Freeware Best Bets
by Reid Goldsborough
The best things in life may be free: fresh air, a beautiful sunset, hugs. But with computers, is it true that there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
“Freeware” has been around since close to the beginning of the personal computer revolution, with PC-Talk, a communications program, originating free software distribution in 1982.
Freeware is similar to its cousins shareware and free software. With shareware, software authors make their programs free to try, but typically with limits in terms of features or a trial period until you buy the full program. With free software, you’re free to do almost anything you want with the program, including modifying it.
With freeware, you can’t legally modify the program, but all its features are accessible, and you can use the software for as long as you’d like. In some cases, freeware authors require that use be limited to individual, noncommercial purposes.
Some freeware authors do what they do for purely altruistic reasons, with no profit motive. Some use their programs to promote their consulting or other ventures. Most ask for voluntary contributions if you find the program useful. Some programs, such as McAfee Anti-Virus, started out as freeware before transforming into commercial software.
The most commonly asked question about freeware is, How valuable can something be if doesn’t cost anything? The best freeware programs are excellent tools, but as with anything, there are potential downsides.
Freeware programs are typically, although not always, small programs written by individuals that may not be as sophisticated as programs you pay for. Their documentation may be limited. You probably won’t get the same tech support as with a pay program (though good tech support with pay programs is never a certainty).
People writing freeware typically don’t have the resources to test it out as thoroughly as commercial software companies can, so these programs may have a greater risk of causing conflicts with other programs. Bad guys have been known to use freeware to distribute computer viruses that can destroy your data or bots that can turn your computer into a spam relay.
It’s easy, however, to greatly minimize if not eliminate these risks with two steps. Download freeware only from reliable sites that screen programs before making them publicly available. And make sure you’re using antivirus and antispyware tools that are up to date.
Selected Sites and Software
Here are some sites recommended by the pros at Internet Press Guild, a group of writers who specialize in issues related to personal computers and the Internet, plus a couple recommended by me as the result of my own experiences:
Giveaway of the Day (giveawayoftheday.com)
PC World’s Downloads (pcworld.com/downloads)
CNET’s Downloads (download.cnet.com)
Here’s a quick look at some of the best freeware currently available:
Linux (linux.org) is a free software operating system that serves the same purpose as Microsoft Windows. Though it has millions of fans, it’s more difficult to install and learn than Windows. Once you have learned it, it’s as easy to use, according to reports from users.
OpenOffice (openoffice.org) is an office suite, similar to Microsoft Office, consisting of a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a drawing program, and a presentation program. Versions exist for Windows, the Mac, and Linux. It’s very sophisticated and easy to use.
Firefox (mozilla.com) is a fast and intuitive Web browser. It has a sister email program called Thunderbird, also free, and a free Web-page creator called Nvu.
Forecastfox (addons.mozilla.org/firefox/398) puts up-to-date weather information for your area in Firefox’s status bar, including the current weather and precipitation, as well as forecasts for the next two days.
AVG (free.avg.com) is a popular antivirus and antispyware program available in both free and for-pay versions, with the free version providing excellent basic protection. It’s generally not good policy to use more than one antivirus program at a time because of the conflicts this can cause.
ZoneAlarm (zonealarm.com) is a firewall that’s free for individual users.
Spybot Search & Destroy (safer-networking.org) is an antispyware program that can be used in conjunction with antivirus and other security programs. It’s free for noncommercial use, supported by donations.
WordWeb (wordweb.info) is a writing utility combining a dictionary, thesaurus, and reference program accessible from just about any Windows program. The for-pay version includes more definitions and extra features.
SaverNow (freeutils.net/savernow) is a Windows screensaver utility that lets you turn on your screensaver at any time. It can provide an enjoyable way to view photos of family or other favorite subjects and even view a slide show.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgoldsborough.com.