Tan Tze Heng
24 January 2022
As an undergraduate living in the 2020s when technology advances and pandemic strikes, we need to use electronic devices more frequently in order to survive in university academically and socially. We can see more and more software icons occupying our desktop or home screen, each of which fulfilling very different purposes from note taking to video production. However, most of the software dedicated for those different tasks are either paid (like MS Office and Photoshop), or freemium (e.g. Notion, Notability, Zoom), which requires payment for accessing their full functionalities. If you don’t have an adequate budget, you may not afford to use this software to complete tasks and assignments.
Why not let FOSS come to the rescue then? Free and open-source software (FOSS) are software that are free of charge and with their source codes openly available for download, distribution and modification (for less techie users, being free of charge is what matters more). FOSS nowadays are not as technically demanding as before, and they even offer similarly powerful functionalities as existing commercial options without requiring users to pay a penny, which make them a fair bargain! Here, the writer will recommend 5 top FOSS alternatives which can help you stay productive in uni without spending a lot.
As an NUS student, we are privileged to have access to the entire Office 365 software suite without paying for extra. However, in the future when we eventually graduate, there is a high possibility that we still need to use office applications like Office 365 both when at work and at home. Instead of trying to circumvent the paywall by looking for keygens or crackers from questionable sources which may attract harmful malwares, there has been a legally free and fully functional option available in the market.
LibreOffice is a free and open-source office suite which provides most of the features that are offered by Microsoft Office, including word processing, slide show designing, spreadsheets, database managing and mathematical formulae editing. One notable feature among these functionalities that impresses the writer is the relatively intuitive and neat maths formula output in LibreOffice Math, unlike the Insert Equation function in Microsoft Word.
Also, LibreOffice still adapts the toolbar interface as their default user interface, so those who feel nostalgic about the “pre-MS 2007” era may be interested. Feel more comfortable on the ribbon interface? Fret not, LibreOffice supports switching between different user interfaces, from ribbons to sidebars, through the View – User Interface functions, and this is a unique feature in LibreOffice which is not available in Microsoft Office.
(Credits: Jeykdedhid, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Although the default format used by LibreOffice is OpenDocument format (such as .odt and .odp), it still supports saving in Microsoft Office formats (like .docx or .pptx). Other neat features in LibreOffice which are not supported by MS Office include cross-platform support, extended PDF export options and the insertion of PDF files as images in documents.
Software download page: https://www.libreoffice.org/download/download/
An elaborated comparison table between features of LibreOffice and Microsoft Office for those who are into it: https://wiki.documentfoundation.org/Feature_Comparison:_LibreOffice_-_Microsoft_Office
Envy of other RHesidents or friends in uni who have an iPad with Notability installed and an Apple Pencil to annotate handouts digitally, but do not have an iPad because of being broke or just being more of an Android person (like the writer himself)?
Stop the search for other (paid) alternatives, as there is a powerful FOSS alternative available for you.
Introducing Xournal++, an FOSS alternative to Notability which has comparably powerful functionalities as Notability. Even if a free plan is offered for Notability (https://notability.com/pricing), the functionality of the free plan is still quite limited with only limited options of paper templates and number of note edits, not to mention its limited support for only Apple devices. That is not the case for Xournal++. Xournal++ provides cross-platform support (i.e. it works on desktops, Macs, tablets, phones and even online – although the development of some of the versions is still underway), and offers a number of useful functions, all of which without a paywall getting in the way.
These functions include more paper template options (from blank paper, graph paper to blank music stave paper), more colour choices for ink pens and highlighters, customisable drawing pad configurations, PDF annotation, multi-layer functionality, LaTeX support (which is immensely useful for Science and Engineering majors!), audio recording insertion and many more.
Basic drawing pad plus Xournal++ equals neat digital lecture notes!
