Don’t pay for software you don’t need — Part 1

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

If you’ve moved to Windows 7, there’s a raft of software — entire categories of software — that you simply don’t need.

Why pay for it?

Many people write to ask me for recommendations about antivirus software, or utility programs, or Registry cleaners, or backup programs. They cite comparative reviews — even articles that I wrote a few years ago — debating the merits and flaws of various packages. Time and again, I have to tell them that all the information they know is wrong. On second thought, I guess the accumulated knowledge isn’t so much wrong as obsolete.

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The simple fact is, if you moved up to Windows 7, you wouldn’t need a lot of that stuff — and the old reviews are just that. Old reviews.

I’m considered a heretic in some circles because I have extreme views when it comes to installing software on my Win7 machines. Even if I don’t have to pay for it, I don’t want a new program unless it solves a specific problem that bedevils me. And as for paying money for old packages — even good old packages — sorry, but I won’t do it. I recommend that you don’t, either.

In this column, and my next two columns, I’m going to lay it on the line — point out what you don’t need, in my considered opinion — and try to save you a bunch of money. Senior Editor Fred Langa disagrees with several of my recommendations, as do many other knowledgeable people in the industry. Fred and others will present their counterpoints as the series develops, in articles here in the newsletter and in the Lounge. Should be an interesting meeting of the minds.

This week, I’d like to inflict on you my personal biases concerning four different groups of Windows software: antivirus, defraggers, backup programs, and Office productivity software. I look at all four specifically from a Windows 7 point of view. XP’s a whole different kettle of decade-old fish.

Here’s the dirty truth behind four big-time software industries — what you, as a Win7 user, need to know, to save yourself a ton of money and many, many Excedrin-size headaches.

Paying for antivirus doesn’t improve protection

I’ve been recommending free antivirus software since the second edition of Windows XP All-In-One For Dummies, nearly a decade ago. I’ve drawn the wrath of many a player in the billion-dollar AV industry, but I still say there’s absolutely no reason at all to pay for antivirus protection.

Back in XP times, I recommended AVG Free, Avira, ESET’s NOD32, and the like — many of those products were, and still are, free for personal use. That’s changed. Starting with the second edition of Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies, I’ve stopped recommending any third-party antivirus software. Why? Because Microsoft makes a first-rate AV product that’s absolutely free for anyone with a genuine copy of Windows. It’s also free for organizations of 10 or fewer people.

Microsoft Security Essentials (download page) goes in easily, runs quietly, needs no tending, and catches as many infectious programs as any of the big-name antivirus products. And it’s free. Fred Langa has a full description in his May 6, 2010, Top Story, “The 120-day Microsoft security suite test drive.”

I’ve heard all the arguments against Microsoft Security Essentials. Yes, it’s like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. But in this case, MSE’s one fine fox.

MSE doesn’t catch all the nasties, all the time. No AV product does. If you shoot yourself in the foot and wittingly install a rogue anti-malware program, for example, MSE may not keep you from pulling the trigger. In desperate situations, you may need a special-purpose program such as Malwarebytes to cleanse your system. But for everyday use, MSE works as well as any of the big-name, expensive, constantly money-grubbing packages. Get rid of ‘em.

The only downside to installing MSE? You have to figure out how to completely remove the antivirus program you have now. Good luck.

You don’t need to defrag your drives any more

I’ve written hundreds of pages about hard-drive fragmentation. Because of the way Windows stores data on a drive and reclaims the areas left behind when deleting data, your drives can start to look like a patchwork quilt, with data scattered all over the place. Defragmentation reorganizes the data, plucking data off the drive and putting files back together again, ostensibly to speed up hard-drive access.

Although it’s true that horribly fragmented hard drives — many of them hand-crafted by defrag software companies trying to prove their worth — run slower than defragged drives, in practice the differences aren’t that remarkable, particularly if you defrag your hard drives every month or two or six. (Note that you should never defrag a solid-state drive.) In practice, even moderately bad fragmentation doesn’t make a noticeable difference in performance, although running a defrag every now and again helps.

With Windows 7, you don’t need to run a defrag. Ever. Windows runs one for you, by default, one day every week at 1:00 a.m. You can double-check to make sure that your machine’s running defrags automatically: click Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Task Scheduler. On the left (see Figure 1), navigate to Task Scheduler Library, Microsoft, Windows, Defrag, and look for the ScheduledDefrag activity.

Win7's standard scheduled defrag
Figure 1. By default, Windows 7 runs a scheduled defrag once a week at 1:00 a.m.

To see when your hard drives have been defragmented, choose Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter. The Disk Defragmenter dialog box tells you when your drives were defragged and how badly they were fragmented at the last calculation point. From that dialog box, you can manually inspect your drives and run a defrag, if you feel so inclined.

Some companies would have you believe that their defraggers work better than Microsoft’s. I say pshaw. (That’s a technical term.) I’ve never seen any perceptible difference between MS and for-pay defraggers on a real-world Win7 machine, properly configured. Defraggers are just a waste of money.

