There are lots of free programs on the Internet. Some are truly free, while some are truly worthless. Let's talk about the differences and what there is to offer. After all, everyone likes a bargain.
There is shareware, which is really trial-ware. You can usually use it for a limited period of time before being told you must purchase it. Other types have the best functions disabled.
Then there is what I call "teaserware." It teases you to believe a free download is a free program. It is not. But you don't realize it until you have it installed. Tread carefully.
Adware is what you get when you download a so-called free screensaver, for example. Sure the product is free, but it comes with a caveat. There are ads somehow attached to it either in the form of pop-ups or banners. As soon as you delete the ads, the program becomes nonfunctional. Caveat emptor.
We all have some free programs installed, usually a defragmenter or a game. But there is much more out there, from Web browsers and office suites to entire operating systems.
Let's start with the browsers. Aside from the one forced upon us, there are alternatives and they're all free.
I like Mozilla Firefox. That's the one that Internet Explorer copied in its current incarnation. It has tabbed browsing, is easy to use and is secure. It is highly customizable. There are hundreds of plug-ins or add-ons that are available for Firefox. They assist with things from your bookmarks (favorites) to downloads and icon themes. Find it at mozilla.com.
You might also consider Opera, another free browser, from opera.com.
It's not just browsers or little programs that are cost-free. There is an Office alternative for those unwilling to shell out hundreds of dollars for software. Open Office, from openoffice.org is a free productivity suite that is comparable to Microsoft's own. It may not have all the bells and whistles, but is a fine alternative. You can use it at home or in the office on as many computers as you want.
It will create and open most documents created in MS Office, including those from word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentations and graphics. Download this and you'll be using it less than half an hour.
Another great program is Drive Image XML. It backs up your data by creating images of your hard drive or partitions, similar to what Norton Ghost does, minus the cost for home use. Find it at runtime.org. This is a great backup program worth checking out.
If you tire of waiting for your pdf files to open, consider switching from Adobe Reader to Foxit Reader. It is a small program that downloads and installs in a couple of minutes. When you click on a pdf file, it will almost instantly be available to read, unlike the way Adobe works. Find it at foxitsoftware.com and click on the free version link.
If you browse the Internet a lot, you could use a better firewall than Windows offers. There are two freebies that stick out above the rest.
PC Tools and Comodo both offer better options than Microsoft. They have pop-ups, but that is the nature of the beast. You'll be asked what you want to do, attempting to access questionable Web sites or running certain programs. It watches what comes in and what goes out. It's all about safety.
The pop-up will simply ask your permission, similar to that of Vista's User Account Control. Usually, you have it do most of the deciding for you, but there is still a certain amount of interaction. It is tolerable and it helps keep your system clean.
With all the Microsoft maligning I do, it deserves an "atta boy" from me with its free program Photo Story. It is an easy-to-use, full-of-extras slide show maker. Get it at microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/digitalphotography/photostory/default.mspx.
Most, if not all of these can also be found at download.com, majorgeeks.com or filehippo.com. As always, it's a good idea to scan for viruses and malware when you download anything from the Web, but I've never had any trouble with these sites.
Be advised that programs free of cost are also free of support. You are on your own. Often you can find forums of users who help one another, but don't count on the manufacturers for any help.
Once you realize a free program doesn't equate with garbage, you'll be like me, staying up all hours of the morning searching for downloads. Now you know why you never see me until after 10 a.m.
Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly. Arthur welcomes your computer questions and ideas for future columns.