PC Software: Best OpenSource & Freeware tools we couldn’t live without

The terms ‘Freeware’ and ‘Open Source‘ mean many things to many people. Generally speaking, software of this nature is the fruit of collaboration between programmers in their own time, who see a need in the community and address it with love and attention. Back in the ’90s the term ‘Freeware’ used to be synonymous with ugly interfaces and limited applications. The game has evolved nicely though, and collaborative teams have grown with the open-source ethos (making software code transparent and accessible, and seeking contributions) so much so that many of our core software needs are met by such products.

What follows is a list of our favourite, heavy-use software that has grown out of open-source culture. All the projects’ development teams make calls to donate to further their cause, and if you find them useful, we strongly recommend you give something back to these generous and talented developers.

My most valued OpenSource applications
My most valued OpenSource applications

 

This fully-fledged suite of productivity software is a big deal. Since discovering it a couple of years ago, I gave Microsoft Office the flick and haven’t looked back. OpenOffice can open and handle any Microsoft Office data, and cuts you loose of the software giant’s tentacles. You can also export anything you genereate in OpenOffice in a plethora of file formats, including many different versions of Microsoft standards. We primarily use Writer and Calc (the wordprocessor and spreadsheet applications) but the suite also includes titles comparable to Powerpoint, Access, Draw and others. I’ve heard people complain that sometimes complex layouts in Word documents can get scrambled when they are imported into Writer, but if complex layouts are important to you, you should probably be using a higher-end desktop publishing solution anyway, like InDesign or Quark Express. All in all, this is an incredible package, that gets better with every revision.

 

I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of blog posts devoted to browsers, so I won’t linger on this one. Firefox may not be the fastest kid on the block, but it does have a formiddable volume of great plugins to choose from. The selling points for us are the integration of our chosen password manager, a Facebook toolbar, and EchoFon, a twitter plugin which allows us to follow and tweet more conveniently. I’ll make a separate post about favourite Firefox plugins in the coming month or so- in the meantime, download Firefox and get more out of your web-browsing.

 

Yes, I’m a bit of a Mozilla fan I admit. Again, I got onto this package many years ago, and haven’t touched Outlook or any other mail client since. It’s quick, clean and intuitive interface suits me fine, and the program handles a massive amount data if you’re an email hoarder like I am. Equally indispensible is the utility MozBackup, which allows you to backup your archive of emails. This can be handy if you’re like us, and upgrade computers and travel regularly. MozBackup makes it easy to migrate your email from one machine to the next, and it also takes with it all your mail settings, along with settings from any other Mozilla software.

 

Don’t you just hate having to use Windows Media Player to play back some media files, Quicktime for others and still ending up being herded onto websites to download missing codecs? Enter VLC PLayer. This simple, no-fuss media player cuts through the crap and delivers fast, stable playback of more file-types than you’re ever likely to come accross. It’s still at version 1 at the moment, and is a project well worth supporting.

 

Don’t be misled by the seemingly obsolete title- CD BurnerXP handles BluRay and many other media peculiarities and does it with style, efficiency and grace. It’s an attractive application, has a drag & drop interface and it has quickly become our media burner of choice. As with all the software mentioned here, it may be written by nerds, but not for nerds- so it’s an application that should keep young, heavy-harvesting media farmers and casual-use retirees equally happy. It can burn .ISO images along with the usual combinations of data, audio and video discs bringing it damn close to perfection.

If you use any OpenSource or Freeware tools you couldn’t live with out, please leave your recommendation as a comment below.

Dan Monceaux

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Video mixing: Numark’s NuVJ drives Supermarket’s VJ rig

When we first began mixing video live at our Supermarket audio-visual shows in 2008, we used an old-school 1990’s hardware video mixer from Panasonic. It was heavy and cumbersome, but it delivered every time when fed a camera and two streams of standard definition video. We hired the unit from Adelaide’s Media Resource Centre on several occasions, and despite it having a bunch of extra effects onboard including keying, fades and wipes, we were essentially using it as a bloated video cross-fader. Needless to say, things have changed a lot since then and after an ongoing battle with technology, we may have finally arrived at a harmonious setup.

Supermarket @ Adelaide Fringe Festival, March 2008
Supermarket @ Adelaide Fringe Festival, March 2008

We chose software over hardware in August of 2008 after looking into Numark’s NuVJ package. Despite not knowing anyone personally who’d committed to the rig, there were a few factors that made this the winner for us. Korg had (and still have) some great high-end video mixing gear on the market. So did Edirol. We were concerned though about future-proofing ourselves, and while hardware becomes quickly outdated, software can usually be upgraded without generating any waste and is lighter on the pocket. Purchase price was the was the next factor, and with the Numark rig coming in at less than half the price of a hardware fix from Edirol or Korg, we took the plunge. We gambled on the Numark controller, but the combination of our tolerance for the Panasonic’s crude design and Numark’s reputation of delivering high quality performance oriented DJ products left no cause for hesitation.

NuVJ midi controller & software solution
The solution: NuVJ video mixing midi controller & software

Snapping NuVJ up for a song via Amazon.com, Emma Sterling and I put the rig to work immediately, christening it at local street magazine Rip It Up‘s 1000th issue launch party. Unfortunately unable to run the NuVJ software on our laptops due to their wimpy video card specs, we pumped VHS, DVD, prepared samples and live camera feeds through Em’s Windows XP desktop computer for over four hours without a single restart or hiccup. Unfortunatley, not every gig since has run so smoothly.

The main problems we have suffered with our rig relate directly to our 3rd party analog capture devices. Running at its best, our desktop rig featured three EasyCAP USB analog video capture devices dangling out the back, taking whatever we threw at them. For some reason, these input devices would occasionally not appear as accessible sources in the NuVJ software (after upgrading from version 1.0 to the infinitely better version 1.5 (upgrade available from the Numark website). Restarting, switching USB ports and uninstalling/reinstalling drivers never consistently solved the problem, and many a show was compromised as a result. Despite receiving glowing reviews, only the third of our three show Adelaide Fringe Festival season of Basement Beats this year saw our rig run at %100 the whole show through.

EasyCAP video capture unit
EasyCAP USB video capture unit

Despite the bumpy road so far, we remain optimistic. Just two days ago our NuVJ rig became truly portable for the first time with the purchase of a new Acer Aspire 6930 notebook computer. Featuring a 1 Gb dedicated video card from Nvidea, the system has enough grunt to run video simultaneously over several external outputs. The computer was the first of its kind to sell through A&R Computers here in SA, and we are very happy to see that PC laptops have risen to the challenge of our video needs at long last. I can’t imagine what it was like for Ninjatune’s breakbeat audio-visual act Hexstatic when they were giving birth to the art of the live video mix using re-purposed studio technology in the 1990’s. Much respect to them, as always.

So if you’re all dry, tech’d out and keen for a taste of Supermarket’s VJ stylings, we’re breaking the rig in with a VJ set at the Crown & Sceptre Hotel here in Adelaide on April 9th. The event’s called All Hands on Decks and it’ll be a booty-shaking hip-hop and breakbeat affair, featuring two of Australia’s three-times DJ DMC champ turntablists, Staen-1 (local hero) and Perplex (Melbourne). Come celebrate the beginning of the Easter long weekend on the dancefloor with us, and hopefully the beginning of a much smoother ride for Supermarket’s video mixing future!

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