Never download junk again

Downloading free software can be a minefield. If you don’t know which boxes to untick, your PC could end up riddled with junk. Here, Jane Hoskyn reveals how to install the best programs safely


You’ll already know your pups from your PUPs (one is a cute young canine, the other is a trouble making program that sneaks into your PC along with reputable software, and can be a right old dog to remove). PUP stands for ‘potentially unwanted program’, a laughably polite term for unwanted junk that can cause great harm to your PC.
But you know how to avoid them, right? You choose safe, big-name software from trusted companies like VLC, Adobe and AVG, instead of junk-riddled nonsense like Free YouTube Downloader and “too good to be true” freebies like CamStudio, which claims to be a realistic alternative to the superb screen-recording program Camtasia Studio. You probably also know that certain download mirror sites, such as Cnet’s Download.com pack their installers with dodgy extras that are easy to miss if you’re in a hurry or unfamiliar with the process.

Big names and booby traps

But PUPs and other hidden traps – memory-hogging plug-ins, files that spy on you, infuriating upgrade prompts – are not exclusive to shady software. Even the most reputable programs come with pre-ticked boxes that can cause mayhem on your PC.
Over the next few pages we’ll expose the clouds lurking within the silver linings of excellent free programs. We’re using these programs as examples because we think they’re worth using, and we want to make sure you use them safely.
We’ve divided our programs into sections, but many are guilty of behavior that fits into other sections too. Take that into account, and remember that much of the advice we offer here applies across the board when installing free software. So, are you ready to untick some boxes with us? Good – then read on…

SOFTWARE THAT COMES WITH HIDDEN JUNK

Auslogics Browser Care

Auslogics’ free tool (https://www.auslogics.com/en/software/browser-care/) can save your browser’s bacon. It weeds out toolbars and browser hijackers that snuck on to your PC while you were installing other software, as well as troublesome extensions and plug-ins. But ironically (some may say hypocritically), Auslogics isn’t shy about bundling junk in its own installer.

What’s the junk?

Auslogics’ Download Now button says: ‘No adware, no spyware, no toolbars’. But it doesn’t say ‘No other Auslogics tools you never asked for’ – and lo, in the installer you’ll find a pre-ticked box for installing Auslogics BoostSpeed. It’s not dangerous, but you never asked for it. Would you be happy if a restaurant force-fed you a second meal you didn’t want?

How to avoid it:

In the setup wizard you’ll see two options: ‘Express Install (Recommended)’, which is pre-selected, and ‘Custom Install (Advanced)’, which isn’t. We Brits are a modest lot. Surely, ‘Advanced’ options are only for whiz-kids and techies? No – they’re for all of us. Don’t be fooled: custom installation requires no special expertise. It simply gives you choice and control over what you’re installing. You should almost always choose it if you see it as an option. Click it to open a menu of tickboxes, including ‘Install Auslogics BoostSpeed’ – untick that one straight away. Also untick ‘Launch program at Windows startup’. This program has no reason to run in the background like an antivirus (AV). If it does, it’ll slow down your PC and startup.

Adobe Acrobat

Having to pay money for Adobe’s superb Photoshop is but a scratch compared with the monstrous headaches of Flash flaws, inconsistent updates, duplicate folders and vast (massive, whopping, elephantine) Library files and other Adobe clutter.
In the case of Adobe’s free PDF reader Acrobat (www.snipca.com/20649), this clutter includes entire third-party programs that hog space and might even conflict with your antivirus (AV), making your PC unsafe.

Update - 2022.10.15

What’s the junk?

Acrobat bundles malware scanner McAfee Security Scan Plus and password manager Intel Security True Key in its installer. If they’re set to run at startup they may cause security conflicts. The main point is that you didn’t ask for them, so they’re junk.

How to avoid it:

Don’t click ‘Install now’ straight away. Adobe Acrobat forgets that normal humans don’t stop to scour a site’s small print before clicking the download button.
The two pre-ticked boxes under ‘Optional offers’ are easy to miss. Companies want you to download this extra stuff by accident because it earns them money.
Untick those two boxes before clicking ‘Install now’. We ran the installer to check for further hidden surprises, and happily found none.

