/ 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?


Depends on the cost of the mainstream product, I use MS Office at home as I got a good deal from xxxxx ( no shameless plugging from me) for £59 – Home and Student version. I’d love to also use Adode Dreamweaver but the several grand price tag is a huge negative (pity they don’t do a home version ). So it just depends

Unless things have changed, Dreamweaver and other Adobe products are available to charities at the educational price, which is much lower than the full price. Many people run websites, use DTP and design publicity material for charities and this makes it affordable to use professional software at home, especially if you don’t update the software every time a new version appears.

The charity price of Dreamweaver is £159 from the supplier I have used. That’s quite a lot more than I paid (I’m still using Dreamweaver 8 ) but well below the retail price.

May I point out out that many software products are not meant to be free at all – but you are supposed to contribute for their use if you use them extensively.- Most people never read the small print.

All software I use constantly I contribute to their suppliers to help pay for their further development.

I use Paint Shop Pro and Wordperfect. both products I find much superior to either Microsoft or other producers. The “free” or shareware products I find lacking in facilities.

I use Mozilla – but contribute to Firefox and Thunderbird. .

Note also that not all “free” stuff is free.
Many packages that purport to be free, actually want you to sign up/register and then you have to fill in a load of personal details so they can target you for marketing or sell your details on for that purpose.
Whether you wish to pay that price is up to you and how useful the software will be to you.
I too try to contribute if I can and do pay at times with a contribution

Good point Richard but this Conversation is about expensive software and freeware. Freeware should be free. If the developers want a contribution they should describe it as shareware or make a trial version available. I’m happy to pay for what I find useful but life is too short to read all small print relating to software.


I use “expensive” software generally because I find it better – My first version of WordPerfect cost £400 – It and it’s upgrades are far better than any other product.

There are ways to get “free” software too

I have an old computer and I admit that I do have pirated software running on it. However, these are all older versions of the products that are compatible with my PC, any newer versions trash my PC and I need to rebuild. I have been upgrading that PC for years yet the time is close for a new one.

Once I upgrade (to what I am currently unsure) I will buy out of the box software and I will not use freeware. Seeing as I only use my PC for music production, I may end up getting a MAC and so I’ll have to religiously pay for everything anyway.

Freeware not only saves consumers money. It provides a means by which developers can move on to create a career for themselves. We should encourage this opportunity for entrepreneurism.

fat sam says:
17 August 2011

As I understand with freeware is that any contribution is entirely up to you. If the small print says you have to pay the onus is on the developer to build in to the product something that forces you to pay (i.e. a limited trial). I can’t imagine any developer putting in the small print that you must pay for the service and then release software without any restrictions. Normally, the only restrictions are that it must be for personal use only.

Freeware I use: Avira for a/v, Firefox, Malwarebytes, Winzip, NitroPDF, GOM Player. So far, no problems in using them. Did have Superantispyware but it slowed my laptop down (I’m on Vista, what do you expect…) so uninstalled it.

For Office, my employers installed Office 2003 on my laptop. Then they gave me a laptop with Office 2007. 2003 looks rather dated by comparison. I will consider buying Office 2007 but can someone explain why we pay more for it in the UK?

We should be grateful to everyone who has been involved in developing Web browsers for us to use free of charge. In the early days there were some paid-for offerings but thanks to the enthusiasm of Web developers free browsers remain available.

My employer provides me with Microsoft Office 2011 but when I retire I will probably move to OpenOffice, which is free. I’ve never paid Microsoft a penny (of my own money) and I’m not going to start now.

Alexander Hanff says:
17 August 2011

I have been discussing this at length with Which on Twitter and was asked if I wouldn’t mind commenting here so I will try to summarise why I choose Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) over Proprietary Software whenever it is possible.

First a little background. I have worked in technology for nearly 20 years and for the past 4 years I have focused on the impact of technology on society more specifically, how technology impacts fundamental rights such as privacy, in fact I work for Privacy International and head up most of their work on Digital Privacy.

To me FOSS is not about the cost, I regularly make financial contributions to FOSS projects, so I will explain why I choose FOSS.

