It used to be a given that to do anything useful with a personal computer, you had to hand over money to someone for a suite of software.
That hasn’t been the case for some years now - but judging by correspondence from several readers, not all vendors have got the message.
Today, no matter what you want to accomplish, there is almost certainly a PC program that will do it for nothing. In many cases, software firms offer free versions of their commercial products, which are perfectly adequate for home and personal use. But you have to be careful, because sometimes, failing to tick or un-tick a box in the wrong place is all it takes to get you a year’s worth of unwanted invoices.
Anti-virus software continues to be a problem area, with several high street retailers and PC manufacturers pushing free trials of “protective” software on to unwitting customers, with little mention of the expensive, long-term commitment that may follow.
So, to avoid confusion, here is a list of software you should NEVER pay for - broken down into categories.
1. ANTI-VIRUS: For home use, free versions of programs by AVG, Avira and Microsoft are readily available and wholly comparable with expensive paid-for products that may have come pre-installed on your machine. When downloading, be careful to select the free product and on no account hand over any payment details. If you make a mistake, or to rid your PC of previously installed commercial products, uninstall the unwanted program and start afresh with the free one.
2. MAINTENANCE: If a message pops up on your screen telling you that your computer needs “new drivers” or some other fix to speed it up, it’s almost certainly unnecessary and quite possibly a scam. No matter how convincing or worrying it seems - ignore it. Never agree to any sort of contract with anyone offering a maintenance deal unless it’s a local computer shop you know and trust - and only then if you have good reason to believe something is broken.
3. WORD PROCESSORS: Unless you have a specialised requirement to generate automated tables of contents or some such, there is no longer any point in paying for a copy of Microsoft Word. Consider instead Google Docs, which is not only free but also cloud-based. That means it stores your documents on the internet instead of your hard drive - from where they are accessible on any PC, tablet or phone, and at far less risk of getting lost. If your internet connection is unreliable, another free alternative is Libre Office, which replicates virtually all the important features of Word and Excel spreadsheets.
4. PHOTO ORGANISERS: Google’s free Picasa program is actually better than many paid-for rivals, especially if all you want to do is scan your computer for pictures and browse them by date, subject or person. A particularly useful feature is its ability to recognise faces and generate slideshows of the same person over a period of time.
5. GENEALOGY: The internet is awash with free resources for populating your family tree, like the one at familysearch.org - so be sure you’ve exhausted all the possibilities before signing up to a paid service. Free software for building and displaying your tree is also plentiful - even from subscription sites like myheritage.com.