Budget Shopping Tips: Software

Learn tips to getting great deals on software that go beyond just freeware.

Piggy bank

Many of you already know how to get a great deal on software, but for those who could use a reminder, we've compiled a list of tips that take freeware, Webware, and boxed software into account.

Ditch the features

Ask yourself how many features of that $30, $60, or $200 program you're really going to use. If the answer is less than half, you can probably make do with freeware or with a less expensive shareware application. If you're already comfortable finding, downloading, and using freeware alternatives to pricey, branded software, then congratulations.

If you're not, there are a few ground rules to know. The programs may not always be as flashy or as feature-rich as the reigning app you're familiar with, and they may require you spend some time with the ReadMe file or Help Manual if they operate differently than you're used to. Yet on the whole, the freeware category is growing ever-more sophisticated in everything from interface design to customer support. If you hate the app, it costs you nothing but trial time, and you can always buy the full-priced software to replace it.

Search by license type on Download.com

Filter the freeware on Download.com.

(Credit: CNET)

For a real-life example, take an image editor. Unless you're an advanced or frequent user, you may not actually need a program as fully caffeinated as Adobe Photoshop, especially if Paint.NET or GIMP's core features are what you'll actually use the majority of the time. With a little research, you can even find two or more freeware programs that cover the feature spectrum in a suite of pro-grade software. In fact, that's how we cobbled together our own Adobe Creative Suite.

How do you find freeware? We recommend CNET Download.com, of course, as your go-to source for discovering and downloading Mac and Windows freeware (also Mobile and Webware.) It's especially useful if you narrow your search results by free licenses (see the illustration at left).

You can also find Windows, Mac, and Linux alternatives from similar download catalogs. SourceForge.net is another good source for the more adventurous and savvy users who are unafraid of choosing from a list of active builds and downloading through mirrors. Forums run by the open-source community may also reveal worthy freeware for those with time to investigate. While search engines are another path to freeware titles, some sites--especially those advertising cracks and serial numbers--are notorious for delivering malware. We recommend for Windows users to at the very least install an application to rate your search engine results as safe or suspicious, such as McAfee Site Advisor for Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Start off with these top freeware security apps and all-around apps for Windows. Mac users will find freeware in this Mac Starter Kit, plus less expensive alternatives to popular programs that are worth the asking price.

Take it to the Web

Web-based software, or Webware, is less traditional than software you install, since you access, use, and save your work almost entirely online. Although still young as a platform, and geared, for the most part, at basic-to-intermediate functionality, Webware titles are also gaining sharper tools. As a bonus, they're ideally suited for sharing and collaborating. Webware is often free, with premium add-on services you may pay for with a monthly or yearly subscription. But beware: those subscriptions could add up over the years.

Mint.com pie chart

Webware like Mint.com can replace pricey desktop software.

(Credit: Mint.com)

Mint.com is a prime example of interactive Webware. If your real goal is to monitor your budget, Mint.com could be even more useful than a personal finance manager like Quicken. As long as you're comfortable storing your encrypted account information in Mint.com's secured servers, it has built-in tools to alert you of upcoming bills due, automatically balances your withdrawals and deposits, and creates pie charts of your spending by category.

Similarly, Google's free online Docs provides basic word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet-creation tools that you can also easily organize, upload, and share on the Web, or even download to your computer, without spending a dime.

Flash game sites are also great sources for casual computer games when you need a fix. Here are a few to get you started.

Wait to upgrade

When freeware and shareware won't cut it, lumping it with an older generation is one method for sticking to your savings plan. This isn't to recommend skipping upgrades altogether, especially of your operating system or most-often-used programs. But like anything else, if you're able to wait for it to pass its peak, you're more likely to pick up deals and discounts, or spot freeware competitors offering a portion of the features.

A handful of software vendors, like some security software purveyors, offer free and premium versions of their applications, often converting the commercial version into the next free edition as they release new pro-level builds.

Shop around

When you're ready to buy, cast the net wide. PriceGrabber.com is one site that compares prices listed on a variety of Web retailers, for speedy visual parsing. You can also find great deals on resale or auction sites like eBay (for either auction or buy-now prices) or in community personals like Craigslist.

PriceGrabber.com

PriceGrabber.com rustles up prices from online vendors.

(Credit: CNET)

While online research is the fastest route to a price quote, don't snub brick-and-mortar stores that may offer seasonal sales or short-term discounts on boxed software for major brands. Before you buy, it won't hurt to visit the store's Web site to check for limited-time deals or to flip through newspaper advertisements--you just may see a retail discount on the boxed software you're looking for. If you find it cheaper online, take a second to calculate the cost of shipping. Jetting off to a local shop could save you a few bucks in the end.

Do you have any surefire tips we missed? Be sure to share them in the comments.

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