One of the biggest factors is trust. I have read far too many stories about Big Corps getting it wrong. Big Corp software has only 1 motive, to make money, and increasingly they are trying to do this in underhand ways. There are countless stories of big brands incorporating bad ethics into their products, such as installing 3rd party adware, malware etc. or “phoning home” with information about their users, even tracking their users activities online. The problem with closed source solutions is the code is not audited, people cannot inspect the code to make sure that:

a: It is secure
b: It is not doing anything unethical behind the scenes
c: It is efficient

Too many people trust big brands blindly without ever reading Terms and Conditions, Privacy Policies and other forms of contract which either restrict your use or restrict your rights.

Which said to me “Can see that being the case with web browsers, but not so much with say Office or photo editing?” and my answer is simple, go and read the Terms and Conditions for Microsoft Office or Adobe’s Photoshop – you might be surprised at what you find.

Using technology should be about empowerment, not restriction; it should make our lives easier and more productive, it should enrich and enlighten us.

I would say that over 90% of the software I use is FOSS and whenever I am looking for a new piece of software for a specific task, I always look for a FOSS solution first.

I disagree that FOSS is less feature rich, in many cases I find it has similar or even more features than proprietary alternatives. For example, I prefer to the The Gimp for image manipulation over Photoshop – the two are almost identical with regards to features and even usability but The Gimp is developed by a massive number of contributors and resources for learning how to use it are vast, with video tutorials and countless blogs or How Tos all available for free online. The Gimp is also impressively extendible with addons, plugins and scripts to address specific requirements. This works well because anyone can contribute to the project, whereas to build similar technologies for Photoshop, developers are restricted by what Adobe “allows” them to do.

I also do a lot of vector graphic layups for various projects and for that I use InkScape instead of Adobe Illustrator for exactly the same reasons listed above.

FOSS also represents innovation and is less restricted by “intellectual property” or “patent portfolios” which are primary assets for big corps but also create huge restrictions from an innovation perspective. FOSS solutions are certainly Intellectual Property but the licensing is usally pretty unrestrictive so long as the original developers are credited/acknowledged for their works. In fact in many cases licensing for FOSS products even allows other people or organisations to profit so long as certain terms are met.

Furthermore, most FOSS licenses add a layer of protection if a particular project gets bought by a Big Corp so that people can still either continue to use the software or do what is known as “fork” the project, which basically means branching off the development tree from the last point before the project was acquired.

This is not the place to give a full explanation of FOSS licensing and above is only a very limited paraphrase of how it works, but it is sufficient to illustrate the social benefits of FOSS licensing. I will add though (contrary to a couple of the comments by other readers) that for individuals many FOSS solutions are free (free as in beer and free as in liberty) and whereas donations to support a project are much appreciated more often than not it is not required unless the software is being used for commercial gain – at which point it is only right that the developers should get some remuneration.

FOSS is about collaboration, it is about socialism, it is about innovation and empowerment. It is a very conscious and vibrant community consisting of literally millions of people around the world all bringing together their collective ideas to achieve a specific goal. To remove the vice-like grip that big corporations try to preserve for the benefit of a few shareholders and to bring solutions that everyone can afford (in most cases).

FOSS is not a niche sector by any stretch of the imagination, many of your broadband routers are running FOSS, many of your Digital TV boxes are using FOSS, most of the web sites you visit every day are running on FOSS platforms and much of the Email you read is transported and processed by FOSS solutions – it is everywhere.

My advice to everyone as a privacy advocate, technologist and socialist would be to always try and find a FOSS solution to meet your technical requirements first, then if that fails look at proprietary solutions. Don’t trust Big Corps with blind naivity, because more often than not they do not have your interests at heart and increasingly we are seeing a lot of underhand practices being used in an attempt to monetise users beyond just purchasing the product.

FOSS is not about getting something for free, FOSS is about Trust, Collaboration and Empowerment – so often the press and media fail to understand this, hopefully in the future that will change.

Alexander Hanff

Thank you Alexander. Yes, FOSS is about Community. It is remarkable that it has survived – and prospered – over more than 20 years – in such hostile territory.

Though the community friendly aspects make it a compelling choice for many, large orgs and governments are requiring, or begging, for its greater use, for the related reasons of flexibility, economy, and security. UK Government, with a more strongly updated strategy than in previous years –


This includes:
“……impose compulsory open standards….”
“….The adoption of compulsory open standards will help government to avoid lengthy vendor lock-in…..”

