Only the brave may wish to enter here -the final lesson of computing minimalism - as we take things past the "moderate" level. Hopefully you have already seen the need to reduce the bloat on your PC and perhaps you're already enjoying the benefits of having lighter, user friendly software. This chapter is for those who have had their curiosity tweaked and want to see how far they can take this experiment.
Most users will probably prefer to read this section out of interest and consider later if they want to try the software suggested.
But let's take a moment to ponder one last reminder of the problems with bloated, proprietary software. Have you ever owned an iPod? If so, you almost certainly used iTunes to change the music on your pod. It's just as well you did, because if you ever tried to use any other software, or even just the Windows file system, you would have had problems. iTunes actually scrambles the names of your music folders so that you cannot use " My Computer" to change your music! That's right, you paid for the iTunes licence when you bought your iPod, and you are thanked for it by purposely being inconvenienced and forced to do things the way Apple want.
It's worth re-reading and pondering that previous paragraph again - it really does sum up the problems with popular software. Luckily, other programmers have come up with alternatives to iTunes such as this, this or this. These programmes allow you to change your music simply by dragging and dropping. Unlike iTunes, these applications are small, quick, unobtrusive and free. The choice is yours: pay Apple to have your time wasted, or have these programmers use their time to help you for free. You might want to send the latter a few dollars as a thank you.
Now let us proceed with our final experiment. Firstly, if you've come this far it's time to seriously consider switching to GNU Linux if you have not done so already. It might seem a scary prospect but it doesn't have to be. You can test GNU Linux without having to make a single change to your current PC setup. All you need to do is download a live CD. A live CD runs the whole system from the CD for you to try. Once you're done, simply reset the PC and your computer is exactly the way it was before. Bear in mind, of course, a live CD will be a lot slower than the same software would be once it's installed on your hard drive.
You also have the choice of a "dual boot", meaning you can install GNU Linux on your PC whilst keeping Windows. When your PC boots up, it will ask you which Operating System you wish to load.
Because Linux is free, open source software (you remember those terms from last time, right?) there have been a whole slew of different versions released. The most popular is Ubuntu. Ubuntu standard version comes with openoffice.org and all other software most people will need for day to day working. Ubuntu is faster and more stable than Windows, yet is actually one of the slowest versions of GNU Linux.
Another popular choice is Puppy Linux. I must confess I love Puppy Linux. PL is frequently used as a live CD. It runs like lightening because it can load its entire system into your RAM. That's right, the memory that your PC usually uses for running different takes that you start and stop can actually handle the entire Puppy Linux system. What this means for you- unless your PC is a fossil - is that PL will run so fast, you will sometimes not have removed your finger from the button before your task is completed. Go ahead, download one of the many versions of Puppy Linux (I use boxpup myself) and give it a try. It's user friendly, straightforward, fun and as mentioned, can be used as a live CD so no changes need to be made to your computer.
Puppy doesn't have open office but it does have Abiword , a spread sheet programme and a web browser ( which browser varies depending on which version of PL you download). Oh yeh, it's also free as in 'beer' and 'speech'.
Now I'm going to give you my final list of software suggestions. I'm also going to introduce you to something called a console application.
I know what you're thinking: why in the hell would anybody want to do that? Isn't that just living in the past? We've got graphical programmes to do the same stuff, why on earth would I want to bother typing commands into a blank screen when I can click a mouse on an icon?!
There are two answers to this. The first one is best illustrated with a practical example: as I type this, I'm running four console applications; a word processor that I'm typing this article with, an audio player, a bittorrent client and a system monitor. A system monitor is a programme to tell me what applications are running on my system, what they are doing, how much RAM they are using and how much CPU power they are using.
My bittorrent client is very busy, it is downloading four files and sharing eight. In total there are about 30 kbs going in and out. Yet, a look at my monitor shows that the software is using just 2.7% of my RAM (which is one gigabyte in total) and less than 1% of my CPU power. My audio player is using 2% of my RAM and a whopping three percent of my CPU. My word processor weights in at 0.2% of my RAM and 0.1% of CPU and the system monitor itself is almost the same.
In other words, I'm running four programmes - each doing an important job - at well under 100 megabytes of RAM. And there are no sacrifices here, all the software does its job just as well as graphical software, and in many cases, even better.
The second reason is simple. Using typed commands may seem scary but it's really not. Most console software can be operated with just one or two commands and a couple of keyboard shortcuts. By using typed commands, we strip away one of the "barriers' between user and PC. Naturally, we learn a bit more by doing this. You know the old saying: "knowledge is power". Console apps teach us a bit more about how our computers work.
So I may suggest several console applications in my forthcoming list here, but by no means only console apps. Let's crack on:
By their nature, office suites need a graphical environment to run. The trick to a lightweight office is to ensure each application is integrated with the others. In practical terms, it means that each programme should run and "feel" similar to the others. MS Office attempts to do this but because each application is loaded with excess "features" it is impossible
If you're a Windows user looking for a truly lightweight suite. I hear good things about Softmaker Office though I have never used it myself. The Softmaker Office is freeware, and the download is 24 megabytes, twenty times smaller than MS Office.
Users of Linux could use Siag Office, an office suite of just 1.5 megabytes to download. In fairness though, Siag requires other applications to be installed to run and a little technical knowledge to get running. In real terms, you need about 20 megs to run Siag. Softmaker is also Linux compatible.
In addition to the aforementioned suites, we have Wordgrinder, the console application I am using right now. Wordgrinder is extremely simple and does not feature font choices, etc. At present it lacks even a spell checker (I've written to the programmer to say thanks and also plead with him to add a checker one day). What it does do is let the user type..... and type..... and type without intrusion or annoyance. WG is free as in 'speech' and 'beer' and available for Linux and Windows.
If you need a spell checker, you can do as I do, type in Wordgrinder and spell check online or use a text editor with a spell checker, such as Jed (also a console app, also free in both senses).
Windows users have Utorrent. There simply is no need to use anything else. Utorrent is free beer, graphical, user friendly and highly featured.
Linux users can use one of my favourite apps: rtorrent. rtorrent is a console app that does its job brilliantly. It's free in both ways and you can read a tutorial here. There are also graphical apps available for GNU Linux but I can't bring myself to recommend anything apart from rtorrent.
Like to listen to music while you work? Windows users have Zinf. Zinf is based on freeamp, it hasn't been updated for a while but remember what we learned in lesson one: newer software is not always better software.
Windows and GNU L users also have the excellent MPlayer as a choice. Both apps are free in both senses.
Both of these applications may require an extra download a small amount of technical tinkering. This is the price we pay to get our PC working at its best. In all honesty, Windows users may want to stick with the straightforward and excellent Foobar 2000 I mentioned last time.
In the way of Console apps for GNU Linux, MOCP is the most popular choice though I enjoy Orpheus. Works like a charm.
Windows users have Fusion Media Player as a choice. If it requires too much effort, Media Player Classic that we looked at last week works very well and easily. Mplayer also plays multimedia. As a Linux user, I prefer Xine.
The browsers we looked at last time - with my suggestion of Opera and Arora - are the only browsers I can suggest that are full featured. Browsers such as Dillo (Linux) and elinks (Linux or Windows) are lightweight and fast but cannot be used for pages such as Facebook. At least not yet, though Dillo is progressing.
Basically, get rid of Nero now! It ranks alongside Itunes and Office in terms of over-sized, burdensome software.
To burn in Windows, Silent night can be used, though take note that it is proprietary.
To author a disc in GNU Linux, try cdw or XFBurn.
I don't use image editing software but I'm told GIMP - which is free in both senses and multi-platform - is catching up on Photoshop in terms of features. Gqview is a popular image viewer.
If you like to chat try aMSN (multi- platform, free both ways) or GNU Linux users can use the console app Irssi. With the latter you won't be able to see your friends' photos, but you already know who is hot and who isn't.
So that's the lot. Feel free to ask any questions or make further suggestions. If this all looks a bit intimidating, why not try just one new application a week or a month? Try a few Google searches; look for the ubiquitous user groups and help forums. Ask for ideas.
Don't get angry or annoyed if your new application doesn't work out for you immediately. Remember, a learning curb is healthy, it shows you are acquiring a new skill. Also remember, you can try out all the benefits of a fast system without any risk by downloading a GNU Linux live CD and running it from there.
OK, so in part one we established what the problem is with popular software, why that problem exists and we established the benefits of taking the trouble to find a solution.
In this section I will try to guide the reader through the first baby steps towards that solution. The idea is to make you more productive in terms of work speed and, ergo, freeing up your time. That solution can be summed up in two words: "free software". Before we press on there are a couple of important points to make.
First, the term "free software" has two important and distinct meanings. "Free software" usually means "free" in the sense that it is non-proprietary. This means you are free to copy it for yourself or colleagues, free to distribute it and if you're feeling sharp, free to actually use the original code to improve the programme! This type of "free" is often called "free as in free speech" for clarity. 'Free speech' software can also be called "open source" , the difference in meaning is almost negligible.
Secondly, I have established already that I do not believe you can ever be truly free or efficient when using Windows. But I accept that leaving Microsoft entirely is a big step that many people don't feel they can take yet. So I am bearing that in mind as I make my suggestions here.
Now, here are a few suggestions for users of Windows and / or GNU Linux for alternatives to popular software. The criteria for my choices here are simple. A perfect, short and sweet summary of what makes good software can be found here, but I will briefly recap.
Good software should do one job and do it well.
Good software is unintrusive.
Good software is lean
You don't need to spend thirty minutes downloading bloated software just to read a PDF. It does not take 20 MB of ram just to type a letter to mum. An internet browser should not take twenty seconds just to process a basic web page. These problems occur because overpaid programmes purposely bundle their software with burdensome features for reasons we have already discussed.
Yes hard drives are getting bigger, but that does not mean we should waste the space anymore than you should put large, empty boxes on your front lawn just because you have a large garden.
Good software is easy to install and uninstall.
It's my computer. I will decide what goes in and out. Software has no more right to make its removal difficult anymore than a guest in your home has the right to refuse a polite request to leave.
I could go on but the previous link explains it all nicely, so take a quick read.
Enough waffle. Let's press on with a few basic alternatives. Don't worry if this is not minimalistic enough for you, I'm taking things one step at a time.
Let's start with the easiest answer. To get good, free software for the office use OpenOffice.org That's the actual name of the software as well as its web address. Openoffice.org is free as in 'beer' and 'speech'. It does everything you need it to do. Its word processor can read and write Word documents, its spreadsheet programmer can read and write Excel files and so on. There's no excuse whatsoever not to use this software as an MS Office replacement. It's not exactly as lean as I would like but at least you have the freedom. Available for Windows and GNU/Linux.
Jarte is available only for Windows. A quick look at the website will see the case for minimalism explained once again, quite nicely.
Abiword is another alternative. Abiword sits somewhere between Word and Jarte for size and functionality. It is free as in 'speech' and 'beer' and is popular with Linux users, though it's multi-platform, meaning it can be used on any system. I use Abiword when I need a full featured word processor for my work. Yet again, it can read and write Word files.
If you're not sick of hearing about it yet, a good comparison of Abiword and Word is available here.
PDF File readers
Yes there is: Foxit Reader. Free as in 'beer', lighting quick and tiny, Foxit Reader cannot edit or create PDF files, but how many users need to do that? (And if you do, there's other free software for you to use). Available for Windows and GNU Linux.
Foobar can play virtually any audio file, it can create playlists, it can convert between formats, it can look up details of your audio CDs online, it can - only if you tell it to - edit the tags on your audio files (tags are the small files that tell you details such as the artist name, album title, genre type etc.) and organise your music library. The interface looks spartan and there may be a tiny learning curve, but in the long run it will save you time and makes organising your music fun again. The only thing it can't do - as far as I know - is bring up a picture of the album cover. Though a quick glance at the website suggests maybe now it can!
Slightly tougher area here. Multimedia, by its nature, is not something that is easy for computers to handle without a lot of power. Still, remember that challenge I gave you last time? Think about your software nine years ago, what can it do now - with much bigger software - that it couldn't do back then?
On Linux, we have the even more efficient Xine Media Player or Mplayer. The latter is also available for Windows but you need to have a little computing knowledge to get it running.
There is a whole ton of choice in this area. Most rebellious users like to use Firefox. Personally I prefer to use Opera. There's simply no competition with the two 'big' browsers, Opera wins hands down in style, features, security, users friendliness, stability, choice and light resource use. No I don't get kickbacks for that, Opera is free as in 'beer' and multi-platform. It can even be used on mobile phones.
That's enough for our first experiment. Give these programmes a try and use them without fear. Mess around, have fun. They will not affect your existing software and are easy to install and remove. While you play around with them, try a little experiment: open up your task manager (Windows users press ctrl+alt+delete , Linux users all have their own way to do this) and make a comparison. Compare Jarte and Word, compare Windows Media Player and Foobar 2000 and so on. As long as your system is clean from viruses and spyware, the difference in speed and performance should be easy to see anyway.
I'll be back soon to take our experiment one step further for the willing. Meanwhile, if anyone has had their curiosity tweaked, the free software versus proprietary argument goes well beyond geek chat. It covers corporate behavior, ethics, philosophy on the rights of people and ideas about human development. A simple Google search will turn up many interesting resources, the GNU web site has many interesting articles ranging from FAQs to reasons why schools should use and benefit from free software. Finally, look out for a documentary called "Revolution OS". The introduction features one free software figure telling a Microsoft manager" "I'm your worst nightmare!".
By Greg Hill
Oh OK, I may, just may, be a part time geek. But I have friends, a healthy love life and I have not played laser tag since I was a kid. So that's my disclaimer done.
Now, I'm going to try and persuade you to think differently about the way you use a computer. Even if (unlike me) you are a total non geek. Even if you couldn't care less about computers and use them because you have to, even if you don't go as far as I do with my methods, I hope to just change the way you approach the idea of computer use, very slightly.
Here's what I'm building up to - I believe that a lot of computer software we use today is bloated, clumsy and non-conducive to productivity. In other words: it's slowing you down.
"Word processing was a solved problem in 1984. By 1987 spreadsheets had all the functions a normal person would ever use. Databases took a little longer, but by 1990 that was sorted. An infant could have been born that day and by now would be almost of age to vote and we've seen no real improvement in productivity since."
That was a quote from Mikel Kirk that I think sums the situation up beautifully. Think about it - how many features on your office suite or your web browser do you use? How many of them were not available on the same program back in the year 2000? Unless you happen to be involved in Desk Top Publishing or database maintenance - or perhaps even then? - I'm willing to bet the answer is: "one or less".
And yet the software you used has become far bigger, far more hungry on your resources and most probably far more demanding of your attention. You don't have to think too hard to come with examples; Ipod users normally use Itunes, a program that not only uses an oceanic amount of memory just to load up, but also dominates the user's entire music collection. It will sort them, it will play them, it will allow you to search for information about that new band online. No need to use your brain, just use Itunes.
Microsoft Word users have an even greater pleasure. For the last five years or more, Word has given you the utmost pleasure of completing your work for you. You want a bullet list? It's done! You want to line up all those answers for the quiz? It's already done! What's that? You didn't actually want to do that? Oh well, you can always manually undo it all. Oh and don't forget to hunt down the "auto complete" menu and uncheck every box before it happens again.
OK, so sometimes we have problems, but it's all meant to be user friendly right? I mean, these extra features are designed for people who aren't familiar with computers and need help, no?
It would be nice to believe that, but in my cynical mind I can't help but think that such designs are utilised for another purpose; to make damn sure you stick with that proprietary software that you just installed. The less you question Itunes, the more likely you are to use it. The less choice you have over how you play music, the more often you see the Apple logo. The more often Itunes "helps" you organise your music collection, the more likely you are to visit the Itunes store.
You get the picture. Certain companies design the software this way not to help people who are unsure, but to "help" people who are stupid, because 'stupid" is how they think of you.
OK so maybe there's a problem, and maybe some of the software is big and clunky, but what does it matter? Computers are getting faster everyday and besides, everyone uses this software so what choice do we have?
Well on the first charge, the answer is not so clear cut. Remember that quote I gave you earlier, software is growing more bloated at the same rate as our PC's are becoming souped up. There seems little evidence and no guarantee that we humans are becoming more productive.
As for "why worry?" Well perhaps you shouldn't. If you can stand having your intelligence insulted and if you don't care about working at well under full productivity then maybe there's no problem.
For me though, it's matter of principle. I simply will not allow some lazy, overpaid programmers to use up a chunk of my RAM just to play an MP3. I simply cannot abide using a "word processor" that insists it knows better than me about what I want to do and lumbers me with 101 featuresthat 99% of us will never use. I will not surf the Internet with a browser than takes an age to start up and a lifetime to open a page simply because it's from Microsoft. I prefer to open my mind a little more rather than accept such nonsense.
I want applications that do one thing and do them well, whilst getting the hell out of my way when I want them to. That's what real productivity is.
But even if that doesn't matter to you, there is another factor: cost. The alternatives I will propose to you are either totally free of cost or much, much lower than the prices you pay from the fat cat companies for the overblown nonsense.
In my next blog on computing minimalism I will propose two solutions. For the shy user I will simply suggest a few pieces of alternative software that can easily be installed (and uninstalled) on Windows and tried out. After that, I'll take things a bit further and go into some really lightweight and efficient applications for GNU/Linux and maybe Windows too.