, there's a great resource to be had by Googling "Google Pack," which will take you to a one-stop page where you can download a suite of free software such as the afore-mentioned Firefox browser and Ad-Aware, along with essentials like Adobe Acrobat Reader (also free), which you'll need at some point to open .pdf documents. In that pack you'll also find two other student essentials: Skype (for free voice-over-internet protocol phone calls) and StarOffice (for word processing and other office jobs).

Office applications

Which brings us to office productivity software, the core tools most students will need to get their work done.

In most cases, depending on the school and the program, software essentials like a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications should suffice. Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint are by far the market leaders in these areas, but they don't come cheap. The full-blown 2007 business version of the Microsoft Office suite costs several hundred dollars, and is packed with useful features along with a slew of things most people will never use at home.

Links

It's not the only game in town, though — and you don't have to re-mortgage the house to get the basics. The 2003 version of Microsoft Office is knocking around at around $180, while the student-and-teacher version is available for about $100.

But why pay when you can get something for free?

OpenOffice is a free downloadable suite with just about everything most users will need: software for spreadsheets, word processing, drawing, database, presentations and even formula editing. It's distributed by Sun Microsystems and runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. All of the OpenOffice components are full-featured programs that create files that are compatible with their Microsoft Office counterparts, and it supports the OpenDocument file format. The software has been downloaded by tens of millions of people and is used around the world, so it's widely considered as stable and safe.

Communications

The only thing missing from OpenOffice is an e-mail program, but since most kids already have free Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail or MSN e-mail accounts, they'll likely just use their browsers to access those accounts. If not, the same folks who make Firefox also make Thunderbird, which is a free e-mail program.

Skype is also a favourite program for people on a budget. It's a VoIP application which lets you make calls from the computer to regular phones almost anywhere in the world for as little as two cents a minute. For students, though, the attraction is that if their friends and parents have Skype installed, they can call each other — or Mom and Dad (presumably for the send-more-money plea) — for free (as long as they all have internet access and are at their computers when the call is placed).

Skype is also compatible with most webcams, so there's the added attraction of having a video image of your kids away at college (so Mom can fuss over whether they're eating right and getting enough sleep). If your laptop or PC doesn't have a microphone and built-in webcam you'll need to add them — webcams can be had for as little as $20, and a headset will set you back about $10 at most discount electronics stores.

Incidentally, if you haven't bought a laptop or desktop yet, you might want to consider looking for one with the older Windows XP operating system. Vista is relatively new (it was released to consumers in January 2007) and many of the programs in circulation at the moment weren't written for it. As a result, XP is generally more compatible with everyday programs and peripherals — particularly the older copies you'll find in bargain bins — and it also uses fewer system resources (memory and processing power) than the more glitzy Vista.

Of course, your own offspring may have a completely different set of recommendations. I make no apologies for being an Old School Geek and as such, this list covers the basics of productivity software. If they clamour for must-have titles like NukeZone Terror 3 and Hostage Bloodbath: Revenge is Sweeter, you're on your own.

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