Thanks to fast broadband, you can now download and install software straight from the internet – no need to go to out to the shops and buy a DVD in a box
But some stores are safer and better than others - so here's a guide to how to be safe when you're downloading software from the web.
While you will probably use the app stores provided by the big technology companies (Apple’s App Store for iPhones, iPads and Macs, Google Play for Android phones and tablets and the Microsoft Store for Windows computers), there are also myriad other software marketplaces.
These get paid for providing software, either by advertising companies or by software vendors themselves. Many offer demo or free versions of software, so you can try before you buy.
But it isn’t always straightforward: for example, along with the program you want, other software could sneakily download in the background. This is known known as bloatware, foistware and adware and includes search engine toolbars, media players and web browsers.
These – generally known as Potentially Unwanted Programs, or PUPs – are designed to make money for the developer or download website. However, they also take up space, slow down your PC and can threaten your privacy. They’re a nuisance to get rid of and can also be a vector for viruses and malware.
Safe downloading starts with visiting reputable sites. When searching online for a program, third-party download sites usually appear high in search results. These are generally safe to use, but many are cluttered with misleading ‘download now’ buttons that trick casual surfers into installing different programs.
Even with reputable sites, such as Cnet’s Download.com, you must take care to click the correct download button to ensure you get only the software you want. Downloading direct from the original publisher’s site can help you avoid bloatware, but even big names are guilty of installing additional software. For example, if you go to Adobe’s page to install its Flash player – still needed for many websites – it also asks if you want to install additional McAfee security software.
Safer downloading on Windows
While you can download software from a download website, the safest and easiest way to install software on your PC is via the Microsoft Store.
This provides access to thousands of applications (apps) that have been vetted by Microsoft and adhere to strict guidelines. They are virus-free and meet guidelines for decency, profanity and quality.
You can either go to the website or launch the Microsoft Store app on your computer by clicking the Windows key and typing Store and then clicking on Microsoft Store in the menu.
If you go to the Store via the app on your computer, you’ll already be signed in with your Microsoft account – the email address and password you use to log on to your computer. If you go to the website, you might need to sign in again with your Microsoft account.
You can browse by category or search for a specific app if you know what you’re looking for.
To download an app, first click it. Read reviews to see how others who bought the app rate it. Click the System Requirements tab to check if it will work on your PC and then click Buy or Get to download it.
If it is paid-for, your stored credit or debit card will be debited with the payment. Once you’ve downloaded an app, either free or paid-for, you can install it on other computers that you’ve signed in to, too.
Safer downloading on a Mac
Apple defaults to only letting you install software from its App Store as a safety precaution. If you want to be able to install software from third-party sites, you can change that setting by clicking Apple > System Preferences… and clicking the Security & Privacy icon in the System Preferences window.
Click the General tab, and you can choose to Allow apps to be downloaded from: either the App Store or the App Store and Identified Developers. The safest setting is to limit downloads to the App Store, but the latter setting is also safe, restricting downloads to developers accredited by Apple.
To launch the Store, click Apple > App Store… and the App Store will launch. Click Store > Sign In to log into the store with your Apple ID. You can also add payment details such as a credit or debit card to pay for apps.
The store allows you to search for apps, explore different categories and read reviews. Many apps are free, while some are paid for. Click the Updates tab to download updates to apps you’ve previously downloaded – important to ensure you have the latest version and avoid any security bugs that might have been identified with earlier versions.
Safer downloading on tablets and smartphones
Tablets and smartphones are less susceptible to bloatware or apps that install without your knowledge, provided you stick to the official Google Play store for Android tablets and smartphones, or the Apple App Store for iPhones and iPads.
Much like the official stores found on desktops and laptops, these provide a secure, vetted environment of apps to download and use.
To get the most from an app store, make sure you pay attention to reviews, ratings and special conditions such as in-app purchases.
Reviews and ratings Users who download and use software can leave reviews and a star rating on the app store – helpful in knowing if the app is up to scratch or littered with bugs. It’s worth reading reviews before you download.
Be suspicious of newly released apps with lots of five-star reviews – read the actual reviews themselves.
In-app purchases Many apps available for download are free but include in-app purchases. Some are like trials – if you like and regularly use the app, you can pay extra within the app to unlock additional features or keep using it beyond an initial trial period. Other in-app purchases are less obvious, such as games selling virtual currency or items. These can end up being expensive if you don’t keep tabs on them.
Alternative app stores
On Android tablets and smartphones, it is possible to download software from other online stores as Google has a more open approach to allowing apps to be installed on Android tablets than Apple has with the iPad and iPhone.
Many alternative Android stores offer access to specialist apps, but these do carry the risk of also installing malware on your device – and you can’t be sure of the reputation of the store or the app you’re downloading.
These stores are best avoided – instead, limit app downloads exclusively to the Google Play store.