Foxit Reader

Foxit (https://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf-reader/) describes itself as ‘The Secure PDF Reader’, which is possibly a dig at Adobe. But it’s rich coming from a tool whose installer has often been linked with a PUP that’s far worse than anything Adobe bundles with Acrobat.

What’s the junk?

Foxit’s installer openly contains a pre-ticked trial version of its paid-for program Foxit PhantomPDF. Worse, it’s been reported to sneak Conduit Search Protect adware on to your PC. Free portable tool AdwCleaner (https://toolslib.net/downloads/viewdownload/1-adwcleaner/) can detect Conduit, but may not be powerful enough to remove it. If you find Conduit on your PC, try this removal guide from Norton Security: https://support.norton.com/sp/en/us/home/current/solutions/v96233795_EndUserProfile_en_us.

How to avoid it:

We’d not normally recommend any program that’s been associated with Conduit. However, Foxit is a superb PDF reader and manager that’s much lighter on your PC’s memory and storage space than Adobe Acrobat. When we installed it, we found no trace of Conduit – but be aware of the danger.
That said, its installer is a real pain to wade through. First, you’ll see a License Agreement box that buries the line: “The Product may contain third party software”. Doesn’t instill confidence, does it?
Next is a list of plug-ins. If you click ‘Standard installation’ above this list and then select ‘Custom installation’, you’ll get slightly more choice over what you exclude. We unticked the lot – they’re unnecessary PC-slowing rubbish. The only item you need to tick is ‘PDF-Viewer files’. Untick all the shortcut boxes on the next screen as well. Following the Conduit scare, you can’t be too careful.
On the screen after that you’re offered Trust Manager, to keep you safe from “malicious documents”. We unticked this, too – you can enable it in Foxit’s Preferences later. Click Next and you’ll see a pre-ticked trial for PhantomPDF. Select ‘Don’t install…’ and then click Next.
Finally, you’ll see a summary of your installation. All you should see under ‘Selected components’ is ‘PDF-Viewer files’, while under ‘Additional tasks’ you should see nothing at all. Click Install. We ran AdwCleaner to check for adware and it didn’t find anything untoward.
SOFTWARE THAT TAKES OVER YOUR PC AND BROWSER
Skype
What, good old Skype? I’m sure we don’t need to tell you what it is, so we’ll skip straight to what it tries to do when you’re installing it.

What’s the problem?

Microsoft, much like IObit and Auslogics, isn’t satisfied with you downloading one of its products. It wants you to download them all, and it intends to use them to take control of your browser.

How to stop it:

Download Skype’s installer (https://www.skype.com/en/get-skype/) and go through the instructions. On the second screen, you’ll see ‘Install Skype Click to Call’ is pre-ticked. You may find this useful, but we’d rather be free to tick it ourselves. You can enable features like this in your Skype settings later.
It’s the next page that really gets our goat. Take a look at the screenshot left: ‘Make Bing my search engine’ and ‘Make MSN my homepage’ are both pre-ticked, brazen as the naked sun. It’s almost as though they want to hide in plain sight. This is browser-hijacking, plain and simple. Untick both boxes before you tick Continue. Skype should then install without taking over your browser.

LastPass

Password managers are essential in 2016. Fifteen years ago you might have got away with using the same password (your pet’s name and your door number, perchance?) for your online accounts (all four of them), but those days are long gone. LastPass (https://lastpass.com) is the leading tool for generating and storing hack-proof passwords for dozens of accounts.

What’s the problem?

By default, LastPass sends data back to its servers. This isn’t unusual, and your data has to be stored somewhere, not least so you can retrieve it if necessary. Your passwords are encrypted, so no one can read them. The problem is that LastPass doesn’t automatically log you out when you close your browser, so it’s constantly retrieving data from it.

How to stop it:

Once you’ve added LastPass to your browser and logged in, click its bookmarklet, then click Preferences. Tick both ‘Automatically log out’ boxes at the top, and choose how many minutes LastPass should wait before logging you out. While you’re in the Preferences window, click Advanced and untick ‘Share login state between other browsers’. For more advice, visit the LastPass Support Center (www.snipca.com/20669).

Process Hacker

This free open-source tool (https://processhacker.sourceforge.io/) is excellent – it gives you the information and control that Windows’ Task Manager doesn’t. As well as listing all your running processes, it reveals what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how much memory they’re using and whether they contain any malware.

What’s the problem?

