Avoiding those unwanted free applications

Lincoln Spector

Free apps are great, but they often come with an unexpected cost — unwanted additional apps.

Depending on how you handle them, unwanted programs can be a minor annoyance — or a daunting problem. The trick is paying attention.

These days, installing a free program can feel like running a gauntlet. You go to the program’s webpage, click the big, colorful Download button … and end up with an entirely different program. You try again, only to discover you must download some sort of download manager to download the app you want.

Eventually, you install the intended software and heave a sigh of relief. But just as you’re getting back to work, one or more unwanted apps mysteriously appear on your system — those really annoying browser toolbars, for example. You then waste more time removing the unwanted software — and wonder whether that free program was worth the effort.

Like most Windows Secrets contributors, I recommend a lot of free software. Lately, many of those recommendations have warnings attached about installing these freebies. This time around, I’m not recommending anything; I’m discussing the bad that goes with the good — why it happens, what to look for, and how to keep it from becoming more than a minor irritation.

The perils of clicking free-download buttons

Potentially unwanted software comes in many forms, from mainstream applications such as Chrome to annoying browser toolbars to really sketchy software that wants to fix your system. Many people simply refer to unwanted software as malware, but that’s a bit over the top. Yes, it often gets onto your computer in a sneaky manner, and some versions do invade your privacy — noting your surfing and shopping habits for targeted advertising.

But in most cases, unasked-for software does nothing illegal. It’s also reasonably easy to avoid, and it can be uninstalled without resorting to an anti-malware tool. (However, some unwanted software takes more work to remove than simply running an uninstaller.) And occasionally, you discover you actually want the software!

Getting unwanted software typically begins at the download button. Consider, for example, Eraser, an excellent program that securely and completely deletes files. I’ve recommended Eraser in the past and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it again. But take a look at Eraser’s home page. See that big green Download Now button in Figure 1? It doesn’t download Eraser — nor do the other two big green download buttons further down the homepage. To get Eraser, you need to click the small, white-on-black Downloads link near the top. (Those green buttons are actually ads, and they change over time.)

Eraser homepage

Figure 1. That big green Download button can easily trick you into installing an unwanted app.

Sometimes you have to download a downloader before you can download the program. This is now common on CNET’s Download.com — one of the most popular repositories of software on the Web. Many of the programs on the site don’t download directly; the big green Download Now button delivers the CNET Download utility. It, in turn, downloads the software you want — after pitching something else.

Fortunately, CNET Download doesn’t stay on your system after you’ve downloaded the desired software. However, it most definitely tries to download more programs than the one you wanted, as shown in Figure 2.

(Full disclosure: I write a lot for IDG publications that are CNET competitors. However, I’ve written for CNET in the past, and I’m on friendly terms with a number of its editorial staff.)

A potentially unwanted app

Figure 2. You might actually want some add-on applications. But that decision must be clearly yours.

Eraser and Download.com are just two examples. But they’re not by any means out of the ordinary — most free-download sites now do something similar.

Your problems aren’t over after you’ve finally downloaded the right program. The app’s installation wizard might have prechecked offers for software someone wants on your computer. At this point, you need to be especially vigilant because the installation process might add unwanted software by default.

There’s no such thing as a free application

Why do application vendors make us jump hurdles for their free downloads? Just like you and me, software developers typically want to be paid for their time and effort. So they look for other ways to generate revenue for their products. Some apps — free anti-malware, for example — are supported by paid commercial or “professional” versions that can do more. In other cases, advertising is integrated into the user interface. Some products will track your Web surfing, gathering marketable information on your tastes and buying habits.

Or one software vendor will pay another to sneak its product onto your PC. And, surprisingly, it works for both parties. For example, MP3jam (site) is a free, online, music-download service I discussed in the May 2 Digital Entertainment article, “Apps for building and organizing a music library.” I warned in that story that MP3jam “will also install, by default, other programs you probably won’t want.” For example, Figure 3 shows MP3jam’s offer for RealPlayer, an app most Windows users don’t need. According to an MP3jam representative, “The revenue covers only one-third of our development and maintenance costs.” They hope that will change: “As the number of installations rises, so does the revenue.”

RealPlayer install offer

Figure 3. A prechecked offer for RealPlayer was part of MP3jam's installation wizard.

NCH Software’s VideoPad Free app installs unwanted software if you don’t uncheck an option. A company representative stated, “It’s a good way to generate at least some revenue on a free program.” But she also told me about customer confusion brought on by downloaders such as CNET’s. The user might uncheck the option for a toolbar in the program’s own installer but miss the one in the downloader — then get angry at NCH for “ignoring” the user’s choice. (I discussed VideoPad in the March 14 Best Software article, “Edit, spruce up, and share your videos for free.”

OpenCandy (site) manages the revenue and provides the code for adding third-party software offers to installers. When asked how much money a software developer can expect to make from the service, a spokesperson replied: “It varies from developer to developer, but some developers have made enough money to quit their day jobs.”)

The solution: Don’t accept what you don’t want

You might now understand why software vendors add potentially unwanted software to their installers — and you might even sympathize. But for most users, in almost all cases, the offers are simply more unwanted junk added to their PCs. Fortunately, you can install the apps you want without adding the uninvited apps. It just requires some care.

As noted above, it starts at the website. If there’s a big bright Download button, don’t automatically assume it’s for the app you want. In fact, the bigger the button, the more likely it’s trying to con you into downloading unwanted software. Before you click any button, carefully scan the rest of the webpage and look for other download links. Roll your mouse cursor over the button and see whether it behaves more like an ad. And when you click a button, check the file name before clicking Save.

Finally, examine the first page of the downloaded apps installation process to make sure you’re installing the right program.

For sites that require downloading and running some form of download-management app, you have a few options:

  • Obviously, it’s always best if you can download an app from its developer’s site.
  • If it’s a respectable, third-party site such as CNET’s Download.com, it’s usually safe to run the helper app. But read all the download/installation dialog boxes carefully, so you can uncheck every offer for unwanted software.
  • Search the Web for other sites that offer direct downloads of the program. But again, be wary. If you don’t know the site, the download file could be an out-of-date version of the app or contain real malware.
  • Use a sandbox program such as Sandboxie (site) to run the downloader. Then move the downloaded file out of the sandbox and run the installer.
  • Find another program with similar capabilities to download and install.

During the installation process, keep a sharp eye out for any suspicious options. Installation options such as Express, Default, or Typical installation could mask the addition of unasked-for apps. Always select an Advanced or Custom install option, if offered. For example, iLivid’s default installation setting automatically installs other, possibly unwanted, apps — as shown in Figure 4. You must use Custom installation to uncheck the extra apps.

Default vs custom install

Figure 4. By default, iLivid's installer adds possibly unwanted apps automatically.

If an unwanted app gets through and installs itself, it typically won’t be a disaster. A mainstream application such as Chrome will have an uninstaller. Some browser toolbar add-ons can be more difficult to remove, but a quick Web search will in most cases provide a relatively easy solution.

Remember that the PC belongs to you (unless, of course, it’s a company computer). You get to decide what goes onto it. Don’t let some freebie’s installation routine make that decision for you.



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Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.