Is free software safe? Exploring the freeware alternative
With more dependence on the Internet and an increasing amount of software applications vying for a user’s attention, companies are frequently developing free software, called “freeware” to entice the discerning punter. Sometimes software is a simplified version of an already-established program, containing fewer features to validate its free of charge status. This replica software can either be a basic version of a parent application (often a popular and sought-after software title) produced by the same company or it may be created by a different company aiming to make (often expensive) software universally available with a cleverly packaged mock-up. This article guides you through some sources for freeware and offers some tips for things to look out for.
There is an abundance of free software available on the web, but you need to be cautious: sometimes software is unstable, and it must be used at the consumer’s own risk. It can even be intentionally harmful spyware (software that can seize control of your computer) or adware (advertising software that monitors your computer usage). Sometimes it’s tempting to download something you see an ad or link for, but you should be aware of the dangers of installing programmes on your computer from unknown sources.
Types of available freeware
Manufacturers of popular and, often high-cost, software would no doubt have the average consumer believe that decent computer applications only come at a premium. However, the internet has increased the opportunity for freeware programmers (often self-taught, money-conscious consumers) to challenge this notion. With many years of Internet progression, there is a great deal of freeware and shareware available. (Generally, shareware is software that is free to share but not mass-distribute. Shareware will usually ask for a contribution to the developer or encourage payment).
Programmers that produce freeware and shareware are often simply nice people who have seen a need for more affordable, universally-available software in certain fields, having the know-how to make it happen. There’s not necessarily a need for expensive virus protection software when trustworthy programs, such as Avira AntiVir PersonalEdition Classic, Avast! Home Edition and AOL Active Virus Shield, do it for free. Costly word processors can be replaced by freeware alternatives, such as AbiWord, OpenOffice and Jarte. You might want to download Mozilla Firefox as a free substitute for Microsoft Internet Explorer, or maybe use VLC to replace Windows Media Player. Established freeware and shareware provider websites, such as download.com and Tucows are good places to begin.
Nonags (the self-proclaimed “original and best, genuine freeware site”) claims to receive over one million visitors each day. For over a decade the site has existed as a freeware source site, with every posted software item undergoing a rigorous check by the site administrators, which helps to reduce users’ concerns. Alternative freeware sites include Freeware Home and Freewarefiles.
Risks of free software
If you are downloading software from a reputable source, you can generally consider it to be trustworthy. If a site has been recommended by someone you trust, or if you have used a site before, you may feel more comfortable using the site’s service. Over time you may find that it gets easier to learn which sites can be trusted. Having said that, it is almost impossible to remove all risk of an unstable or unsafe file slipping through. If you’re not prepared to pay for software though, another alternative is to illegally download copy-written software via bit torrent or other peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing programs. This is not recommended, however; other than being against the law, it is a far riskier method as you can take a virus straight from a peer’s computer, and you are left much more open to deliberately malicious content.
What can I do to minimise the risks of free software?
It is good practice to research a program before installing it, running a basic web search should suffice. You may find a forum or blog that someone has used to write about the dangers of the program, if such an issue exists. As a final precaution, have virus protection software (such as Norton AntiVirus, McAfee Internet Security or AVG Anti-Virus) installed, and occasionally use programs that check for spyware and adware. (Incidentally, AVG is a good example of a company offering freeware as a cheap alternative to their main product, with AVG Anti-Virus Free being a popular basic edition of their AVG Internet Security product.)
Freeware can be an attractive option for those unable to spend a great deal of money on computer software. Computer hardware (particularly actual laptops, desktops and monitors, let alone accessories) can be an enormous expenditure, often making funds for software limited. Whilst freeware can be a surprisingly viable alternative to the full-spec, pricey option, the supplier of free software must be considered each time, with safety and stability of free programs continually a central issue.
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