A Penny for Your Apps -- Open-Source Alternatives

Susie Ochs's picture

A Penny for Your Apps -- Open-Source Alternatives


Macs are expensive. Let’s just go ahead and admit that right away. Yes, they’re the best computers on the market, and each new Mac includes useful software like Mail, Safari, TextEdit, and the iLife suite for no extra charge. But many consider certain high-priced software packages—specifically, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, although the list doesn’t end there—to be so standard that they’re practically required purchases. Indeed, when people ask us about switching from a PC to the Mac, one of the first questions usually is, “I’ll have to rebuy Office, won’t I?”


Not necessarily.


Tons of free apps are available for the Mac, thanks to Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings. Many were written to fill a specific niche (Cuppa, for example, times your morning cup of tea so you know when it’s steeped just how you like it), but you can also find robust, feature-filled apps that, while they don’t always have the polish of their big-budget brethren, you might like well enough to make the switch for good.


Free Photo Editing: Bring out the GIMP


At $649, Photoshop CS3 (5 out of 5 stars, Jul/07, p54) is a pricey app, but it’s such a powerful, popular photo editor that many who are buying a Mac mentally add the price to whatever they’ve budgeted for the computer—because everyone needs Photoshop, right? Well, yes and no. It is a superhandy app to have (iPhoto does some basic edits, but to composite images or add layers you need something more powerful), but of course it’s not the only game in town.


Photoshop Elements 6 costs only $90 for a stripped-down feature set, and it requires just half the hard drive space (1GB compared to Photoshop’s 2GB). Photoshop is the industry standard and will be for the foreseeable future, so pros are probably stuck with it, but anyone looking to save a few bucks and still have a solid image editor should consider some open-source alternatives that won’t cost a dime.


GIMP takes some getting used to, but handy features like the Undo History pane and pop-up labels for all the buttons will help smooth the transition. The wiki at wiki.gimp.org is incredibly helpful as well.


GIMP. The GNU Image Manipulation Program can do many of the same things Photoshop can, without the big price tag. Or any price tag, for that matter.


GIMP for the Mac requires you have X11.app installed first, found on your Mac OS X Install Disc. (See “What the Heck is X11, Anyway?” below.) To install X11, pop the install disc into your optical drive, look for the package labeled Optional Installs, and double-click it. You’ll see an installer window. Click Continue through the Introduction, License, and Destination screens to the Installation Type screen. There, expand the Applications subsection and check the box next to X11. Click Update, and X11 will be installed.


What the Heck is X11, Anyway?


X11 is short for the X Window System, version 11, the standard graphics display system in the Unix world. Think of it as a client-server relationship, where X11 is the central server that draws the windows on your screen, and apps like GIMP or GIMPshop are the clients that tell X11 what to draw. Mac OS X is Unix-based, but it uses its own graphics display system, called Quartz. Since many open-source apps are written for Unix, installing X11 can allow you to explore many free software options.


Now it’s time to download the GIMP. You can grab the source code from the GIMP home page at www.gimp.org/macintosh. But if you go that route, you must compile the source code into GIMP.app yourself, with the help of the Terminal. (If you’d like to try that, we found helpful instructions on the Wilber Loves Apple forum, at www.wilber-loves-apple.org/topic.php?id=8.) But there’s an easier way—at Wilber Loves Apple (www.wilber-loves-apple.org), you can download the already-compiled app nicely packaged as a regular disk image (DMG). Then you just double-click it to mount the disk image, and drag the GIMP.app icon to your Applications folder.




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This feature strikes me as well-meaning but singularly misguided.

First of all, free ist not automatically synonymous with open-source, and viceversa.

Second, there are lots of excellent, invaluable, free Mac apps; most of them utilities. But when it comes to free Office or Adobe Suites equivalents, let's face it: you'd be better off with a cheap Linux box. Gimp, OpenOffice and their siblings are functional, but not yet terribly polished ports from Linux, and relative resource hogs at that.

Under Linux, they shine. Though if you direly need free OS X Office software, chances are your Mac may be getting on a bit, too. The two factors combined make for a less-than-thrilling experience on older PPC Macs.

Consider a simpler approach: identify your precise needs, see if there is a native Cocoa freeware or a solid X11-less Java port, and get shareware classics just for the remnant. (If you have a fairly recent PPC or Intel Mac and at least 1 GB RAM, get iWorks '08. Period.)
So let us see how far just a hard nose and a little money will take us:
- iPhoto + imageJ + Raw Photo Processor: FREE;
- TextEdit + TextWrangler + Smultron: FREE;
- DrawIt Lite: as of now, FREE.
This covers the basics; now a few GREAT but cheap little apps that really can compete if used wisely:
- NisusWriter (Express or Pro), Mellel, or Scrivener;
- Tables;
- GraphicConverter or Pixelmator;
- LineForm or Intaglio.
Many of the above - old mainstays or instant classics - were favorably, even glowingly reviewed on this site and are every now and then promoted at bargain prices.

Gimp, NeoOffice & Co. are noble efforts; they deserve every encouragement (including donations! NeoOffice especially shows how much a couple of dedicated folks on no budget at all can achieve.) But on the Mac, they're not quite there yet.



I have two words to add here: GIMP SUCKS!!!



When I first made the swith to Mac (and never going back) I found www.opensourcemac.org an invaluable resource.



If you're into MATLAB (a Math/Science/Engineering tool) then try out FreeMat. It has a long way to go before its as comprehensive as matlab, but in the meantime its free.



www.thriftmac.com is an excellent source as well



www.freemacware.com is also a great source for mac freeware.

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