Top 20 Open Source Apps for Windows

Monday Oct 11th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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Open source downloads for file zipping, audio, video, graphics, office productivity and more.

When we think of open source software, generally we think of a desktop environment that supports the same principles. But what about those people who prefer using Windows, yet want to try out some open source software to see what all of the fuss is about?

To address this, I’ve put together twenty of my favorite open source applications for the Windows desktop. Then to make things interesting, I offer up the proprietary cousins for each application in comparison.

1) 7-Zip – Not to be confused with any of the other countless unzip programs out there, 7-Zip is unique in how it balances simplicity with format unpacking options. 7-Zip will pack/unpack anything from the following formats: 7z, ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2 and TAR. If you are looking to simply unpack software, then the list gets a bit longer: ARJ, CAB, CHM, CPIO, DEB, DMG, HFS, ISO, LZH, LZMA, MSI, NSIS, RAR, RPM, UDF, WIM, XAR and Z compression formats.

From the proprietary side of the fence, I point you to the popular WinZip program. Supported packing formats appear to be: ZIP and ZIPX. Anything beyond this is a mystery due to the feature list neglecting to elaborate on any other available formats.

2) Filezilla – Despite being my favorite FTP on my Linux desktop, if I was ever asked to use Windows again...this would be my FTP client of choice. Supporting options like FTP and FTPS, Filezilla is the FTP utility that I install on all of my PCs. Keeping my website FTP logins straight is also a snap, thanks to the included site bookmarks feature.

While I haven't used the software in recent years, I believe the closest proprietary cousin would have to be SmartFTP. Based on my understanding, SmartFTP offers the same features plus a few others not included with Filezilla. If you're looking to get FTP over SSH though, you’ll be looking at SmartFTP Pro edition. Did I mention Filezilla does this for free?

3) VLC – Why bother with downloading tons of codecs and half a dozen various video players when VLC does the job out of the box? While not visually as "sexy" when compared to other video players, I've found that VLC will play anything I throw at it. Audio, video, whatever -- it just works. Even more surprising is what appears to be possible support for Blu-ray playback thanks in part to the libbluray library project.

The most common proprietary alternative is going to be Windows Media Player (WMP). After looking on the WMP website, I was able to instantly see its limitations. For instance, if you lost your DVD decoding software somehow, you will be buying it again if you want that DVD playback functionality. Secondly, the WMP website is rather vague on what is offered for Blu-ray support. Seems the advice given is to use the "Blu-ray troubleshooter," whatever that is supposed to do. Digging further, it turns out that Windows 7 doesn't natively support Blu-ray playback, so one must "get" the codec to make that happen. Better add this to your shopping list.

4) Thunderbird with Lightning Calendar extension – Since most people are moving onto Google-based email and calendaring solutions anyway, Thunderbird is fast becoming a smart choice for Windows users looking for a strong email client. To use Google Calendar with Thunderbird however, one must toss in this add-on along with something called Lightning. The bundled Thunderbird installation provides a fairly decent open source Personal Information Manager (PIM) solution that would be my choice if were using the Windows desktop for any length of time. Besides built-in Bayesian spam filtering, I love how simple it is to export/import data from Thunderbird into other mail clients. Back-up is also simple. Thunderbird is awesome because I can export the data to ANY of the other platforms from Linux to OS X, with ease.

So what is the general choice for Windows users looking to run a proprietary PIM option? Well, you can go strictly email with Windows Mail. Or you can cough up the money for Microsoft Outlook instead? Assuming you can get past the fact that moving data from their PST file format into something compatible with other software is impossible, it does offer a more enterprise friendly solution than using Thunderbird w/Lightning. That said, unless you're relying on Microsoft Exchange support, I'd stick with Thunderbird myself using this option for better MS Exchange functionality.

5) Pidgin – Not that I use instant messaging (IM) all that much these days due to its disruptive nature, but when I do it's always with the Pidgin IM client. What is so awesome about using Pidgin is that it supports video chat when connected to Gtalk through the Jabber protocol. In addition to being able to use AOL, ICQ, MSN and other IM protocols with this messenger for text messaging, I enjoy the fact that Pidgin allows me to run them all at once if I choose to.

If I had to be fair and select the best proprietary cousin, it would have to be Trillian. Like Pidgin, Trillian provides Webcam support through both Yahoo! and its own network. What I didn't see listed was support for Gtalk though. Google reports Trillian Pro (paid edition) as supporting GTalk using the Jabber protocol. This will give you text chat only.

6) InfraRecorder – For burning CDs and DVDs with an open source solution, this is the way to go. It's simple to use, reliable and makes short work out of any data you need to write to CD or DVD type media. The only downside is the lack of support for Blu-ray.

