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21 Great Open Source Apps For Your Netbook

Small And Mighty

  • March 11, 2009
  • By Cynthia Harvey

These days everyone is looking for a bargain, and laptop manufacturers are eager to deliver. Sure, you can still spend $1,000 (or much more) for state-or-the-art hardware that runs the latest versions of commercial software with ease. But now you can also get a netbook that does everything you really need for under $400.

As you might expect, these cheaper netbooks often lack the performance and security features you'll find in higher-priced models. Fortunately, you can overcome many of these limitations "without spending an extra cent" by turning to open-source software.

In fact, the open-source philosophy has been at the heart of the recent trend towards less expensive laptops from the very beginning. In 2005, MIT faculty founded the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization with the goal of producing $100 laptops that could be used by children in earth's poorest countries.

Free and open-source technology helped make it possible for OLPC to create the XO, a rugged, low-power, extremely inexpensive laptop. In 2007, Taiwanese maker Asustek took this concept from its philanthropic roots and made it commercial when it debuted the Eee for $349. As consumers rushed to snap up the Eee, other manufacturers followed suit with their own so-called "mini" or netbook models that trade features for portability and low cost.

By the end of last year, more than 15 million consumers joined the netbook craze. And despite the increasingly bleak outlook for the PC industry as a whole, analysts predict that the mini notebook market will remain hot.

IDC predicts netbooks will account for 12.3 percent of the laptop market with sales of 21 million units this year, and Gartner anticipates that all mobile PC sales will be up 9 percent, with mini notebooks accounting for most of that growth. And the availability of these low cost options has led to lower price for other, more traditional laptops as well.

The down side? Any low-cost laptop you buy will probably be missing something. It might be underpowered, fall short on RAM, lack hard drive space, and/or come without a CD/DVD drive. And it's almost certainly missing key security features. (Here's a list of 10 open source security apps.)

The solution? Open-source software. In many cases, manufacturers of these lower cost notebooks are already relying on open-source technology as a means to lower the price.

Compared to its commercial counterparts, open-source software generally requires fewer resources and provides greater security. By going with open source on your laptop, you probably won't feel the effects of a slower processor and less memory, and you'll be less likely to be victimized by hackers.

Some may argue that the availability of Web apps and cloud computing means that you don't need software on your laptop at all. However, if you ever want to use your laptop when an Internet connection isn't available (and after all, the point of a laptop is that you can use it anywhere), you really need installed software.

If you've already purchased a low-price laptop or are now considering it, here are open-source software to "fill in the holes" and overcome the slower performance:

The Basics

2) Operating System: Ubuntu

Unless you're buying your laptop second-hand, it's going to come with the OS pre-installed. If you haven't yet made your purchase, you may want to consider one of the many models that uses Ubuntu Linux. It uses dramatically fewer resources than Windows (the other most common operating system option on low-cost laptops) and it's generally considered more secure. In addition, Ubuntu includes many of the most popular open-source applications, such as OpenOffice.org, Firefox, and others.

2) Browser: Firefox

Even if you purchase a Windows-based laptop with Internet Explorer pre-installed, you should consider switching to Firefox. It's more secure (which helps if you're using a laptop that lacks security features), and it's fast and easy to use.

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