How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

defend against malware   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free SoftwareBefore downloading a free program, you should be sure it’s trustworthy. Determining whether a download is safe is a basic skill, but one everyone needs — particularly on Windows. While iOS, Android, Mac, and even the “Modern” Windows 8 environment have an integrated app store where you can search for apps, view reviews, and install them, the Windows desktop is still a messier environment. Finding and installing a free app for Windows involves performing a web search for the type of app, choosing a safe app, and then downloading and installing it. Experienced Windows users take this process for granted, but it’s easy for less-experienced users to be tricked into installing bad software.

Use these tips to ensure you download only trustworthy and safe free software, not bad software that will infect your computer with adware, spyware, or maybe even something worse.

Find Curated Lists

Rather than search the web for the best Windows software on your own — even if you find trustworthy programs, you may have trouble determining the best ones — turn to sources you trust for curated lists of the best free software you can download.

For example, we provide lists of the best apps for every platform (and most of these apps are free). Rather than perform web searches, look at a page like our Best Windows Software page and search for the type of app you need. We’ve done the work of research free software apps and selecting the best ones for you so you don’t have to.

makeuseof best windows apps   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

Do You Know and Trust the Developer?

If you know the developer or company you’re downloading the software from and already trust them, you shouldn’t have to worry. Whether it’s a free application from Microsoft, Google, or a smaller developer you’ve used software from in the past, you know the developer is reputable and you can go ahead and download their software.

Exercise more caution if you’re downloading software from a developer you’ve never heard of. And be sure that you’re downloading the program from the official website and not a fake website — the official website will generally come up first on Google.

Download From a Trustworthy Site

Many programs are hosted on third-party sites. For example, many programs are downloadable from websites like CNET’s, while many open-source programs (from Pidgin to 7-Zip) are available from Sourceforge. If a program is available on a site like these ones, it’s generally more trustworthy than one that’s just available from someone’s personal site — websites like and Sourceforge don’t want to host malware and try to police their own files.

sourceforge download   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

Search for Reviews

Before downloading, look for reviews from other users like you. If a program is hosted on a site like, you may see reviews right on the program’s download page — but beware of developer-controlled pages that only post positive reviews.

You may have to perform a Google search for the name of the program and “review” to bring up user reviews. Note that reviews will be mixed for anything — there will always be some users who complain about amazing things, and there will always be some users who are happy with terrible things. You’ll need to look at the overall consensus and details that emerge from the reviews to get a full picture of the software.

In addition to standard reviews, you could also look on Twitter and other social networks to see what other users are saying about the program.

program review   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

Use an Antivirus

No matter how careful you are, an antivirus can always be helpful. Antivirus programs aren’t perfect — they won’t catch everything. However, if you do make a mistake — or if a developer you trust has been compromised and is distributing malware-ridden software — an antivirus will provide an important layer of protection.

You can download antivirus programs for free, too. The process of finding a free antivirus is a good example of finding any type of free software — you can trust Microsoft Security Essentials from Microsoft or a free antivirus program from big names like AVG or Avast!. Other well-known antivirus companies may also offer free or trial antivirus programs, which are also fairly safe. However, if you see an advertisement on the web for “Super Antivirus 2014 with free registry cleaning and PC speed-up services,” you should be skeptical of such software and stay away from it — or at least do additional research.

windows defender on windows 8   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

Try a Sandbox

More advanced users can install an app in a sandbox to ensure it can’t mess up your system and see what it does without the risk. You could use Sandboxie to run the program in a sandbox, isolating it from the rest of your system so it can’t do any damage. Virtual machines could also be used as sandboxes.

33   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

After Downloading: Pay Attention During the Install Process

Even if a free program is reputable, you may find it tries to install adware and other software you don’t want during the install process. Oracle’s Java and Adobe’s Flash are good examples of reputable software that try to pull in other software you probably don’t want while you install them.

Be careful whenever you install programs and decline offers for additional software. You probably don’t want some application the developer was paid to include, nor do you want to change your default home page or search engine.

java decline ask toolbar   How To Do Your Research Before You Download Free Software

This process can be a bit overwhelming for new users, so it’s easy to see why new platforms are moving towards the app store model. It’s just a shame that the Windows Store doesn’t work with desktop apps, as the Mac App Store does on Apple’s OS X. Nevertheless, once you get some experience under your belt, you’ll know what to look for and what to avoid when downloading free apps — and many of these tricks are valuable even on mobile platforms to avoid abusive apps.

