March 18, 2010

10 Free Productivity Tools for Linux

Common wisdom says that Linux lacks applications. Fortunately, the common wisdom is dead wrong on this, especially when it comes to productivity applications. Finding the applications, though, can be a challenge — so I've put together a list of 10 great, and free, productivity apps for the Linux desktop.

Now, when I refer to "productivity tools," I'm talking about tools that go with time management, calendaring, note-taking, task-management and office tools. If you haven't been on Linux very long, you might not realize what a wide selection and variety of tools you have to choose from. This is by no means a fully exhaustive list, but a selection of tools for the Linux desktop that I've found useful over the years.

Most Linux users have already discovered basic office tools via, KOffice, Gnumeric, and/or AbiWord for producing basic office documents — so I won't cover word processors and spreadsheets here. This is all about productivity utilities to fill out your personal toolbox. Let's get started with one of my personal favorites, Tomboy.


My desk used to be a massive pile of scraps of paper, Post-It notes, index cards, and other assorted detritus with scribbles containing anything from random note to vital information about work projects. Thanks to Tomboy that's mostly a thing of the past.

Tomboy is a note-taking application for the Linux desktop that makes managing information much easier. It's suitable for everything from short notes ("get milk, coffee, and eggs") to taking notes during meetings or for project research.

Some note-taking apps just try to replicate sticky notes for the desktop or require a lot of structure to manage notes. Tomboy is as simple or as complex as you want it to be. You can simply jot notes with abandon and use its search features to find what you're looking for, or you can create notebooks and keep your notes organized by category.

Tomboy also goes above and beyond by allowing synchronization, so if you're using more than one computer it's easy to keep notes synched across computers. With the right plugins enabled, you can also export notes from Tomboy to HTML, integrate notes with the Evolution mailer and manage links to bugzillas.

Most Linux distros should include packages for Tomboy either in the default install or in the package repos. Just look for "tomboy" using your favorite package manager.

Hamster Applet for GNOME

Time-tracking has never been easier than with the Hamster Applet for GNOME. The Hamster applet sits in the panel and whenever you start a new task, simply enter it into Hamster and it will start counting away the hours and minutes.

But, of course, there's more to it than that. Hamster also lets you add and modify times (in case you've forgotten to enter time for a project or forgotten to turn Hamster off when tracking an event), and it lets you sort activities into categories. This is particularly useful if you're tracking time for different clients as a freelancer or if you want to see how much of your time goes to work, play, and so forth.

Even better, Hamster produces a detailed report of your time. It will display an overview of your time by day, week or month. Once you have more than a week's worth of data, Hamster will provide statistics of how you've spent your time. This view shows your longest workday, the number of records and will even show a year-long graph of hours by month.

Hamster is an applet for the GNOME panel, so most distros with GNOME should have it. It may not be installed by default, though, so search for the hamster-applet package and install that. You may need to restart GNOME, then right-click on the panel and find the Time Tracker applet. It's subtitled Hamster in the Add to Panel dialog, but the name is displayed as "Time Tracker." After it's been added to the panel you can get started tracking your time!


Kexi is billed as the "Microsoft Access" for Linux, which might be a suitable description if you've spent time working with Access. I haven't had much experience with Microsoft Access, but I've worked with Kexi a bit for managing personal databases and think it's a great tool for managing all sorts of data.

Kexi is an all-in-one application for creating databases, forms for data entry, and entering data and running reports. It will work with SQLite for locally hosted databases, or you can use Kexi in conjunction with MySQL and PostgreSQL databases remotely. It will even import MS Access databases in the .mdb/.mde formats. You can also import Comma Separated Value (CSV) data with Kexi if you have a data export from one of the many programs that will produce CSV.

Kexi can take a little while to get started with if you're not familiar with designing your own database and forms. But it's a fairly forgiving program and with a little trial and error you'll be wondering how you ever got by without it.

Most Linux distros should have Kexi packaged in the repos, just check for the "kexi" package.


If you write a lot of reports or papers, you need a good tool to keep track of your references and notes. Referencer fits the bill by organizing your documents and references while putting together research.

The primary use case for Referencer is for putting together bibliography files in the BibTeX format, but it's not required. Even if you're not trying to generate a bibliography, it can be very handy for organizing files and keeping track of notes or other data.

But if you are putting together a bibliography, it's the cat's meow. If you're working with PDFs that have the right kind of bibliographic information, Referencer can automatically search for reference info and metadata about the document.

The site has plenty of information on getting packages if they're not included in your distro by default.


