cheapRecently one of the charities in my community has been offered the opportunity to distribute some desktop computers. The catch is that they have no software included. Here’s my take on how to set them up inexpensively and securely, with some genuinely useful, basic software…

For the operating system:
Windows can be very expensive to purchase and maintain, but there are alternatives!
Ubuntu is a Windows alternative, and is very popular and becoming more so. It is focused on ease-of-use and stability. It’s a refreshing change from the complexity, expense and security headaches of Windows. More information is available at: or
Free DVD/CD’s are available from the development community at or for a small fee at:
The Ubuntu installation comes with a number of free software applications, including all the ones mentioned below.

For email and address book:
Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail are popular web based email services. If you don’t mind keeping your email online, or you need to access your email from different computers or your phone, then these services are great. I prefer Gmail, but Yahoo! Mail is good as well, and Hotmail is very popular.
If you want to keep your email on your own computer and entirely under your own control then Thunderbird is a great email application from the same people that developed Firefox (see below). It’s more secure that the commercial alternatives like Outlook Express and Outlook… and it’s free! More here:
There are add-ons for calendars if that is important to you, and other ways to make it do more. But it’s also great by itself.

For web browsing:
Firefox is a great alternative to MSN or Explorer. It’s very capable, easy to use, and arguably more secure that the commercial alternatives. There are lots of ways to extend it’s capabilities if you wish. It also works well with Thunderbird, mentioned above. Read more or get it here:

For “office” applications:
MicroSoft Office is expensive, complex, and only runs on Windows. OpenOffice is a community developed alternative that is distributed for free, and has a number of advantages over the commercial alternative. I use a Mac version (called NeoOffice) for all my word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. I have many “techie” friends that prefer it to Windows.
There are versions for Windows, Mac and Ubuntu. You can find out more here: or including where to download your own copy, tutorials and tips.

Beyond these basic applications there are many, many more for free, or very low cost. Look for “shareware” or “freeware” or “opensource”, or ask your tech savvy friends for recommendations. They are sure to have their favourites. There’s really no need to spend anything but time and learning to get a great, useful computer system and tools!

If you are not very tech savvy, have no fear! Once you are set up and running, all these programs are very friendly, stable and secure. You may want to have a techie friend or service provider help with setup. In my community, I recommend Derrick Vandervliet and his service, Bootacomputer. Derrick is knowledgeable, patient and friendly.