One of the most common questions I field from friends and family has to do with whether or not buying software makes sense. After all, for every paid program or operating system out there, dozens of “free” alternatives exist. Why by the cow when you can get free milk somewhere else, right? Surprisingly I don’t keep a running wiki in my head of every program ever written, so it’s not always as simple as yes or no.
While free software can be tempting, and in many cases is actually better than what you’d pay for, there are some important things you need to keep in mind.
When you buy software, whether it’s an operating system, a utility, an office suite, or a game, there’s a certain level of support that comes with it. If you have trouble with the software, you’ll usually have one or more ways of contacting the company. It could be through email, via online chat, over the phone, or all of the above.
That can be comforting to users who either don’t have a lot of experience with their software, or are relying on it for a critical task. Software companies have a financial interest in making customers happy; if you don’t like the software, or don’t get the level of support you’re expecting, you won’t come back. Of course the quality of the support you get is going to depend on the company, and that’s the free market at work. Some of the largest software companies out there (let’s not name names) have dropped the ball on support, and they’ve paid the price in lost revenues.
When you download software for free, support becomes trickier. The developer may or may not offer support. If they do, the level of support will vary widely depending on things like staffing (if there is a staff), funding (if there are funds), and sometimes just how interested the developer is in solving your particular problem.
Your options for support will likely be fewer, and it will probably take longer to get a response.
Free software often means support comes from other users and the online community. You may be limited to an online support forum, or whatever your mad Googling skills can come up with. You’ll have this option for paid software as well, but if you downloaded something for free this may be your only option.
Community support can be a great thing. The Linux community is a shining example of this type of support when it works well. Regardless of the flavor of Linux you use, there’s a world of other users out there just itching to solve a problem. More often than not, your problem has already been encountered, and fixed, but others, and a solution is just a few clicks away.
But community support can be wildly inconsistent. Online forums are notorious for “noob shaming.” That’s when a new user joins a forum and asks for help, but instead gets mocked or trolled simply for not already knowing the answer. It’s a bit of the wild west, and with the anonymity of the internet protecting them, some people can get a little…well, unhelpful.
Is it really free?
It’s easy to download a “free” app only to find most or all of the features are disabled until you pay for the full version. I’ve been tricked by this myself in the past; some “free” utilities will take you all the way up to the point of actually doing what you need to do, then pop a screen with a message along the lines of “sorry, but you need the full, paid version to do that.”
The concept of shareware…software you try before you buy…has been around since the early days, and it’s a useful way to test out applications, but these days the line between actual freeware and shareware can bet blurry.
Downloading software can be a risky business. It isn’t always easy to tell whether an application is legitimate or malware, bloatware, or any of a number of other “wares” that will make you regret ever going online. This can happen with any software, but it’s much more common with free software. When you Google what you’re looking for, it’s a good bet some of the free options aren’t really going to help you. It’s a good rule of thumb to research what you’re planning to try before you download it.
Also, be aware of any and all pop ups on your computer. If a window pops up telling you
your computer is infected and you need to install their scanner, or that your registry is
corrupt and their tool can fix it, be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Bottom line; if you aren’t sure, don’t do it.
Patches and updates
Paying for your software means you can expect regular updates to it to resolve security issues, compatibility issues, bugs, etc. Free software gets these too, but sometimes the updates and fixes are more sporadic. Or, sometimes the updates don’t come from the original developer, so you’re using at your own risk. The world of open source (i.e. free to use) software is getting better and better, though, so the odds are improving for your free alternative.Performance
Performance is a mixed bag whether you pay or not. So many paid applications have suffered from poor programming, it’s hard to say you’re going to have an advantage over the free options.
Companies like Microsoft spend a huge chunk of time testing and re-testing their products to make sure they’re compatible with as many systems as possible. It’s not possible to test every configuration, but the more testing the better. Free software doesn’t benefit nearly as much from this. Many free options are made by a lone developer, or a handful of people, and they just don’t have the time or manpower to devote to it. Using a free application can run the risk of not working, or in some cases even causing problems. True, even the big, expensive programs can do this too, but in those cases at least you can contact the company for support.
If you’re downloading a utility to do a specific thing, you may not think about how many other people are using the same tool. But if you’re using, let’s say, an office suite, you’re going to want something that is either what everyone else is using, or is at least fully compatible with the big guys. Microsoft Office is a great example of this. It’s the standard office suite for the majority of companies running on Windows. There are free office suites you can use, like Apache OpenOffice. OpenOffice doesn’t have anywhere near the user base of Microsoft Office, so they include compatibility with Office by default; you can easily open Office files and save OpenOffice files in the Microsoft formats.
A few examples
- If you’re looking for an operating system and you’re thinking about Microsoft Windows, you might consider: Linux Mint
Windows is the most widely used desktop operating system in the world. Microsoft has spent years making it user friendly, compatible, and functional. It’s hard to beat it. But if you’re looking for a free alternative, try Linux Mint. It has a familiar look and feel, and has been developed to make installation, maintenance, software installation, and even patching as user-friendly as possible. There are countless other Linux flavors out there, but Mint has been my favorite for years.
One caveat: understand your needs. If you need to run Windows applications, you don’t want to hamstring yourself by not using Windows. While it IS possible to run Windows applications in Linux (using Wine, etc.) it’s not the most ideal solution.
- If you’re looking for an office suite and you’re thinking about Microsoft Office, you might consider: Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice
Here again, Microsoft is king of the hill. But free options like OpenOffice and LibreOffice have made huge strides lately in stability, compatibility, and functionality. I’m typing in OpenOffice right now. I can open Microsoft Office documents and save in their format as well. It’s a well put-together package, definitely worth a look.
- If you’re looking for an anti-virus and/or malware scanner and you’re thinking about Mcafee or Norton Security, you might consider: Avast, Spybot Search & Destroy
I haven’t paid for anti-virus/malware software for years, and I’m pretty comfortable with that decision. In many cases I find the free alternatives to be easier to use, less taxing on your system, more thorough at cleaning, and more frequently updated.
So IS paid software better? Well, sometimes. It can often be the safer solution, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a free option that is worth a look. In many cases the free option may even be preferable, as it gives you all the features and functionality you need, with none of the cost.
The important thing to remember when deciding between paid and free software is this: knowledge is power. The more knowledge you have, the happier you’ll be with your choice. Know what you want, do some research, and don’t pick blindly. Because in the end, cost is only one factor in picking the right software.