My computer Dante is old and slowing down. But due to financial constrains, upgrading or buying a new one isn’t an option now or anytime in the near future. If it was, I won’t be writing this post.

I have a newish external HD where I back up all my data and leave unplugged until I need it. This is a precaution I decided to put in place some months ago because Dante is problematic. The other reason is because I want to be able to grab the HD and run in any event I have 2 minutes to evacuate the house. The only things running on the machine itself are applications and copies of files that I need.

I am prepared for the eventuality that my computer will roll over and die any time, but when the moment comes, it hurts anyway.

So Dante’s HD croaked during an attempt to upgrade his RAM a month ago, giving me something to blame if I can’t locate certain files. A new HD was procured, but since everything was wiped, my dad (one of the original computer geeks in town) simply reinstalled Windows XP and left me to figure everything else out.

Shortly before HD death, I was already looking out and replacing certain programs on my computer with something that guzzles less memory. This is a very interesting journey that led to me discovering good alternatives to popular software. I’ll be sharing my favourites in this post.

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Word Processor
As a writer, my top need is a good word processing software. Microsoft Office? Bah. More bling than I’ll ever use. Out of the suite of programs, I only use Word and the most complicated function I need from it is spellcheck.

Ditto on StarOffice and OpenOffice. It’s open source, but I hated both of it because I spent hours fighting over their formatting issues in my last job.

During last year’s Nanowrimo (which I didn’t join), I lurked in the Technology forum to find out what other people are using. Among the programs suggested was RoughDraft.

Designed specially for writers, it contains all the functionalities that I need. In fact, it contains a number of functionalities that I don’t need, but at least it’s not as bloated as MS Word. It saves in .rtf, which means you can still open it in any other word processor, and it’s small enough to install in your thumbdrive so you can bring it with you.

From the website:

RoughDraft is not designed to compete with major commercial word processors and does not provide the following features:

  • A full page view for editing (although it does have a full page view for print previewing).
  • Indexes and tables of contents.
  • Tables.
  • Pictures.
  • Footnotes.
  • A grammar checker (eeurch!)

Part of what makes this a fantastic find for me is that it’s a freeware (formerly donationware), light on system resources, easy to use and works with the free version of an offline dictionary/thesaurus called WordWeb.

Both came in useful at work, where all our computers are not connected to the Internet and we are forced to use WordPad to do our writing. Most are still flipping dictionaries for spelling and definitions! As people who make a living out of spinning words, this is ridiculous!

Half the reporting dept uses RoughDraft and WordWeb now. The feedback I get is positive, especially where the built-in spellcheck is concerned!

As for me, MS Word isn’t going to darken my doorway for as long as something else works just as well. If anyone sends me a .doc, there’s always Word Viewer 2003.

PDF Reader
PDF files are increasingly common on the web these days. Adobe Reader is the default reader of popular choice (or perhaps by marketing), but it takes ages to launch. That pisses me off, especially if the document only contains a few paragraphs or if it’s a really huge file like the Heroes graphic novels.

I found a free PDF reader called Foxit via one of the productivity/tech blogs I follow. Foxit is light and fast, even with huge PDF files. It’s small enough for you not to notice it’s there until you need it. So goodbye Adobe Reader, hellooo Foxit.

Zip Utility
We all heard of WinZip and WinRAR, but I prefer one software that can deal with various compression formats. I gave ALZip gave a try and fell in love with it. Again, it’s free and light. It does everything WinZip and WinRAR can do, and more. ALZip is part of the ALTools set of PC utilities. I haven’t checked the rest out yet, but you might find something useful there.

Audio Software
WinAmp is the default mp3 player most of us have. It also contributed to the slowdown of Dante but I tolerated it because it didn’t occur to me to look for an alternative. I just didn’t think anything could top WinAmp!

But much like MS Word, I only use very basic functions. It was hard to pry me away from WinAmp, but I finally decided to look at other software. I couldn’t decide between Media Monkey and foobar2000 so I installed both and tried them out.

Initially, I didn’t like foobar2000 because it didn’t work smoothly with FoxyTunes. I’ll have to open foobar to get the new song to register in FoxyTunes’s display. This isn’t an issue anymore, and foobar’s so much better when I discovered that they have handy components like a scheduler. I tend to let music run when I’m falling asleep, so it’s nice to get the player to shut off after I sleep and start up again to wake me up.

I liked Media Monkey just fine until something in my operating system bit it and it won’t start anymore.

foobar2000 wins, and you gotta love the fact that it’s probably named after FUBAR.

Instant Messenger
Why yes, I have IM. I don’t advertise this fact because of spammers and strangers. Gone are the days when adding any Tom, Dick and Harry is fun. My IMs are mostly to stay in touch with a handful of long-time net friends.

I’m registered with most major IM services but having a separate client for each stopped being funny. A friend introduced me to Pidgin (then called GAIM), a multi-protocol client. Took me a while to pry myself away from Y!M (I miss the :D emoticon!) but eventually, I warmed up to it. Having all your contacts in one window is handy (and scary). The only draw back is when you have a contact on more than one client; they show up in triplicate when they are online!

The same friend pointed out that you can drag and drop the duplicates on top the one you mainly use to chat with that friend. That contact will then only appear once in the window. Problem solved!

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This post ran a lot longer than I expected, and I’m not done yet! But this are my computer essentials. My HD might be freshly-wiped, but I stuck to these lightweight software to keep my creaky old man of a machine running at optimum level.

If it isn’t already clear, all the alternative software above are freeware, donationware or open-source… because if you’re in Malaysia, you’re usually too poor to afford licensed software. *cough*

In my next post, I’ll tell you what Firefox add-ons I cannot live without.

1 Comment

  1. Even being a Macintosh fan it is interesting to see how people negotiate productivity needs versus available resources. Congratulations, sounds like you’re getting 99% of what you ‘need,’ with a far smaller computing load.

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