June 8, 2021•1,918 words
I'll admit it, some open source programs feel like second-grade imitations of proprietary software. This is not a jab at any open source developers; I think this is mostly due to copyright laws and the sheer money that's behind the world's most popular software.
However, there is open source software out there that's simply unbeatable. Here's a few of these programs.
It is a video downloader
Platforms Windows, macOS, Linux
Replaces Freemake Video Downloader, Free Studio, shady ad-filled websites
Youtube-dl is, like, so good. It can do everything you expect from a Youtube downloader, and much more. It officially supports many hundreds of video sites, and it can handle even more through some generic extraction methods. Seriously, throw any video link at youtube-dl and if there's any way to download it, the program will do it.
Youtube-dl is a command line program, but it's so well documented that even inexperienced users should be able to operate it fairly easily. If the command line is too intimidating, there's always youtube-dl-gui which gives you a nice and simple interface.
It is a web browser
Platforms Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS
Replaces Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Safari
Almost the entire internet has switched to Chrome over the last few years, which is a shame, because it's owned by Google and doesn't give a shit about its users' privacy. Firefox is fairly private by default, and can be tweaked to be as private as browsers get. It's also very customisable and has tons of great add-ons, like uBlock Origin, my personal favourite ad and content blocker. Talking about uBlock Origin…
It is a content blocker
Platforms Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Opera
Replaces WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger
I'm not sure how this ad and content blocker could get any better. I haven't seen a single ad in a long time, and web pages have become a lot less bloated (both visually and data-wise) since I installed it. It can be run in easy mode, which blocks most stuff you don't want automatically, or in manual mode, which means it blocks a lot by default and you occasionally have to un-break certain websites. This control and transparency is a big part of what I love about this extension. By default, even in easy mode, it blocks not only ads but also tracking, annoyances and resource abuse (using your CPU or bandwidth without consent), so it's a great one-stop-shop for a better internet experience.
It is a PDF arranger (shocker)
Platforms Windows, Linux
Replaces Adobe Acrobat, various PDF websites
I wish I'd learned about this tool earlier. When I want to edit a PDF file, I usually want to do one of three things: 1) take a selection of pages and dump the rest, 2) rotate the pages (because some people don't know how to scan documents properly), or 3) crop the white edges in a document. PDF Arranger lets you do exactly these things, and in the simplest way possible. No ads, no websites, no millions of redundant options. Also, it preserves all text as text and basically does nothing to your files except what you tell it to. Just lovely.
It is a reference manager
Platforms Windows, macOS, Linux
Replaces EndNote, RefWorks
If you do any kind of academic writing, a reference manager is almost a necessity. Zotero is easy to use, feature-rich and just happens to be open source as well! It does everything I want it to do, and more. Managing citations – even many hundreds of them – is easy with the nested folder system. Exporting one or multiple sources for in-text citations or a bibliography is a breeze, plus it integrates with LibreOffice Writer and even MS Word (if you're into that kind of thing). It also offers browser extensions, so you can directly import references from web pages.
It is a note-taking app
Platforms Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS, web
Replaces Evernote, Google Keep, OneNote
Hey, it's the program that I'm writing this post in! Standard Notes is perfect for me as a student because it allows me to customise what's important and keep the rest as simple as possible, so that taking notes is distraction-free. It has a bunch of themes (including beautiful dark ones), a ton of different editors for different purposes, and it allows you to organise your notes through folders and sub-folders.
It's not as extensive as something like Evernote, but it focuses on one thing and does it extremely well. Oh, and it also encrypts all your notes by default and syncs them to their servers, so that you can access them anywhere.
It is a radio streamer
Replaces TuneIn, iHeartRadio, web players
Another tiny application that does one thing perfectly. This program sits in your tray and lets you play radio stations. You add radio stations through web links (.pls or .mp3), and you can group them by genre. The fact that it's a tray application is perfect, because it stays out of your way while always being available at a single click for when you want to change the channel or pause the music.
Also, allow me to plug the excellent SomaFM while I'm at it. Pick a station whose name you like, and you'll probably like the music! It's seriously good and totally ad-free.
It is a word processor
Platforms Windows, macOS, Linux
Replaces Microsoft Word, Google Docs
This one might be seen by some as one of these inferior open source copies of proprietary software (mostly MS Word). But I've really come to love it. For me, it doesn't lack a single feature that MS Word offers. It also feels light and easy to handle, and it's very customisable – it even has the ribbon design from Word as an option, if that's your thing. And it supports more filetypes than you'll know what to do with – including .docx files, of course.
It is proofreading software
Platforms browsers (Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, Opera), word processors (Google Docs, MS Word, OpenOffice, LibreOffice), macOS
This program gives you useful writing tips in over 30 languages. It checks both grammar and style, and covers stuff such as sentence length, grammatical errors, old-fashioned or unclear language, false friends and much, much more. Of course, its functionality differs per language, but I can testify to its usefulness in both English and Dutch.
Website https://meet.jit.si/ (server-hosted); https://jitsi.org/jitsi-meet/ (self-hosted)
It is video conferencing software
Platforms Linux, macOS, Windows, Android, iOS, web
Replaces Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger Rooms, Discord
The fact that people massively flocked to a shady proprietary videocall program for their quarantine communication, and that it's not just companies but universities as well, still baffles me. Especially because there's a great open-source and private alternative out there: Jitsi! Their hosted service works great for individual use, and it's more user-friendly (and prettier!) than many of the proprietary alternatives. Seriously, setting up a meeting takes two clicks, it's that simple.
It is a messaging app
Platforms Android, iOS, Windows, macOS, Linux
Replaces WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, fax
Another app that's so good that you wonder why everyone still uses the crappy one. Signal is, in many ways, a WhatsApp clone. The irony here is that WhatsApp actually uses Signal's messaging protocol, because it's so damn secure. WhatsApp, though, is owned by Facebook, who promised a few years ago that they wouldn't use WhatsApp's data for their advertising activities, and who are now doing exactly that. Signal, on the other hand, is as private as it gets. On top of that, they have a desktop app that works independently of the phone app, and it can double as an SMS app!