Web Designer’s FREElance Toolbox for Windows
Published on June 20, 2005
Freelancing for an extra thick wad of greenbacks to pad your back pocket is every Web designer’s dream. Wrangling up your own clients, managing the entire creative process and collecting your due reward is a great accomplishment, and the process can be more fulfilling than the daily grind of a full-time job. Yet, it can also be a frustrating experience. Your time and resources can be severely limited by several factors, including managing your addiction to eBay Motors and observing your duties as a regional Star Wars fan club representative. But more than likely, your greatest obstacle is money.
Software is Expensive
So your anal-retentive boss enjoys reprimanding designers who use company-licensed software copies for personal profit. Go figure. After purchasing the necessities—Photoshop, Illustrator (stop scoffing you pesky FreeHanders), Flash and Dreamweaver—you are left with nothing but scruples. You eye little Timmy’s piggy bank every time you need that next cool design, programming or desktop tool, but you stop short, and instead Google-fish for freeware. That’s when the real fun begins. The rest of your night is spent removing adware that pillages your hard drive.
The Good Free Goods
Sit back, relax and put down your double caramel macchiato. I’m about to make your life a lot easier and freelancing oh-so-much more fun. The following is a list of unfettered freeware that I have personally reviewed. Time-tested and designer/developer approved, these programs contain no adware and are built on a solid foundation, including a supportive community of users. There is no fine print to read, and you can rest assured each one will save you money and save poor Timmy’s college fund.
If you freelance enough, clients will add you to their hit list… I mean address book. It only seems like a hit list when you get bombarded with their virus-laden emails. As a Web designer surfing for inspiration, you’re also more likely to hit a few sites unknowingly housing malicious PHP scripts. I was shocked to find out AVG identifies potential threats better than Norton ever did on my trusty Windows 98 laptop, and it does little to hamper system resources. Updates can be scheduled regularly and your defenses are solid if you combine AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition with a program like Lavasoft Ad-Aware SE Personal.
I’ve used Audacity on several occasions to accomplish simple tasks. If you’re looking for a way to edit loops for Flash, record a voiceover for a QuickTime movie or remove a sound bite altogether, then this is the tool. It’s not overly robust, but there is no reason to spend a fortune on professional audio editing software when the only thing the client wants is a little whiz-bang. You can export to the most popular file formats, including high-quality WAV and MP3. After installing a few compatible freeware decoders (listed on the Audacity Web site), you can import WAV, AIFF, AU, Ogg Vorbis, MP2 and MP3 files.
CD/DVD Burning Software
When you need to deliver a large quantity of digital information to a client, burning a CD or DVD is usually the easiest method. I’m always disappointed by the lack of decent freeware that can get the job done without a major hassle. If you’ve ever tried to use a program like Windows Media Player to accomplish this task, you know what I mean. In my experience these programs are rarely intuitive and they often cause system lockup when copying large files. Even though CDBurnerXP Pro 3 only works with Windows XP, it still deserves a place in our toolbox. I can’t in good conscience recommend anything better.
Content Management System
There are several reasons MySQL is the freeware database of choice for designers. Most notably, it’s the only one. Sanity is another good reason. Acquiring a developer’s license for Microsoft’s SQL is expensive, and the learning curve is steep. MySQL is relatively easy to install and configure on your local machine, and almost all basic hosting plans include the latest stable release. I’m about to get geeky for those of you wishing to delve further. My only complaint is that the query browser leaves much to be desired and stored procedures weren’t included until v5.0, which is still in the development phase. However, this list would be incomplete without it.
DHTML Menu Generator
When I first stumbled across OpenCube’s Web site, I was cautiously curious about their cross-browser compatibility claims. Their menus were undeniably stable, but they still had some bugs to squash. Now I can’t stop looking. Their DHTML menus are used on many major retail Web sites and almost every Fortune 500 company Web site. “Beep. Beep. Back the truck up,” you say. “Using these menus requires a paid license.” You’re correct, but installing the software that generates the menus is FREE. If you have a client that insists on using a DHTML menu, you can stretch out your bill time and build the menu in less than an hour. The $179 single site license will pay for itself and it’s worth the peace of mind!
Do you feel pangs of guilt every time you open up WinZip? Do you look away from your monitor, ashamed that the number of days you have used the program unregistered is in the triple digits? Download 7Zip and eliminate that dirty feeling. The drag-and-drop interface supports ZIP, CAB, RAR, ARJ, GZIP, BZIP2, Z, TAR, CPIO, RPM and DEB formats, and the compression ratio is impressive. You can password-protect files for added security, preventing free grazers from stealing sensitive client information off your Web site or by intercepting your email. It doesn’t get any easier than this.
I was deeply disappointed when IPSwitch discontinued its popular freeware version of WS_FTP. They’ve relicensed it as WS_FTP Home, and they went legit with more professional product offerings. Through my tears I managed to find Leech FTP 1.3, which after installing I realized I had used in the past. It’s a great tool even though support has been discontinued and development has ceased. To find a copy you need to visit Download.com and search for Leech FTP. If you need an FTP program touting future releases and new features, my choice for runner-up would be Core FTP, which can be found at CoreFTP.com.
