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Free Software! – Part 1 of 2
By Ira Wilsker 

            Computers and internet access can be very expensive.  Commercial software for our computers can also be very expensive, but fortunately there are alternatives that can save us a lot of money.  There are thousands of free software products available, many of which are qualitatively competitive with their expensive commercial counterparts.  In this column I will look at but a few of the high quality free software programs available, several of which I personally use.

            Our online security and safety must be a paramount concern.  While there are many fine commercial security utilities available, there are also several excellent and free utilities that we can use to secure our computers.  We all need security software on our computers, and the free alternatives to commercial software may do a very adequate job in protecting us.  At a minimum, we all need antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewall software to provide the protection we need.  The most popular free antivirus program is AVG AntiVirus Free Edition, with over 50 million registered users. AVG AntiVirus, and its companion free products, AVG AntiSpyware Free Edition, and AVG Anti-Rootkit Free, are available for download at free.grisoft.com.

        Another enormously popular free antivirus program is avast! 4 Home Edition, from alwil Software, (EDITOR: the “a” in avast! and alwil are lower case) available for download from www.avast.com/eng/avast_4_home.html. This avast! software has proven itself, and has an excellent reputation, as it has won several awards and recognitions, including the VirusBulletin 100 Award (detected 100% of viruses when tested in August), WestCoast Labs Checkmark award for quality, and is ICSA Labs certified for antivirus protection.

            Some people prefer integrated internet security suites; commercial internet security suites often sell for premium prices.  At least one company, Comodo (www.comodo.com), a well known publisher of commercial and corporate security products, offers a family of free integrated personal computer security products, including an antivirus, firewall, anti-malware (anti-spyware), website authentication (anti-phishing, internet fraud, and  identity theft protection), and anti-spam utilities.  For those who want an integrated suite, or just individual components, Comodo offers users that excellent option.

            Spyware has become a greater threat to our computing safety and security than computer viruses.  Two free standing products can provide substantial protection against spyware and many other forms of malware; these two products are Spybot Search & Destroy, and Microsoft’s Windows Defender.  Personally, I have been using Spybot for many years, and can recommend it.  Spybot, now in version 1.5, offers frequent updates, excellent detection and removal of spyware, and some real time protection using its “Immunize” function.  Spybot (www.safer-networking.org) also offer a series of performance enhancement tools including an excellent startup manager when in its “advanced” mode.  To no one’s surprise, Microsoft has been sliding into the personal computer security business by offering a commercial security product, and a full featured freeware anti-spyware product, Windows Defender.  This product offers real time protection as well as detection and removal of almost all known spyware threats, and offers frequent updates.  It would be a generally good practice not to run two or more anti-spyware products at the same time.  It should be noted that there are some documented software conflicts with both of these products and some of the commercial internet security suites; at least one major commercial suite detects and uninstalls Windows Defender to minimize conflicts.  The Spybot “Immunize” function has been shown to degrade the performance of at least one commercial security suite, and should be turned off if performance appears to slow.

            The function of a firewall is to restrict illicit online access to the computer from outside sources, and to prevent programs installed on the computer from sending data from the computer to the internet, without the express approval of the user.  A firewall is a very necessary item to have installed and running, especially if on a broadband connection.  There are several free firewalls available, such as the Comodo firewall mentioned above, but there is one free firewall that dwarfs all others in popularity.  CheckPoint’s Zone Alarm Free Edition is by far the most widely used free firewall in the world.  As an example of its popularity, the site Download.com currently shows that over 43 million copies of the free version of the Zone Alarm firewall have been downloaded.  For those who do not have a firewall but need one (it is a necessity!), the Zone Alarm Free Firewall would be a solid choice.

            With use, our computers lose much of the performance they had when new.  A company, IOBIT, offers several free (and several commercial) products for download at www.iobit.com.  Two of their very popular products are IOBIT’s “Advanced Windows Care Personal Edition”, and “SmartDefrag”.  With over 6 million copies downloaded, Advanced Windows Care Personal Edition is a utility that offers an excellent registry cleaner, and a one-click feature that can detect common computer software problems and repair them.  A companion free product, SmartDefrag, can reorganize and optimize the data on a hard drive which will improve the read and write speed and performance of the hard drive.  Together, these products can provide significant performance improvements of the PC.

            Sometimes we may want to save a document or website such that we, or anyone else, can see exactly what we see.  The universally accessible and popular format “PDF” (portable document format) was originally created by Adobe, which publishes an excellent, but expensive PDF writing utility (PDF readers from Adobe and others are usually free).  I save a lot of web pages and other documents and use a free alternative PDF writer, CutePDF Writer (Freeware).  Available for download from www.cutepdf.com, CutePDF  Writer (Freeware) was rated as one of the 50 best freeware downloads by Computer Shopper magazine.  Many users who download CutePDF Writer (Freeware) will also need to download the free GPLGS converter from the CutePDF website.  Converting a document to PDF format is a fast and simple process.  CutePDF Writer is actually installed as a printer driver, and by simply selecting “print” from the menu, CutePDF is selected as the printer.  Rather than printing to paper, CutePDF simply saves the PDF file that it creates to the hard drive or other storage media.  It is really that quick and simple.  I use CutePDF several times a day, mostly to save web pages that appear unchanged when viewed in a PDF reader.

            Almost everyone could sometimes use a good word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program.  Microsoft Office, and Corel Office Suite X3, are expensive, but offer a full featured office suite.  For those who want a freeware alternative, OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) is a full featured, free, and powerful office suite that can read and write Microsoft Office files, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  The OpenOffice suite, which has over a hundred million users worldwide, consists of a full featured word processor, spreadsheet, database program, multimedia presentation program, formula writer, and an integrated drawing and graphic arts program (competitive to Microsoft Publisher).  OpenOffice also includes an integral  PDF writer to create PDF files from any of its components by simply printing to PDF.  OpenOffice has been adopted by major universities, government agencies, public school systems, private businesses and corporations, and countless individuals as their primary office suite.  OpenOffice is free for both personal and corporate use, and offers an excellent alternative to the expensive commercial office suites.

There is a lot of free software available, and much of it is of a quality competitive with its expensive commercial competitors.  If you find free software with legitimate good ratings, then you are generally safe to download it and try it.  If you like it, that is great.  If you do not like it, then uninstall it, and other than a few minutes of time you have lost nothing.  Quality free software should be strongly considered by everyone.  This is one case where the old cliché “You get what you pay for” does not apply.

http://free.grisoft.com   - AVG Free Products
http://www.comodo.com  – Comodo Free products
http://www.safer-networking.org  - Spybot

http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software  - Windows Defender


Ira Wilsker is the Director of the Management Development Program at Lamar Institute of Technology, in Beaumont, TX. He also host a twice weekly radio talk show on computer topics on KLVI, and writes a weekly technology column for the Examiner newspaper. Ira is also a police officer who specializes on cybercrime, and has lectured internationally in computer crime and security. Ira is a graduate of the Jefferson County (TX) Sheriff's Academy, and has an MBA from the University of Maryland.


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