/ Technology

Freeware vs expensive software – what gets your click?

Free sign

Do you get a warm feeling of satisfaction when you download some free software that saves you buying a mainstream, and costly, alternative? I do! But can freeware compete with the paid-for software out there?

I’ve done without Microsoft Office at home for a number of years, preferring instead to use OpenOffice and its new offshoot LibreOffice. For the basic spreadsheets and word documents I create at home, they have done the job perfectly well.

Very recently, I also ditched Adobe Photoshop Elements in favour of Pixlr for my photo editing. I don’t usually do anything more complicated than altering brightness and resizing photos, and Pixlr isn’t only speed at doing these simple things, it has plenty of editing power in reserve should I want to do something more complicated.

Around £150 will buy the latest Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop Elements packages together – yet I have spent precisely £0 on my spreadsheet and photo editing needs.

So why isn’t everyone choosing freeware? I think there are a few reasons.

The case for paid-for software

Awareness of what freeware is out there is certainly at the heart of it – companies like Microsoft and Adobe promote their software very well, unsurprising given their huge budgets. This means that free software tends to be a bit harder to find, though you can of course track them down through our latest reviews.

Trust is also an issue – it’s comfortable to stick with well-known, well-trusted and often “well-expensive” software, especially when looking at areas such as anti-virus programs. But this is not to say that freeware can’t do the job or is unsafe. We’re big advocates of free anti-virus programs like AVG and Avast!, for example.

Unsurprisingly, commercial software tends to have more features. So if I really want (and I mean really) to go to town with the creative effects on my pictures, I may have to choose Adobe Photoshop. And if I want to open up one of my colleague’s complicated Excel spreadsheets, free office software might leave me a little bit stuck. So, at work, I stick with Excel (fortunately I don’t have to pay for that one).

Free software does the job

At home though, I reckon that 95% of the time, free software will be perfectly sufficient.

Our research into free office, photo-editing, video-editing and security software has found that there are some credible and safe alternatives to expensive software out there, saving you from shelling out for something you can basically get for free.

And when you can make such huge savings (often in the region of hundreds of pounds) it is definitely worth a little further investigation to see whether you do really need to splash the cash.

Are you happy with the free software you’ve tried, or do you prefer to avoid freeware and get out your wallet instead?


I was a bit disappointed in the article as well. Haven’t you heard of free audio, video and graphics packages – Audacity is very capable and has all the bells and whistles you probably want and GIMP for dealing with photos. Video is a bit more involved but Lightworks is pretty damned good. With LibreOffice what more do you need? Both Gimp and Lightworks take a bit ofg application but are very prowerful.

m greening says:
26 September 2011

Having upgraded to Apple I found some people couldn’t open my documents, despite having Word for Mac installed.
Solution; Open Office, free, easy to use and everyone seems able to open it!

I have never had any problem with people being unable to open documents created in Word for Mac, though it is necessary to save files in .doc format rather than .docx if the recipient has an older version of Word. That’s exactly the same for files produced in PC versions of Word. The real advantage of Open Office is that it’s free.

Unless the recipient needs to alter a Word document it is better to send it in pdf format and if you have an Apple computer you can produce pdf files from any application.

Common applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, photo editing, email are all fine and easily available under Linux. Nearly all PC users will need these at some point to the market and the scope for developers is huge.

The problems start with hardware.

Windows is the industry standard and any new hardware has Windows drivers – unless of course it is specific to Apple (more of this later).

If the hardware is popular enough to have a large global user base (wireless network cards, graphics cards etc.) then some time later Linux drivers will probably appear.

However niche hardware will usually only be supported under Windows (or Mac), and if you rely on this hardware then you will need a Windows OS (or Mac).

In my particular case I am a diabetic and need to test my blood with a meter.
My meter comes with a USB cable and some Windows software so I can track my readings on my computer and keep a diary to help manage my condition.
So I have a requirement for Windows.
I could of course enter all the results manually in a spreadsheet but why struggle?

I also use Microsoft Autoroute with a GPS sensor; at the moment I haven’t found the equivalent Linux application although I haven’t looked hard in the last few years.

I have a TomTom satnav.
The software to update it is Windows based.

So I am tied into Windows because suppliers of specialist hardware are tied into Windows because it is the market leader.
Manufacturers have to decide how much they are going to invest in software development to support their niche hardware, and on which OS.
Priorities are (1) Windows, (2) Mac, (3) Linux if you have serious geekness in your firm.
Market forces, unfortunately, rule.

The exception which proves the rule.
I am helping a photographer set up an old professional SCSI scanner which is still very functional but also very cheap because it is so old.
The software is only written for Macs.
The photographer has a Windows PC and the cost of a new Mac far outweighs any saving through buying this old scanner.
However Linux has a generic driver for scanners which can be mapped to support this one amongst many others. Score one for FOSS.
Then again a scanner is a very common piece of kit and so a generic driver makes sense.

So yes – I would use Linux and other free software if I could (well, I do because I have dual boot on my Windows systems) but I find myself working mainly under Windows because of the support for specialist hardware.

Oh, and to perhaps ease a little of the shine off the Linux glow: you still need to restart Linux if you update the kernel, which happens quite often; you will run out of space eventually unless (at least under Ubuntu) you remember to completely remove old kernels every now and then. Been there, done that…..although I am still appalled that I cannot run Windows XP SP3 on a 4Gb hard drive without eventually running out of space due to Windows Update.

Windows 2K where are you now?



The moral of the story is about an elephant. The elephant in the room is ‘freedom’, this about liberty, with strong social implications. At first sight the issues may look like ones relating to how much is being paid, or not paid, in money. What drives the libre (free) software movement is liberty versus exploitation, freedom versus enslavement. Open knowledge and trust versus secrecy and a dis-abling of end users. Libre software can cost money. Proprietary software can be gifted free of cost. Frequently, the price of freedom is effort, perhaps inconvenience, and sometimes even a monetary price. I buy only Fair Trade tea. I do this for decided reasons. I do not buy it because I think it tastes best, but I do sleep better at night. Market forces, or should I say market power, can be a false friend, to be discovered too late when true friends have been stifled or destroyed.
‘Which’ is not a social nor a political commentary platform, but a narrow view leaves its subscribers in ignorance and almost certainly locked into vendors’ ‘market forces’ of secrecy in proprietary software. A broader view would lead to a choice of system, even if at present this is unusual for most PC users.
‘Choice’ – quite a good objective for a publication such as Which, eh?

Back4more says:
25 October 2011

I have been trapped for years by the lazy tendency to use the same old applications as I used at work – why bother trying to understand anything else? Then I recently used a loan machine while a failed hard drive in a new Acer netbook was being repaired and I was amazed how easily I got on with the pre-installed Open Office. I’ll never buy another Office licence. I’m also encouraged to look at some of the free options mentioned by other correspondents, especially GIMP. Just a point re the retailers – Novatech sell their PC’s with or without MS Windows and they are British to boot. I imagine there are probably others who do the same.