Adobe's Creative Suite is one of the best software packs out there for professionals, but the suite is prohibitively expensive for most people. If you can't afford it, you can still get a similar experience with free or cheap software. Here's how to build your own Creative Suite.
NOTE: This guide has been superseded. Click here for the most recent version.
Title image remixed from Africa Studio (Shutterstock).
Adobe Creative Suite is more than just Photoshop: it contains other software that helps you build web sites, design logos, edit video and lay out books. Recently, Adobe accidentally gave free access to the 2005 version of Creative Suite, and it became clear that demand for even outdated versions of the software is high. You can avoid paying a huge sum up-front through Adobe's Creative Cloud subscription option, but the price for that still adds up over time.
You can't get quite the same experience with free software as you can with Adobe's offerings, but you can come close. Whether you're a student looking to test the waters of design before diving into the full Creative Suite package, or you're just an amateur who doesn't need all the bells and whistles, these free replacements to Adobe's lineup offer enough more than enough for most of us.
Note: Mac users running OS X Mountain Lion may need to download XQuartz to get some of this software running since Apple has dropped support for the X11 X Windows system interace in Mountain Lion.
Best Replacement For Photoshop: GIMP
When it comes to replacing Photoshop, nothing is better than GIMP. GIMP has sometimes been accused of being a little rough around the edges, but the recent update to version 2.8 really cleans up the interface and makes it a lot more usable. Alongside a huge list of updates, GIMP added a new single-window mode that mimics Photoshop's tabbed view, and makes it considerably easier to use. GIMP has come a long way since it was first released, and it's now a serious replacement option for Photoshop.
Once you're up and running, take a look at our guide to getting started with Photoshop (which also applies to GIMP) to learn how to perform all sorts of tasks, from colour correction to basic drawing. If the slightly different interface in GIMP is throwing you off, it has a Photoshop-based port that looks and operates exactly like Photoshop.
Best Replacement For InDesign: Scribus
Adobe's desktop publishing software InDesign has been a standard for magazine and newspaper layout for a long time, but the decrease in paper publishing has made it less of a necessary tool. With that said Scribus is free and open source software that can do just about everything InDesign can. Scribus isn't nearly as intuitive (or pretty) as InDesign, but it gets the job done.
Scribus does things a little differently than InDesign, so it's necessary to run through the quick-start guide to get started if you're familiar with how InDesign (or Quark) work. As a program for laying out a few simple pages, a small pamphlet, or even a short book, Scribus works surprisingly well. It doesn't do a great job at handling a large number of images, and it doesn't offer that many options for really tweaking the layout. Still, as a free alternative to Indesign, Scribus should work for most people.
If you want to lay out an ebook, you have a few other options, including Sigil and Calibre. Neither is particularly feature-rich, but if you're simply looking to lay out and publish a simple ebook (or PDF), both are free options that handle text and simple layout well.
Best Replacement For Illustrator: Inkscape
Illustrator's main claim to fame is vector-based art -- the clean, simple art often seen in clipart, web graphics and a lot of print art. The main appeal with vector graphics is that it's based on mathematical equations instead of a bitmapped image, so it can scale up (or down) to any size, which makes it perfect for printing.
It doesn't seem that complicated, but few programs have been able to really replicate what makes Illustrator great. The closest is Inkscape, an open-source program that does just about everything Illustrator can do without the extra bells and whistles (such as live trace).
Inkscape can create and edit standard vector graphics really well, and a quick glance at the Inkscape Tutorials Blog showcases how powerful it can be. If your main goal is to make clipart style graphics, icons, logos, or even do basic single-page layout, Inkscape handles just about everything Illustrator can.
Best Replacement For Premiere: Lightworks or VideoLAN Movie Creator
Unfortunately, Adobe's video editing software, Premiere is one of the hardest programs to replace in the Creative Suite. If you simply need to edit a few home videos, the cross-platform VideoLAN Movie Creator is a very early alpha, but can handle a number of video formats and offers basic editing and a small collection of effects. It doesn't come close to the powerhouse that is Premier, but if you just need to do some simple editing, or add a soundtrack to your home movie, VideoLAN Movie Creator does the trick.
