Freeware Programs

If you've bought a computer recently, you may have spent more for the software than you did for the computer itself. That's because for a number of years, the price of computer hardware has been decreasing, while the cost of software has been increasing. One way to save money on some of the popular software packages is to consider free alternatives. We'll introduce you to some of the more popular free software packages available, tell you where to go to find others, and give you some tips to help you navigate the entire freeware world.

Getting the lay of the land
The term "freeware" typically refers strictly to software that is offered without cost, with no strings attached. That makes it different from these types of software:
  • Commercial software is the familiar type of software sold in stores or over the Internet, typically for a one-time fee.
  • Trial software is a way for commercial software companies to let you try their software without cost, hoping you will buy the full version later. It may not have the full functionality of the regular version, and it typically stops working after a set number of uses or period of time.
  • Shareware is available for use initially for free, but you'll be asked to pay a fee if you find it useful or after a certain number of uses or period of time. Payment for shareware is often based on the "honor system," meaning that the software won't actually stop working if you don't pay for it.

Popular freeware options
Many pieces of freeware have become very popular over the years and have a loyal following of users that maintain discussion groups: online communities that help you with problems you encounter and offer other useful resources. Here's a sample of some of the very popular and long-lived freeware options:
  • OpenOffice* is a set of office software that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, drawing environment, and database.
  • GIMP* is an image-editing program that can be used for editing and retouching digital photos and other similar tasks.
  • Thunderbird* is an email program with related functions that also help you organize information and read news feeds from the Internet.
Comparing the suitability of freeware versus commercial software
Freeware Programs
Making the choice between freeware and commercial software depends on your circumstances. For example, freeware may be the clear choice for software you don't use often that would otherwise cost a lot of money or for software you aren't sure will be useful in the long term. However, if you have a lot of experience with the software and know its ins and outs, it may be worthwhile to stick with what you already know.
Compatibility with the rest of the world is also an important consideration. For example, many free word processors are designed to be highly compatible with popular commercial products. While a casual user might not even notice the gaps, they could be glaring errors for someone who uses the software daily or even makes a living with it.
How to make sure you get what you expect
While freeware can be very useful for a lot of purposes, choosing a high-quality offering is a must. Some freeware that is less well known may be excellent, but it's hard to be sure. You also need to avoid spyware, which could be tagging along with the freeware (for more information on that topic, see our article "Getting Rid of Spyware". A little bit of care can go a long way toward meeting both of those goals—here are some additional tips:
  • Download from reputable sources. Two such Web sites are and, both of which have a wide variety of freeware (as well as shareware) to choose from. When in doubt, take the extra time to research a download site on the Internet, and see what other people have to say about it.
  • Read reviews before you download. Most download sites have user reviews of the software they offer, and you should also take the time to get additional opinions from other Web sites. You may be able to compare several different pieces of freeware that have similar functions that way.
  • Use a spyware scanner. If you use a computer for work, downloading unknown freeware onto it can be a bad risk. When possible, download the freeware onto a different machine that you don't depend on for your livelihood, scan for spyware after downloading, and then use it on that machine. Better safe than sorry.
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