The killer apps of academia

The killer apps of academia

Summary: Mary-Jo wanted to find the killer-apps of Vista, but I think I've found the killer applications for students. Regardless of educational establishment status, we have to consider multiple things in a killer-app (defined as an application which you essentially "must have"), such as open-source where possible, available across platforms, considerably save yourself time, increase productivity whether for social-downtime or performance-uptime, and most importantly - free.

TOPICS: Browser

killerapps.pngMary-Jo wanted to find the killer-apps of Vista, but I think I've found the killer applications for students. Regardless of educational establishment status, we have to consider multiple things in a killer-app (defined as an application which you essentially "must have"), such as open-source where possible, available across platforms, considerably save yourself time, increase productivity whether for social-downtime or performance-uptime, and most importantly - free.

Students shouldn't, and thankfully don't spend all day and night revising and studying - it would be a huge waste of money to do so, as having an effective down-time is just as important; I've reflected this in my list.

From hours of research, gallons of coffee consumed, and a quick look in Add/Remove Programs, I present the 10 killer apps of academia.

audacity.pngAudacity is an open-source audio editor, enabling even novice users to edit all kinds of audio file types like WAV, OGG, MP3, MIDI and more. With a simple to use interface, this application can be used for cutting down audible hyperbole from lecture recordings, aid you in your own recordings for later revision, and even knocking together podcasts if it’s something you are interested in. The only downside is that it doesn’t come with the LAME MP3 encoder, but with an extra download and a preferences tweak, you can convert media into MP3 format within seconds.

fdm.pngFree Download Manager comes in two packages – simple and small, or slightly bigger and more powerful. Either way, you still have a tremendous download manager which looks clean and simple (unlike many on the market), quick in downloading files, and even boasts a traffic limiter to conserve your bandwidth for other network activities. Import a collection of links to download or even an entire website – it seamlessly integrates into your browser so its downloading power is only a right-click away. With the amount of videos and television students download off the Internet (legal note – ZDNet and I do not endorse such activity) but this will almost definitely cut your download time by a good percentage.

paintnet.pngPaint.NET is the best imaging software I’ve ever used. PhotoShop may have all these newfangled features with the ability to take 40 years off your grandmother’s wrinkly face, but this has a clean design and does more than enough to satisfy most people’s needs. Resize, crop, add effects, blur and manipulate layers without getting confused, as well as a comprehensive colour palette. With new features being added all the time, this is a photo editor beyond most on the market.

firefox5.pngFirefox has been around for a good few years and is ever decreasing the gap in the market share between its rival, Internet Explorer. It’s faster than IE, runs a smooth and consistent interface, and can be made portable to flash drives. If you need a plug-in, it’ll find it for you and install itself. You can even write add-ins and plug-ins to expand the power of the core engine. Once you start using Firefox, there’s little chance you’ll want to go back to your old browser.

openoffice.pngEvery now and then, Microsoft tries to throw a student offer to entice you into buying a version of Microsoft Office. Why bother when you can use OpenOffice, which supports full compatibility in file types and document conversion? It costs absolutely nothing, and holds all the features and functionality of Microsoft Office with a sneaky application name change in each product. Word becomes Writer, Excel becomes Calc, PowerPoint becomes Impress, but that really is about it. It’s free, downloadable and redistributable, and it will take the average user no more than a few application runs to get used to it.

iplayer.pngA revolution in IPTV, the BBC iPlayer is unfortunately only open to residents and citizens of the United Kingdom, but it isn't half brilliant. You can download high-quality programmes spanning 8 channels over 7 days, but using peer-to-peer technology, it splits the downloads over different peers as to keep the downloads flowing. Even with the busy student schedule, 7 days is enough time to get round to watching something, and with the average university network speed, you can download a 60-minute programme in anything between 2 minutes and 20 minutes.

logmein.pngBeing able to access your computer from anywhere allows you to be more independent with how you work; forget carrying around flash drives or emailing files to yourself, just remotely access your computer as if you were sitting there. I've used LogMeIn Free for many years and never had a problem. It works across browsers and uses a range of technologies to suit almost any computer; Java, ActiveX, and an optional plug-in for extra security and features. Even with some strict security settings on public machines like libraries or Internet cafés, you should still be able to use it without a hitch.

notepadplus.pngNotepad++ is a product installed on every single public PC at my University, and rightly so. Any developer who likes to get knee deep in their own code, bathe in it and roll around in it, should use Notepad++. It supports languages older than me, more languages than hot dinners I've had this month (don't ask) and is an essential part of raw code development. With brace and indent guideline highlighting, multi-document viewing and XML syntax highlighting, you'll never look back or towards any other editor.


