BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2001

  

 

BOOT CAMP 175 (17/05//01)

 

SHAREWARE AND FREEWARE – Part 1

 

If you've just spent a small fortune buying software only to find that it was full of bugs, unsuited to your purpose, too difficult too use or it simply didn't work on your PC then take heart, here's something that might restore your faith in computers.

 

Shareware and freeware is PC software that is either free, gratis and for nothing, or you only pay for it if you find it useful and continue to go on using it. Even if you do pay for it, the cost is usually a fraction of the over-the-counter, shrink-wrapped stuff. This week we'll look at what it is and what it does, in part two, it's the annual Boot Camp Shareware Top Ten.

 

One of the commonest misconceptions is that shareware and freeware programs are amateurish or lack functionality. They are not nor are they confined to basic programs and utilities, there are shareware substitutes for just about any application you can think of, from word processors and spreadsheets right up to complete operating systems, like Linux, which many consider to be a serious rival to Windows.

 

But is it any good? The answer is yes, for the simple reason that a lot of freeware and shareware is produced by people that have become frustrated with high-priced commercial applications that are either flaky or do not work in the way they want them to, so they've created an alternative, or developed tools and add-ons to fill in the gaps or fix the problem.

 

What about reliability, and what happens when something goes wrong? Generally speaking shareware and freeware is no different to expensive commercial programs, some of it is actually a lot better. It is mainly produced by individuals and small companies who tend to respond quickly to end-users feedback and comments and where necessary release updates and fixes much faster than the big boys. You are also more likely to get a personal response to an emailed query if a problem does arise.

 

So how come it is free or so cheap? In the case of utilities and add-ons they are often too small or specialised to be worth selling. Many freeware and software developers are genuinely altruistic and simply want to help others. The authors often work from home or for smaller companies that do not have the overheads of the large software houses, moreover they do not go in for advertising and fancy packaging and distribution costs are minimal. Few titles come with printed manuals – instructions are usually included with the program or available on-line – or once a registration or licence fee has been paid.

 

It all sounds too good to be true, what's the catch? There isn't one, as such, but there are a few points to be aware of. The most obvious one is the potential for software that's distributed via the Internet to carry -- either deliberately or by accident -- worms and viruses. Not that software sold on CD-ROMs is immune, but the very nature of shareware distribution means that programs are often available from several different sites, which increases the risk of infection. The chances of catching something nasty are actually quite small but it is important to make sure that your PC has a virus scanner (there are some excellent shareware anti-virus programs…see next week's Boot Camp) and that it is kept up to date. It also makes sense to have an uninstaller program (shareware versions also available) as well, which logs each new installation, so it can be quickly and safely removed if anything goes wrong. You should also make sure your backups are up to date but that goes for any type of software installation.

 

It is important to pay for shareware if you use it. Most authors rely on people's good faith and honesty to stump up, which in turns helps pay for upgrades, technical support and occasionally a printed manual. However, many forget or just don't bother, which is plainly unfair, especially when the sums involved are normally quite small. This has prompted a lot of shareware authors to put limitations on their programs, disabling vital functions or stopping it from working after a trial period -- typically 30-days – or after it has been used a particular number of times. Other programs have 'nag' screens that remind the user to do the decent thing. When the fee has been paid – usually by credit card – the user will be sent an unlock code by email that restores full functionality.

 

If you have never downloaded software from the Internet before you may need to make a few simple preparations (in addition to making sure you have up to date anti-virus and uninstaller programs). The first step is to open Windows Explorer and create a new folder (click New on the File menu), and give it name 'Share' or something similar. When you download a program Windows will ask you if you want to save it to, click OK and use the Explorer window to send it to the Share folder. This effectively quarantines the files, so you can check them with your virus scanner and it makes them easier to find, if you need to get to them at a later date, or transfer them to another machine.

 

Most shareware program files are 'zipped' or compressed, to make them smaller and quicker to send over the Internet. Some are 'self-extracting' and all you have to do is click on the program icon and it will be automatically installed, however the majority have to be 'unzipped' which requires a separate program and the two most useful ones – both shareware – are WinZip and PKZip.

 

If you haven't got one of these programs on your machine it's about time you did – they have many other uses besides – and it's a good introduction to the way shareware works. The best place to download these programs is from their respective home pages: www.winzip.com and www.pkware.com. (WinZip is the smaller of the two and also appears regularly in the Utilities section of free cover mount CD-ROMs on computer magazines. Follow the links to the evaluation version of WinZip 8.0 or pkzw400s.exe respectively. Save your chosen program to your newly created Share folder, click on the icons, follow the instructions and they will install themselves on your PC and you are ready to go.

 

Next week – Shareware and freeware, part 2

 

JARGON FILTER

 

LINUX

A freely distributed operating system that will run on many types of PC, including Windows and Mac machines

 

NAG SCREEN

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

 

WORM

A type of virus, usually hidden inside another program, designed to penetrate a computers operating system. Once activated it is programmed to replicate and attach itself to other programs or emails

 

 

TOP TIP

If you are in the habit of delving around inside your computer you will know that a simple cross-head screwdriver is all you need for around 95% of all desktop PC upgrades, maintenance and repairs. I recommend you get another one, and make it along thin one – 6 to 8 inches at least -- and magnetise it by stroking a magnet along its length, so it can hold screws that have to be inserted into awkward corners, like the sides of disc drive bays. A long magnetised screwdriver is also handy for retrieving screws when they drop into the bottom of the case. Two for the price of one this week and my second suggestion is to get along to your nearest camping/outdoor leisure pursuits shop and buy yourself a 'head torch' that fits onto your head with elastic straps. They are absolutely invaluable for seeing into the many dark corners of a PC case, you'll wonder how you every managed without it.

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