PDFs can be really handy for sharing documents, but the static nature of PDFs limits their usefulness quite a bit. If you need to trim a document or add pages to a PDF, then you need PDF Mod.

PDF Mod's mission in life is very simple: To let users make simple edits to PDFs. Want to drop a few pages from a PDF before sending it on? PDF Mod will let you do that. Want to add a few pages to a PDF? You can do that too. Have a presentation saved as a PDF but want to re-order your slides? Yep, you can swap pages around with PDF Mod.

PDF Mod won't let you annotate or edit a PDF, so if you need to fix a typo on page 15 of a report, you'll need to have the original source that produced the PDF. But for simple edits, PDF Mod a really useful tool to have handy.

Right now PDF Mod is not in the official package repositories for most distros, but you should be able to find packages pretty easily. The PDF Mod page has links to packages for openSUSE, Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, and even some info on getting PDF Mod to run on Windows.


Okular is another good tool to have around for working with PDFs as well as all other kinds of documents. Okular is called the "universal document viewer," and while it might not be able to open every document format you'll run across, it does a fair job of trying.

Okular supports most image types, PDFs, PostScript files, OpenDocument Format text files, TeX DVI files, and many others.

Not only will it open files, but it will also allow you to annotate them and share reviews with other Okular users. Have a PDF you need to mark up before something goes to print? Okular can help you save a tree and make your annotations right on the PDF rather than marking up printed copy.

Okular should be available for most major distros that have KDE packages. If you have KDE installed, it should be installed already. If not, it should be available from your package repo as "okular."


Even if you're working solo, a project management application can be really useful for planning out longer projects and ensuring you've got enough time to get everything done. For a simple and easy to use project management app, dig into Planner.

Planner lets you set up resources (people and materials), assign tasks, and check resource usage for your resources. As you insert tasks, Planner produces a Gantt chart to display the project schedule so it's easy to eyeball the work breakdown schedule and see what's assigned and how much time is allocated to each task. You can also keep track of work completion and see if you're hitting deadlines and making progress.

You can probably find more feature-complete project management tools, but Planner is easy to get started with and works well for smaller projects. Planner is available with most Linux distros that have GNOME packages and will be in the package repos as "planner."


Kontact is actually a suite of tools, but I'm throwing them all in for the price of one. Kontact is the KDE Personal Information Manager (remember when PIM was a buzzword?) and it acts as a "container" for several KDE productivity tools. This includes KMail, KAddressBook, the KJots notetaker, Akregator feed reader, KOrganizer calendaring app, journal application, and more.

You can run some of the Kontact applications separately (KOrganizer includes the calendaring and journaling features) or as an all-in-one productivity powerhouse. The nice thing about using the Kontact container, though, is that it puts everything in one handy window and provides a summary page that displays your events, to-dos, pop-up notes, and new messages if you're using KMail.

Kontact should be easy to come by with any major Linux distro that features KDE. Just look for the "kontact" package and you'll be good to go.


Most companies assume that users are running Windows or Mac OS X, and it can be hard to find templates for printing labels using Linux. Luckily, there's gLabels, a utility for printing to all sorts of business card and label sheets.

I won't say that gLabels supports every brand and type of label and business card sheet you'll find, but it's really comprehensive. It supports a wide range of brands, from Avery to Zweckform, and has all manner of templates. CD templates, address labels, round labels — even templates for floppy diskette labels if you happen to have any of those lying around.

What if gLabels doesn't have your template? You're still good. gLabels comes with a template designer that guides you through creating rectangular, round, and CD/DVD materials. It takes all the hassle out of trying to replicate a label template in a drawing program, and only requires that you measure the template you want for the size of the labels and the margins on the sheet and then enter them in the Template Designer dialog.

gLabels has been around for quite some time, so you should be able to find it for Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Debian, etc. The download page has links to packages for Mandriva and source code if you really want to compile it yourself.


Last up is Kivio, one of the best free software applications for creating flowcharts and diagrams.

Even though the Kivio Web site is a bit sparse at the moment, Kivio is a mature and usable flowchart and diagram application that's simple to get started with and includes quite a few templates. If you're using KOffice, it should integrate well with those apps to include objects in your documents. If not, Kivio will export to JPEG, PNG, and BMP which should cover any other application that you might want to import charts and diagrams into.

As with Kexi and Kontact, Kivio has been around for quite some time and is packaged for all the major distros. For a more detailed look at Kivio, check out Jack Wallen's recent tutorial here at

This is, of course, just a sampling of all the great desktop productivity tools you'll find for Linux. Have a favorite I didn't mention here? Be sure to give it a shout out in the comments!

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