Before 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.
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 Download.com, 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 Download.com and Sourceforge don’t want to host malware and try to police their own files.
Search for Reviews
Before downloading, look for reviews from other users like you. If a program is hosted on a site like Download.com, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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