There are many alternative email clients out there, but by far the most convenient (amongst many things) is Windows Live Mail. Tens of thousands of students have Hotmail accounts as well as their own university email accounts - so manage them from one single location. Other email clients can often have a tantrum when it comes to collecting Hotmail accounts, and Windows Live Mail is designed specifically as a desktop client complementing the web version.

msmath.pngThe exception to the rule: Microsoft Math I could not have passed my two maths modules this academic year just gone without this - it helped me work out how to solve the most complicated equations, and I can't find for the life of me, another product on the market like it. You literally type in the equation you are given and it'll not only solve it, but most of the time it'll guide you through how it has worked it out, so you can learn from it. It supports graphs, visual maths such as Cartesian co-ordinates and vectors, as well as all the functions you'd have on a calculator. It's not free, but there is a free trial - but I'm sure I couldn't stop you from attempting to download a pirated copy (Rapidshare *cough*), if you couldn't afford to buy it.

Topic: Browser

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  • My suggestions

    Nice list. However, what's Windows Live Mail doing there, when there's the Great Gmail? :-)

    Another favourite application: normalize the volume of your mp3's with mp3gain. There is a Windows version here:

    And there's also a Linux version. The Linux version is available in the repositories of Ubuntu. Usage of the repo's:

    mp3gain in Ubuntu is command-line only. However, you can add the Windows GUI by simply installing easymp3gain:
    (choose the .deb and doubleclick it like you would a .exe installer in Windows).

    Greetz, Pjotr.
  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    How about something actually DIFFERENT? Yes, these may be free, but they are just one more version of the same old applications.

    Regarding MS Office versus Any Other Office, anyone who thinks they can get by with ANY other application is kidding themself. I HATE MS-Word and have used WordPerfect for DECADES. But the reality is that MS Office is THE standard. In most companies you simply HAVE TO know it. Screwing around trying to figure out how to do on MS Office something you could do in your sleep on another suite simply isn't acceptable at most businesses. Students might as well learn now than risk losing job or advancement opportunities, etc., to save a few bucks. The student version of MS Office PROFESSIONAL is only $150.
    • RE: The killer apps of academia

      Some students can barely afford to buy food for themselves, they shouldn't be expected to shell out $150 for a product they don't necessarily need.

      ...and no need to shout. Capitals aren't good...
    • Students can get it much cheaper

      at their bookstores or Amazon. Open Office 2.4 ain't bad for free though.
    • If you learn word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, you can

      switch packages with very little trouble. But, MS Office is an outdated bloated program from the past, with thousands of baroque features for printing on 8.5x11 paper. Current students should not spend much time with old technology, and focus on the future. Download OpenOffice if you want to twiddle around with on office suite much like the ancient technology of MS Office.
  • Math additions

    Being a Math student, I'll chip in the following:

    I was quite upset after 3 years of travelling to Uni just to work on my MATLAB assignments, to find out there's a free, largely-compatible alternative online.

    [u]TEX[/u] (Or MikeTex etc)
    MS Equation editor (in Word) is ok for a few lines, but when you have 3+ pages of formulae, it's just unbearable. TEX has so many features and is so widely used it is the unofficial standard for teachers at my uni.

    I'd never heard of MS MATH, but I'll have a look now. Has anyone used OpenOffice Formula?
    • I was very disappointed with Octave

      prior to version 3.0 because of the incompatibilities with Matlab wrt to graphs. Matlab makes it very easy to manipulate graphs using a GUI once you have plotted it. I spent several days trying to achieve the same graph using Octave 2.1 (w/gnuplot). Finally the main author of Octave had to incorporate this feature in a v3.0 beta, but just after telling me he refused to do it (one time)! Glad, he changed his mind :)

      I used OpenOffice Formula in v1 (I think), and I found it not as easy to use at MS Equation Editor, but that is just my opinion.
  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    A couple of minor points. The link for doesn't work. The recent OpenOffice security vulnerability has shown that a downside with the product is the absolutely mammoth download that is required for updates. :(
    • and others

      You can get it at along with a lot of other mostly free stuff.
      Old versions even, if you feel nostalgic or something...

