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How can I find free software to download?

Picture of a download progress bar

If you’re looking for free software, finding it is likely to be the least of your problems. But knowing how to track down a package you can trust - and that it will be compatible with your PC - is another matter. Here are a few pointers to help you make the process a little easier.

Jane Fae | 9th September 2010

A quick web search for “free software” turned up over 54 million linking pages. Even allowing for the fact that a lot of those pages will be people writing about free software, people advising you where to find free software, as well as warnings about the dangers of downloading it, that still leaves you an awful lot of software to choose from!

You need to narrow down your search – and it helps to know what sort of software you happen to be looking for. Games? Business? Word processing? Graphics? So, besides hunting for free software, it helps to have some idea of what it is meant to do. (If you are stuck for categories, the wikipedia free software portal could be helpful.)

Adding “games” into our search cut the page count to 15 million. Typing in “download” took us even further down, to 16 million. However, with “chess” in the mix we can reduce the count even further, to 175,000. That’s still a large number, but becoming manageable.

Compatibility is key

Assuming the package you find is a genuine download – and it’s available for free – the worst problems you are likely to have are technical ones.

Your free software needs to be compatible with your computer and its operating system. So, for example, you will need to know whether you're using a Windows (Vista, XP etc) or a version of the Mac operating system. Often sites will detect these things for you.

You also need enough memory to run it efficiently. If you haven’t, you’ll know soon enough, as your PC either slows to a crawl – or stops altogether – the moment you try to run your new software.

Hidden dangers

However, there are two other dangers with any sort of freeware. The first is that it is just badly written – and doesn’t do the job it’s meant to do. That’s not too big an issue if the package just doesn’t open, but it’s a major headache when you thought it was working fine. For example, after you’ve calculated your last three years’ tax liabilities, you discover that it was getting each and every one wrong. Oops.

The second thing to watch out for is viruses. Be very, very careful that what you are downloading is genuinely helpful software, and not some deadly PC-stopping virus masquerading as helpful software.

So before you download, look for reviews, look for warnings and look for comments by other users. Ask your friends what they use and where they got it from.

Otherwise, stay vigilant. The fact that software does not come from a well-known or famous site is no reason not to use it. Adverse reviews and horror stories from previous users certainly are.

Jane Fae

Jane Fae

Jane is a consultant on database marketing and crm, as well as a nationally known writer on issues of political and sexual liberty. She also writes for the Register, one of the world's biggest online tech publications, about current affairs, policing and the law as it impinges on technology users.