Nero Burning ROM is likely the most comparable proprietary alternative. It provides all of the same as the open source solution shared above, with the exception of including Blu-ray support. The obvious downside of course is that unless you still have a copy of the software that came with a recent DVD or Blu-ray drive, you will be buying Nero as it's not freely available otherwise.

7) The GIMP – While perhaps not being a favorite among those who use graphics editing software for a living, for the rest of us, Gimp provides some fantastic functionality. Having used Gimp much more than any other similar software, it's difficult for me to fault it for anything. Gimp makes general editing and photo touch-ups very simple. And any filters of functions I find missing are almost always available as a plug-in somewhere, should the need arise.

As you might expect, Photoshop is the most commonly used alternative to Gimp. Once you get passed the pricing for this software, it provides the same functionality found in Gimp along with other filters not provided. For myself personally, the only thing I've ever found more compelling about Photoshop vs Gimp was the better text manipulation tools. Gimp could use some work there, but is otherwise a better value in my household.

Next Page: More Open Source Apps for Windows...

8) VirtualDub – Not my first choice in video editors as I prefer OpenShot for the Linux desktop, however it would be my next choice for video editing work on the Windows desktop. VirtualDub will do nearly anything most people expect from a video editing suite, in addition to making filters available through plug-ins offered on another website. The software is quick, bugs are minimal and for the price of $0, fits into the budgets of many would-be video editing enthusiasts.

Windows Movie Maker is what most casual video editing enthusiasts will be reaching for if they're looking for something proprietary-based. Like VirtualDub, it's freely available. However one might notice that it feels a bit more up to date, much like KDENLive or OpenShot would on the Linux platform. I have been told that VirtualDub still wins on speed though, and of course, it's open source.

9) Miro – I consider Miro to be more of a video jukebox than a video player like VLC. Despite having completely dropped the ball in the last few releases with Flash support for Linux users, Miro on Windows is actually difficult to duplicate in the proprietary software world -- it's unique in its offerings. Miro provides instant access to video channels for popular video podcasts, allows for RSS subscription support for mainstream content like Hulu or YouTube video. And overall, it’s the easiest bittorrent client available today. Miro can run in the background or provide instant gratification for those looking to download multiple videos at once.

Surprisingly the closest proprietary software to Miro is iTunes. Even then, iTunes doesn't offer the same kind of functionality. No Hulu, no bittorrent, yet it does offer much of the same type of podcast selection. Given that iTunes also supports music and mainstream movies, it's difficult to group this into the same category as Miro. And yet, it's the closest thing to Miro available using proprietary code.

10) Open Office – Once LibreOffice comes out of beta, my recommendation will obviously change. However for the time being, Open Office will remain my office suite of choice for Windows users. When it comes to simple, reliable access to spreadsheets, word processing and presentation creation, Open Office has always been my first choice. The only thing I would like to see is grammar check installed by default. While there are some mediocre grammar plug-ins available, they are quite unreliable and don't always install right.

Microsoft Office has ruled this space since the beginning of popular adoption of the PC. Expensive for most people, less expensive for students, Microsoft Office uses controversial file formats that have made it interesting to use on non-Microsoft created office suites. I don’t use Microsoft Office, but other people swear by it due to familiarity and compatibility with others using the same software.

11)Iron – I honestly wish that Iron was available on other platforms, as it is basically Google Chrome/Chromium without any privacy concerns. All the same functionality, plus some other goodies like an ad blocker and better user-agent flexibility. Like Chrome, it's fast, stable and makes using other browsers a lot less appealing.

Internet Explorer. Do I really need to say any more than that? Not know for friendliness to Web standards, this proprietary browser has prompted some people to create customized CSS files so websites load properly in this browser. In short, I’m not fond of this piece of software.

12) Audacity – Without a doubt, the single best open source audio editor I've ever used is Audacity. Not to say that more advanced functionality isn't being offered by other applications. Rather I’m pointing out that for most people, this is all the software they need for clipping, mixing and editing audio files. Audacity works like a rock star with Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files. I am also in love with the import/export options provided as it makes working with audio files so much easier than comparable programs.

Both Sony ACID Pro and Adobe Audition are more comparable to Ardour for Linux, than to Audacity. Regardless, much like we've seen with other applications above, the proprietary alternatives fall into their own unique categories. In this case, they are expensive and are likely overkill for someone looking to duplicate what Audacity offers.

13) RSSOwl – Despite what most people believe, RSSOwl is a must-have RSS reader for not only Linux, but also Windows. Some of the best functions provided by this app include the embedded browser, tabbed feed reading, grouping mode and keyword feed subscriptions from most of the media big players.

