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Dave McGinn's Mr. Miser

Not all freebies will melt your keyboard Add to ...

Some offers are so generous they are suspect. Six pounds of shrimp for $1.49? That shrimp is going to kill you. Been offered a free Caribbean cruise? Chances are it's a scam. This is also probably why freeware, or software that can be downloaded online for free, isn't nearly as popular as it should be.

"There's a lot of people who distrust it," says Dee Hughes, content director of FreewareHome.com, a Nova Scotia-based site that lists thousands of freeware programs. "They think there's no such thing as a free lunch."

While there are plenty of doubters, there's an equally large number of people who have no idea that freeware even exists.

"It really is quite amazing the number of people you can talk to who don't know what freeware is," Ms. Hughes says.

There's a lot of people who distrust it. They think there's no such thing as a free lunch. Dee Hughes, content director of FreewareHome.com

While freeware has been around at least as long as the Internet, it is still almost exclusively used by more hard-core techies despite the fact that it offers free versions of software that can cost anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred. Of course, there's also the fear that freeware will mangle your computer.

"The problem is that there is so much good freeware out there, but there is also so much bad freeware out there," Ms. Hughes says. "It's so easy to use it as a vehicle for spyware, for programs that do harm, and that is what people tend to be worried about."

Still, there is a ton of freeware available online, from accounting and finance programs, word processing and office programs, from games to graphics to antivirus software, text editors, media players and web browsers to a host of programming software. Indeed, pick any category - business, games, education, graphics, system utilities, and so on - and there is solid freeware to be had gratis at the click of a button, whether you're using a PC or a Mac.

"You name it, it's out there as freeware," Ms. Hughes says.

As of last week, FreewareHome.com listed 5,870 programs available for free download.

There are, of course, plenty of other sites where freeware is available. Some of the best include Download.com, ZDNet.com, NoNags.com and OpenOffice.org. Many of these sites will inspect freeware programs for safety before making them available for download so there's no need to worry that hitting "download" will cause smoke to rise from your keyboard.

When in doubt, however, bad freeware can be avoided with a little common sense.

"If it looks too good to be true, it is," Ms. Hughes says. She also recommends staying away from anything to do with DVDs, music, registry cleaning or peer-to-peer. Those are the kinds of free programs most likely to corrupt your computer. If you really want one of these programs, however, check out what's being said about it on forums. More often than not, the bad ones will be called out there.

One of the great things about freeware is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of programs that, while you might never actually want them enough to pay for, are fun to download and play around with. Take Edgeless, for example, an application that causes the mouse pointer to wrap around your computer screen rather than stop at the borders, or PhoneMe Easy, which converts a phone number into a meaningful word. There's so many programs like these that you can get lost for hours toying with them.

There's much more practical freeware out there, however, especially if you're a parent or a business owner.

For those running a company, Ms. Hughes recommends OpenOffice.org , a piece of free, open-source software that's just as good as anything you might pay for.

"It's huge, and it does rival Microsoft Office," Ms. Hughes says. "It's an incredible program."

Nor is it the only one of its kind.

"The open source for offices and businesses is huge, and it can save you a ton of money," she says. Indeed, Ms. Hughes says open-source office programs can potentially save companies "millions."

For parents, there are plenty of freeware programs to entertain kids and even teach them a thing or two about math, reading and other subjects. "There is a ton of educational programming out there," Ms. Hughes says.

People may often find themselves wanting software but reluctant to pay money for it, even if the cost is just $30 or $40. Ms. Hughes says anyone in that situation should go online and dig up a freeware version.

"If you look hard enough, you'll find it."

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