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Written on January 7, 2001 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

It's no secret; there's plenty of software that you can download for free. Some of it is even useful! The challenge is finding it, determining its usefulness, and ensuring that it's safe and secure to use on you computer.

Here are nine useful and free downloads. All of them run on Windows computer platforms but, unfortunately, not all the software is Mac compatible. Some of the software files are large and may take a long time to download if you are on a dial-up connection.

Adobe Acrobat Reader (

This is an absolute must have for accessing web content that is a PDF file (portable document format). The reader lets you read PDF files, but not create them. Web site managers and develops like to use PDF files because they retain their formatting rather than letting your web browser decide how to display the information. Many newsletters are delivered in PDF format so they look great on the screen, and they print out looking good too. If you've ever downloaded an income tax form, you've accessed a PDF file. Not only can you read PDF files, the current free version of Acrobat Reader lets you fill in and print forms, and access and read eBooks.

To create a PDF file, you must buy one of Adobe's other software packages (this is where Adobe makes their money).

RealPlayer (

Also an absolute must if you access sites that have audio and video content, especially if they are in RealAudio or RealVideo format. The RealPlayer downloads the audio or video clip and begins to play it while the download continues (i.e. you can start listening and looking right away rather than waiting for the entire clip to be downloaded).

Real also makes other free products such as RealJukebox, with everything you need to start recording, organizing, and listening to music stored on your computer. They also have RealDownload that claims to make downloading any file faster and easier.

When you visit Real's site, you must hunt to find the free basic software. Of course, they would rather sell you the enhanced software (at a cost of $29.99 US). Be patient.

McAfee VirusScan ( or Norton AntiVirus (

Both of these products provide excellent protection from computer viruses. They detect and eliminate viruses (even those in e-mail messages and downloaded files) before they can do any damage to your computer. Both sites have excellent information if you suspect that you have a virus.

While not exactly free, they can be downloaded for a 30-day trial. Then you can buy the software ($29.95 US for VirusScan and $39.95 US for AntiVirus) or download it again for another 30-day trial.

ZoneAlarm (

If you're using a high-speed web access (like @Home on cable or Sympatico on DSL), you have a permanent link to the Internet. Whenever your computer is on, you can instantly access the Internet. People on the Internet can instantly access you, too, and unless you're protected, they can access your computer and read your files. To protect yourself, you need a "firewall" to block that kind of traffic. ZoneAlarm will not only protect you, it will notify you of any attempts to break in. You'll be surprised.

Similar products can be obtained from other companies such as:

  • McAfee Firewall, $39.95 US
  • Norton Internet Security (Family Edition), $79.95 US
  • BlackIce Defender, $39.95 US

CoolTick (

This stock ticker can get stock quotes from stock exchanges around the world, including Europe, Asia, Latin America, Canada, Australia and the US. CoolTick is a small executable file that displays information about your favorite stocks. Clicking on any of the scrolling symbols will take you to a detailed quote page for that symbol. It even keeps running when you're not connected to the Internet.

SETI@home (

Are you a Science Fiction addict? You can now help to turn fiction into fact. SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data.

SETI@home activates whenever your computer is idle, much like a screen saver (you can also run it as a background program. The program takes a lot of memory when it is running, so it may make other applications run slowly. Also, you won't see the cool graphics). The program connects to the Internet only when transferring data or processing results (this occurs once every few days and lasts for about 5 minutes).


A play on the phrase "I seek you", ICQ is an instant messaging service. It informs you who's on-line at any time and enables you to contact them at will. With ICQ, you can chat, send messages, files and URL's, play games, or just hang out with your fellow 'Netters' while still surfing the Net.

How does it work? It's simple. When you install ICQ, the program asks you to register at a server connected to a broad network of servers spanning the Internet. At the time of registration, you receive a unique ICQ number, also known as a UIN (Universal Internet Number). In addition, ICQ gives you the option of entering personal information along with your ICQ#. This allows other ICQ users to recognize you when you log on. Once you've registered, you can make a selected list of friends and associates. ICQ uses this list to find your friends for you. Meanwhile, ICQ waits quietly in the background without interrupting any other applications in use. As soon as you log onto the Internet, ICQ automatically detects the Internet connection, announces your presence to the Internet community and alerts you when friends sign on or off.

Napster (

This immensely popular service (at least since all of the legal and copyright challenges from the big music producers have hit the news) allows you to find and share music on-line. Once downloaded and installed, the software will ask you for a location on your computer to place shared music files. You can now search and download music from other user's computers.

There are several caveats to using Napster. The site asks you to respect the copyright of music that you share (i.e. you should not be sharing music you're not legally entitled to share). You could be liable for any copyright infringements. Also, while other users are searching and downloading files from your computer, your Internet connection will be used. If you have something urgent to do, turn Napster off or you will be competing with strangers for bandwidth on your connection.

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