There are many reasons why so many users stick to well known software. Most organisations provide employees with standard software and many make it impossible for the user to install any other software. Home users often want to use software they are familiar with and it is much easier to get help with well known software. The Big Company software is what the professionals use and anything else is the preserve of computer nerds. Price is the big driver to use free and open source software, at least for most people.

As you say, Alex, we would probably be horrified to read the Terms & Conditions of some of the software we use. Occasionally some of them are exposed, but only ridiculous ones (e.g. you can try the software for x days but it must be unopened to get a refund).

The answer might be marketing, but advertising costs money and I’m not sure how to get over the FOSS message to the general public who use software but have no interest or understanding of the issues. Raising the awareness of the amount of non-commercial software we all use, whether on a company network and when using Internet services would be useful.

I imagine that small businesses and higher education might be the best way of increasing the adoption of FOSS. I work at a university where there has been a lot of talk but precious little action.

I wish you luck Alex. My only real concern is the risk that rogue developers could introduce malware, but the same could be done with commercial software.

Alexander Hanff says:
17 August 2011

Thanks for the response. Certainly it is my belief that Public Sector and Academic Sector have a critical role in increasing awareness of FOSS solutions. This is an issue I have studied a great deal and in fact I wrote a blog post highlighting some of the issues when I was in college (several years ago now) which you can still read here:


With regards to the rogue developer issue – this is actually far more of a risk for proprietary systems than it is to FOSS. Look at the Google Streetview example, where Google claim the interception of communications by their Streetview cars was a result of “rogue code” (I don’t actually believe this but for the benefit of the discussion it is a good example) – this is precisely because of a lack of peer review which I cover in an article I wrote last year:


The difference with FOSS is that the code is reviewed on a daily basis – in fact with most FOSS projects the review process is constantly ongoing every second of the day because there are generally so many people working on a project. It is precisely because of this that rogue code is unlikely to make it into a release candidate and even if it did, it would be discovered and removed very quickly.

Thanks again for the response.

Alexander Hanff

If you want to see an over the top example of Terms and Conditions (thankfully not real). You can watch South Parks HumanCentiPAD episode. Which is all about clicking accept to Terms and Conditions that very few people bother to read.

From my experience in my career in computing starting in 1964 on mainframes the first thing to do with any home computer is to reduce to a minimum the space taken on the hard drive by the installed operating system (usually Microsoft) and install a FOSS operating system. These systems normally include the popular types of software (office, photography, email and social) besides having access to the repositories holding certified copies of FOSS packages which cater for almost any requirement.

From this point on – especially with those os distributions which implement the sudo user – one no longer needs to consider accidental acquisition of malware nor of regular “defragging” nor of “registry” cleaning and optimisation programs (free or not). They are simply not required (except to protect any friend who is still using one of the proprietary mediocre operating systems).

For the occasional specialist software (engineering in my case) I do use a virtual copy of the appropriate OS in a Virtual Machine which has the advantage of instant rectification via snapshot should any malware enter.

One of the my favourite pieces of free software is “FastStone Image Viewer” which I use for editing photos, very user friendly and updated quite often.

There is room for both Freeware and “Payware”. Most commercial organisations would not dream of running anything other than Microsoft Office. The perceived risk would be too high. For home users however Libre Office is perfectly adequate unless you want to do fancy spread sheets full of macros.
On the security front Microsoft Security Essentials in tandem with Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware free provides a reasonable level of protection. For those who haven’t come across it, OpenDNS is a free service which seems to have put pay to most of the phishing emails I used to get. See http://www.opendns.com/support/dynamic_ip_windows/.
Lastly if you really want to go “Freeware”, then dump Windows for “Ubuntu”. However I have to say I do prefer Windows.

Long may the Freeware Windows developers continue. If you look at what is happening in the Tablet computer market, the choices are being diminished by the week. HP have just pulled out. It’s only with a band of developers not prepared to be dominated by big corporations will users continue to get good applications.

Johnt says:
20 August 2011

There is one piece of software which hasn’t been mentioned yet.

I recently looked into buying a new computer, but more than annoyed by the fact that all the big ‘discount’ suppliers would neither tell me how much of the price was covering the cost of Microsoft’s various Windows clones and/or other included Microsoft software I didn’t want, nor even offer to sell me a computer without such software included.

