More and more people are using more than one operating system. No longer are they a Windows user only, a Mac user only or a Linux user only. They might use Windows at work and Mac at home. Or Linux at home and Mac on their laptop. Regardless of where or why, one of the questions I’ve personally been asked deals with program selection; namely, which programs are good choices for someone who needs to use more than one computer?
My goal of creating this list was to first highlight excellent software. There’s no point in populating your computer with lousy programs, right? Secondly, the software needed to be available on multiple operating systems. So that means that while someone might personally love a particular program, it won’t make my list if it’s only available on one platform. I also wanted to touch on some of the more common types of programs people use on the desktop: office suites, multimedia players, and photo management programs. In the rare case that I mention a Mac-only or Windows-only program, I’ve explained my choice as to why you should go with something that doesn’t offer full multi-platform compatibility. Now, without further ado…
Office Suite – OpenOffice
There’s no doubt that the 900-pound elephant in this category is Microsoft Office. It’s the default office suite, and uses the de facto “standard” file formats (.doc, .ppt and .xls), which makes using other options a bit risky for professional use. This is because Microsoft doesn’t share its file formats, so any programs that have the ability to save as .doc, .ppt or .xls are only using reverse engineered versions of those formats, so compatibility is never 100 percent. Still, for users wanting solid compatibility as well as an office suite that can be installed on all your computers – and will work the same way on all of them – OpenOffice is the only real choice. It has a stated goal of always being feature compatible with the 2nd newest version of Microsoft Office and will work wherever you are. It doesn’t offer every feature of the newest Microsoft Office, but unless you’re a power user, it really should be what you need.
Multimedia Player – VLC
In my book, there’s really only one option: VideoLan Client, or VLC for short. VLC is both an audio and video player, and in my experience can play pretty much whatever file type you throw at it, regardless of what codec the media file was encoded with. You can stream audio and video from the Web, and while it will never replace a library management program like iTunes or Windows Media Player, VLC does have some library management capabilities. It can do more than just play audio, as well. VLC can be used to convert files from one format to the other, and to record streams from the Web. It’s pretty lightweight, so you won’t bog down your other programs while playing music in the background, and the interface is simple and configurable. Of all the programs I placed on this list, VLC was by far the easiest choice.
Photo Management Software – Picasa
Macs come with iPhoto installed. Windows comes with Windows Photo Viewer (or the easily installable Windows Live Photo Gallery), and Linux systems typically use F-Spot or Shotwell or something similar. They’re all good, so why choose one program (instead of using each of them in its regular environment)? The biggest reason is actually iPhoto. It’s a powerful program, but it creates its own, proprietary database of your photos, any changes you make such as rotating, cropping or color correcting, as well as any metadata you add. If you want to switch to something else, you generally need to export every album by hand. That’s why programs that use your own folder hierarchy are a must for me. Something that looks for pictures in the directories I tell it to look, but doesn’t move my photos.
In that regard, Google Picasa is the likeliest candidate for people wanting a photo management application. It is available for Mac, Windows and Linux (although the newest version for Linux is a bit old, and the newest versions for Mac and Windows are only able to be run on Linux through WINE or a little bit of hackery), and typically runs the same on each. It isn’t perfect for Linux users, but is passable. On Mac and Windows, however, it’s great, and is very often an innovator in bringing new web integration and features to the photo management field. It has a few lightweight photo editing capabilities as well, meaning if all you want to do is crop or resize an image, you might not have to install a full-fledged image editing program like GIMP (which also works on Windows, Mac and Linux). It’s an all-around good program and one that appears to be improving rapidly.
So, there you have it. Will these programs be perfect for everyone? Of course not. Will they be appropriate for many people, and perfect for some? Sure. The thing to keep in mind when looking for programs to use on multiple computers is that sometimes there really is only a single program that works exactly right, 100 percent of the time. Some programs are only on Windows or Mac, and so a program that tries to be compatible on a different operating system just won’t cut it. But for programs you use for enjoyment, there are many options, and finding one you can use wherever you are is a good idea. You’ll get the same features, in the same places, and use it the same way, which frees you up from having to learn new programs. So give these a try, and if you have any suggestions, feel free to mention them in the comments.