How to make the most of freeware

So what is freeware?  Well put simply it is software that is free or at least purports to be free!

Free is good?  Right?  In many cases this is true, in some practice-based situations it is often preferable to use a large established and well known software system.

So for example; if you are preparing a photograph for court (or something very official) and need to label the image or adjust the brightness in a dark image then it is probably better to be on the stand saying that you did this in Photoshop than say the freewware Gimp.  Juries by and large know what Photoshop is but will have heard of it but Gimp?  For the geographers preparing material for a paper or report it doesn’t really matter.

There are different types of freeware; he is my attempt at a crude classification:

  • Community/user built versions of main stream software. For example, Gimp is a free version of Photoshop built by users.  The same is true of Inkscape and Illustrator.  The freeware is well established, does much of what the commercial software does and is actively supported by programmers and developers.  There is an element of fashion here, but the best free versions endure.
  • Community/user built specialist usually academic software. A group of academic come together to develop a piece of research software that gains momentum and widespread use.  The ‘R’ project is a great example (  It is a computing framework, interface and language that professionals can code in to do statistics and graphic representations.  Widely used and widely supported with lots of code libraries and tutorials.
  • Lone-operator(s) software. An individual or group of individuals who have created a piece of software for the fun of it or to overcome a particular analytical barrier.  These tend to be function/task specific and not widely supported by the community.  They can be very good and they can also be very bad!  Just think of the good and bad apps in the app store.
  • Professional software with free entry level versions. Software provided by commercial developers and companies that is offered free, with cut-down functionality or usage restrictions.  These products can be great if the bit you need is in the free part!  They are just frustrating if they aren’t.

There are two bits of freeware that could be used as substitutes for commercial packages that might really help , namely:

Adobe Photoshop >> GIMP

Adobe Illustrator >> Inkscape

Both these are broadly similar in their primary functions and are intuitively similar in many respects.

GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is a cross-platform image editor available for GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows. It is free software and you can make changes to the source code and distribute your changes.

Inkscape is professional quality vector graphics software which runs on Windows, Mac OS X and GNU/Linux. It is used by design professionals and scientists worldwide, for creating a wide variety of graphics such as illustrations, icons, logos, diagrams, maps and web graphics. Inkscape uses the W3C open standard SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) as its native format, and is free and open-source software.

Finally there is nothing wrong with using freeware, provided it does the job you need it to do and it does it accurately/precisely.  Sometimes however there are systems restriction within organisations which make downloading and installing such software difficult.  This does not apply to you own laptops however, just take care to only download stuff with known pedigree and from secure sites.

What follows is a list, in addition to GIMP and Inkscape that I personally think is useful to be aware off.  You may find other examples; please share what you find.  Bear in mind that my list reflects my professional interests and will be different from yours.

Useful freeware

  • As a geologist who does a lot of palaeontology and morphometric analysis I discovered PAST which is an outstanding statistical package with some neat graphic options. I use it exclusively in my own research.  It is supported by an online manual and a textbook published by Blackwell.
  • Mendeley is an excellent reference manager and is free; you can purchase additional storage however. It is excellent.
  • DigTrace is software that can be used to create 3D models from photographs. It is developed at BU and is extensively used in geological and forensic science.
  • Meshlab is an excellent 3D viewer for looking at point cloud data, basically 3D models. Rather specialised but extremely useful.
  • The ‘R’ project is a great example.  It is a computing framework, interface and language that professionals can code in to do statistics and graphic representations.
  • GeoRose is a software package for plotting directional information and is very good at what it does.
  • SedLog is a great tool for drawing stratigraphic logs.
  • GRASS GIS is a free GIS system which very popular with some academics.
  • Evernote is an excellent noting software tool; it is free at entry but requires purchases to unlock full usability.
  • Smartdraw has a range of graphic packages they are not all free and most involve payment at some point which is a bit disappointing.
  • The link that follows contains a generic list of stuff which may or may not be useful at some point in your professional career:


 “There is a lot of cool freeware out there, just take a look when you need to do a specific task.”

“Use it discerningly!”

“Everyone has their favourite pieces of software; we are all different after all.  What works for one might not work for another.  ”

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