Reviews of Free or Free to Use Software, by BurkeyAcademy

BurkeyAcademy's guide to free (or mostly free) software for PCs (but some are available on other platforms)

This is a page of resources for the best free, open source or free to use software out there, in my opinion-- but please share your ideas!  In particular, I am focusing mostly on research-related software, since I am an economist/mathematician,statistician/programmer.  However, I will evaluate other types of software as well. I will review and discuss how-to in YouTube Videos as well.  As I mention often, I highly value the ability to use a program as a PortableApp-- what this means is that it can be run from a pen drive, or run from your computer without installing it, there is no need to uninstall (just dlete!), and it doesn't junk up your registry.  Almost no paid software allows you to legally run their software in this way.  This level of convenience and lack of intrusion is wonderful.   If you know if software that I don't know about, drop me a note!
Good Staring Places for Good, Free Software are:

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 Type of software Paid Version       Free Equivalents  Reviews and Verdict  Link to free version
Symbolic Algebra Mathematica
 Maxima My experience began with Derive-- it is a baby program with limited capabilities (but I loved it while learning calculus, and it does have value). I have used Maple for well over 20 years. I have limited experience with Mathematica. Maple has actually gotten MUCH worse over the years... in fact, every version has been worse than its predecessor (like MS office, they have extended capabilities and "user friendliness" at the expense of control and function). Maxima is a wonderful effort, is very capable, and is great for students to learn math, do 2d & 3d plots, plot level curves, etc. Still, Maxima is a newcomer with a lot of growing to do. Its equation solving algorithms are still weak compared to Maple.  Though a pain at times, it is good to use for students/faculty/colleges on a budget. See
Matrix Calculation/Other Math MatLab Octave, FreeMAT I will be testing Octave this Summer.  Matlab is a very good programming language, particularly for manipulating large vectors/arrays/matrices of data, as is done in linear modeling and other types of statistics.
GIS Software ArcGIS, Mappoint, MapInfo QGIS, MapWindow, Quantum, GRASS, others Finally, after looking at many Open Source options through the years, QGIS has risen to the top of the pile.  It is a but buggy, but works very well for most things, most of the time.

