Computing is much less expensive, in many respects, than it has been
in recent years: you can get a very, very good desktop Windows PC
system for between $500 and $750, and roughly the same for a good
Windows notebook. An Apple Macintosh desktop computer starts at $599
if you bring your own keyboard, mouse and display; a MacBook portable
starts at $1099 and the all-in-one desktop iMac starts at
Those prices may seem daunting to some, but they each represent a fair
amount of computing power for the buck; bargain-seekers can also find
gently used and well-refurbished models of fairly recent vintage at
Of course, the expense of computing is not limited to the PC itself.
There are accessories to buy, most likely including a printer, and
applications software. Some computers arrive with trial versions of
key programs such as Microsoft Office; others will come "bundled" with
various programs. Trials expire, however, and the bundled applications
aren't always what you're looking for: that's part of where the phrase
"bloatware" has its origins.
I mention all this to lead up to a happy conclusion: there's tons of
free applications software out there, some of it quite good. Other
applications are low enough in price to merit serious consideration
without the usual worry that accompanies such purchases.
On the free side, I've been playing with the newest Beta
release of OpenOffice 3.0 for the Macintosh, available online at
www.openoffice.org. This software is intended to be a replacement for
Microsoft's Office suite, and it's a rather capable one. No, it's not
exactly the equal of the Microsoft product, but it's not far off the
mark. The "Writer" program is a good substitute for Microsoft Word
2008, although it has its limitations.
Writer will let you open and save Microsoft Word files, including
those in the ".docx" file format. It has most of the features
of Word, though some, such as creating a header and inserting
automatic text, such as "Page 1 of 100," takes four steps, instead of
the two with Word.
Other modules for OpenOffice include a spreadsheet, presentation
graphics, illustration and a database. I've been underwhelmed by the
database in each of the previous versions, but the other modules
should be more than adequate for many tasks.
OpenOffice is available in versions for Windows, Linux and the Mac, as
well as Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system. Even if you
eventually decide to migrate to a commercial product such as Microsoft
Office, this is a good "starter" for a new computer user.
Another product in Beta is a rather specialized one: it handles e-mail
from only one service - Google's Gmail - and it runs only on Macs. But
this thing is so darned elegant, you ought to point your Web browser
to http://mailplaneapp.com/ just to look and marvel at Mailplane's 2.0
What Mailplane provides is a "browser" designed for Gmail. It lets
your view and interact with the Gmail service in a, simple, elegant
fashion. There are shortcut keys you can use for various functions to
create, send and delete mail.
Most impressive is the "iMedia" panel, which lets you select
photos, audio or video clips, or even Web links, to drop into an
outgoing Gmail message. It's simplicity itself, yet it's also a bit of
Call me a pushover, but Mailplane is the kind of software I wish more
people would write: simple and elegant, as I've said, but also highly
practical. Estimates suggest tens of millions of people use Gmail, so
the need for a program such as this is evident. The software sells for
$24.95, and you can trial it for 30 days.