How to install freeware cleanly – a catalog of the most dubious crapware installation methods

The internet has brought about an explosion of free software that seems to just keep going strong. A lot of people wonder why so many people create and put out high quality software out there for free, and I am convinced that most of it is because people will put more of their heart and soul into something that they’re doing for free, that they wouldn’t if they were doing it for money.

But we live in a world where bills have to be paid, and where many developers have found that it is possible to get paid for bundling other software and ‘offers’ with their freeware, typically within the installation process.

This bundled software (a.k.a ‘crapware’) varies from the value-added and useful to the unnecessary to the outright malicious, and unfortunately a lot of it is bundled in such a way as to make an accidental installation extremely likely.

This post will catalog some of the most aggressive crapware-bundling practices that have recently come up, so that users can know what to expect and how to avoid them.

How to avoid crapware illustration_e

For those who want a single, take-home message: it would be this; pay close attention to the labels on the navigation BUTTONS in the installer (yes, the buttons). If they say ‘I accept’ or ‘I agree’ then you should be careful.

Before I start, a few issues:

  1. I know that good work deserves to be compensated, and I am not against monetization through bundled offers as such, but rather the unclear or even deceptive methods that are sometimes used to make it more likely that users install something they do NOT want. Especially if they try hard to not select it but fail because the process is rigged against them.
  2. Do not draw lines in the sand, and say that you will never use any program that comes bundled with offers, etc. I have seen some excellent free software that was recommended on this site for years suddenly appear with bundled offers, even some of my favorite must-have freeware that is excellent. The fact of the matter is that you are using FREE software at the end of the day, so be grateful, and educate yourself.
  3. The exceptions to points 1 and 2 above are software that will only install if you accept the crapware, or will install it without giving any other option. I do NOT think this is OK and I would urge not using these (although I don’t know of any examples of his, so feel free to report them).
  4. Rules of thumb: if you want to avoid crapware,  (1) read the labels on ALL of the buttons before you press one of them, and be careful of ‘I agree’ and ‘I accept’, (2) read every screen and prompt, and (3) check out ‘custom install’ whenever it is offered, rather than ‘typical’, ‘normal’ or ‘complete’ install.
  5. Also generally speaking be extra vigilant when encountering ‘web downloaders’ or installers that download something during the install process.

A list of dubious practices and how you can avoid them:

Note that the list below is sorted based on how dubious and deceptive the practice is.

  1. Inserting ‘I accept’ or ‘I agree’ in the navigation BUTTONS
  2. Making crapware installs look like you are approving the program’s privacy policy
  3. Offer asks twice, with the wording REVERSED the second time around
  4. Inserting the crapware in the ‘custom install’ section
  5. Persistent offer after offer (after offer)
  6. Hiding offers close to the program’s license agreement

These are explained below.

#1: Inserting ‘I accept’ or ‘I agree’ in the navigation BUTTONS

Dubiousness score from one to five: 5/5

Read the labels of all buttons before you press. In the screenshot below LEFT, unchecking the boxes is not enough to opt out, even as most users will think that it is. The correct action is the press ‘decline’; you are only declining the offer, not stopping the installer altogether.

If you don’t quite see what’s going on here, consider the Avira screenshot on the right, which is the ‘legitimate’ way to do it. The user, in this case, can uncheck the buttons and click ‘Next’ to skip the bundled software. ‘Next’ and ‘Accept’ are very different.

I acceptAvira toolbar2

How to avoid: Read the labels on the navigation buttons; read ALL of the buttons so you know what is being offered. If the button reads ‘I accept’ or ‘agree’ it should be a red flag for you.

You should know that if you decline these, you are only declining the offer and not cancelling the install.

Here’s a couple more examples of this. If you see ‘I accept’ in a button, run for the hills. Or simply decline them and the installation will continue.

Foxit InstallerFileMenu Tools installation screen2

#2: Making crapware installs look like you are approving the program’s privacy policy

Dubiousness score from one to five: 5/5

This is a variation on #1. You will be asked to press a button that ‘accepts’ or ‘agrees’, (which in itself should raise a red flag as discussed above). The trick here, however, is that there are no checkboxes anywhere and on first glance it does not LOOK like any crapware is being installed, but rather like you are merely accepting the privacy policy of the program that you are installing (see screenshot below).