Process Hacker’s installable version brings along a whopping list of plug-ins, including a toolbar, a ‘Status Bar’, ‘Online Checks’, and the mysterious ‘Extended Notifications’ and ‘Extended Services’. These are all surplus to the main program and will slow down your PC – quite the opposite of Process Hacker’s intended benefit.

How to stop it:

Click ‘Download v2.39’ (updated in late March this year), then Installer, and then save and run the EXE file as normal. After you accept the licence terms and click Next, you’ll see a layout very similar to that in the Foxit installer.
Select ‘Custom installation’ and click the Plugins box twice to untick all the boxes under it. All you need is ‘Main application’.

Want an even better solution?

Use the portable version instead, so you can sidestep all this installation nonsense. After clicking ‘Download v2.39’, click ‘Binaries (portable)’ instead of Installer. Save the ZIP file, extract its contents, choose the 32bit or 64bit folder (depending on your system version), then click ‘ProcessHacker.exe’ to run the tool immediately and safely, with no plug-ins included. You can even copy this portable file to a USB stick to run on an XP or Vista PC.

VLC

Open-source media centre VLC (http://www.videolan.org/vlc/download-windows.en_GB.html) is one of our favorite free programs ever, and the best replacement for Windows Media Centre in Windows 10 (or any other OS, for that matter). But even VLC has a downside.

What’s the problem?

When you run VLC’s installer, it selects Custom by default – merciful relief after all those hidden ‘Custom install’ links. But scroll through the tickboxes in the window and you’ll see dozens of pre-ticked plug-ins that you don’t need: ‘Mozilla plugin’ even if you don’t have Firefox installed; ‘Discs playback’ even if your PC doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive; and all audio and video file associations. These extras take up lots of space, use lots of memory and mess with your chosen file associations.

How to stop it:

Untick every box in the Choose Components stage of the setup wizard, except those file types you want to open automatically in VLC. The greyed-out Media Player tickbox at the top is the only one you need to install the program.

Chrome, IE and Firefox

We’d need a completely separate feature to describe in full the negative impacts of individual browsers on your PC – and we’ll provide one soon. But for now, let’s scoop them up together and offer guidelines on how to limit their bullying tactics.

What’s the problem?

Browsers love to pretend that you’re in charge. ‘Take Control’ proclaims the homepage for Mozilla’s Firefox (www.snipca.com/20670). ‘Make Chrome yours’ says Google’s browser (www.snipca.com/20671). ‘Stay more private’ says Opera (www.opera.com). ‘Experience a more personal web’ says Microsoft’s Windows 10 browser, Edge (www.snipca.com/20684).
These browsers are all good, safe programs with unique strengths that appeal to different users. But none give you as much control and privacy as their marketing spiel claims because their ultimate aim is to become your default browser. Edge is particularly stubborn on this front. Many users have reported that it resets itself as your PC’s default browser even after you’ve given that privilege to one of its rivals.
Browsers send information back to the companies that run them. They are keen to know where their users live, what operating system they’re using and so on. But it doesn’t show much respect for your privacy.

How to stop it:

When downloading a browser, always look for a pre-ticked box saying ‘Set [program] as my default browser’ (or similar), then decide whether that’s something you want.
Edge is downright determined in its desire to be your default. The best fix is Edge Blocker (www.snipca.com/20673), a free, portable tool from one of our favorite junkfree software makers, Sordum (www.sordum.org). Run the tool, click Block, and Edge will force itself on you no longer (until you click Unblock, at least).
Whenever you install a browser, also untick any tracking options (usually termed something like ‘Send information back to…’). Tracking compromises your privacy and involves processes that run constantly, slowing down your PC and browser. Incognito browsing options or even a VPN (virtual private network) will dramatically cut down the personal data your browser and websites can collect.
ANTIVIRUS THAT TRICKS YOU INTO UPGRADING

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free

Don’t assume security tools are above indulging in the tricks of the free software trade. We’ll finish this feature with three useful security programs that pursue you so ardently with pleas to upgrade to their paid-for version that, frankly, they deserve an injunction.
Malwarebytes’ flagship program, Anti-Malware Free (www.malwarebytes.org), changed its homepage recently to downplay the ‘free’ element – possibly because it’s moving towards not being free at all. We hope not, because it’s a great tool for manually scanning your PC for nasties your AV might have missed.