MapWindow is also OK, but not quite up to QGIS these days. While it certainly lacks a lot of features of ARCGIS, it is $10,000 cheaper.  See for some videos on how to use it.
Paid Software: ARCGIS is also inexcusably hard to use, crashes for no particular reason quite often, and has an incomprehensible naming structure for its products, toolboxes, menu choices, and everything else. Due to its ubiquity and difficulty to use, Master's degree programs in GIS abound.  Honestly, if MS Excel were as hard to use, we would have MS programs in Spreadsheets.  There is nothing that needs to be that hard-- the software could easily be reconstructed to be 80% easier, automatically take care of projection issues (rather than requiring users to figure out projections on their own), incorporate the endless list of toolboxes into a standard product, etc. etc.
More Paid: Note: Microsoft discontinued Mappoint. I love MS MapPoint ($50-$300 depending on year and nonprofit/general license) for its "accomplishes 90% of the tasks GIS people do day to day with 10% of the difficulty and expense" philosophy. The fact that MapPoint is intentionally crippled (e.g. won't give you latitude or longitude) is offset by the good people who write add-on software to add functionality (IC-dataset-export for lat-lon determination).  Also, I love Richard Marsden of WinWaed Software for his add-ins ($50-100, and worth it) that allow many routes to be calculated, closest facility to be found, etc.  He answers questions immediately, if not always the way I would like them answered.  But, I annoy him, because I abuse his programs-- he designs them to calculate hundreds of thousands of routes... I use them to calculate hundreds of millions.  They work fine, but need some babying when I use huge datasets with them.  They have helped in a few research projects of mine( Paper 1 Paper 2 ), to accomplish things that could not otherwise be done.  OK, they could but
Office Suite (with word processor, spreadsheet, and other tools as a package)  MS Office Open Office, LibreOffice  LibreOffice slightly better than OpenOffice IMHO (because it is still available as a Portable App) . It is a branch off of the Openoffice development tree, so there are few substantive differences.
+1 for LibreOffice vs. MS Office in the Excel/Calc category: I just tried to read in a 220,000 row x 650 column CSV file into Excel- and it choked and would not parse the data into cells.  LibreOffice (the portable version, even!), even though it gave me a warning, did it perfectly!  It is also performing operations on the huge array incredibly quickly!  I actually see very little reason to use MS Excel ever again.
Word Processing (Document Typing) MS Word  ABI Writer   A decent offering in the Word Processor department, if you don't need the entire office suite, or are looking for an alternative.
 Spreadsheet Excel  Gnumeric   A decent offering in the spreadsheet department, if you don't need the entire office suite, or are looking for an alternative. In some respects, I like Gnumeric better than LibreOffice Calc... so I keep it handy just in case, but use Libreoffice more often.
 Image editing Photoshop  GIMP   Impressive capabilities from Gimp. I am no expert in image editing, but I have figured out how to get GIMP to do everything I need. See Make a sillhouette with GIMP video.
Video Editing MS Moviemaker, many others VirtualDub, many others VDUB is an important tool I use often.  However, it is not user friendly, and very limited in its capabilities. That said... it is a VERY difficult category... so many formats, CoDecs, it is impossible to find a paid or free program that is easy to use, can read and write all formats and codecs, and is user friendly.  Even if there were a program that fit the bill, it would be out of date within months, as new codecs appear and disappear.
 Video Conversion (Converting a video file to a different size, encoding format, etc.) Who Cares? HandBrakeGreat at converting video, or reformatting/making a smaller file that is more suitable for watching on a phone or tablet. One thing you need to understand that there are three separate issues with any video file:
1) The extension (m4v, avi, etc. that may tell you nothing about the type of thing contained within, and is not important )
2) The container, that tells a program how a file is compressed, encoded, etc.
3) The encoded content itself.
Video Viewing Windows Media, 1,000s of others VLC Media Player  Though VLC Media player has faltered from time to time, nevertheless, it is still reigns supreme as the play anything program. Also available as a Portable App, it is the perfect thing to carry on your USB drive, and desktop and laptop to play any audio or video file anywhere, any time.  I also love the ability to play audio and video faster or slower.  Some video lectures are only tolerable if sped up to say, 130% of normal, to get through the speaker's ummms and ahhhs.  Some movies, as well!
 Drawing (Scalable Vector Graphics)
 InkScape  Love it. Its capabilities are limitless.  I have found that it crashes quite a bit in some circumstances (intelligent color filling with complex structures). But this is forgivable. It would be nice if it also was capable of some GIMP-like image editing.
Screencasting (Recording your computer screen and voice as a video)  Camtasia HyperCam,
Screencast-o-matic, CamStudio
Camtasia is slicker, and a little more user-friendly. If I had unlimited,  free access to the paid program, I would use it. But, since I use 8 computers, and Camstudio can be used as a Portable App. Screencast1    Screencast2  videos using Camstudio/discussing using screencasting for education.
*Note: CamStudio has come with unwanted spyware a few times I downloaded it.  I am not sure whose fault this is, but I now recommend Hypercam. 
Hypercam Link (Warning! Now with viruses/adware!) Codec to record smaller, higher quality videos
Remote Control software for PCs.  TeamViewer, GotoMyPC TeamViewer, Microsoft Remote Desktop  I use around 6 computers I own on a daily basis. I also help MANY family members fix, upgrade, troubleshoot, etc. their PCs. I install TeamViewer on all of them. It is free for personal use (not-corporate or nonprofit).  At some point I will give these guys some money, however. It allows me to have a list of all of my PCs, and simply click to log in. I know which PCs are on or off at any given moment.  I can easily send a PC a message, transfer files, take complete control, show someone how to do something...  WONDERFUL!  Saves me many hours each month.  For example:
If I need to make a PDF on a computer at work while I am at home, I just do it on my work computer, as if I was sitting there!  Available as an Android App as well.
Benefits over Microsoft Remote Desktop: Easily penetrates many levels of firewalls-- ALWAYS works smoothly.  Also, more user friendly.  It requires the software be installed on the remote computer, however.  Can be run as a Portable App, though.
 Antivirus  Who Cares?  Microsoft Security Essentials


 Microsoft Security Essentials is very good, relatively unobtrusive, and free. It is built into Windows 8, or downloadable for Windows 7 or below. 

The other two are good in a pinch and can be run as portable apps from a pen drive on a suspect computer.  See

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