Safe software download sites – Beware of deceptive download links & PUPs

There was a time when we went to some good download sites and clicked on the Download button to download software. And what we got was – software. But times have changed now, and things have gotten a bit messy. Now you have to be very careful before you click on any Download button or link, because you never know what you may end up with! You may go visit a download site to download, say our 340KB Ultimate Windows Tweaker, and end up with a bunch of other crapware you did not ask for!

Why have things come to this stage?

Over a period of time, something somewhere changed. Reputed download sites started getting a lot of traffic. Search Engines rank these sites well, so many visit them to download software. People trusted them. Then came a day when such sites decided to encash that trust – and betrayed their users! It was all about money!

They started offering Installers!

CNET is one such site. So are BrotherSoft, Softonic, FreewareFiles and Tucows. The open-source download site Sourceforge is yet another example! I am sure there are many more. So what are these Installers or Downloaders? They are nothing but setup files that try and first push third-party offers, bundleware and potentially unwanted programs on to your computer before giving you access to the file you want. This is how the downloaders or installers look like. crap-installers-1 The CNET website explains:

The Download.com Installer securely delivers software from Download.com’s servers to your computer. During this process, the Download.com Installer may offer other free applications provided by our partners.

Brothersoft states its Download Manager policy as:

The program you want to download will be downloaded through Brothersoft Downloader, making the download process much faster, showing a progress bar and ensuring the program is virus-free.

Says SourceForge about its Installer and third-party offers:

Our mission is to help open source communities to grow, and we understand some projects need funds to be sustainable. We have taken every effort to ensure that the offers that you’re presented with are trustworthy and legitimate, and not a conduit for malware, spyware, viruses, or otherwise malicious software. All offers presented via this installer are subjected to a rigorous verification process to ensure that you are safe. Furthermore, if you don’t choose to accept the offer, the installation will continue, and you’ll hear no more about it. Nothing is installed without your consent, and no personally identifiable information is sent anywhere without your consent.

Don’t press the green Download Now button blindly

When you go on to download some software, you may see a big Download Now button. Most people will typically click on this button, and end up downloading the download sites installer, which is ad-supported and may include third-party offers. Most don’t see them and keep clicking on Next > Next, and end-up with software they did not want on their computers. Fortunately, for those who are sharp enough, you can see a Direct Download Link too. Its very small, but its there on most sites, including CNET. All Download.com Installer enabled products now have this Direct Download Link that you can use instead of the Installer. So remember to click the small Direct Download text link instead of the large Download Now button or link. deceptive download linksWhile download sites profess that the real intention is to provide a fast, secure, feature-rich download experience and make exclusive third-party offers, the fact remains that each bundled software, when installed, earns the download site & maybe the developer also, money. Sure I understand, everyone wants money, and large websites have large bills to pay. But the pressure to get a healthier bottom-lines at any cost, has forced such decisions that do not give a good user-experience.

TWC freeware is clean and does not push crapware

Let me be clear. Take the example of our Ultimate Windows Tweaker. We get a lot of mail saying ‘your freeware is pushing crapware’. We don’t! You can download any of our freeware from their official pages, and you will see that all you get are clean freeware downloads. But if someone downloads it from say CNET, by clicking on the Download Now button, instead of the Direct Download link, they are very likely to end up with Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs) or some crapware. direct-download-link

Crapware pushed by CNET Installer

Have a look at this screenshot gallery which shows the software that were offered to me during the installation of our 345KB Ultimate Windows Tweaker for Windows 7, by the CNET Installer.

During the installation I was offered Save Sense, Outobox and Mobogenie. Outobox is a straight and straight Adware, and my security software immediately detected it. In effect, CNET had pushed adware on to my computer! adw Here is another example of Brothersoft which is similarly pushing their Brothersoft downloader. brothersoft-uwt Now tell me, which Download link will a normal user press. The green button, which is oh-so-strategically placed? Most likely, yes. But that’s an advertisement, and there is little most of us can do about it. If you click on the 1 & 2 Server links, you still wont get UWT. You will instead get Brothersoft Downloaders, which more or less does the same job – ie pushing Potentially Unwanted Programs.

Crapware pushed by Brothersoft downloader

The Brothersoft Downloader installed Search Protect, WinZip Drive Updater and changed my browser defaults, when I clicked on the download link for our Ultimate Windows Tweaker. My WinPatrol went crazy barking, warning me of the changes being made to my system. But I had activated TimeFreeze before installing it, so was sure that on reboot, I would get my clean state back.

Things are not very different for the once respected and sought out open-source download site SourceForge. The SourceForge Installer offered to install WinZip Registry Optimizer and WinZip Driver Updater when I wanted to install FileZilla.

I wish to clarify that we make NO MONEY from such downloads. We do not believe in pushing crapware. Some developers may have such a tie-up and maybe some sort of a sharing agreement with these download sites, but I or my site does not, and we have not entered into any understanding for such revenue shares.

We, as a developer, will be writing to all such download sites, requesting them to offer our 75+ freeware without any downloaders or installers and have our freeware excluded from the installer downloads, and hope that they will accede to our requests and do it soon.

I have no issues about how each may want to make money. My concern is that our clean freeware hosted by them is monetized by them to make money, while the freeware or developer gets blamed for pushing crapware.

Safe software download sites

So we then come to the question – which are the safe software download sites. Well today, if I have to download freeware, I usually prefer to download it from the developers website. This ensures that I get the latest version too. But if I have to visit a download sites, I prefer and trust the following:

  • Majorgeeks.com
  • Softpedia.com
  • TechSpot.com
  • Filehippo.com See this.
  • SnapFiles.com
  • fileforum.betanews.com
  • downloadcrew.com

Where freeware contains bundled software, some of them mark it as Bundleware or Ad supported or something to this effect. At least they do not add anything to the freeware.

I am sure that there maybe a few more clean download sites. If you know of any other safe software download sites, please do share them with us in the comments, for the benefit of others. I am open to updating this list of safe software download sites.

Don’t click Next Next Next blindly

Before I conclude I would like to say a few things. Please create a system restore point first before you install any new software. Pay attention during the installation process. Don’t trust the word ‘Free’. Don’t just click on Next, Next, Next. Even the official installer of a legitimate software like Java includes third-party offers! Opt out where you can, if you cant, simply exit the installation process. So you have to be aware during the installation process!

Remember the ‘Look before you Leap’ saying? Well now I would say – ‘Think before you click on any Download link blindly’!

UPDATE: We wrote to 5 sites requesting them to offer our freeware for downloads as clean straight downloads only and not via their Installer / Downloader.

14th Jan: FreewareFiles.com has replied to us: The download manager option has been removed from all of your listings as requested. We apologize for the inconvenience. That was fast!

18 Jan: Received confirmation from CNET: Your software has been removed from the Download.com Installer.

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Anand Khanse is the Admin of TheWindowsClub.com, an end-user Windows enthusiast, & a 10-year Microsoft MVP Awardee in Windows for the period 2006-16. Please read the entire post & the comments first, create a System Restore Point before making any changes to your system & be careful about any 3rd-party offers while installing freeware.