How To Download Files Safely

Downloadable files add extra features to your computer, but they could also pose a threat. Here's what you should know before you click Download.

Not only can those of us who own a computer get information off the internet whenever we want, but we can also download tons of software to make our computers more productive, easier to use, and a lot more fun.

Instead of having to sort through catalogs or visit far-flung computer stores with high prices, we can now go online for the solution to most of our software needs. From utilities to web browsers, to games to icons and sounds, just about anything you might want for your computer can be found on the internet.

The different types of downloadable programs

However, not all software is the same. Before you download a program, you should know what you're getting:

Freeware, as its name implies, doesn't cost you a cent. There are a lot of great freeware programs out there, but most of them are small, add-on programs, plug-ins, and the like. If you want more powerful software you will have to shell out some money.

Shareware is software that has a "try before you buy" policy. Usually created by independent programmers, shareware is either fully functional once you download it, fully functional for a limited time, or partly functional. In all cases, if you like the software, the creator asks you to register and pay a nominal fee (often just $10 or $15) or delete it.

Paying the fee not only rewards people for their labor and encourages them to keep developing great software, but it may also unlock certain features of the software or eliminate annoying registration reminders. The registration can usually be done online if you pay with a credit card. The software will be unlocked automatically or you will be sent a password via e-mail.

Demos are demonstration versions of larger, more complex programs. They're often fully functional, but only contain a fraction of the whole program. Demos are often used to give you a taste of a serious game, application, or utility program that will motivate you to go out and buy the full version. The line between a demo and shareware is fuzzy (and unimportant) sometimes, but the cost for the full version of a demo will be much higher than the typical shareware fee and you may not be able to download the full version.

Unless you have a high-speed internet connection, you're better off buying the CD-ROM than waiting for hours to download and having your connection give out after getting only half of a 20 MB program.

Other types of downloadable files

Besides trying and buying new software, the internet is the best (and sometimes the only) way to get the little pieces of software that make your computer work better: patches, drivers, and plug-Ins.

Patches or updates are files that fix bugs or add certain functions to software and your operating system.

Drivers are files that allow your computer to operate additional hardware, such as printers, sound and video cards, and external drives.

Plug-ins are files that work seamlessly with an application to improve its functionality. Most of us are familiar with browser plug-ins such as QuickTime and Java.

Tools for downloading files

Before you go download crazy, however, you must have the right tools. The majority of files available for downloading are compressed and encoded in some manner. Compression reduces the file by "squishing" more data into less space, which reduces download time significantly. The type of compression can be identified by the file's suffix.

StuffIt (.sit) and Zip (.zip) are the most common. Encoded files can also have a suffix such as BinHex (.hqx), Mac Binary (.bin) and uuencoded (.uue).

Lucky for you, many of the programs you download are saved as a Self-Extracting Archive (.sea), which means the file is compressed, but it decompresses itself with a simple double-click. If you download a program that's not a .sea file, you'll need a program that can decompress your files before you can use them. There are several great programs, such as Aladdin Systems' Stuffit Expander and Winzip, available on the internet.

  • StuffIt Expander exists as freeware so you can download it for free and decode just about anything. 
  • Winzip is another option and is probably the most popular compression utility for Windows users.

Use antivirus software to scan your downloaded files

Because programs spread viruses, you should also use an antivirus program, such as Norton Antivirus, to check all of your downloaded software before installing it on your hard drive.

Popular file download sites

Now that you've got the right tools and have an inkling of what's available, it's time to hit the 'net. Some of the most popular and trustworthy download sites include:

All of these sites are well organized, have links with good connections, and are safe. You don't need a secure site, but you should be suspicious of any site that requests personal information before allowing you to download free software.

It's a good idea to start downloading smaller files first to get used to decoding and dealing with the inevitable broken connections. Some programs are supposed to pick up the download where it left off when your connection breaks. Oftentimes, however, you will have to start over at the beginning.

As data rates increase with cable modems and the like, it's probable that a majority of software will be transmitted over the internet rather than sold on disks or CD-ROMs, so you'd be wise to become an expert now. By getting your practice in on files that are just a few hundred kilobytes, you'll be able to deal with issues that arise with multi-megabyte downloads in the not-too-distant future.