  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    I think I nearly fell off my chair - a writer on ZDNET who has something worth saying - mind boggling!
    Microsoft Math it is very good and I believe only about $20 US.Surely the person or persons who created this is long gone from MS Land.
    Open Office is a perfectly acceptable office suite. If you can't write well no app will help and a spread sheet is a spread sheet (meaning calculations and formulae are pretty much the same across the board). If, as one poster writes, your career is stalled because you're too hopeless to pick up what you need to know in MS Office, you're probably not going places anyway.
  • These aren't the killer apps of *academia*

    I was expecting a good piece on the software we use as teachers and professors. That is academia, not what the students do in their spare time. Don't get me wrong, the list is great. But it isn't what is termed academia. I would like to see that list too!
    • not killer apps either

      A killer app used to be an application thats so good it creates the market for the hardware/OS. When did journalistic style change it to mean "quite useful"?
  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    These will get you killed in Academics! Agree that most students i-pod their way through four years of college. Serious students still need applications that can help them do their work better. Show me some decent statistics programs, high end voice recognition program ( not Dragon please! not microsoft speech!!), rapid database development tools, decent networking tools and for chrissake increase the speed. If not you may miss the exams while waiting for re-boot. ,
  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    <b>PDF-XChange Viewer</b>
    Free PDF reader/editor that allows you to highlight text, add notes, and much more.<br>
    File versioning. As you edit, it seamlessly and transparently saves older versions of your documents.<br>
    Firefox extension for capturing and managing web pages.<br>
    Combination web capture and bibliographic manager. Firefox only.<br>
    <b>TextAloud MP3</b>
    Text reader. It is not free, but it is worth every penny. It &quot;reads&quot; text, HTML, Word, and PDF files to MP3s that you can listen to while you drive, exercise, etc. I highly recommend that you also purchase the AT&T Natural Voices to use with this software.
    • Zotero, yes. And one from Microsoft...

      I'll second the motion on [b]Zotero[/b]. Too bad it's only for Firefox, but it is an outstanding research tool. And, like Firefox (2.x.x and 3.0), it is cross-platform, so I can also use it when I jump over to my Ubuntu machines.

      One little-known Microsoft offering, which I found [i]very[/i] helpful in my grad classes is [b]OneNote[/b]. Not only does it function as a sort of free-form database and a collector of web and screen clippings, but it can sync lecture notes and lecture recordings. This is a great help during note-review and lecture replays.
  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    Yes - OneNote is really good; I was hoping to write about at some point the differences in note-taking. There's another product, a Microsoft Research program called <a href="">InkSiene</a> which is pretty cool as well.

    [Edit, forgot the main point of the reply!] I did leave out OneNote because the main reason is that most people have laptops, but don't have touch-screen or ink capabilities, so by including a minority wasn't really opening it up for everyone.
  • RE: The killer apps of academia

    Open Source Sage = MATLAB for free
  • Open Office botched my documents

    When I tried to export them to .doc, they appeared fine in Open Office, but they did not work in Office. For the 40 pounds, I'll stick with my Office Ultimate.
  • Are you kidding?

    Office software as a killer app? Paint.NET?

    I guess using that criteria a beige PC tower would qualify as stylish design.

    Is this the best we can do with 2,4, and soon to be 8 cores? 64 Bit OS?

    Killer app *should* be:

    1) Some sort of molecular modelling app. You tell it how many atoms of elements x,y,z you want to put together and it joins them correctly in common arrangements, generates 3-d representations, and guestimates some of the resulting chemical and physical properties.

    2) A graphical recognition program. Give it a tiff from your camera and it will run through and identify all the objects in it: palm trees, humans, chairs, tables, ocean, pool, etc.

    Just a couple ideas that would really stretch the bounds of programming and computation and qualify as "killer"...