The Best Free Software

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When 'Free' Software Isn't Really Free

Giving out info in exchange for a freebie isn't always a bad idea. But some sites go too far, asking you to register just to spam you, or loading spyware on your PC. Bottom Line: With free software downloads, you can't always be sure of what you're getting.

"You could be paying hidden taxes on freeware," says Jason Catlett, president of consumer advocacy organization Junkbusters, which fights against the rising tide of unwanted junk on PCs. "There's been a boom in spyware over the past year or two. Any computer may have [more than one] spyware product on it."

Even the federal government is eyeing the trend: The FTC held a spyware workshop in April, and some anti-spyware legislation has been introduced. (Click here for more details on pending state and national legislation.)

Downloading any free software means taking a managed risk, Catlett says. He recommends that you follow these guidelines on choosing wisely and dodging trouble.

Research first, download second: Before you download or install a free application, hit your favorite search site and look up the product and vendor names. If there's no mention (other than at the publisher's own site), the program might not be widely used, and that could be a red flag. Trust your gut instinct if the software developer's site makes you leery; skip the download if you think there's a chance it's questionable.

Ask your neighbor (or an expert): On sites like www.download.com and www.nonags.com, you can consult editorial or user ratings and look at the number of downloads to determine whether the product has negative reports and whether it is popular. There are plenty of well-known, good programs, so don't take a risk, Catlett advises.

Watch the generics: Some scam artists choose product names (or register Web domains) similar to those of reputable applications to confuse downloaders. Make sure you're getting the product you want. Lesser-known programs that promise the world may be the handiwork of spammers and/or spyware makers. If you're not sure about a tool, search on Google to read what others have written about it before you download.

Registering sometimes makes sense--but not always: Carefully consider exactly with whom you're registering. Small commercial software sites run by individuals deserve extra scrutiny. Remember, Catlett says, you could get spammed and telemarketed to death in return for a lousy piece of software. When in doubt, if you need to give a Web site an e-mail address before you can download something, put a free Web e-mail address in the form.

Some places to find free software you can depend on are www.pricelessware.org, www.nonags.com, www.onlythebestfreeware.com, www.freebyte.com/freeware, www.majorgeeks.com--and www.pcworld.com/downloads.

--Laurianne McLaughlin

Freest of the free: Pricelessware lists programs selected by freeware fanatics.
Freest of the free: Pricelessware lists programs selected by freeware fanatics.

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