Some thoughts on software for writing essays

As I mention on the main site, academic writing has become highly dependent on technology. This means that as a student you will need to be comfortable with computers. What it does not mean is that you have to shell out hundreds of dollars for your software. This post is not intended to slag off Microsoft, Apple, or any other particular company. The fact that MS and Apple are the two dominant forces in computing is due at least in part to the fact that they make some pretty good products. But there are alternatives, and this is what I want to write about today.

Apart from the physical hardware (ie your laptop or desktop system) two things are essential to academic writing:

  1. An operating system. This is the software package that controls how your hardware actually works. The most well known current examples are the various versions of Microsoft Windows (XP, Vista, and coming soon Windows 7), and Mac OS X.
  2. A word-processor. The most widely used example is MS Word, a Microsoft product that has come to dominate the field in recent years.

Operating System

When it comes to your operating system, you may have little choice or you may have no inclination to change your system. Don’t worry about it – if your system works well for you, why change it? If you are happy with your operating system, skip ahead to the part about word processors below. But if you are unhappy with your system or if you are just curious about what alternatives are available, read on as I introduce an excellent alternative: Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is one of many available distributions of what is known as Linux. A distribution is simply a particular version of Linux. Linux is free. You do not have to pay to get and use Linux. You can if you so choose pay to get versions of Linux distributions shipped with manuals, technical support, etc. (click here for an example), but this is not necessary. There are many completely free and legal distributions, and I am going to focus one one particular one: Ubuntu.

I was first introduced to Ubuntu through Lifehacker. If you are at all interested in computers and productivity ideas, I cannot recommend Lifehacker highly enough! Incidentally, Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker, has a new blog:

When I first heard about Ubuntu, the story caught my eye because my computer was developing serious problems that would necessitate a re-install of my operating system, and it was not powerful enough to run the then new version of Windows, Vista. The upshot is that I downloaded Ubuntu, installed it ‘for fun’ and have been using it alongside Windows for the past two years.

Advantages to Ubuntu:

  • it is completely free and legal
  • it is very regularly updated (there are two versions released every year)
  • it WORKS and does not crash (ie. no ‘blue screen of death’) as often as Windows has in my experience
  • it is very secure: for example you do not have to worry about viruses when running Linux

Disadvantages to Linux:

  • some of your favorite Windows or Mac software may not run on Linux (although there are usually excellent alternatives available). From a productivity point of view, this can actually be an advantage. For example if I log on to my desktop using Linux, I am not tempted to play games that only run on Windows!
  • you may have to do some tweaking to get your particular hardware working perfectly. Luckily there are many forums filled with extremely helpful people who are happy to lend a hand
  • not so much a disadvantage as a word of caution: be careful whenever you are messing around with operating systems. Back up your important data before doing anything to your system! It is possible to completely wipe everything from your system if you are not paying attention.

If you are looking to set up a new computer or are considering making a change, give some thought to Ubuntu. There is even now an option whereby you can install and run Ubuntu without making any changes to a Windows installation. That means that you can check it out without harming or changing in any way your current system. And if you decide to take the plunge and install it on your system, you can set it up so that your original operating system is still available. This is called dual-booting and it is what I currently do on both my desktop and laptop.

Word Processor

Whatever operating system you choose to use, you will need a word processor to actually get words on pages. As mentioned above, MS Word has come to dominate the market over the last several years. MS Word is an excellent word processor, and it makes up part of the Microsoft Office suite. MS Office is very good. If it comes bundled with your computer, by all means use it – it will serve you well.

But if your computer does not have a word processor installed, you will have to install one. And with current prices running from approximately $140.00 for a student edition to nearly $900 for the ‘Ultimate” edition, this is not exactly cheap. For a variety of reasons beyond cost, some people also simply want to avoid using commercial software products such as MS Office.

Whatever your motivation for seeking an alternative, you should at least check out Like Linux, it is free. You can even download a portable version to install on a flash drive so you can take your word processor with you and not have to rely on a computer having the software you need in a lab, for example.

Advantages of

  • it is completely free and legal
  • you can get a portable version
  • it offers full compatibility with Word documents
  • it does everything you need to write academic essays and much more
  • it is an office suite that includes software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations (ie like PowerPoint) and databases
  • the ability to produce PDF files is built in

Disadvantages of

  • the interface is slightly less polished than the newest MS Office products (ie no ‘ribbon’ interface)

If you don’t believe that Ubuntu is a viable alternative to Windows or Mac, check out these guys. All that System76 sells are computers with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Key Points:

  • use whatever software works for you
  • do not assume that you have to use particular software just because it has market dominance
  • don’t pay for commercial products until you at least check out free alternatives
  • Ubuntu offers a stable, secure, viable, productive, very user-friendly alternative that works
  • offers a stable, portable, cross-platform (ie you can use it on Windows, Mac or Linux), compatible, user-friendly alternative that works

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