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Feature Article
Free Windows PC

September 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

Last month I took a cursory look at what it would take to build a PC using Linux and only free software as an alternative to Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP and its new anti-piracy (and anti user friendly) feature. This month I would like to take a quick look at what it would take to have a PC that uses the Windows operating system but otherwise runs free software.

I will use a little liberty in this article. Some software I will mention is shareware. You are supposed to pay if you like the programs. But not everyone does, and there is nothing illegal about not paying to use shareware. So, I will throw ethics aside briefly, and allow shareware software on this hypothetical PC without paying for it. This would of course mean that this shareware software would probably nag the user to register, or have limited functionality. Whatever mechanism the author provided. Regardless, I just want to see how productive and fun a computer can be without paying anything for the software.

I know, Windows in not free. I cannot get around this. But I can surely limit my usage to a version of Windows that is old enough to be readily available by many people, but is still perfectly usable. I will use Windows 98 (first edition) for this purpose. This is the last full version of Windows 9X I received with my MSDN subscription before it was terminated. (I have release candidate 2 of Windows 2000 Professional with an expiration of 444 days after its installation, but I won't go there for this article.)

To be fair I want to quickly recount my requirements for a computer that I used for last month's article:

  1. Open, edit, save & share Word 2000 & Excel 2000 files.
  2. Have USB support.
  3. Share printers and hard drive.
  4. Have applications to include an image editing program, a jukebox program, a personal finance application, and a GUI style development tool.
  5. Web browsing, e-mail, FTP and web site development applications.
  6. Games.

Let's get this out of the way quick... I do not have to worry about USB support as that is in Windows 98. And all my USB devices work under Windows 98. Windows 98 has networking and can share printers and files easily. Next.

As with last month's solutions... Star Office is probably the best bet for working with Microsoft Office documents. However, I have heard of 602Pro Suite which can also perform word processing and spreadsheet work. There are even individual applications that such as AbiWord for word processing and Spread32 for spreadsheets. Next.

602Pro Suite also comes with an image editing application. I have not had a chance to test it yet, but if it didn't handle my needs to work with my digital images I could resort to an old stand by... Paint Shop Pro 3.12. I know PSP is not free. But it used to be shareware, and the version of PSP 3.12 that I downloaded years ago had two special features. 1) It was the first version of PSP to properly support long filenames under Windows 95, and 2) it never timed out. Future versions all had a 30 day trial period. However the 3.12 version I have will nag you and remind you that you are on day 297 of your 30 day trial, but it will still function. I will miss a lot of the features I have come to enjoy in PSP 5 & 6, but since this experiment calls for free software I will have to make do with 3.12. Another possibility is to use the software that comes with printers or digital cameras. I remember some devices shipped with Photoshop Lite (also called LE, I assume for Limited Edition). These programs may be good enough. Next.

Pegasus and Eudora both make lite versions of their e-mail applications that I can use for free. I might have to put up with ads, but it fulfils our requirements. I have an old version of CuteFTP that is shareware that does not time out. Like PSP 3.12, CuteFTP 1.7 is still a usable file transfer program, though it would be more cumbersome that other paid solutions. Next.

Music Match makes a great jukebox program that will RIP CDs at 128kbps or more (near CD quality) and even burn CDs from MP3s... all for free. You get faster burn speeds and more functionality with the paid version, but the freeware version is more than good enough if you're on the cheap. Next.

NoteTab Pro is a free text and HTML editor. I would prefer a GUI tool for maintaining this site, but I may have to make a sacrifice. Also, I used to have a really old version of HomeSite. It was a version before it was bought up by Allaire. I think it was version 2.0 or 2.5 (I have a lot of my stuff in storage until my house is finished so I can't confirm this as fact, but I am pretty sure it is true). It did not have a ton of features, but it also never timed out or turned off functionality. Next.

I still have shareware versions of Doom, Heretic, Quake and some others. These are still very playable. Games are probably the easiest thing to come by if you want to stay free. Many software companies release playable demos of their games. If you don't mind dealing with the limited playtime these games provide you can play demos for a long time. Regardless, a good download site has tons of freeware and shareware games. Next.

That leaves personal finance software and a GUI development tool. Doing a quick search on a couple of download sites showed quite a few shareware checkbook type programs. I don't know if they would work without registering them or not, but I assume at least one could be found. As for a GUI tool. Here I will concede defeat. I have not been able to find a GUI development tool that will create Windows applications and doesn't cost anything.

Conclusion

Except for the lack of a professional (or near professional) quality GUI development tool I was able to find enough freeware or shareware software that could be used to do the basic tasks most computer user's need. Obviously if you have special needs you will probably have to pay for software that performs them. It is much hard to find free software that fills niche markets.

General Internet applications such as browsing, e-mail and file transfer can be done for free. Basic offline computing is also available for free that will allow you to be productive with word processing, spreadsheets, finances, presentation, image editing, and music playing. Even gaming is alive and well for free.

In the end we don't have to succumb to Microsoft's World Domination. Save that old copy of the installation disc for Windows 95 or 98. It may be the very thing that saves you from Microsoft and Windows of the future.

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