Buying software for your PC is a fraught business at the best of times. You can read the reviews and descriptions on the back of the box but you never really know if it's going to live up to your expectations, or the hype, until it has been installed on your PC. If you're not happy with it, that's tough. Most software vendors have a no-return policy, unless the program is actually faulty. Even then they usually insist on a like for like exchange.

That sort of mistrust is annoying but understandable -- sad to say PC owners can be as devious and dishonest as any other section of society -- but it makes buying software even more of a gamble that it is already.

Fortunately not everyone has such a jaded attitude and there are plenty of software companies and authors who are only too willing to let you try out their products, before you buy. It is called shareware and it has been around in one form or another for at least the past ten years, though until fairly recently you had to be a bit of an enthusiast, and a regular visitor to computer fairs, to find it. Early shareware had a reputation for being unfinished, buggy or a bit amateurish, and a lot of it was. However, the point is that it gave small companies and independent software authors a way to distribute their programs, without having to pay for expensive duplication, packaging, advertising and distribution.

Thanks to CD-ROMs and the Internet shareware is a lot easier to get hold of nowadays. Quality and performance has improved immeasurably, to the point where a lot of programs are as good, and in some cases better than their dearer commercial rivals and now the big boys are getting in on the act. Shareware also makes possible small but very useful utilities, that otherwise would not make it in the commercial world.

Shareware sometimes requires a little more effort on your part, compared with over the counter software. Files are often compressed, so it pays to have one or two extraction utilities on your PC, before you start; we'll come to that in a moment. With that in mind this week we'll look at what you need to do to prepare your PC for shareware; next week, in part two we will look at the top ten titles that should be on every Windows 95 computer, and of course, where you can get them from.

The basic premise is that you can install and use a shareware program but if you like it and intend to go on using it, you are honour bound to register and pay for it. You can usually pay on-line by credit card or post. Shareware is often a lot cheaper than commercial software; sometimes the registration fee is purely nominal. 

Most shareware has some kind of limitation. Key features such as print or save may be disabled, or it can be restricted to a set number of operations. Others are timed and will refuse to load after the trial period has ended (usually 30 days). Almost all programs have tiresome 'nag' screens, to remind you to register.

Support for unregistered shareware is patchy or non-existent, you won't get a manual either, though everything you need to know is usually included in the Help and Readme files. Once you have paid you can expect to receive the full version, a manual, technical help and any upgrades.

There's little or no protection against viruses on programs downloaded from Internet sites, though publishers and authors homepages are usually fairly safe. Larger shareware programs can also take a long time to download from the Internet, and that imposes some limitations on their size, so you won't see many really large business or office shareware applications. 

A good virus checker is essential. It makes sense to buy a fully featured commercial program, rather than a shareware version or demo as the former will have a large library, containing all of the latest codes and signatures.

Before downloading or copying any shareware program from CD-ROM read the instructions on the disc or web site concerned. It could save you a lot of time and trouble; it should tell you the size of the file, whether or not it is compressed and what actions you need to take to extract it. Check the system requirements and that you're accessing the right version. There can be significant differences between programs written for Windows 3.x, 95 and NT.

Many programs will automatically create a new file or folder for you once they're installed but don't bank on it. It's good practice to have an empty folder ready, just in case. Open Windows Explorer, click on File, then New and Folder, give it a name and when you are asked where you want the program to be filed, direct it to your newly created folder. Once it's on your hard disc, and before you do anything else, scan the program for viruses, then you can proceed with the installation.

Your first shareware program should be WinZip. Many shareware titles are 'zipped' or compressed and although a lot contain their own self-extraction utilities, others do not and they will be completely useless. Needless to say WinZip is self-extracting, you can get it from or the cover mounted CD-ROMs given away on many computer magazines. Don’t forget to register, it's going to get a lot of use!




shareware programs that are free to use, but the author retains control of the original code


A technique to reduce the size of a file, to make it smaller, more manageable and faster to dowload. Compressed files have to be extracted with a utility such as WinZip. Zipped files usually have the extension '.zip'


A dialogue box that opens before the main program to remind you to register and pay


Shareware programs that are free to use and modify as the author has relinquished control over the code



If you are tired of the Windows 95 opening and closing screens why not change them, or create your own? The clouds start up screen is called logo.sys and can be found in the root of your C:/ drive.  The shut down screens, 'Please wait while etc…' and 'It is now safe…' are called logow.sys and logos.sys; they are filed in the main Windows directory. If you want to keep the originals rename them or copy and paste them somewhere safe.

You can play around and modify the default images using the Paint program in Windows 95 but you can do a lot more with a graphics program, like PaintShop Pro. If you want to create your own title screens be aware that the images must be 256 colour bitmap (.bmp) files with dimensions of 320 x 400 pixels. You can do this by re-sizing a 680 x 480 pixel image, to 320 x 400. Don't worry if it looks out of proportion, (it will be stretched vertically), the image will resume its correct shape when displayed during start up or shutdown. Remember to save your new pictures as a 256 colour bitmap file, with the correct name and extension (i.e. logo.sys), and make sure you put it back in the right place i.e. the root of your boot drive, or the Windows 95 folder.

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