The Internet is loaded with free software, which is a good thing. Who doesn’t like free stuff? Some of this software is as good as or better than similar commercial products. For instance, GIMP is a free image editor/paint program that offers more features than some payware. It is amazing that people will produce such superb software and simply share it with society. If you are on a tight budget, you can look to freeware to keep your wallet happy. Of course, there is a dark side. With adware or spyware, you may get more than you bargained for. Here are some tips on keeping your computer or laptop safe while benefiting from the generosity of gracious software developers.
Do Your Research
Let’s say you need a free audio editor. You could simply type in “free audio editor” into your browser’s search bar, click on the first page that comes up, and download that particular audio editor. Don’t do that. Chances are it will be a perfectly fine website with secure downloads, but how do you know if it is a good product or not? What if it comes bundled with any unwanted junk? Will it turn your computer into a digital billboard for, say, NOS energy drinks? This is where research comes into play. Search for “best free audio editor” instead and look at multiple articles. If you see one particular program that consistently shows up at the top of the list, it may be the one for you. Just be sure to look at its strengths and weaknesses before downloading it.
Download the Right Product from the Right Website
Using the example of an audio editor once again, let’s assume you’ve found a good one called AudioEditorExtreme+ (fictional). Who makes this wonderful program you want? Well, you found out through the research process that it is produced by a company called AEEInc (again, fictional). The problem is that there is another freeware download called AudioEditExtreme+ made by VirusesRUs. You don’t want that one. It is a bad program. Yes, I know this is a ridiculous example, but it is here to serve the point that you should take great care in downloading the right program. The best method is to go directly to the official company website to retrieve it. If you do go to a site such as CNET.com, just be sure that the freeware you download is the right one and not one with a similar name!
Read the EULA, Whydontcha?
End User License Agreements are boring. Who reads them, anyway? Well, when installing freeware, it is a good idea to at least take a glance at it. If there is anything at all in there that makes you uncomfortable, it may be best to go back and find another program. For instance, if the EULA states that during the installation process a port will be opened that allows data to be continually streamed from your PC to the software developer’s server, you may want to pass! This is another extreme example, but you would be surprised at the data collection methods some companies utilize. There is a virtual plethora of freeware out there, so if you do not like the EULA for one, move on to another.
Be as Cautious as a Cat
Have you ever seen a cat hunt? It takes its time. It moves slowly and carefully as it nears its prey. It does not just run in willy-nilly, but creeps in close and gets the jump on a potentially faster animal. When it comes to the installation process, be like a cat. Take your time and read everything. Do not merely click “Next” or “Yes” without seeing what you are agreeing to. Even highly-rated, legitimate freeware may come bundled with garbage you do not want, including (but not limited to) browser toolbars, antivirus software, weather apps, registry scanners, or search engines. All of these can slow down your computer or laptop or just flat-out annoy you. Even worse, some can open up a “backdoor” into your system that hackers can exploit. Therefore, during the installation process, uncheck all of these extra programs. If even just one of these bundled items is mandatory, cancel the installation altogether and download a different program. Remember, this is YOUR system we are talking about, and YOU are in charge. Do not become prey on your own property!
Run an Anti-Malware Scan Afterwards
This may seem like overkill to you. After all, if you followed all the steps so far, why worry about malware? Well, you shouldn’t worry about it, per se, but remember that you are dealing with freeware, which is notorious for containing unwanted stuff. Even after following all of these steps, you never know what bad stuff may be hidden among the good stuff. An anti-malware scan is a great way to give you peace of mind about the new files on your hard drive. Besides, running frequent scans is ALWAYS a good practice, and what better time is there to run one than after accessing various websites and downloading programs? Chances are extremely high that you will never say to yourself, “Self, I wish I hadn’t run that anti-malware scan.”
There is a lot of great freeware available these days. Again, it is wonderful that certain individuals have dedicated a portion of their lives in making products to share with their fellow man. However, you should understand the risk inherent in freeware. Stick to the ideas in this article and you’ll have much better success in keeping your system clean. On a side note, if you have REALLY enjoyed a free program or service for an extended period of time, perhaps a donation is in order. If you realize they kept you from having to buy an expensive program, think about donating a little something to show them you appreciate their generosity!