First off, there is no such thing as a 100% safe download site. Some are safer than others, but all involve a certain element of risk. The safest way to download freeware is directly from the developer’s website but, even then, users should carefully monitor the installation process. That said, there are occasions when a direct download is not available because of an exclusivity deal with one of the download portals– more often than not with download.cnet.com who I would never download anything from. As far as I am concerned, they are the very worst of the bunch. Also, there may be times when the user is required to input personal details in order to access the download link. On these types of occasions, an alternative download source can come in very handy.
Bundling – A Little History
Many of you will recall the period when bundling advertising modules with downloads was all the fad– remember OpenCandy? Fortunately, due to extensive adverse publicity and a massive user backlash, that stream of bundling has now slowed to a mere trickle.
Of course, quite a few freeware developers do still bundle potentially unwanted extras within their own installers but, provided the bundling is totally transparent with clear options to decline, I do not have a problem with that. I do not believe the download portals should eliminate these types of downloads from their listings altogether, for two main reasons:
- It’s not up to the download portals to make decisions on behalf of potential users. Some users might be quite prepared to tolerate the bundling in order to download a favorite or preferred freeware.
- Somewhere along the line, users have to accept responsibility for their own actions. Blindly clicking Next, Next, Next, through an installation process is fraught with risks. Each time you click Next you are explicitly agreeing with whatever information appears in that window.
That said, I do believe that responsible download portals should warn users whenever an installer they list includes bundling or ads. More on that as we go along. If ever I need to download freeware from a download portal I will always look for the download at MajorGeeks which is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.
MajorGeeks – #1 Download Site
I’ve had my share of run-ins with MajorGeeks in the past — specifically over their affiliation with software named Reimage Repair — for which I took them to task: Is Reimage Repair Legitimate? I still don’t understand why MajorGeeks would want to be associated with this clearly shady software/service. Perhaps, like every other site, they are struggling for revenue. Anyway, regardless, on to the good stuff.
- MajorGeeks, to their credit, was one of the very few download portals who didn’t succumb to the temptation of additional revenue provided by bundling advertising modules, and at no stage have they bundled anything within their downloads.
- MajorGeeks does include a clearly identifiable warning whenever a download includes bundling or ads:
(Clicking on that red text will then take you to an explanation of what Ad-Supported means)
What does Ad-Supported mean on MajorGeeks?
It can mean one of two things:
- The program or app runs advertisements (ads) in some way
- The program or app may include PUP’s (potentially unwanted programs)
This is our way of protecting you about software that isn’t truly freeware so you can watch the installation carefully for unwanted third party programs that might try to install. Sometimes it’s as simple as a company advertising their other products and it can be as bad as potentially unwanted programs (PUP’s) you need to watch for during installation.
- MajorGeeks site is easily navigable with clear categorizations and simple yet informative listings
I firmly believe that the lads at MajorGeeks number one priority is user safety and they go out of their way to provide as safe a download source as humanly possible. Consequently, I never have any qualms when listing or recommending downloads from their site.
ONE RESERVATION: As I said earlier, considering MajorGeeks’ propensity for user safety, I don’t understand their association with Reimage Repair. If not using an ad-blocker, the site is littered with advertisements, including a download button, for this notoriously shady software/service. However, in the end, the safety of the downloads is the number one priority, plus one should never click on these types of advertisements anyway, regardless.
Check out this video of an actual experience with Reimage Repair: Scare-Ware!! Reimage Scam
Softpedia – #2 Download Site
- I have personally never experienced any issues when downloading from Softpedia
- As far as I am aware, they too refrained from bundling advertising modules during the time when such practices were more or less the norm
- Softpedia also includes a warning whenever the installer includes bundling or is ad-supported, although not quite as obvious as MajorGeeks’ warning:
- Clicking on ”Ad-supported” elicits the following popup:
Softpedia (not to be confused with Softonic) is another relatively safe download portal that I would have no problem recommending.
FileHippo – Special Mention
Unfortunately, FileHippo was one of the sites which did get sucked into bundling extras with its downloads: Beware: FileHippo Now Pushing Adware. However, following the uproar from media and users regarding this practice, FileHippo did eventually relent and, as far as I am aware, is still not bundling anything with their downloads. Also, FileHippo does not include any warnings for freeware installers which inherently include bundling or are ad-supported.
So, why am I even mentioning FileHippo? Good question. Because they include download links for all versions of freeware, often going right back to the initial release. This service is somewhat unique and particularly handy if one is looking for an older version of specific software. Sometimes a new version doesn’t quite live up to expectations, includes something you don’t want, or excludes something found in an older version you particularly liked. This is just the type of situation where FileHippo’s download archives come into their own.
On a side note: I recently read an article from How-To Geek which gives FileHippo a hard time for listing the freeware “Format Factory”. Now, Format Factory is notorious for its bundling and has been for a long time. I find it difficult to believe that How-To Geek just happened to pick out Format Factory from among the hundreds of downloads available on FileHippo to use as an example.
Whether downloading directly from the developer or from one of the dedicated download sites here are a few rules to help keep you safe:
- Make doubly sure you are clicking on the correct download link
- Do not click on any ads, ever
- Monitor the installation process closely. As I said earlier, blindly clicking Next, Next, Next is almost sure to eventually lead to problems
- Scan the downloaded executable through Virus Total or scan locally with a second-opinion scanner prior to initiating an installation