The internet is full of software downloads that promise new and better tools and products. Some are free (aka freeware). Some are trial versions of software you can purchase (aka trialware). Some are written by an author looking for a contribution (aka shareware). Some are commercial boxed software that is fulfilled via the internet. Many of these tools and products are very useful and completely safe to use. Others are not. How can you tell the difference? How can you minimize the risk from buying and downloading these tools?
Here are some simple rules that might help you decide whether to download software:
- Always download from a trusted source. These days, it is very easy to set up a website from which you can sell and distribute software. It can be done in a matter of hours. If word gets around that the product is ineffective or dangerous, that site can disappear and the product can be offered under a new name from a different site tomorrow. You want to download software from vendors or websites that have some permanence and a brand that they want to protect. If you have any questions about a site, don’t download anything. Most freeware and shareware is available from multiple sites.
- Search for feedback. Use your favorite search engine to look for reviews of the product, vendor, or download site. Don’t expect to find 100% positive reviews, but do look for a very high percentage of positive reviews and read some of the negative ones just to see what their issues were. Make an informed decision.
- Understand the business model. For freeware, why is it free? Some freeware is offered by major corporations like Microsoft, Sun or Adobe for the purpose of furthering their brand. Smaller vendors might be trying to establish a name and draw attention to other products. Shareware vendors are hoping that you will contribute. Some scam-artists might just be looking for the opportunity to install some hidden malware on your computer. If you can’t figure it out, it’s probably the last one. It is no small job to develop and maintain a software product. What’s in it for the vendor?
- Is the software actively supported? All software has problems because it can’t be tested in every possible environment. Is the vendor issuing regular updates to address problems and security issues found? If not, I would look elsewhere. It will probably be more trouble than it’s worth.
And once you download, here are some rules you might want to use to manage what’s on your computer:
- Try out new products in a virtual machine if possible. Windows 7 users can use XP mode as a sandbox. Alternatively, install it on a non-critical PC first. Don’t install it on your only PC in the morning if you need to run payroll or file your tax return in the afternoon.
- Take a backup before installing any new software. You should take regular backups anyway. If you install something that really screws up your PC, it might take a day to re-install the operating system and your application software, and a week to get it working the way you want it. If you can restore from a backup, you should be back to normal within a couple hours.
- Create a restore point. The idea is that you want to be able to rollback to the restore point in case the software does not work and doesn’t uninstall cleanly. It’s not foolproof, but it gives you another possibility if something goes wrong and it’s much quicker than restoring from a backup.
- Just because you installed it does not mean that you have to keep it. I often download a couple of tools that might do the same thing, just to see which one I like best. Get rid of the stuff that you are not using. You can always re-install it later if you need it. Any installed software could be a security exposure and could slow down your machine. Also, your antimalware scans and backups will run faster without them. After you uninstall, consider running a registry cleaner to get rid of the remnants.
- If you do keep it, make sure you keep the software up to date. Install the maintenance releases, but you don’t necessarily need to install version upgrades if you have to pay for them. Software maintenance updates might include fixes to functional problems that others have found, but also address security exposures that have been identified.
There is lots of very good downloadable software that can enhance your computing experience. Follow these rules and reduce the risk of finding and using it.