What to Look for in a (Free, Open-source) Software Download

There is a huge amount of free software available. But you need to take care.

Downloading, installing and running any software carries a risk, so

  • ensure that you have an anti-virus tool, but don’t rely on it totally (there are always new viruses and other malware not yet in your anti-virus tool’s table of signatures)
  • ensure that you also have anti-spyware
  • beware website clones (look at the URL)
  • remember that a program does not need to be a virus to be harmful; you simply do not know what a program will do when you run it before you run it

in particular

  • just because a program claims to be virus-free, adware-free, spyware-free doesn’t mean it actually is
  • if you’re looking for anti-virus solutions, beware that some malware even poses as anti-virus software; so take special care when choosing anti-virus software
  • beware that “free to download” is not always “free to use”; often a “free download” is trial evaluation software which is feature and/or time-limited; if it’s open-s0urce, that’s a good sign

Sometimes there is a huge variety of packages available

  • compare the features; there may be a list or comparison available on Wikipedia;
    (for example, for text editors, there is this list and this comparison)
  • see if the developer recommends other related packages or projects; that is often a good sign

and gauge whether the website (and products) are

  • well-established
  • well-regarded
  • professional-looking, including grammar and spelling; a website need not look like a commercial website, but poor design and sloppy language on the website give you some indication that there will also be a lack of the care taken with the source code
  • well-linked or referenced from elsewhere

Then ensure that plenty of resources are available in addition to the software itself, such as:

  • documentation (online HTML and offline PDFs)
  • forum or mailing list (or use Stack Overflow)
  • compatibility with commercial offerings’ file formats (read and write)
  • cross-platform availability
  • ease of installation; availability and thoroughness of the uninstaller
  • papers on best practice
  • theoretical papers on algorithms

these characteristics are important for gauging ease of use of the tools, but also the legitimacy of the website.

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