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Lower the Cost of Computing--Part II: Software

Shel Horowitz's Monthly Frugal Fun Tip for October, 2006

Once you've acquired the physical computer, you can't do much with it unless you also have software: the tools that make the computer actually do things for you. Professional-level software packages can run hundreds of dollars apiece--a real budget buster. You may need to buy one or two of these, but for the most part, you can get by with no-cost or low-cost packages that can do anything the big expensive ones can.

* Open source software and operating systems. Word processors, spreadsheets, graphics programs, special utilities, e-mail and Internet software, even some operating systems (among them the various flavors of Linux) are all available at no charge. Browsers are already loaded into most new computers, and with your browser, you can get the rest of it. For instance, an office suite comparable to Microsoft Office in its power can be found at http://www.openoffice.org and another one (Mac only) is at http://www.macupdate.com/info.php/id/15797. You can download the Linux operating system at http://www.linux.org/dist/ and then get programs to run on it at http://www.linux.org/apps/ (this one will be intimidating for a non-geek--you might want to get a savvy high school student to set it up and give you some basic training; offer to buy the kid a pizza or two).

* Shareware and freeware: hundreds of useful programs for little or no cost. A visit to http://shareware.search.com will let you search several collections at once.

* Educational discount, if you or a family member works or studies in a school or college

* "Shopping agents" that search out the best prices. Just for the heck of it, I went to Google's shopping agent, http://froogle.google.com, and entered "Microsoft Office." Froogle told me that discount retailer CompUSA has it for the not-a-bargain price of $399.99--but another vendor has the 2003 version for $84.99, and a different one offers the educational deal for $79.98. (Note: If prices seem too good to be true, do a little research and make sure the vendor is trustworthy.)

Finally, one place *not* to get computer programs--ignore all those spams in your e-mail box offering deep discounts on software. The chances of getting badly burned (including having your payment information stolen) are far too great.

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