Resist the upgrade tricks:

Click Download, then click the small blue-on-white Download Free Version. Installation is straightforward, but on the final screen (the one with the Finish button) there’s a pre-ticked box to ‘Enable free trial of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Premium’. Untick it or you’ll be hit with reminders about your trial period, and then presented with a bill for an annual subscription.
Certain features are missing from the free version, but you don’t need them. ‘Real-time protection’, for example, would conflict with your existing AV. For similar reasons, find and untick Malwarebytes in Autoruns so it doesn’t start automatically with Windows.

Avast Free Antivirus

Avast is the best free AV available, according to our tests over the past few years. What’s more, there’s no junk in the installer. So why do we keep moaning about it?

Resist the upgrade tricks:

Avast must be registered every year. That’s not explained clearly upfront, and can cause panic when you’re confronted with pop-ups saying your protection will ‘expire’. To avoid this, register for free (www.snipca.com/20685) after installing Avast.
You’ll still see pop-ups, urging you to upgrade for ‘advanced protection’. Why, because the free version isn’t good enough? That’s not very reassuring. Don’t be fooled: the free version is good enough.
In our experience, the pop-ups spring from your system tray less and less often once you’ve registered, so you can ignore them. If you really want to block them, untick the corresponding process in Autoruns (www.snipca.com/20675), but make absolutely sure it’s the correct process. In general, we don’t recommend stopping any process related to your AV.

AVG Free Antivirus

We’ll finish off with a program whose reputation has taken a battering over the years, and not always deservedly. AVG Free Antivirus (www.avg.com) hasn’t performed as well as Avast in our tests, but it has a range of accompanying apps – like the superb newly updated AVG AntiVirus Free for Android (www.snipca.com/20686). If you’re a regular phone or tablet user, it might make sense to choose AVG as your PC’s antivirus as well.

Resist the upgrade tricks:

When you click Free Download you’re whisked off to a page that outlines the extra benefits of downloading the ‘Pro’ version. Ignore that and click Free Download again. Run the installer, but don’t click Continue yet. Instead, click the small ‘Custom installation’ link, then select ‘Basic protection’ to ensure you’re not installing a free trial. Click Continue, and then untick ‘Web component’ and ‘Email protection’. You don’t need these extras. Like the plug-ins we mentioned earlier, they’ll slow down your browser and PC and may compromise your privacy.
Some users have reported finding AVG difficult to remove from their PCs. This shouldn’t be the case if you use a powerful tool like IObit Uninstaller (see below), but there’s an uninstall guide on AVG’s website (www.snipca.com/20677) if you still have trouble.

THE IOBIT HALL OF JUNK

We’ve grouped IObit’s excellent system tools together here because installation (and the junk-avoidance palaver) is similar in each case.

IOBIT UNINSTALLER

www.snipca.com/20650
This tool uninstalls multiple programs and gets rid of all registry litter they might leave behind. Annoyingly, the Free Downloadqww button redirects you to download mirror site MajorGeeks, and the very first stage of the installer has a tiny (and we really do mean tiny) pre-ticked unwanted extra: IObit Advanced SystemCare. Untick ‘Install Advanced SystemCare…’ before going any further.

IOBIT DRIVER BOOSTER 3 FREE

www.snipca.com/20651
You can fix and update your drivers with this easy-to-use free program. The Free Download button is (presumably unintentionally) accompanied by a photo of a Prince William lookalike, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of respect. The button redirects you to Cnet’s Download. com site, which is boobytrapped with junk-filled installers. In the installer, untick Advanced SystemCare (“speeds up slow like new” – it reads like a bad translation) before clicking ‘Accept and Install’.

IOBIT MALWARE FIGHTER 4 FREE

www.snipca.com/20682
Again, you’re whizzed over to Cnet and have to click Download Now to get the EXE file. Advanced SystemCare is offered again, but this time it’s not pre-ticked. The Custom Install link lets you choose where to install the program files and didn’t include any further junk when we tried it. Once you’ve installed the program, you may see pop-ups offering a ‘gift’ – an email newsletter. Just what you always wanted, eh?

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Bình Phan Đức

Bình Phan Đức

Hello, I'm the founder of this blog and a part time blogger. Find more information about me at here. You can also connect with me via Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

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