While some of what we talk about here are specific to downloading programs we recommend here on the site, the advice is all very general and applies to any software you might download and install, from any website.
Keep reading for some solid ideas on where to get software recommendations, how to avoid problems even from legitimate downloads, and lots more.
Use Common Sense
We know this is the basic human advice given for almost everything, but it certainly applies here too!
If something doesn’t seem right, trust your gut – it’s probably not right.
In case you haven’t yet learned this lesson elsewhere, the most effective and easiest thing you can do to avoid malware and adware is to avoid downloading any software program or app from an unsolicited link.
In other words, avoid downloading anything that you’ve received a link to via an email, text, or some other personal message.
Use Curated Software Lists
One of the best ways to ensure that you’re choosing legitimate and well-made software is by following recommendations from curated software lists. Ranked and reviewed lists of software programs save you all the complicated vetting you’d otherwise have to do on your own.
Know the Terms: Freeware, Trialware, & More
Have you ever downloaded a program that you thought was free and then, after using it for a while, saw a warning or some other message appear, prompting for payment to continue?
Almost all software developers use these three categories to classify their software:
Freeware: This means that the program is completely free to use as described.
Trialware: This means that the program is free to use for a certain period or time, or for a certain number of uses, and then will need to be paid for. This is also sometimes called shareware or just trial software.
Commercial: This means that the program is not free at all and must be paid for before you can use it. Even most commercial programs these days provide limited-time trial versions before asking for payment, so we see this designation less often.
Be wary of a program that just says it’s “free” as there are plenty of ways to spin that. More about this next.
Choose “Custom Installation” & Decline Additional Software
Last, but certainly not least, please slow down and read the screens you’re presented with as you install the software you just downloaded.
What’s important here are the screens that are part of the installation wizard: the screens with the check boxes, “next” buttons, and all the stuff you agree or disagree on allowing to be installed or tracked.
Unless you enjoy random browser toolbars, your home page being changed automatically, subscriptions to free software that you’ll never use, and stuff like that, then we highly recommend that you carefully read every screen in the install wizard and decline anything that you’re not interested in.
The biggest tip we have here is to choose the Custom Installation method if you’re given the option. This makes the install process a bit longer with the few extra screens it adds, but it’s almost always where the “don’t install this” options are hidden.
One way to avoid all of these installation-based problems is to choose portable software instead of installable software, when available. Many software makers create versions of their programs that run without needing to be installed at all.
Advanced Tips: Check File Integrity & Use an Online Virus Scanner
If you’re more than just a novice computer user, two more things come to mind that should help ease any concerns about what you’re downloading and installing:
Scan the File for Malware Before You Download It
If you’re concerned that a program you want to download may be infected with malware, you don’t even need to download it and scan it yourself, which can be a little risky.
A free service will download the file to their servers, scan it for malware using all of the major antivirus programs, and then report on their findings.
Verify the Downloaded File’s Integrity
If you’re worried that you may have downloaded something other than what you expected, you may be able to check to see that what you have is what you were supposed to get.