Software that doesn't suck

First published: September 14, 2012
Last updated: September 25, 2013


I have very strong opinions about software, and am very particular about what I use. This page documents software that I believe does not suck. Of course, my utility function for software may be very different to yours and so your mileage may vary. In fact, it will probably vary, greatly, because I am a crazy person when it comes to software. If reading the suckless philosophy makes you feel happy, then you may care to keep reading this article...

Email clients

Sylpheed and Claws Mail (which is a fork of Sylpheed) are, in my opinion, two of the nicest graphical mail clients around today. Both of them work on Linux and Windows. Claws is a lot more extensible via plugins (to do things like RSS feed aggregation), although I personally prefer Sylpheed because I find its interface cleaner and neater.

Feed readers

I've found it surprisingly difficult to find a nice, lightweight RSS and Atom feed reader for Linux which doesn't irritate me in some way. At the moment, I am using newsbeuter (as recommended by Zed Shaw), and it's okay.

For a while, I used RSS Owl, which has the nice property of working on Linux, Windows and OS X, but it certainly isn't very light. It always worked well enough, though.

File managers

I don't have a favourite file manager. I have about twenty. Some of the ones I use the most are cd, ls, cp, mv, rm, locate, find, df, dh...

Seriously, I haven't used a graphical file manager in years and I can't imagine what would ever cause me to go back. If you genuinely need to use one, perhaps consider Thunar?

ncdu is wonderful for freeing up disk space!

Image viewers

Today I use Geeqie, which is a fork of Gqview (which I used until I learned about Geeqie). I am a long, long time user and fan of this style of viewer, which has a scrolling list of thumbnails down one side. I get the impression this style is quite out of fashion these days, having been replaced by viewers which dedicate the whole screen to the image being viewed and have just some small previous/next buttons down the bottom somewhere. I imagine this is because nowadays everybody uses fancy graphical file managers which automatically generate thumbnails for images, rendering this part of image viewers obsolete. Since I don't use graphical file managers, I'll be sticking to the old style for the foreseeable future.

Music players

Modern music players are some of the worst offenders when it comes to really disgusting bloatware. It seems that none of them just play music anymore, they all want to organise your music in some way or show you cover art or lyrics or show you real time visualisations of your music or upload a record of what you listen to the web...

On Unix machines I typically just use mpg321 or ogg123 to play music, as described here. mpg321's evil twin, mpg123, can stream music over the internet, and I sometimes use it to listen to Slay Radio or In my earlier days, I used XMMP or BMP. I wouldn't go back to them now because I know how much less efficient that whole paradigm is for playing music, but if you really don't want to use the command line, give them a shot before trying Amorok or Rhythmbox or anything like that. Rhythmbox's website actually says it was inspired by iTunes. That's like being inspired by the Titanic or something...

On Windows I tend to just use VLC since I have it around anyway for videos.

Organisation software

Hierarchical notebook (hnb) is a wonderful little curses program for quickly making things like to do lists.

PDF readers

If I could completely obliterate one misconception from the collective awareness of the computer using world, I wouldn't even have to think about how to use that opportunity. Everyone, listen up: You do not need to use Adobe Acrobat to read PDF files. Yes, I know the place you got the PDF file from explicitly told you that you would need to use Acrobat. They were lying. Not only do you not need to use Acrobat, you shouldn't. It's a hugely bloated, unstable, insecure pile of junk.

These days I use epdfview, which is very lightweight but still has a friendly enough interface that I can just use it without investing any time or effort to learn how it works (which I found not to be the case with avplv). It's only available for Linux (possibly POSIX). For a long time before that I used Evince, which is only a tiny bit larger, and is also available for Windows (I currently use Evince on Windows). Both epdfview and Evince are fine viewers and I would recommend either one.

Previously I used xpdf when on Unix and Foxit Reader on Windows. I did try Sumatra on Windows, and still use it occasionally because every now and then Evince totally mangles the text in a document but Sumatra handles it just fine (this happens a lot with PNAS papers). However, even though it's insanely small and simple, I can't recommend it for general use because of its brain damaged text selection system.


