Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

How Not To Buy Software


Since I complained about downloading from download.com (CNET) back on July 2, I should offer some free advice on how and where to get free software.

First, let me say I have paid for software in the past and will in the future. More to the point of this post, I have purchased versions of software I had been using for free. I bought because it was capable, reliable, and inexpensive. Plus these small companies deserved the support.

Even more to the point of this post: Why pay for software if you’re not sure it does the job? And even if it does, is it worth what they’re asking? Freeware will answer these questions. The real reason to use freeware is that it’s the best path to smart buying—and smarter not buying.

Your first source of reliable freeware should be companies you already trust. One example: Known for their desktop publishing products, Serif has been around for 25 years. I was looking for a word processing fix and discovered they also now have web, photo, and movie programs. Recommended.

Another trustworthy (as in virus-free) source of freeware are magazines. If you go to a bookstore, you will find computer magazines with disks full of free software. As in DVD-full. While these magazines aren’t cheap, often $15 to $20, they also offer helpful articles. Some combination of information and software should be worth a gamble every year or so.

Someone else you should trust is your local computer store. Not the big box blankety-blanks, but the truly local experts. Another local source of expertise are user groups, if you’re lucky enough to live near a good one. How do you know if they’re good? If they’re big, diverse, and friendly to newcomers.

Online search can still yield some good free stuff, especially if you can find a recent site comparing the freeware specific to your needs. One program I found this way was the excellent word processor, Jarte. Very good, but no cigar. The free version of Jarte didn’t meet my needs.

How did I find out? It’s an easy trick and works for any free software. Look up the features of their paid version, i.e., the upgrade. No software will tell you what it doesn’t do. Certainly not a box on the shelf, or even the most thorough documentation. However, the features aimed at extracting your dollars are clearly what you won’t get in the free version.

And remember: free advice is not worth what you pay for it, but what you make of it.

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