Computing on the Cheap
It (literally) pays to know all the crafty ways you can save money without sacrificing your power user cred
As much as we love ogling top-of-the-line PC hardware and fantasizing about price-be-damned rigs, we also love, love, love to stretch a dollar. Does that make us cheapskates? You betcha, if that’s what you want to call someone who doesn’t pay a premium when he or she doesn’t have to. Sign us up! In fact, where computing is concerned, knowing all the various angles to save a buck—a buck that can then be put toward new and better gear, mind you—is as much a part of being a power user as knowing how to flash a BIOS or overclock RAM. If you’re currently spending top dollar on your PC activities, it’s time you got schooled in the fine art of penny-pinching. From free software alternatives, to the best deals on all forms of digital entertainment, to hardware-buying tips, to our blueprint for a $600 PC, this year’s MaximumPC Cheapskate’s PC Guide can save you thousands of dollars and make you a more savvy consumer in the process.
Save on Software
Why plunk down cash when you can have these outstanding free alternatives?
The sad truth about building a PC is that you never end up sticking to your budget. Even if you manage to resist the temptation to splurge on an extra SSD, you’re going to hit the point where your brand-new system is assembled and ready for action—just as soon as you buy some software. First you shell out for the operating system, then some office software, then a security suite. Before you know it, your budget is ancient history and you’re taking out a second mortgage to pay for Photoshop.
Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some excellent free software options that can take the place of pricey commercial applications.
It’s getting harder and harder to justify paying for an antivirus suite, now that Microsoft offers its own capable AV solution. Microsoft Security Essentials provides real-time system scanning, Windows Firewall integration, and rootkit protection, all for the unbeatable price of zero dollars. We say slap it on any new system, and leave paying for AV to the idle rich.
File Backup: Syncback Free
You know all those photos you have on your hard drive? Priceless reminders of family vacations and childhood memories? Well, it would be a real shame if something happened to them.
No, we’re not trying to shake you down—this is just a reminder that you should be using software to automatically back up any file you’re not prepared to lose. SyncBack Free is a great choice for backing up and synchronizing your valuable files, automatically. If you want to go a step further and clone your whole drive, our standing recommendation is Macrium Reflect .
Office Suite: Google Docs
In the past we’ve recommended Open Office (or its descendant, LibreOffice) as the best free replacement for Microsoft Office, but we think it’s time for a change. Let’s all admit to ourselves that much of what we currently do using software on our hard drives will, in the next few years, move over to the cloud. Office software has been some of the first to make the transition, and nowadays there’s no reason you can’t use Google Docs as your everyday productivity software.
Google Docs can create and edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms. It’s also a great way to collaborate remotely, as multiple people can log in and work on shared documents simultaneously.
Photo Editor: GIMP
There’s still only one truly good replacement for Adobe’s versatile-yet-oh-so-expensive Photoshop, and that’s GIMP. The Gnu Image Processor (for long) is open source, free, and has all the tools you need to spruce up your photos, do a little image manipulation, or add some LOLtext to a picture of a cat. If the built-in features aren’t enough for you, there’s an extensive library of scripts and add-ons available online that should provide what you need.
Vector Editor: Inkscape
GIMP can help you with any raster (that is, pixel-based) editing you do, but it’s no good for creating vector-based images.
Vector images, which can be smoothly scaled to any size, are the perfect format for company logos or any other illustration that you want to be able to use over and over again. Adobe Illustrator is the standard application for vector editing, but like all professional Adobe software, it’s very expensive.
Instead, take a look at Inkscape.
Inkscape is yet another product of the open-source scene, and it has all the tools you need to create great-looking, high-quality vector graphics.
Desktop Publishing: Scribus
Finishing off the trifecta of open-source design apps is Scribus, which lets you take all those graphics you’ve created in GIMP and Inkscape (along with any text you’ve written in Google Docs), and lay them out on a page for publishing. Whether you’re putting together an e-book, a magazine, or just the family newsletter, a desktop publishing app like Scribus is the best way to create a professional layout that you can re-use whenever you want.
Video Editing: Lightworks
For a long time, nonlinear video editing software was something you just couldn’t really get for free. Microsoft’s Windows Live Movie Maker is free, and can be a good option for very basic video editing tasks, but if you’re looking to put together anything more complicated than a simple home video, it just doesn’t have the feature set you’ll need. Other than that, you’re pretty much out of luck.