Software download page: https://xournalpp.github.io/installation/
As the industry standard in the domain of image editing software, Adobe Photoshop has become a software which is so ubiquitous and widely known that we use ‘Photoshopping’ to describe image manipulation, just like how people use ‘Googling’ to mean online searching. If you are a follower of the NUS Student Union’s (NUSSU) Telegram channel, you may have already known of a giveaway offered by the NUSSU known as the NUSSU Adobe Licencing Scheme which offers a number of Adobe CC Licences to interested students and organisations. However, what if you are not lucky enough to obtain and you do not have the money to get an Adobe CC subscription that costs USD 53 a month?
Fret not, as there is already an FOSS alternative wandering in the wild waiting for you! Krita, targeted for graphic designers and digital illustrators, is a graphic manipulation and drawing software which has the capability to produce professional-grade works upon mastery of using it.
Like Photoshop, you can use it to design posters, draw and edit photos (although GIMP may be a better option for graphic manipulation). For those who are not having design and drawing as a professional career, Krita may be your better option for starting out a creative passion project without worrying about the technicalities and compromising the quality of the output.
(Credits: KDE, GPLv3, via Wikimedia Commons)
Software download page: https://krita.org/en/download/
Similar to the case of Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, another member of the Creative Cloud suite, is an industry standard in video production but requires quite a sum of money which a typical university student may not have sufficient budget on. If you cannot obtain a licenced copy from the university or the same licensing scheme as mentioned above, instead of risking your computer security by finding a cracked version, consider opting for Kdenlive, a FOSS alternative to Adobe Premiere.
Although there are some advanced features exclusive to Premiere which Kdenlive does not include, the functionalities of Kdenlive is still comprehensive enough to cater for most students’ needs for completing assignments and CCA commitments; that includes trimming, extracting or applying common effects like ‘green-screen effect’ (Chroma Key) and burnt-in subtitles into video or audio sources.
(Credits: Ddeepeshkumar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Software download page: https://kdenlive.org/en/download/
5. Jitsi Meet
The wave of the pandemic (which, sadly, is still ongoing) has made online classes (nicknamed ‘Zoom Uni’ in Singapore) a normal routine in university, and that is when online conferencing software like Zoom and MS Teams see surge in usage and importance. Apart from attending lectures and tutorials, we as a university student may be obliged to use such software for group discussions as well. If you happen to be a follower of the NUS subreddit, you might come across occasional posts ranting about the unavailability of Zoom Premium for NUS student accounts, which leads to the limited meeting duration of 40 minutes for group meetings.
Who can expect that there even has a FOSS alternative for online conferencing platforms? And yes, I am talking about a meeting platform which provides unlimited meeting duration for group meetings, free of charge.
Introducing Jitsi Meet, an open-source meeting platform with a free-of-charge official online meeting platform website (meet.jit.si). No account registration and software installation is required to use the website, only a working web browser and basic hardware (webcam and mic), and a fancy meeting room name at the web address will suffice!
Sick of laggy YouTube video screen shares? Jitsi Meet to the rescue!
Besides, one other most prominent feature of Jitsi Meet is that it supports lag-free YouTube video sharing! Forget about the laggy video screencast using the usual screen sharing feature in other meeting platforms; if there’s a need to screencast YouTube videos, this function can give a way smoother experience to the users.
Other useful features of Jitsi Meet which is similarly powerful as Zoom include livestream, chat function, poll function, reactions with sound effects and recording. Nonetheless, the cloud recording function of Jitsi Meet requires connection with a Dropbox account whereas the local recording function is only available in self-hosted Jitsi Meet platforms. Also, everyone can be a moderator with the ability to mute others and kick others out from the meeting in the meet.jit.si online platform, and limited moderating rights can only be configured in self-hosted versions, which requires more technical knowledges (as of now, might subject to changes).
Software download page (including self-hosting): https://jitsi.org/downloads/
And that wraps up the top 5 FOSS alternatives to popular commercial software as recommended by the writer! There may be people who are willing to pay for the commercial options and do not care much about open source, but these FOSS can still be considered and are worth supporting as they provide free but powerful options for those with limited budgets, and most of them are advocates for software liberty. For those geeky enough to explore more about FOSS alternatives, you may refer to the websites below:-