Slideshow

In Pictures: How to spot and avoid installing potentially unwanted programs

Options that trick you into installing potentially unwanted programs are common during the setup of free tools and programs. Here's how to spot them and keep them off your system.

  • The only PUP no one loves They're called PUPs—Potentially Unwanted Programs—and they sneak onto your system as accessories to the program you actually intend to install. They're annoying, and they can result in slower performance, space-stealing browser toolbars, annoying pop-ups, and even loss of privacy. You don’t have to give up free software to avoid PUPs, but you do have to pay attention. Each PUP first appears as a trap in the desired program’s installation wizard. Ian Paul recently recommended a program called Unchecky that attempts to uncheck installation options for you, but I prefer just being careful. Here are some tricks and traps to look out for during software installations.

  • The Suspect Not too long ago, I needed a simple program that could do one simple task: Convert a video DVD—a DVD I created myself, with no DRM issues—into an ISO file. So I downloaded FreeAudioVideoSoft’s All Free ISO Ripper. As I walked through the installation wizard, I found something of a PUP mother lode. Every dirty trick I knew, and a few I hadn’t seen before, popped up during the installation. This made the ISO ripper a perfect tool for teaching people how to install a program…and only install the program. So let’s click Next and get on with it.

  • A false sense of security Okay, this second page of the wizard looks pretty harmless. In fact, it is pretty harmless. The creators of the program even left the desktop shortcut option off by default. Good for them. Far too many programs want to mess up your desktop. Enjoy this. It's the last good thing you'll see from them for the rest of the installation.

  • The first trap: Standard installations How nice: The wizard recommends that you make your life a little easier with the Standard Installation. But check out the top of the window. This isn't about installing All Free ISO Ripper. It's about installing the AVG Toolbar. That's not what you signed up for. Here's the first rule about avoiding PUPs: Never accept the "Standard Installation," "the Express Installation," the "Default Installation," or any installation that is "(recommended)." Even if the page mentions no program other than the one you want, always select the Custom installation option.

  • Disarm the trap Look what you get when you select Custom installation! You get options, already checked, not only to install the toolbar, but to let it take over your browser's Home and Search settings. Is that why you're installing a DVD-to-ISO ripping tool? I didn't think so. Obviously, you need to uncheck those options before you continue.

  • Trap number 2: Advanced mode The next page in the installation wizard looks a lot like the last one, except that the default is Express (recommended), and the wizard wants to install something called PureLeads. But this time, the wizard warns you that the Custom installation is "(advanced)." Uh-oh—this one is for real, hardcore techies! Do you dare click that option?

  • Trap number 2: Not so advanced after all If you can gather the courage to do so, you'll find a single option which really isn't all that advanced: Install PureLeads. Go ahead. Uncheck the option. I'm sure that's not too "advanced" for you.

  • A dirty shade of gray I try to be a generous person. I give to various causes and charities. And they all bury me in email asking for more money. The last thing I need is a "Cause of the Month Reminder" from some organization named We-Care.com. (Why in the world isn't it We-Care.org?) Obviously, you need to click I do not accept and go on. But how can you? I do not accept is grayed-out! Except it isn't. It's just grayed. This is a dirty trick. The option you want may look unavailable, but if you point your mouse to it, you may still be able to select it.

  • Say "I don't" I tend not to trust supposed Windows “optimizers.” In almost every case, the software is either too cautious to do any good, or too reckless to be safe. Obviously, I would want to uncheck the option to install PC Utilities Pro: Optimizer Pro. Except, there’s no such option to uncheck. You can uncheck I accept the Optimizer Pro Terms of Use and Privacy Policy, though. If you don’t want to install a program, you don’t have to accept its Terms of Use or Privacy Policy—even if it’s on by default…and appears to be grayed out.

  • Read the fine print Finally! Something we all know and ignore: the program's End User License Agreement. There's nothing like a massive block of dense legalese to make you select Accept and go on with your life. But before you do so, take a second look at this particular EULA. The title reads "All Free ISO Ripper includes RelevantKnowledge." The first sentence also mentions RelevantKnowledge as software "included in this download." The real relevant knowledge, so to speak, is that this isn't the All Free ISO Ripper EULA. You can click Decline and go on.

  • Absolution Curiously enough, All Free ISO Ripper doesn’t have its own EULA. After declining the RelevantKnowledge one, the real program—the one that I wanted—installed in seconds. If you’re patient enough, you get what you wanted, and only what you wanted.

  • Happily ever after When it came time to use All Free ISO Ripper for the purpose I downloaded it for, it worked like a dream. Easy, quick, and effective. That's the thing about free software with PUPs: The installation is tricky. If you miss a trick or trap, you can waste time uninstalling software you never wanted to install in the first place. If you keep a keen eye out for tricks and traps, you can get something good for free.

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