I use Gnumeric for spreadsheets these days. It meets my needs (which are fairly modest) and it's a lot smaller and faster to load than Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice, and is available for Windows and Unix. I haven't tried LibreOffice yet, and probably won't ever find the need.

Text editors

I have used vi or vim as my general purpose editor for as long as I can remember. I'm sure in my earliest Linux using days I must have used something else, but I can't remember what. To weigh in in a very slight way on the vi vs emacs holy war, I decided to teach myself vi instead of emacs when first learning Unix for two reasons. One, vi was a lot smaller than emacs at that time, and since vi could do what I wanted it seemed silly to waste disk space and bandwidth (those were the days of dial-up, after all) on something else. Two, and this reason is perhaps more valid in this present day of bountiful resources, because vi is everywhere. It's a standard part of the system on every Linux distro I've ever seen, and all the free BSD operating systems, and Solaris, and I presume HP-UX and Irix and everything else. If the only editor you know is vi, then it doesn't matter where on the internet you roam, or what strange old machines you are one day tasked with running, your chances of being stuck unable to edit files efficiently is almost zero. If the only editor you know is emacs, you might one day find yourself in a strange land where your editor does not exist...

Sometimes, when for some reason or another I've really wanted a GUI editor, I have used Leafpad, and later the Leafpad-derivative Mousepad, both of which are nice and light (think of Notepad from Windows, but less buggy).

Video players

I use VLC, although in the (fairly distant) past I used mplayer (without the GUI).

Window managers

I learned to hate Gnome and KDE pretty quickly when I first got into Unix, because I was mostly using early Pentium-era machines with limited memory that people gave to me for free when they upgraded or whatever. The bloated window managers ran sluggishly, so I had to take evasive action. Over the years, I have used, roughly in order, WindowMaker, Fluxbox, Ion3, Xfce and Openbox. I suspect I used Ion3 the longest and became the most attached to it, mostly because of its amazing scratchpad feature.

At the time of writing, I'm using Awesome, and I'm pretty happy with it. But none of the WMs above are terrible by any means, and all of them, at least with some practice, will let you be every bit as productive as you can be be with Gnome or KDE (and probably even more productive once you get the hang of them) while taking up a small fraction of the RAM, disk space and CPU cycles.

I have limited personal experience with them, but I have heard good things about Xmonad and Ratpoison from people whose taste in software I trust.

Web browsers

I've come to unfortunate conclusion that all modern browsers suck. The main problem is that they are all horrendous resource hogs.

Unfortunately, the modern web sucks as well (arguably, this is what lead to the browser suckage), which means that trying to use an alternative browser which is genuinely light on resources is likely to cause disappointment. A lot of websites will be non-functional, or at least a bit funny looking, in any browser that doesn't have top notch CSS and Javascript support, or doesn't have Flash or Java plugins. Thus, you can't get very far with many of the classic simpler browsers, like Amaya or Dillo.

There are some browsers which are fairly functional on the modern web while still lighter than the mainstream ones, like Midori and Arora.

However, I still use Firefox day to day. Largely, this is due to: inertia, because I've been using Firefox since it was called Firebird; nostalgia, because Firefox really gave the browser scene a much needed kick in the pants and promoted the cause of standards compliance; having become dependent on a rich suite of Firefox add-ons to enhance my browsing experience; and apathy, because none of the alternatives seem adequately superior to warrant changing in the face of all that.

Word processors

If you can learn to live without WYSIWYG, then I heartily recommend LaTeX for most of your word processing needs.

If you can't, then AbiWord is nice and light, especially compared to behemoths like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice. It's available for Windows and Unix. I haven't tried LibreOffice yet, and probably won't ever find the need.

If rude people insist on sending you .doc files, and all you need to do is read them and not edit them, then antiword does an admirable job of turning them into nicely formatted plain text files. docx2txt achieves a similar feat for the newer .docx format, which antiword can't handle.