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SOFTWARE: Deciding Between Free Versus Paid Computer Programs and Apps



A question that comes up often is whether to use free or paid software. It’s tempting to get something for free. This page helps provide a brief introduction to this topic.

Legal Versus Illegal

There are legitimate free products available, but there are also some commercial retail products being given away for free. It’s important to understand this distinction. Some ‘free software’ is actually illegal and not intended to be given away. Other free software is developed by an open-source or volunteer teem of developers for the greater good. Those products are not illegal. A bit of research should be done before downloading and installing a program.


Whether free or paid, the demand for a product can determine how good the available offerings are. For example, a good free alternative to Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) would be Libre Office. Both of these office suites provide plenty of features and are updated frequently. There are millions of people using and offering some level of support for them to continue. Libre Office is free, but you can donate toward its development. Microsoft Office will likely offer more cloud services and interoperability.

Programs like DVD burning software aren’t as broadly in demand or supported. This is because for many years, Windows and Apple included DVD burning capabilities for free. The market of relatively inexpensive full-featured paid products is well established with Cyberlink, Nero, Pinnacle StudioRoxio and many others. The free alternatives, available on reputable websites like CNET, mostly have 1-star to 3-star reviews, and likely offer very little support.


Generally with paid software, support is more readily available and more reliable. Support for free software will often rely upon the ‘user community’ to come up with answers. The more broadly used a product is, the more likely it is that someone will have written about the problems and solutions online. In some rare cases, free products have become an industry standard, like MySQL used for website CMS systems. In those cases, there’s more support for the free product.

Product Quality

Sometimes paid software will offer more features and greater reliability, security, and compatibility. There’s a strong financial incentive to do well, and keep products problem-free. Sometimes a free product has gained enough of a user base, like Libre Office, that its quality rivals that of paid products.

User Skill Level

If you’re a less experienced computer user, reliability, compatibility, and quality support will be important to you. For such a person, buying a paid program is usually the best choice.

If you’re a tinkerer with lots of experience and plenty of tech skills, you might consider getting a Linux computer and using all open source software for your email, internet browsing, and word processing needs. Or, use a Windows computer but choose free open source alternatives. As mentioned above, support may be limited.


The decision to use free products or paid products will be based on a person’s needs, abilities, expectations, and budget.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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