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Do you really need that free download?

You can often solve whatever problem the freebie claims to fix without the drain on system resources the app causes, and without the risk of downloading more than you bargained for.

Every program you install on your PC affects the computer's performance and stability, whether you use the app regularly, rarely, or not at all.

More importantly, each time you download a program you're taking a chance that some potentially damaging code has come along for the ride. And as Adam Kujawa points out on his Malwarebytes Unpacked blog, you might not even download the program you intended.

In an October 19 post, Kujawa examined the trend of malware authors disguising their payloads as ads that trick site visitors into clicking on them rather than a legitimate download link by displaying some variation of "Download Now" prominently in the ad.

And would-be downloaders are confused not just by malware disseminators, unfortunately. Kujawa points out that many people attempting to download Malwarebytes' free Anti-Malware antivirus program on CNET's own end up with a utility I'd never heard of before: ARO 2012, which describes itself as a Windows Registry cleaner.

The free AdBlock Plus add-on (available in a Firefox version and a Google Chrome version) removes ads from these and other Web pages. Below are screenshots of the page for Malwarebytes Anti-Malware with and without AdBlock Plus enabled. page with AdBlock Plus add-on enabled
With the AdBlock Plus add-on enabled, there's only one "Download Now" button visible on's Malwarebytes Anti-Malware page. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET
Two "Start Download" ads obfuscate the actual download button for the intended program.
Without the ad-blocking extension, several "Download" buttons are shown on the page, but only the solid-green one on the far left will get you the app you actually intend to install. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To make sure that you're clicking the link that downloads the program you're after, hover your mouse over the link and look at the link information shown in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window.

Solve the problem using the software you already have
When it comes to knee-jerk downloads, I admit to being part of the problem. In the past I have recommended programs that duplicate functions that can be accomplished via features built into Windows and the Mac OS.

For example, in the August 2010 post titled "Quick fixes for five Windows 7 shortcomings," I recommended the free Close All Windows utility from NTWind Software. The program works as advertised, but it requires that you create a shortcut to the Start menu, desktop, or task bar, and then assign a keyboard shortcut to that shortcut if you want to shut down your PC via the keyboard.

You can achieve the same result and avoid the hassle of downloading, installing, and implementing a "time-saver" by pressing the Windows key, then the right-arrow key, and then Enter. Windows will prompt you to save any files that require it before closing the host app, just as Close All Windows does.

(If Windows seems to take forever to turn off your PC, check out my post from March 2008 titled "Shut down Windows in an instant.")

Get a hard-drive activity report from the Windows Resource Monitor
One of my favorite tech sites recently recommended a free program called What's My Computer Doing? that promises to identify all software that accesses your system's hard drive. The recommendation came with a warning that the program was flagged by the tester's antivirus app as a potential threat.

The author concluded that the alert was a false positive, but some people commenting on the program's review objected to it being added to their list of programs that start automatically with Windows. Others pointed out the similarity between the info in What's My Computer Doing? and that served up by the Resource Monitor built into Vista and Windows 7.

What's My Computer Doing? makes it easy to find information about the programs and processes accessing your PC's hard drive, but even more data about your system's activities is available by pressing the Windows key, typing "resource monitor," and pressing Enter.

You can also open the utility by clicking the Resource Monitor button under the Performance tab in Windows' Task Manager. And of course, Task Manager itself provides much of the same information in a more compact form. Open it by right-clicking the Taskbar and choosing Start Task Manager.

The two screens below show snapshots of system activity taken at the same time in Resource Monitor (top) and What's My Computer Doing? (bottom). While the latter's straightforward approach has definite advantages over the many graphs and columns in the former, if you simply want to know what your PC is up to, the information is available without having to add yet another resource-nibbling program to your system.

Windows 7 Resource Monitor
The Resource Monitor utility built into Windows 7 and Vista may be an example of too much information if you merely want to find out what programs are accessing your hard drive. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET
What's My Computer Doing drive-activity window
Information about your system's disk activity is presented more simply in the free What's My Computer Doing? program, but the utility uses up some system resources of its own. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Get around Windows' lack of file/folder password protection
Following my post earlier this month on "Ten simple, common-sense security tips," reader John B. asked whether it was safe to store his passwords in a Word DOC file and then copy and paste them into log-in screens to thwart keystroke loggers. I suggested that he use Windows' file-compression option to encrypt the file.

Unfortunately, Windows doesn't let you password-protect a file or folder. In a post in November 2011 entitled "How to secure your PC in 10 easy steps," I described the shortcomings of the encryption features built into Windows and into Mac OS. An alternative is a free encryption program such as TrueCrypt, but there may be a simpler solution for John B. that doesn't involve a download.

First, open an innocuously named file, such as "grocery list.doc." Change the text color to match the background color (probably the default, white). Enter your passwords invisibly at the end of existing lines that have enough room for them, or scroll to the bottom of the document and enter the passwords there. You may also need to disable the spelling and grammar checker in the document to prevent squiggly lines from appearing under the passwords.

If someone selects the text in the line or the entire document, they'll see that there's something there, and if they change the text color the passwords will become visible. Also, the file's contents may be indexed, which could expose the passwords. You can exclude the file from Windows' automatic indexing by right-clicking it, choosing Properties, clicking Advanced under the General tab, and unchecking the option to allow the file's contents to be indexed.

A would-be password thief would need to know which file to look in and then know to look for white-on-white text. Storing your passwords in this manner is not as safe as never recording them, nor is it as safe as using a separate utility that lets you apply a password to a file (c'mon, Microsoft!), but for lots of folks, it's safe enough.

(Note that the sure-fire way to be referred to as an idiot on the Web is to offer any kind of advice relating to passwords. People are more passionate about passwords than they are about their favorite sports teams. For the record, I strongly suggest that you never write down your passwords -- on paper or in electronic form. Still, there's more than one way to stay safe, so go with whatever password methodology works for you.)