How to Safely Download & Install Software

Avoid malware & other problems when downloading software

Image of a download key on a computer keyboard

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We recommend a lot of software here on Lifewire, software that does everything from undeleting files to automatically hacking into your computer when you've forgotten a password. That software, obviously, isn't within our control, and some of it is free and therefore more amenable to glitches or malware.

We've developed some solid ideas on where to get software recommendations, how to avoid problems even from legitimate downloads, and other ways to keep your computer safe.

While some of what we talk about here is specific to downloading programs, we recommend noting that the advice is all very general and applies to any software you might download and install, from any website.

Use Common Sense

If something doesn't seem right, trust your gut — it's probably not right. The most effective and easiest thing you can do to avoid malware and adware is to avoid downloading any software program or app from an unsolicited link. Avoid downloading anything that you've received a link to via an email, text, or some other personal message — unless you completely trust the source.

Running an antivirus program and keeping it updated is important if you're downloading software. See How to Scan for Viruses & Other Malware for help if you're new to this or think you might have a virus.

Use Curated Software Lists

One of the best ways to ensure that you're choosing legitimate and well-made software is by following recommendations from curated software lists. Ranked and reviewed lists of software programs save you all the complicated vetting you'd otherwise have to do on your own.

In other words, someone has already done the hard work for you and figured out which programs are best. Use that free knowledge and avoid being the guinea pig yourself.

Here are some of our more popular software lists, if you're interested:

While we've done everything in our powers to link to the best source for a piece of recommended software, sometimes best isn't objectively good. We sometimes find ourselves trying to pick the least-worst place to link you to from 10 bad options. This is especially the case with freeware software.

In those situations, most of the problems you'll run into on software download pages we link to include programs wrapped in installers and download managers, confusing download advertisements, and bundled adware.

The next several sections below talk about those dangers and more, as well as some really easy ways you can avoid them.

Know the Terms: Freeware, Trialware, & More

Have you ever downloaded a program that you thought was free and then, after using it for a while, saw a warning or some other message appear, prompting for payment to continue?

Assuming you weren't tricked into the download, you either downloaded the wrong version, especially if a number of different download options were available, or were mistaken about the cost of the program.

Almost all software developers use these three categories to classify their software:

  • Freeware: The program is completely free to use as described.
  • Trialware: The program is free to use for a certain period of time, or for a certain number of uses, and then will need to be paid for. This is also sometimes called shareware or just trial software.
  • Commercial: The program is not free at all and must be paid for before you can use it. Even most commercial programs these days provide limited-time trial versions before asking for payment, so we see this designation less often.

Free Downloads ≠ Free Software

Just because something is a Free Download does not mean that the software is free to use. Some software makers intentionally confuse visitors with this trick on their download pages. They use "free download" in all the page titles, all over the software description pages, and then you usually end up clicking a big FREE DOWNLOAD button to start the download.

Of course, the download process is free! The software, however, requires payment for use, sometimes right away but often after a short period of use.

Some software makers engage in these shenanigans hoping to drive revenue from people who thought they were downloading and using free software and then see little choice but to pay up. It's unethical and a rampant problem among lower-quality software programs.

So, before you download something that's labeled as "free" or as a "free download," check to see that the program description clearly states that it's freeware or completely free to use.

Don't Be Tricked by "Download" Advertisements

Some of the most "successful" advertisements are those that trick a page's reader into believing that the ad isn't really an ad, but something useful on that site.

These sorts of advertisements run frequently on software download pages, appearing as giant download buttons. As much as these large buttons might appear to be what you need to click to download the software you're after, they're not.

Worse yet, these download advertisements don't go to benign websites — they usually go to a malware-ridden page where you really do get to download something, just not the something you thought you were getting.

Real download buttons tend to be smaller and located closer to the downloadable file's name, version number, and last updated date. Not all software download pages have download buttons, either — many are just links.

Avoid Installers and Download Managers

Full-time software download sites, like Download.cnet.com and Softpedia, typically host software makers' programs for free. One way these download sites make their money is by serving advertisements on their sites. Another, increasingly more common, way they make money is by wrapping the downloads they serve inside of a program called an installer, or less often inside a download manager.

These programs are often referred to as PUPs — potentially unwanted programs — and have nothing to do with the program you're trying to download and install. The download site earns money from the makers of those programs by including them with the one you were after.

Assuming you can't find a non-installer download link for the software you want, you can always install the package anyway, being careful what you agree to during the installation process:

Choose "Custom Installation" & Decline Additional Software

Unless you enjoy random browser toolbars, your home page being changed automatically, subscriptions to free software that you'll never use, and stuff like that, then carefully read every screen in the install wizard and decline anything that you're not interested in.

The biggest tip we have here is to choose the Custom Installation method if you're given the option. This option makes the install process a bit longer with the few extra screens it adds, but it's almost always where the "don't install this" options are hidden.

One way to avoid all of these installation-based problems is to choose portable software instead of installable software, when available. Many software makers create versions of their programs that run without needing to be installed at all.

Advanced Tips: Check File Integrity & Use an Online Virus Scanner

If you're more than just a novice computer user, two more things come to mind that should help ease any concerns about what you're downloading and installing.

Scan the File for Malware Before You Download It

If you're concerned that a program you want to download may be infected with malware, you don't even need to download it and scan it yourself, which can be a little risky.

A free online virus scanning service like VirusTotal will download the file to their servers, scan it for malware using all of the major antivirus programs, and then report on their findings.

Verify the Downloaded File's Integrity

Some websites provide something called a checksum value with their downloads. It'll look like a long string of letters and numbers. After downloading, use a checksum calculator to produce what is hopefully an exact match to the checksum value listed with the download.

See How to Verify File Integrity in Windows With FCIV for more information.

Which Download Sites Are Best?

In general, a developer's site is the safest bet for downloading software, but they don't always host their own programs.

As far as download sites go, we avoid the following when we can because of their tendency to include installers:

  • Download.com [www.download.com]
  • BrotherSoft [www.brothersoft.com]
  • Softonic [www.softonic.com]
  • Freeware Files [www.freewarefiles.com]
  • Tucows [www.tucows.com]
  • FileHippo.com [www.filehippo.com]
  • SourceForge [www.sourceforge.com]

While these download sites may not be 100-percent free of sneaky download managers and installers, we rarely if ever see them: