calculatorFor just about every commercial productivity tool there is a free counterpart.

Instead of paying up to $350 for Microsoft Office you can use LibreOffice or Google Docs for free. Both have word processing, spreadsheets and slideshow creators, which look very similar to the Microsoft versions. LIbreOffice and Google Docs can open and read Microsoft files, and even save those files in Microsoft-compatible format - handy when you're sending them to other people.

For desktop publishing such as brochures, business cards, pamphlets and booklets, try Scribus instead of Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign.

An alternative to Quicken or Microsoft Money is AceMoney Lite, rated favorably by the tech website, CNet, as well as by Consumer Reports. Unfortunately it's on the Windows platform only. For Mac, Windows and Linux, take a look at GnuCash.

If you like to work with images, Photoshop can set you back up to $700. The open source products Gimp and GimpShop will probably get the job done for free.

More free programs are at the open-source hub,

Drawbacks of free and open-source software

  • No guarantees or live support. Commercial products from Microsoft, Intuit and others are backed by guarantees and offer tech support (although it's not necessarily free). Open-source products offer support only through online forums. There is no phone number to call to get your question answered. Nevertheless, these forums are typically quite active, and the archives may already already contain the answers to your questions.
  • Decentralized documentation. The commercial product websites have their manuals, tutorials and support all on the same site. For open-source software, documentation is scattered in many places online. But they are easy to find via Google search.
  • Lost in translation. When you save a document from LibreOffice as a .doc file, it can be opened by someone who uses Microsoft Word. However, since the two programs have different algorithms for rendering the page, some of the formatting can be lost. What you set as bullet points may look entirely different in Word.
  • Fewer features. Gimpshop does not have all the features of Photoshop. Google Presentations is not as robust as Powerpoint. Chances are you use only a small percentage of all the features in the commercial programs, so this may not even be an issue for you.
  • Unpredictable update schedule. Since most open-source software development is done by volunteers, they may have day jobs that take precedence. Thus, open-source typically lags behind commercial products in terms of the latest bells and whistles.

 What about security?

Security is an issue in all software. Every few weeks there seems to be a news story of a security leak, usually in a commercial product.Even though open-source code is freely available, it does not seem to be a frequent target of hackers.

Bottom line...

If you need a lot of hand-holding in using software, stick with commercial products. When you run into problems you can contact the company or a techie friend who is familiar with the product.

But if you are comfortable with exploring on your own, do try the free software. If you get stuck, check the Help menu before searching online.

There are many free options to get your work done. Before deciding on which software to try, consider reading a couple of comparison reviews. Your search might look like this:

libreoffice "google docs" compare