If you're on Linux, you have a couple of really solid options. Kdenlive, PiTiVi and OpenShot are about as close as you'll get to commercial editing software for free. They're both a little closer to iMovie than they are to Premier in terms of features, but they work really well.
The fact of the matter is that you're not going to find a perfect substitute for Premiere, but if you're just looking to make simple video edits, it's possible to do it without spending a dime. Once you get going, our guide to video editing will teach you all the basics.
Best Replacement For Dreamweaver: KompoZer or Learn To Code
What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editors for making web sites are easy to come by, but few match the toolset included in Dreamweaver. Since Dreamweaver works both as a WYSIWYG editor and a site manager, you're not going to find a free alternative that does both.
However, KompoZer gets as close as possible while still being simple to use. As a web authoring tool that doesn't require you to learn HTML, it's easy to get used to, and you can design a basic web site in a few minutes. The addition of add-ons can also extend its functionality. KompoZer is a bit outdated (the last update was way back in 2010), but it can still handle basic CSS and HTML.
Bear in mind that most WYSIWYG editors, Dreamweaver included, are often criticised for outputting bad code and doing a poor job of teaching the basics of web site design. If your goal is to get into web design, you're better off learning how to build a site from scratch. We have a huge guide for doing just that. The best part? You can learn all the coding you need with free tools, and moving forward you'll know how to make a web site without relying on Adobe's expensive software.
Best Replacement For After Effects: Blender or Wax
After Effects is a relatively niche piece of software for special effects and post-production video editing. It's also one of the cheaper retail options out there. Subsequently, you have a pretty small selection of free software to choose from to replace it.
The closest analogue is Wax for Windows. It's a bit old, but it's one of the few free choices that can handle video compositing and special effects and offers a wide selection of plugins.
Alternately, Blender is a cross-platform tool meant for 3D design that can also handle a surprising number of composting options. You might not be able to do everything as easily as you can with After Effects, but if you just want to toss some light sabers into that home video you filmed at the Grand Canyon, Blender can do it. It's also worth checking out BlenderGuru for a huge list of tutorials.
Best Replacement for Flash: Various Tools
Flash is one of the hardest Adobe tools to replace with free software because Adobe invented the entire system it's based on. However, depending on what you're looking to make with Flash, you have a few different options.
If you want to use Flash to create 2D animation, Synfig Studio is your best option. Synfig Studio can do about as much as Flash can do with animation, and once you run through the tutorials it's a snap to make to make 2D animations. Unfortunately, you can't export your animations to the Flash standard SWF format, but as a learning tool it works well.
If ActionScript programming is what you're interested in, Flash Develop is a great coding program built specifically for ActionScript. It's a little tough to get started with, but once you get the hang of it, Flash Develop can handle all the code that Flash can.
Finally, if making Flash games is your interest, Stencyl is an absolutely fantastic free tool for budding game developers. Its tutorials walk you though every aspect you need to know, and the visual design mimics a lot of what you'll also find in Flash, but works considerably better. The best part? It's entirely visual, so you don't need to code, and when you're done, you can instantly export your project as an iOS game (Android support is also on the way).
Best Replacement For Acrobat: Preview or PDF-XChange Viewer
Replacing the gigantic, all-encompassing Adobe Acrobat is no easy task. On Windows, we like PDF-XChange Viewer. While its set of free options are limited to reading, annotation and signatures, that's enough for most lightweight users. That said, the $US40 Pro version does everything Acrobat does and more.
Mac users should be able to get by with the built-in functions of Preview for most of their PDF editing and creation needs. Preview can handle annotation, highlighting, editing and signatures. It's not nearly as robust as Acrobat, but for the bulk of people out there who need simple editing tools Preview works great.
Most of the above options won't replace Creative Suite for professionals, but they're usually enough for amateurs. They might take a little more work to learn how to use them because they're rarely as well-designed as Adobe's offerings, but they're often nearly as functional.