There’s Blender, which is free and actually has a fairly powerful sequencer, but something just feels off about doing our video editing in a 3D-modeling application. There have also been a number of high-quality open-source video editors in Linux, but those haven’t been of any help in Windows. Until now, that is.
Earlier this year, professional video editing software Lightworks went open source, and released a free version for Windows. The software was formerly a professional film‑editing suite (The King’s Speech, The Departed, and Braveheart are just a few films that were edited in Lightworks), and therefore has a pretty steep learning curve. Additionally, only a handful of codecs are supported for importing footage, unless you upgrade to the Pro version, which is offered for only $60. Even with those caveats, Lightworks is hands-down the most powerful video editing suite you can get for free.
DVD Playback: VLC
If you bought an optical drive to play movies, but don’t have a copy of playback software like Cyberlink PowerDVD, you might think you’re out of luck. But don’t take out your wallet just yet—if all you need is bare-bones video playback, VLC might be just right for you. The free, open‑source player can handle pretty much any digital video file, as well as video DVDs. Blu-ray playback is also possible in VLC, although you’ll need to do a little Googling if you want to watch copy-protected discs.
Operating System: Ubuntu
If you’ve gotten this far in your hunt for free software, it might be time to think about going all the way. That’s right—the ultimate in free computing: Linux. Nearly every program mentioned so far started as a Linux application before being ported to Windows, and there are still more free software packages that aren’t available on Microsoft’s OS.
If you’re ready to get started with Linux, you’ll want to create an Ubuntu Live CD from the website. Ubuntu’s the most user-friendly Linux distro, and the easiest to get started with. Once you’ve downloaded the installer, just burn it to a CD, put the disc in your drive, and restart. When your computer boots from the live CD, you’ll be able to try out Ubuntu and see how you like it. If you want to go all the way, you can install the full operating system to your hard disc.
Linux is great for productivity applications, but it doesn’t always have an equivalent for your favorite Windows applications. You can use WINE in Linux to run most Windows applications natively.
Free Cloud Storage
Cloud storage solutions are cheaper and more numerous than ever before, with several contenders just begging to give you something for nothing. But what if one service and 5GB isn’t enough for your vast collection of J-Pop and Klingon poetry? Pay attention, young Padawan: We’ll show you how to get the biggest bang from your lack of bucks when choosing a free cloud service.
Microsoft SkyDrive – Old‑skool SkyDrivers are sitting pretty on 25GB of free cloud storage, but new users are “limited” to 7GB. Even so, that’s more than the competition offers, and SkyDrive hooks deeply into the native apps found in both Windows Phones and Windows 8.
Google Drive – Google Drive offers 5GB of free storage and the same basic functionality as SkyDrive, including the ability to edit documents with others in real time through your web browser. We prefer Google Docs to Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, though, which makes Google Drive a great place to stash documents, spreadsheets, and slide shows.
SugarSync – SugarSync adds another 5GB of free cloud storage to your total, but more importantly, it syncs any folders of your choosing on your PC. The desktop clients of the other services mentioned here force you to stash your files in a predetermined location. That makes SugarSync a terrific option for a hands-off, constantly updated backup of critical folders, such as your Documents folder.
Dropbox – At first blush, Dropbox’s free 2GB offer pales in comparison to the others, but a little legwork opens up a bountiful cornucopia of free storage. Using the Camera Upload feature and linking social media accounts earn you more space, but the big payoff comes in referring friends: Each referral gets you another 500MB, capped at a whopping 16GB of free additional space. Don’t want to bug your pals? We’ve already explained how to game the system.
Add it all up and that’s 22GB of free cloud storage. Plus, Dropbox doesn’t impose size restrictions on files uploaded via the desktop client. It’s ideal for large file dumps.
Box – Box is just a 5GB storage locker; it doesn’t sync files, search text, or offer version histories. What it does do is frequently hold promotions for 50GB of free space. Files are still limited to 100MB in size, though.
ADrive offers 50GB free without all the hoop-jumping, but its craptastic web-only interface and lack of mobile support make it more hassle than hurrah.
Grand Total: 44GB, or 119GB if you’re a veteran SkyDrive user who hops on Box’s 50GB offer. Not too shabby for nothing! Protip: With the exception of SugarSync, disable the services’ desktop clients from running at startup to avoid needlessly tying up system resources.
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