I'd easily say FeedDemon is the de facto proprietary alternative. It has functionality as seen above, plus a few other tidbits like tagging and Google Reader sync. Outside of those two options though, I think it's a wash as to which application is better. I myself, opt for RSSOwl simply due to its license and that it's also available on my preferred desktop as well, which is Linux.

14) Notepad ++ - We all need a reliable notepad application. But this doesn't mean that it has to be the one that comes with the desktop operating system by default. Notepad ++ is definitely aimed toward those doing programming or web design, as it has the syntax functions that allow for more control. Overall, it's just fun to use something that allows for a strong alternative to WordPad in Windows.

Microsoft WordPad, not to be confused with Microsoft Word, provides the basic text editing options that most people wanting something more than notepad provides. It allows for basic spell check and basic formatting, but like notepad, it has a bare-bones feature set.

Next Page: More Open Source Apps for Windows...

15) ClamAV – While blocking malware is something most Linux users put little thought into, the idea of keeping malware off your Windows PC is clearly paramount. One application that I’ve been happy with is ClamAV for Windows. Unlike other traditional anti-viruses, this application uses Cloud-based and community-based malware detection methods. Everything happens in real-time. So if someone in the world using ClamAV becomes infected with something, your computer is made aware of it and the software responds accordingly. This software also provides the usual scheduled scanning, updates, threat removal and other items you’d expect from an anti-virus application.

AVG anti-virus comes to mind for the proprietary option. One of the better anti-virus applications out there, AVG is available both as a freely available program in addition to offering a paid version. The difference between the two is functionality and the lack of a nagging alert to upgrade to the paid version of the software. Like ClamAV, AVG provides a community protection network and uses a protective cloud-based technology to keep users safe from threats. It appears that one must buy the paid edition to take advantage of the latter two features.

16) Clonezilla – Despite not being an application that is installed directly onto your Windows installation, Clonezilla is used to backup file systems of both Linux and Windows users alike. Downloaded and burned onto a CD in an ISO image, Clonezilla provides Windows users with piece of mind by enabling them to take hard drive snapshots and back them up for safe keeping.

The proprietary alternative that comes to mind is Norton Ghost. Offering the same functionality as Clonezilla, Norton Ghost differs in the fact that it’s offering hard disk cloning in addition to incremental and differential backup. This software is also something that can be installed into Windows itself.

17) Ekiga – This softphone application is not merely for those using Linux. No, it's also available to Windows users as well. The neat part about Ekiga is how powerful this video conferencing software truly is. As for the quality it provides, how does HD video and audio grab you? I think for most people, having the option of high quality video and audio in their conference calls is actually quite appealing. For those wanting to place calls or receive calls from landlines, Ekiga works great with many VoIP providers, including getting call-in or call-out accounts. The call-in account is accomplished by providing you a real phone number to use. In both cases, it works very well.

On the proprietary side, the obvious choice is Skype. Like Ekiga, Skype adds video and voice functionality to the VoIP experience. It also mirrors Ekiga with call-in and call-out options for sale, too. The biggest difference between the functionality provided by each application is the inclusion of desktop sharing with Skype. Despite that, Ekiga has better call clarity in my experience.

18) Camstudio - For anyone creating desktop screen capturing tutorials, Camstudio is a wise open source alternative to the more expensive options out there. This application provides both screen captures of what you are doing along with voice capture from your microphone.

The proprietary cousin to this software is called Camtasia Studio. Providing the functionality described above, Camtasia's biggest difference is the expense; it also offers extra editing capabilities.

19) Dia – When it comes to creating diagrams, flow charts and other related concepts, nothing beats Dia for getting the job done on the fly. And because of the way Dia saves content, exporting your work to other software is a snap.

Microsoft Visio is the proprietary alternative to Dia. As for the pricing, it is listed on the Microsoft website for about $250 USD. While some will exclaim that Visio has a smoother work-flow than Dia, I think that for many users the price is rather prohibitive.

20) Wikidpad – There are simply times in your life where having a living wiki on your desktop makes sense. Containing thoughts into a cohesive format means that software like Wikidpad becomes indispensable when trying to make sense of complex ideas in a text format. Designed to feel like a wiki for your desktop, Wikidpad provides you with all of the data sorting and cross-linking functionality one could ever need for a locally installed wiki setup.

For the proprietary option, I’d have to point to Microsoft OneNote. Unlike WikidPad, OneNote is bundled along with other applications in Microsoft Office. This means you’ll be buying the Microsoft Office suite instead of just picking up a copy of OneNote. Functionality is much the same as WikidPad, though the workflow is more or less in line with how Microsoft Office does things.

ALSO SEE: 20 Linux Apps That Make the Desktop Easier

AND: 7 Things You Can Do in KDE, But Not in Windows

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