Have you ever read through the licence agreement that accompanies most commercial software packages these days? Don't bother, the gist of it is that you're basically only borrowing the program and your rights to use it – if indeed you have any -- are strictly limited. To make matters worse if a program doesn't suit your purposes many retailers may refuse to give you a refund, once the seals on the disc envelope have been broken.

No other manufacturer or supplier of goods and services would dream of imposing such draconian conditions of sale. Fortunately there are sections of the software industry – including some of the big names -- that have a more enlightened attitude towards PC users. For the next two weeks we'll be looking at Shareware and Freeware, which is computer software that you can try before you buy – usually for a modest outlay -- or is given away, completely free, gratis and for nothing.

We first covered this topic last June and received a very enthusiastic response; much has happened since then and a lot of new PC owners have joined us over the past year, so we thought it was about time we returned to this fascinating subject. This week we'll deal with the basics, how shareware and freeware works, where to find it and how to install it on your PC. Next week we will be featuring a selection of our favourites, essential programs that no PC should be without.

There's a prevailing view that if something is cheap or free it can't be much good. Early shareware and freeware also had a reputation for being amateurish, riddled with bugs or just plain rubbish. There's some truth in that but it is equally true to say that a lot of shareware and freeware titles are actually better than their commercial counterparts, moreover it includes a multitude of small but extremely useful programs that probably wouldn't be viable as stand-alone retail products. Shareware and freeware isn't just about cheap and cheerful applications and handy utilities, the range of titles available is truly mind-boggling, from sophisticated operating systems and Internet Browsers to screensavers and desktop decorations featuring your favourite band or television program.    

Shareware is cheap because the authors and publishers don't go in for fancy packaging – if any – they rarely advertise and there are no distribution costs since most programs are available over the Internet or included on magazine cover mount CD-ROMs. Although not shareware in the strictest sense there are also a huge number of trial and demo programs out there. These are generally time-limited versions of mainstream commercial software packages that will either stop working after a pre-set period, or have key features disabled; needless to say the intention is to persuade you buy the full version.

A few shareware titles also have limited functionality, a trial period or irritating 'nag screens', but they're a price worth paying since the author or publisher depends on the user's honesty to register and pay an appropriate fee. In exchange the new owner receives a full version of the program (or a way to disable the nag screen or reinstate missing features) and possibly technical support. A printed manual – if there is one – may also be included along with any future upgrades; payment can normally be made online by credit card. Enough people do the honourable thing for the system to work and we urge you to pay for any programs that you download and find genuinely useful.

There are dozens of broad-based shareware and freeware libraries dotted around the Internet and thousands of other specialist sites with downloadable programs but the libraries are usually the best place to start looking. Most program libraries have searchable archives with titles neatly categorised, accompanied by a short description, registration details and a link to the author or publisher. There are many others but the three shareware libraries we use most often can be found at:,

Shareware on magazine CD-ROMs can be a moveable feast, it's worth spending a few minutes in your local newsagent browsing the disc contents pages to see what's included (not on Saturdays, please…). Several magazines regularly include an assortment of handy utilities on their discs every month.

Before you even think about downloading or copying freeware and shareware programs on to your PC make sure you have an up to date virus scanner. The chances of you picking up a nasty infection from programs found in on-line libraries or CD-ROMs is slight, but it can and does happen. For that reason it's a good idea to 'quarantine' downloaded files into a newly created folder, from there you can easily run them through the virus checker.

Most shareware and freeware programs are compressed, to reduce the size and make them faster to download. Various compression schemes are used but the commonest is 'zipping'. Such files are easy to recognise since they have the extension '.zip'. In order to install and run a compressed program it has to be 'unzipped'. It's quite painless, after the unzip utility is installed on your PC just double-click on the 'zip' file icon, you will be asked where you want the contents to be extracted to. Click OK and a few seconds later the file has been unwrapped and it's ready to run.

If you haven't got an unzip program on your PC this is a good excuse to get your feet wet and get to grips with your first shareware program. Decompression programs feature regularly on magazine CD-ROMs or you can download them from any of the libraries mentioned. The best known utilities are Winzip, PkZip and FreeZip (the latter is freeware and quite basic). In case you were wondering these programs are also compressed but they contain their own self-extraction routines. Remember to create a new folder for your unzip program before you download, when it has finished just click on the icon to extract and install on your hard disc.

Next week – Shareware top ten




A technique to reduce the size of a file, to make it smaller, more manageable and faster to download.


A window or display that appears when a program has started to remind the user to pay a registration fee or indicate how many days of the trial period remain


Programs with a built-in time switch, that will stop it functioning after a pre-set period – usually 30 days – after it was installed



Newcomers to Windows 95 and 98 often find the scroll bars at the side and bottom of word processors and spreadsheets screens quite difficult to use. The bars are narrow and the slider can be hard to control, until you get used to it. It's easy to change the size of the bars; even seasoned users may prefer to make them a little wider. To make the change go to Control Panel, click on the Display icon and select the Appearance tab. Click in the middle of the scroll bar shown in the 'Active Window', in the display.  The word 'Scrollbar' should appear in the box below marked Item, along with a pair of up/down arrows and the default setting of 16. Try 20 or 25 but if you want to see something really funny whizz it up to the maximum of 100!

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