Welcome to Thrifty Tech, a Money College weekly column about technology options on a college budget. This week, we talk about how to avoid spending a bundle on essential software with free, open source alternatives.

With back-to-school shopping gearing up, chances are you've already picked up the appliances, pencils, and notebooks needed for the start of college. But now that we live in the future, it's the stuff that goes into the laptop that counts.

Yes, software is the omnipresent back-to-school item. But since it isn't 1998, don't assume that software has to come from a CD-ROM with a price tag of more than $50. With the advent of free, open source and web-based applications, you may not need to buy software packages in-store. Let's take a look at some essential applications and alternatives. (And if you're looking for hardware, we highly recommend checking out Engadget's Back to School guide on netbooks and laptops).

Word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation tools

It's the most obvious piece of software that everybody needs. Microsoft Word still ranks as the standard word processor. Apple has its Pages word processor, as well, which has a version on the iPad. Both are useful in their own way, but each is expensive. For the full Microsoft Office 2010 Suite, even at the student rate, it's $150 to download or purchase via disc. The full iWork package is better, but that doesn't mean much when "better" costs $90 (and $10 for each tool on the iPad). Now maybe those prices are worth it if you do a lot of spreadsheets or presentations (in PowerPoint or Keynote), but there's an inexpensive open-source workaround to each application. Here are three web-based options that could potentially replace their well-known and expensive counterparts:

Google: Google's free web-based document app, Google Docs, supports creating spreadsheets, presentations, and basic documents. Plus, it has support to import and export your files in any format you like. Plus, Google Docs is an excellent sharing tool for group projects. (Also, this tech columnist uses it every week to write about cheap technology stuff.)

Zoho:
For basic word processing for free on the web, Zoho is similar to Google Docs in its ability to import and export files. There are multiple web-based apps, including Zoho Writer (word processing), Zoho Docs (document management), Zoho Sheet (spreadsheets), and Zoho Show (presentation tools). All it requires is a simple registration, also free.

ThinkFree:
Finally, there's ThinkFree, which like Google Docs and Zoho, is a free web-based system that allows for creating, editing and sharing spreadsheets, presentations and documents.

Photo editing

Photography students and anybody with design work ahead of them will probably need Adobe's PhotoShop. But unfortunately, Adobe PhotoShop CS5 runs for $700. And no, that isn't a typo. Luckily, some nifty alternatives exist for photo editing, both on the web and available for download.

Picnik: Picnik is a web-based app that does the basics and doesn't even require registration. You can crop, rotate, and sharpen. No, it doesn't have most of the whistles and bells of PhotoShop, but it offers instant sharing capabilities with Twitter, Google Buzz, Flickr, and other social networking sites.

GIMP:
One of the oldest alternatives to Adobe's powerhouse is GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. GIMP is a downloadable, hardware-based app that works with many different file types.

More:
Want more options? Six Revisions has a list of 10 free photo editors.

Audio editing

Although less pertinent than word processing or image editing, audio editing software represents a real need for students in the audio arts, music, and radio departments. Some journalism students may need to know how to use it for podcasting. But you don't have to run out and buy the most expensive piece of equipment (unless, of course, the teacher specifically requires it). Here are a few options-- check them out and see which interface you like best.

Audacity:
Audacity is a free, open-source software. It can record from external sources (USB turntables, microphones, instruments) and has a comprehensive set of tools to help edit a selected item.

WavePad:
Like Audacity, WavePad has a comprehensive set of tools. In addition to the traditional cut, copy, and paste, there's the option of adding reverb and other effects to an audio file.

Wavosaur:
Wavosaur has a lot of the same capabilities as Audacity and WavePad, but this software is exclusive to Windows.

Evan Minsker's Thrifty Tech appears Tuesdays. Got a hot, cheap-tech tip, question or comment? Write to Evan via our email address, MoneyCollege@WalletPop.com.

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