I have been a windows user from the start and I have fond memories of 3.1 and then 3.11 progressing through each new release until I find myself lumbered with Vista on my desktop PC. My laptop gave up once XP was released, and therefore had been consigned to a space in the cupboard, and had sat gathering dust, until by chance I read an article in The Times about a £100 laptop which had been developed for school children by Elonex called The One. This laptop had solid state hard drives 512mb Ram, an unheard of Celeron processor to run a Linux operating system. To be honest I had never really bothered to read much about Linux, I remember once seeing a unix system around 15 years ago, and remember the feeling of horror as I saw the command line interface. I blame this traumatic event for the reason that I had not found out more about Linux sooner.

I started, where so many fact finding missions begin, in Google, Google IS my friend, and started reading some of the results. I was amazed to discover that Linux was not as resource hungry as Windows and in some instances could be booted and run from a CD or memory stick with no requirement to install. I discovered that Linux came in as many flavours (called Distros) than you could shake a stick at, and best of all these distros pretty much came with all of the software that you might reasonably be considered to need, for nothing, gratis, free. Imaging that, an operating system and applications all for nothing. Like most people I like a freebie, especially a freebie that processes that it may be able to breathe life back into an old laptop.

Where to start? With so many distros on offer which should I choose, I found a site called distrowatch which lists the most popular downloads of distros over given periods, looked at the top 5, Which at the time was OpenSuse, PCLinuxOS, Ubuntu, Mandriva and Mint and downloaded them all. I then burned them to a cd as an image, and gingerly put the first disk into my newly reformatted laptop and loaded OpenSuse which installed without issue. So began an intensive period of Distro Hopping, which is the name give to the process of installing one distro, then changing it in favour of another. I am not sure why, certainly the top 5 that I downloaded all worked and did what I needed them to do, however there are hundreds of distros, and I was concerened that one that I hadn’t yet looked at might be better? How would I live with myself. I must have downloaded close to 50 distros by the end of my distro hopping phase and burnt as many CD’s. Some just didn’t work, because they didn’t like my hardware, some because I am assuming they had not been compiled properly, some did not have the functionality that I perceived that I needed, others just were not flashy enough! Eventually I found my distro stopper, PCLinuxOS, one of the original distros that I had downloaded in the first instance. It loaded onto my archaic laptop relatively quickly, it does what I need, it is a doddle to download additional software packages, it looks good and is easily customised.

I have been using Linux for the best part of two months as a dual boot with Windows. I would dearly love to say goodbye to Windows but much of the software that I rely on is Windows only, and whilst I could possibly use WINE to run these programs in a Linux shell, I am not yet fully in the Linux comfort zone, to enable me to make this complete transition. However I have made many concessions to the Linux world, I run Linux on my laptop, and use it out of preference to XP. I have since purchased an Asus EEE (more about that later) which is currently running a Linux distro, and my two boys who will be aged 8 and 7 respectively in a few months have two shiny Elonex One laptops waiting for them which again run a Linux distro.

In the future I predict that Linux will be King, long live the King.

For a long time I have used Corel Draw for producing and editing vector graphics (editable and scaleable with no loss of quality). However for some time I have on the lookout for an alternative. Not because Corel Draw isn’t an excellent product, it is. However as I have eluded before Corel often has stability problems with it’s Draw software, which gets tiring, in addition Corel Draw can be quite resource hungry. It had been my original intent to try and find an open source package, to supplement Corel Draw on less complicated projects, however many such offerings such as The Gimp just didn’t really do it for me. Anyway to cut a long story short I stumbled across Xara Xtreme 4 in my Google results for vector graphic programs, and I must say, so far, I am quite pleased that I did.

I have used several Xara offerings in the dim and distant past such as Xara 3d and Webstyle, which whilst quite good fun at the time, never really seemed to suit a purpose. So I wasn’t really expecting much from Xara Xtreme. Xara’s website claim that their drawing package produces some of the smallest graphic files with no loss of quality, which, if true, is a good thing when it comes to optimising graphics for web design. I have not yet done a like for like comparison, however the graphic files that I have produced seem suitably small.

Features like, extrude, shadow, emboss, transparency, blend and 3D are very accessible and intuitive and can be used very quickly and easily by anyone. Xara Xtreme also has some other tricks up it’s sleeve including functions to animate .gifs, create simple flash, simple photo editing and an almost hidden feature to create HTML navigation bars and buttons. One annoying thing about the application is that the Menu bar is totally proprietry, and does not even attempt to intergrate with standard windows icons, therefore it takes a certain amount of familiarity of knowing where everything is until you are efficient with the package. On the whole I have found it to be a bit of a gem, and whilst I am only on day 12 of my 30 day trial, I am giving serious thought to purchasing it. For those interested in purchase it comes in two flavours, a standard at approx £45 and a pro version at approx £100. For me the standard version does all I need from it, it’s quick, functional, produces some great results and ultimately uses far less system resource than other comparable programs. Nifty!

Then I made an even more exciting discovery Xara Xtreme is open source

I enjoy my photography, and I enjoy manipulating and drawing graphics.  However, maybe like most people I can not afford, or justify spending the best part of £600 on Adobe Photoshop.  I must admit I have never even used Photoshop, and whilst I would quite like the kudos of being able to say that I had ‘photo-shopped it’, unless I win the lottery soon, or land some seriously big contracts then it will remain out of reach for me.  I have no doubt that it is a first class product, although some say notoriously difficult to get to grips with, and a lifetime to learn it properly.  Factor in as well the 1.5 – 2 year cycle of new versions of software, and it gets seriously expensive, I could buy a new PC every year for that sort of cash investment.

OK so some may argue that Adobe cater for the ‘casual’ user (read poor) with Adobe Elements (currently version 6), which it does to some extent, Elements I have found is too ‘stripped’ of some of the heavyweight features that makes Photoshop worth getting in the first place.  Sure it’s great for those that just want to correct an exposure, crop a picture or remove red eye, but I have found other ‘elements’ of this back to basics package too restrictive.

Thank the Lord for the snappily named Corel Paintshop Pro Photo X2.   PSP Photo X2 is most often compared with elements due to it’s affordable price tag of around £70.  This is doing PSP Photo X2 an injustice as Corels product is more closely matched with the features that can be found in Photoshop.  X2 has been given a cosmetic makeover for this release and sports the graphite grey that is very much in vogue at the moment in art and design packages.  It is stuffed to the gills with advanced and desirable features such as HDR photomerge, auto preserving of the original image, perspective correction, selective colour change, enhanced makeover tools and enhanced black and white filters for producing half decent monotone images.  I have been using this software since it’s release in 2007 and have found it to be very stable and mature product, which in my experience is very unlike Corel, I have been a Corel Draw user for many years and have found Corel Draw releases very buggy and unstable, until the 2nd or 3rd patch is released.  This software however runs reasonably quickly on my 1.6mhz dual core system with 3gb ram and is a pleasure to use.

Interestingly Corel now own three photo manipulation software packages Photoimpact 12 (previously developed by Ulead), Corel Photo Paint and now Corel PSP Photo X2 (previously developed by Jasc), one has to ask why?  However Corel in my opinon Corel have come up trumps with X2, and it provides a perfect platform for photo editing, and whilst not the coverted Photoshop, it’s getting closer all the time.