Gimp – a free alternative to high priced, professional programs such as Photoshop

In today’s graphic intensive world, having a decent, full featured editor is a must.  Many top of the line packages come with the features everyone wants, and unfortunately, with the price tag to go with it.  This is one of the reasons why I like GIMP. It’s a full featured, multi-platform graphics editor; and its totally awesome.

GIMP is the image editing tool of choice for many users, in large part due to its many editing tools.  It’s more common tools include a paint brush, pencil, airbrush, eraser and ink tools. You can use them to create new or blended pixels. Tools such as the bucket fill and blend tools are used to change large regions of space in an image and can be used to help blend images.

GIMP also has a selection of smart tools.  These use a more complex algorithm to enable a user to complete time consuming or difficult tasks, and include the clone tool that copies pixels using a brush, and the healing brush which copies pixels from an area and corrects the tone and color where it is being used. The perspective clone tool works in a similar way to the clone tool, but also allows a user to alter and correct distance changes. The blur and sharpen tool is a brush that blurs and sharpens sections of an image; and the dodge and burn tool is a brush that makes target pixels lighter (dodges) or darker (burns).

An image being edited in GIMP can consist of many layers. Each layer in an image is made up of several channels. In an RGB image there are normally 3 or 4 channels, consisting of a red, green and blue channel. Color sub-layers look like slightly different gray images, but when put together they make a complete image. The fourth channel that may be part of a layer is the alpha channel (or layer mask), this channel measures opacity where a whole or part of an image can be completely visible, partially visible or invisible.

Read full review | Download GIMP

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Mozilla Thunderbird – a modern email client that is flexible and powerful

Mozilla Thunderbird is an open source, multiplatform and extensible email client. It has been around under free license and stable since 2004 and now at versions 10 and 11 is a fully featured and mature product.

All the features that you would expect from a modern email client are present: HTML support, multiple account support, whereby you can keep accounts separate or merge them together, Web mail, POP, IMAP and Microsoft Exchange server support, calendar, address book.

Thunderbird was designed to stop junk mail and prevent viruses, and includes intelligent spam filtering, suggesting when it thinks a message might be spam, S/MIME, data signing and message encryption and a phishing detector.

We found the trickiest part was setting up an email account, and especially if you hail from a webmail environment. There is a wizard to help you through this part.

Download and installation is swift. The client product and the user interface are clean, easy to use. The product can easily be customised through Add-Ons, available via the Tools Menu. Mail is presented in a tabbed format, so it looks a little like Outlook.

It is a good idea to save customisation until well into the process, that way you can get an idea of Thunderbird’s speed, before burdening it with additional software.

Thunderbird has been praised for the search facility. In Version 10 this includes the ability search the web. Email searches can be saved as virtual folders. There is an activity manager which records email activity. This can be used if you need to check whether a mail was sent or received. Emails can be archived in a stroke.

We have high expectations of our email clients to provide extensive functionality and Thunderbird will not disappoint. Since email is such a fundamental part of our lives, we think the security features of this product are excellent. It should not be overlooked for those considering a new email client.

Read full review | Download Mozilla Thunderbird

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Rescue you damaged CDs and DVDs with IsoBuster

ISOBuster is most popular for rescuing data from damaged CDs and DVDs. The ability to retrieve lost data, particularly when it has sentimental value, like photos, or business value, like documentation is invaluable.

There is a free version with limited functionality, and a Pro version, which unlocks high-end data recovery tools. However, for most people, the functionality available in the free version is more than enough to recover data from damaged or corrupted disks. ISOBuster supports a wide range of formats and works under all the Windows versions from Windows 2000 to Windows 7.

ISOBuster is a low-cost data recovery option that can restore files you thought were lost forever. It appears to be quite basic, but is very good at data recovery. Most people will find the free functionality more than enough for their needs, which also makes it very cost-effective.

read full review | download IsoBuster

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VirtualBox the open-source solution for desktop virtualization

VirtualBox is an impressive, open-source, desktop virtualization software. Available for Linux, OS X and Windows, VirtualBox allows you to run a different operating system on your machine, within a virtual environment. So for example, you could have Linux running on your Windows machine.

When you get something for free, you expect it to be lacking in some way, compared to commercial products which tend to have more features or more support. VirtualBox is surprising in that it is gives far more than you would expect, and is a real contender in the virtualization arena. Some of the VirtualBox features include the ability to move VMs between host systems dynamically, branched snapshots, and 32 way virtual SMP support.

What started out as a small virtualization project for individual users, has developed into a competitor in the enterprise sector. It still has some issues to sort out to make it as intuitive as it´s competitors, but remains one of the most comprehensive free apps available. Enterprises may still prefer to go with a commercial solution, but VirtualBox is an excellent option for users who do not want to pay commercial fees.

read full review | download VirtualBox

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Open, burn, create, edit, compress, encrypt, mount and extract ISO files with PowerISO

The one thing I really like about Macs is its ability to distribute software on disk images. Most software is actually distributed in downloadable disk images and run or installed right from the image. This is one reason why I really like PowerISO. It’s a disk image editing and creating tool for Windows.