Drop your old backup program and use Win7’s

I’m going to get howls over this one. In my opinion, if you have Windows 7, you have all the backup horsepower you need.

Windows XP’s built-in backup program didn’t. Didn’t back up, that is. Something of a shortcoming for a backup program, eh? Vista’s worked better, and Win7’s works well.

Windows 7 has full support for four different kinds of backups:
  • Shadow copies, also known as previous versions. Win7 maintains snapshots of your data files, taken every night around midnight. I’m amazed that more Win7 users don’t realize they already have most of the vaunted Mac “Time Machine” features, built into Win7. To see the previous versions of your data files, click Start and then Documents. In Documents, navigate to the file that you’d like to resurrect. Right-click on the filename and choose Restore Previous versions. You see all of the stored shadow copies of that particular document, and it’s easy to restore them.

  • Data backups Setting up data backups is amazingly easy, although there’s a little trick. If you’re running Windows 7 Professional (or Ultimate) and you have a network, you can put your data backups on a network drive. To do so, click Start, Accessories, Getting Started. Click Back up your files, and follow the instructions. If you’re running Win7 Home Premium or you don’t have a network, your best bet is to buy an external hard drive for backups. (Two-TB drives cost about a hundred bucks.) Plug the external drive into a USB port, choose the Use the Drive for Backup option, and follow the instructions.

  • System restore points Just like Windows XP and Vista, Win7 has tools to set up, manage, and use system restore points. See Microsoft’s FAQ for details.

  • “Ghost” system images Windows 7 also makes it easy to make a copy of your entire hard drive, a so-called image backup or ghost. To ghost your hard drive, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, Getting Started, Back up your files. Then in the upper-left corner, click the link to Create a system image.
Win7 makes shadow copies and data backups automatically, following the instructions you give when you first run the backup programs. It’s easy, fast, and built into Windows. Of course, you need to figure out how often to run the backups, how to create full ghost images, and how to find and restore the right backups, but all of the pieces are there — and they don’t cost a penny.

There are some situations in which you might want to pay for backup software. If you have several computers on a network and want to back them all up to one single location, a Windows Home Server or Network Attached Storage box with integrated Windows backup software may be better than backing up each machine individually. Cloud-based backup is good and getting better. But for most people, Windows 7’s backup software does everything they need.

By the way, when Windows 8 starts gathering steam, you’re going to see a lot of marketing puffery about Microsoft’s new “History Vault” — which many people are already comparing to the Mac’s “Time Machine.” When you see the new, whiz-bang demos, remember: Windows 7 already has shadow copies, fully incremental data backups, and all of the glue to get them together. The user interface isn’t particularly snazzy, but all of the pieces are already there.

OpenOffice is not a slam-dunk replacement

Whenever somebody asks me, “Why do you recommend Office when OpenOffice does everything for free?” I have to cringe. It’s true that Microsoft Office is enormously expensive. It’s also true that good, but not great, alternatives exist — including Google Docs, among many others.

There are two substantial problems.

First, as much as I would love to recommend a free replacement for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or Outlook, the simple fact is that the free alternatives aren’t 100-percent compatible. In fact, for anything except the simplest formatting, and most basic features, they aren’t compatible at all. Even Microsoft’s free Office Web Apps don’t come close to the real Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. If your needs are modest, by all means explore the alternatives. But if you have to edit a document that somebody else is going to use, and it has any unusual formatting, you may end up with an unusable mess.

Second, many people don’t realize it, but OpenOffice.org isn’t the same organization it used to be. There’s a long, sordid story involved, but give or take a twist, it goes something like this. Once upon a time, a company called StarDivision built an office program called StarOffice. Sun Microsystems bought StarDivision in August 1999 and, about a year later, released the StarOffice source code, turning it into the open-source product known as OpenOffice.org. Sun continued to support the OpenOffice.org effort by employing many of the developers; Novell, Red Hat, IBM, Google, and other companies also loaned their employees to the effort.

Then Oracle bought out Sun and started to do some not-very-funny things with the OpenOffice.org effort. Oracle tried to sell a variant of OpenOffice.org. Oracle yanked the free ODF plug-in that allows older versions of MS Office to read OpenOffice docs and slapped a horrendous price on it. There was a very nasty falling out, with dozens of key OpenOffice developers very publicly lambasting Oracle and then forming a new organization called LibreOffice. The LibreOffice folks forked the code and have, at this point, released two new minor versions that are not associated with OpenOffice.org or Oracle.

As reported in an April 21 InfoWorld story, Oracle announced that it’s going to hand over the OpenOffice code to “a purely community-based open-source project.” That project hasn’t yet been identified, and it isn’t clear whether LibreOffice will absorb some or all of the code.

For all of those reasons, OpenOffice.org isn’t a real or good alternative to Microsoft Office right now. So if you’re looking for a way to avoid paying for Office, be assured that you aren’t alone in the search. But the situation’s still too murky for me to make any good recommendations yet.

Stay tuned.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — deliver the straight story in a way that won’t put you to sleep.
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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.