Evrsoft’s 1st Page 2000 isn’t for you—it’s for your clients (since you’re probably using Dreamweaver or a similar program to edit your files). This software is a good alternative if they are not willing to spend the money on a professional solution for quick edits. It’s also a helpful tool if you need to teach basic HTML in a class or business setting. You can run the program in four modes, each with increasing amounts of newbie support. The basics are all included, but so are some advanced features like back-end scripting support and an advanced sidebar with file explorer and tag definitions. With a few added tweaks like CSS/XHTML support, this would be some ferocious freeware.
Apache’s HTTP Server comes in handy if you want to run PHP on your local machine but don’t have PWS or IIS installed (most of us don’t). It also eliminates the need for a dual boot, unlike an alternative Linux/Windows setup, so installation is a snap. Even better, Apache installs as a Windows service, so starting up and shutting down happens in the background. Unfortunately, Apache doesn’t supply an integrated SMTP server. In order to send mail, you will need to configure PHP to recognize your ISP’s outgoing mail server, or you can download 1st SMTP Server for free. Apache also supports cron jobs, which allow you to run scripts at timed intervals by day, month and year.
In 2004, numerous technical publications and Web sites listed Gaim as THE No. 1 freeware program. I don’t disagree. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend you do. It’s not a substitute for client communication, but if you need to collaborate with other designers or programmers who all use different instant messaging protocols, then it’s incredibly useful. You can sign up for multiple accounts, including Yahoo! IM, AIM, MSN and ICQ, and Gaim will let you log on with a single interface. The features supported are too numerous to list. You’re better off trying it for yourself in order to understand what all the hubbub is about.
In my humble opinion, Adobe Acrobat has become an untamable beast. It has been priced excruciatingly high to account for advanced security and digital rights management features. Those of us who just want to convert several document types into PDF without the overhead have been left out in the cold. It’s about time a company like Software995 stepped forward to steal some of that business. Several products append the company name and URL to the document you’re saving, but not PDF995. Instead, it displays an advertisement each time you print to PDF. You can rest easy—it’s not adware and they don’t steal bandwidth by sending aggregate statistics back to their servers. The ad is a small price to pay for such a prodigious PDF creator.
Run as an open source project by Sun Microsystems, OpenOffice.org includes a word processor, spreadsheet manager, presentation capabilities and a drawing program. Sound familiar? I’ll be honest; you can’t compare it to the Microsoft Office suite—it’s apples and oranges. However, if you need to edit and review documents with a client and you’re encountering version compatibility issues, OpenOffice.org is the way to go. You can read and write Microsoft Office files and v1.1 includes a one-click export to PDF without the need for a third-party add-on. You probably won’t put much of a dent in Bill Gates’ bank account, but at least you can say you tried. Another freeware word processing program I suggest you check out is AbiWord at Abisource.com. It’s easier on the eyes and extremely user-friendly.
I know, I know. Screen capture software is a dime a dozen. You can find it anywhere and everywhere, which makes it really hard to find the good stuff. So why choose a dead dog like ScreenRip32 when there must be fresher freeware meat available? The primary reason is ease of use. Somewhere out in the virtual business world, we are being bamboozled into believing bigger is better. If infinite features are out of this world, then infinite features plus one must be heavenly. What a mess. I digress. Take ScreenRip32 for a tour, and you will soon find it to be a trusted companion in your design toolbox. If not, I’ll refund your money.
What could I possibly say about PHP that you don’t already know? Probably not much, which is a good thing for a designer trying to learn a new scripting language—there is plenty of support and tutorials available for free on the Web. Just like MySQL, PHP is available with most basic hosting plans, which is a major advantage over proprietary languages like CFML, VBScript or Java. If you’re new to programming, and you need to add increased interactivity to your Web sites, I strongly suggest you start with PHP. A little advice: First learn about common security issues and PHP error handling, then move on to database manipulation and XML parsing. You will find that if you can master those four areas, PHP will serve you well.
I hesitate to recommend any video editing software that is freeware. If you find you need to edit video for the Web on a regular basis, subcontract a professional or purchase an amateur video-editing suite. However, when the occasional need arises to snip a clip, delete some sound or add simple text effects, Windows Movie Maker will suit you well. The primary disadvantage is it only works with Windows XP (as does my choice for runner-up, Avid Free DV, which can be found at Avid.com). If you’re interested in taking a crack at video editing, then this is a good tool to get you started on learning the basics.
Skype, just like Gaim, has gained widespread acceptance in the public eye. It deserves every bit of praise it has received this past year, and I’m amazed that such an impressive and useful tool is free. A friend and freelance Flash designer turned me on to Skype because he was sick of paying out the wazoo for client conference calls. Both you and your client will need Skype installed in order to use voice-over-IP, but it’s worth recommending even if your client isn’t tech-savvy. If they won’t bother, you can opt for SkypeOut, a paid service with rates that will blow away your long distance phone service or even a competitor like Vonage.
This is not meant to be an all-encompassing list. Trendy freeware pops up all the time, and I suggest you find what works best for you. The recommendations here should at least help you think more creatively about how you do business as a freelancer. You can learn to save some good coin by cashing in on the tireless toil of others.
To continue your search for fabulous freeware, try the following Web sites:
And for assistance with some freeware that fights back, I recommend Experts-Exchange.com.
Brian Reindel is a digital media producer and aspiring writer from Detroit, MI. Since 1999, he has had extensive work experience with the Big Three, Kmart, La-Z-Boy and several local clients. Brian holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Oakland University, Rochester Hills, MI.