PowerISO is a powerful CD/DVD/BD image file processing tool, allowing you to open, extract, burn, create, edit, compress, encrypt, split, convert and mount ISO files as internal, virtual drives. It can process almost all CD/DVD/BD image files including ISO and BIN files. PowerISO provides an all-in-one solution, allowing you to do manipulate and use your ISO and disc image files as you need.

PowerISO doesn’t just allow you to mount and use CD/DVD/BD-ROM images like any other disk your computer connects to.  It also allows you to create a DAA (Direct-Access-Archive) file, an advanced image file, which supports compression, password protection, and splitting the image to multiple volumes, if needed.  PowerISO also supports creating and editing ISO, BIN, NRG, CD file formats as well.  Creating bootable CD/DVD’s is also supported in both 32bit and 64bit versions of Windows.

Read full review | Download PowerISO

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Create professional-looking movies and demos from your computer screen with Camtasia Studio

I create training materials all the time. Part of what I do for my day job occasionally requires me to train end users in some kind of computer based process or procedure. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, I’m glad I have tools like Camtasia Studio. It’s a screencast tool for Windows.

Creating a great screencast happens in three simple steps: Record, Edit and Share.

Camtasia Studio’s flexible recording options allow you to capture a full screen or a window or region. You can add in music tracks, a spoken, vocal track, or your computer’s audio.  You can also include picture-in-picture video with your web camera. If you’re using PowerPoint to give a presentation that you want to record for use by invitees who couldn’t attend the initial presentation, Camtasia’s toolbar inside PowerPoint makes it easy to record your presentations, either live or from your desk.  TechSmith’s exclusive SmartFocus technology keeps track of where the action happens on your computer screen during your recording. It then produces a video that zooms in on the parts you need to show.

Once you have your content recorded, Camtasia Studio allows you to spruce it up.  You can easily create callouts by adding a graphic over your video to direct the attention of your viewers. You can also link to an external webpage or jump to a part of the video.  If you’re stuck for the right graphic to use, Camtasia Studio comes stocked with professionally-designed assets you can drag-and-drop into your video. You can also the store your callouts, title slides, and other assets for re-use and sharing later.

After you have your screencast created, the final step is sharing it with your audience.  You can share to YouTube and Screencast.com, TechSmith’s video hosting service.  You can also produce videos in a variety of formats including, MP4, FLV/SWF, M4V, AVI, WMV, MOV, RM, Animated GIF and MP3 (for audio only).

Read full review | Download Camtasia Studio

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Scan and manage all of your hard copy documents with Nuance Paper Port

Anyone with a lot of paper documentation or photos needs a scanner. If you have a scanner, then you no doubt have taken a look at the software that came with it and have found it wanting.  Scanners today are very affordable.  The biggest problem with scanners isn’t the hardware; it’s the software that goes with it. This is why I like Nuance PaperPort Pro. It’s a complete document and photograph scanning solution for Windows.

Most everyone that’s scanned a document has bumped into the strong likelihood that it didn’t come out exactly the way you wanted, requiring you to re-scan it. More than likely, the scan needed some kind of enhancement that your scanner simply doesn’t provide. PaperPort Professional gives you SET (Scanner Enhancement Technology) Tools to correct your scans.

PaperPort also provides a complete end-to-end document solution for scanning, converting, organizing, assembling and sharing your documents. PaperPort Professional goes further than other solutions by organizing all of your scanned documents and photos as large, clear thumbnail images on its desktop. This allows you to quickly find the files you’re looking for based not only on their name but also by their type and appearance.

PaperPort Professional is an awesome application.  Unfortunately, it’s expensive.  I also had a great deal of trouble locating a demo version to try before you buy.  The software can do a great deal, and its features will be a huge value-add for those with a lot of paper they want to scan and shred.  Unfortunately, its price point makes it impractical to simply purchase without a demo version.

read full review | buy Nuance Paper Port

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NetBalancer gives your the proper priority to your internet activities

Even in today’s world of high speed internet and wide pipes, prioritizing and monitoring what takes up the bulk of that personal bandwidth can be important.  If you have large files that you need to transfer quickly then pulling back incidental network traffic can be important. If you have small things that you’d rather move in front of that large file transfer, throttling the large transfer in favor of the low hanging fruit may provide the win.  That’s why I like NetBalancer. It’s a network utility for Windows.

NetBalancer allows you to browse and complete any internet activity easily, even when transferring huge files from one end point to another.  All you need to do is lower their network priority with NetBalancer. You can use NetBalancer to set network transfer rate priorities for any application, and monitor that traffic.

Applications with a higher network priority will gain more traffic bandwidth than those with a lower one. You can set download and upload speed limits for a process. You can manage priorities and limits for each network adaptor (wired vs. wireLESS, for example).  In short, you can define detailed network traffic rules.  You can group local network computers together, and synchronize and balance their network traffic.

The app provides a volume of information, including a system tray monitor and graphical representation of both traffic coming in and out of your adapters. While the free version is limited, the paid version is reasonably priced and depending on the amount of bandwidth you consume every month, may be well worth the purchase price.

read full review | download NetBalancer

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