I feel that this way of selling is nothing more than restrictive trading practice. If I went into a large chain store to purchase a washing machine, I wouldn’t expect the vendor to supply me a machine only if I paid Severn-Trent in advance for all the water it would use! Would the vendor even legally be allowed to do that?

I suspect the majority of computer shoppers don’t even realize that there are free alternatives (which work just as well, if not better in many respects) to the horrendously expensive MS Windows. The retailers don’t want to let the public know, or even tell anyone how much they will be paying for Microsoft’s Windows above the basic cost of the computer. Even Which? magazine, supposedly the peoples champion wouldn’t help on this point (I’m puzzled by this).

Needless to say my current computer uses a widely available ‘free’ operating system, and free application software. Everything works fine, and I don’t need to be a computer geek.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the analogy I used above: like my software, my water is free.

In Europe, new PCs are (I believe) supplied without a browser and the user chooses which browser(s) to install. It would be good if new computers were widely available with a choice of operating system, which would highlight the cost of Windows.

I like Johnt’s comment about getting on fine with a ‘free’ operating system and application software, without being a geek. If more would do the same it might encourage others to do the same. Many people are computer enthusiasts but far more just want to use computers and avoid spending more than necessary.

Alex says:
20 August 2011

I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux as my operation system for years now and hardly had any problem. It’s free (both as beer and speech) and comes with tonnes of free applications for all my needs: office software, photo editing, Internet browsing, emails, music etc. I am in no way a computer geek. However, for me it is about control. When I use Windows and other non-free programmes I am controlled by them as it is very difficult to change things to your liking, they impose an awful EULA on you and tell you how to use the things you have already paid for. With free software I am in control and decide for myself how to use it.

Karen says:
21 August 2011

What stops me from using most free applications is the learning curve. They aren’t inherently difficult applications, but as I’m required to use Microsoft Office at work, it’s by far the easiest thing to use MS Office at home. I work full time, have a long commute and a busy family life. I want to be able to sit down at the computer for 5 minutes and quickly get a letter or budgeting done without thinking about it.

Where I have had to source software outside of the ‘office’ environment, I do use free or shareware applications, including Irfanview for image editing and Audacity for converting my tapes and records to mp3. It started off as a cost thing – I thought I would try a free application before spending money on a big corp product, but I find both of them very good and can’t see myself moving away from them.

Jaytee says:
11 September 2011

It’s high time you tried Microsoft Office alternatives. Once you do you’ll find that you can forget about the ‘learning curve’ problem, as their mode of operation is so similar and intuitive that within minutes you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about!

It is many years since I actually bought applications software since one can now do everything with professionally produced, easy to use, and fully featured freeware. I use a Mac, but almost everything has versions for PC and Linux. I’d like to mention :

Scribus. For DTP and page layout. Essentially equivalent to Quark Xpress, and much better than Microsoft Publisher. There’s a good book (which is not free)

Kompozer. Dream Weaver substitute for web page creation. Use with Filezilla for uploading

Inkscape. For drawing.

And of course I use Gimp, Picasa, GPSBabel, Open Office (including Impress). They’re all good, reliable, and easy to use.

Pete says:
23 August 2011

Which Magazine – you have really annoyed me with your half baked article on free software alternatives in the latest issue (Sept 2011). How can you possibly have a 2 page spread on free alternatives without even addressing the single biggest cost to a PC, the Operating system. I dont even know how much Windoze costs nowadays but it must be hundred quid or so. Why have you not talked about Linux alternatives – Ubuntu, Linux Mint and other such free and easy to install alternatives. Dissapointing! Also, rather than just looking at one single product, how about a few alternatives (GIMP for photo-editing as an example).

Please Which? Do your bit for the Open Source movement and start educating your readers about real alternatives. (Maybe you have done this in your computing mag, in which case apologies, i dont get that ;-))

And what about a feature on the fact that you cant buy a Laptop/computer from the high street nowadays without paying for Windoze pre-installed..

I do not use any Microsoft or windows OS based software and I am able to do everything I want. I use the Debian Linux/GNU operating system. I use their testing distribution and so contribute a bit to their work. I have friends who I have helped install from Debian’s stable distribution and they just use their computers with less hassle that they would if they were using windows.

A particular advantage of using a source such as Debian is that you know that all your software is coming from a reliable source, and that no one is accessing your computer with updates etc. unless you fetch them. Also, there is very little danger of your computer being infected by any malware.