- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

It’s the day after Christmas, and there are figures dancing in your head. They’re not images of toy soldiers or dancing nutcrackers but rather the balance on your credit card bill.

If that’s the case and if you have a new computer that is hungry for software applications, I’ve got a few ideas for you, whether your machine is a PC or a Macintosh.

• Openoffice.org has one of the better “office” productivity suites around — a word processor and a spreadsheet, with programs for presentations, drawing, database and math equations.

I’m not a big fan of its database, which is designed to work with a number of commercial programs, including Microsoft Access, but the rest of the suite is more than decent, and it’s often quite good.

The price is the best part — free.

The program is under constant development. Support for Microsoft’s newest word-processing file format, called “DocX,” is due to be added early next year, developers say. If you’re using a Mac, the rather stable Beta version of NeoOffice’s Aqua, or OS X-friendly, porting of OpenOffice is available, also free, at www.neooffice.org.

I’m not sure what percentage of people’s computer activities involves these productivity applications, but my guess is the percentage is rather high. Thus, this kind of software is critical to owning (and enjoying) a PC; to get it free is a bonus.

c Google Pack is a collection of tools and utilities for Windows-based PCs that, the company says, can make computing more fun. “In just a few clicks, users can easily discover, install and maintain software to surf the Web faster and safer, communicate better, and effectively manage information,” a spokeswoman wrote.

By and large, this is true: The included Google software encompasses a browser for Google Earth images, a great way to see spots on the planet, such as your home, school or office; Picasa, which is a photo-sharing software; and Google Desktop, a way to organize your computer stuff and retrieve it easily (on the Mac, Apple has Spotlight for that as part of the operating system). The Google toolbar — for both Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox Web browsers — is a handy device to make Internet use easier.

I also like Adobe Acrobat Reader 7 (even if version 8 is out) and the basic version of Norton AntiVirus, for which a subscription is required to keep the program current after six months, as well as an anti-spyware program called AdAware. These latter two utilities are helpful in the war against junk on our computers.

Optional programs include voice and instant-messaging software, as well as audio and video players, and a program for viewing high-definition photo images. Of the options, Skype is one of my favorites, a way to use broadband computer communications to bypass the phone company. All these programs are free, and all are useful. Details are at pack.google.com.

• Where else to go for free or inexpensive software? There’s C-Net’s excellent Download.com, which covers Windows and Mac. Readers of MacAddict magazine (www.macaddict.com) will want to get the January issue for its great roundup of freeware and shareware worth having. The included CD has most of the programs, too. In February, however, MacAddict will assume a new identity, MacLife magazine. My guess is it will still be worth reading.

And whatever you choose to install or delete from your computer’s hard drive, may you enjoy a wonderful 2007. See you next year.

• Read Mark Kellner’s Tech Blog at www.washingtontimes.com/blogs/.

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