How do you research free software you install to ensure it won’t mess up your computer? Leave a comment and share your tricks!

Image Credit: 3d white person via Shutterstock

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I would just like to point out that it’s not only free software that can mess up your system, as every long time computer users knows. Paying for it does not mean it’s any better or safer in any way.

Dominic Chang

I think it is still best to go through catalogues done by others. At least it has been reviewed by others to get a glimps of what the software has to offer.
Being adventurous, I would seek out beta programs to try them out. Who knows, maybe they may even give you the software for free.

dmachop is the closest one…cross-platform hands down.


I hate programs that always try to force me to install Babylon search engine!

Adly Asraf

Yeah. Me too.


VirusTotal, a free web-service that analyzes suspicious files and URLs, is missing from the article.

Bjørnar Hartviksen

Good tips, pretty much in line with my own advice. Just thought I’d mention a couple more tools that could come in handy.

Sites like and allow you to upload single files (up to a certain size) and check them against a long list of well-known AntiVirus scanners.

You might want to check out, which among other things can automate downloading, installing and updating a bunch of apps, without even bugging you with all those pesky toolbar and search engine options.

Maybe the most important advice: NEVER install software (esp. security apps) just because some random website says you should!

Bjørnar Hartviksen

Sorry about the reposting, for a long time posting here didn’t seem to work ;-)

Leland Garner

When you do an Internet search for reviews of free software, never look at only the first page of results. Many companies flood the web with sites they own and praise their own products. Dig down a few pages in your results and only read reviews from sites that, preferably, you are already familiar with.

Brandon Lockaby

I stopped using Java, Mainly it’s a huge security risk, and it bogs down my system.

Mike D

Java is a security risk ,if you play games on your computer you need it, you just have to monitor,your computer more closely .

Pooky Joralyn

How does the BitDefender free edition fare aganst Avast or AVG? I can’t use Avast on my Windows 8 laptop as it interferes with fast startup.


Another thing to find out is who wrote it and why it’s free.

There is software (like Firefox) that is written and maintained by a dedicated company supported by other companies’ donations of time and money. That’s probably the gold standard of free software. At the other end, there is software that a person wrote (like Irfanview written by Irfan Skiljan). In between there is software that is open source which various people help to maintain with people joining and dropping out of the project over time.

The other question is why it’s free. Sometimes it’s just something that someone wrote for themselves and then offered to the world. Other times someone offers it as donation-ware (i.e. if you like it and use it, send some money to the author). More often you see software that tries to sell you something (like a “pro” version). But you also see software that tries to sell your information to other companies (from pushing ads to tracking and selling information about you).

Sometimes you need to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Eddie Johnson

I’ve used CNET downloads with good success. Goon to know that Makeuseof also has resources for software. Thanks for all of the input.


Never click the popups! :D

Kevin Guite

Does anyone have the serial key of fences? Please help.

Bjørnar Hartviksen

Kevin, I think you came to the wrong place if you need help with illegal use of software. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you…

Kevin Guite

Oh, I am a victim of piracy and realized that I’ve been manipulated. I don’t blame anyone. I respect your integrity though, Bjornar. It’s rare. Keep up the good work!

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The best place I’ve found to look for freeware apps is: Tech Support Alert best tech support sites on the Web:
Also I go to CNet ( and read the user reviews on the software. Thats usually a pretty good way to tell if its any good -or not.


Actually, CNET distributes some programs bundled with adware and hijackers. Like most of the curated lists :) And each developer is attacked by Somoto and other bundle makers to “monetarize” their soft.

Kipland Drordy

The biggest problem with the infection shown in the very first picture in this article, is that it makes it almost impossible to close the laptop lid. :-(


This article refers to CNET as a trusted site. It is not. CNET used to be trustworthy, but as of 2013 they have changed. They will dump malware on your computer. It will hijack your search engines and add many things that you don’t want. This article advises to “be careful” when you download. But being careful no longer works. They no longer ask you about the malware. They just dump it on your computer without asking. Even if you cancel the install, it still installs. Even after you uninstall it, it remains on your computer. Examples are “MySearchDial” and “AVG”. These are destructive programs. The best defense against this would be a download site that does not add any extra programs. If anyone knows of such a site, please post it. To confirm what I’ve written here, just google “CNET sucks” or anything of that nature. Many users have posted about their problems with CNET and similar sites.