FileMenu Tools installation screen3 - privacy policy

How to avoid: again, read the labels on the navigation buttons, and be careful of ‘I accept’ or ‘agree’ buttons. Pressing the decline button will not cancel the install.

#3: Offer asks twice, with the wording REVERSED the second time around

Dubiousness score from one to five: 5/5

I have seen this a number of times before, but when I went to get screenshots for this article, I found that the web downloaders that used to featured them no longer do. I am really sad that I didn’t take screenshots of this when I first saw it, but I suppose the fact that I can’t find it is good news and hopefully the reason is that it was more trouble than its worth for the people who put it out there.

Here’s how it works: it will ask the first time in the usual way you would expect. However, when you opt out you will be re-prompted, with a header that says “Are you sure you want this?, and underneath in smaller font something like: click ‘OK’ to install the crapware or ‘cancel’ to not install’. Most people will assume “OK” means yes I am sure I don’t want the crapware, but in fact they have flipped it over.

How to avoid: read the prompts carefully. Be careful of offers that are insistent and ask for permission to install themselves more than once, as the wording of questions may be different the second time around.

#4: inserting the crapware opt-out in the ‘custom install’ section

Dubiousness score from one to five: 4/5

You can see how in the screenshot to the bottom left, the default recommended is ‘typical install’. Clicking into custom installation underneath, however, is the only way to uncheck the offers.

JZip custom installtypical vs custom

How to avoid: if you see a ‘custom install’ section, click into it and check it out before you proceed. Sometimes, both ‘custom and typical are laid out for you to see, as in the screenshot on the left. Less prevalent (although I have seen it) is making the typical vs. custom install options completely opaque, as in the screenshot above right. Always click into ‘custom’ install to see what’s there, you can always back up and choose ‘typical’ or ‘complete’ afterwards if you want.

#5: Persistent offer after offer (after offer)

Dubiousness score from one to five: 3/5 (although VERY annoying)

A psychological game is played here: once you say no to one or even two offers, you might let your guard down or go into auto pilot, or become impatient for the thing to get installed already! For example, the screenshots below all came from the same installer (i.e. a single installation process).

Grooveshark downloader installer1Grooveshark downloader installer2Grooveshark downloader installer3

How to avoid: stay alert and be on guard when installing software. You cannot afford to go to ‘installation autopilot’, which happens more often than you think.

#6: Hiding offers close to the program’s license agreement

Dubiousness score from one to five: 2/5

This one is noteworthy only because it tries a visual sleight of hand, to hide the offer inside the screen where you actually are approving the program’s license agreement, which you have to do. These shouldn’t be very hard to spot and uncheck, though. See example below.

Grooveshark downloader installer2

How to avoid: be aware that you will almost always have to approve a legitimate license agreement, and that some offers may try to piggyback on this.


That’s it. If you’ve encountered any interesting crapware installing tricks that are not mentioned here please point them out in the comments section.


 
 
 
How to download videos from Hulu: a step by step guide (updated)
The best free data recovery tool: 14 undelete tools compared
Oct 10, 2012
Samer Kurdi
17
flattr this!
  • Monimonika

    I genuinely did not realize how #1 worked, and I thank you for spelling it out. Thing is, I have this nagging feeling that I’ve already been duped by this method, but I can’t remember from when or which program(s)…

  • http://www.drakeintelgroup.com Karl Gephart

    Very nice article! When possible, I have one word of advice: PORTABLE! :)

  • jod

    awesome article! aside from being FREE software should always be CLEAN and HONEST just like the heart and soul of many generous developers out there. Respect comes first.

  • kwacky1

    Does anyone know what kind of compensation developers get for inserting all this crapware? What I also hate is programs that you’ve already installed, then at some later stage, they download an update and the freaking update comes embedded with crapware. Makes me not want to update the software and more likely to look for an alternative.

  • spike haines

    Good article. Recently I downloaded and tried to install a package you recommended (Easily Find and Remove Duplicate Files with AllDup for Windows). This was exactly the type of install that you warn against in your article. I usually avoid all the traps that you allude to but this time a couple got by me. In particular something called “funmoods”. I had a heck of a time removing it. I do believe that the developers of these wanna-be packages go out of their way to make it difficult to remove their software from your computer. I ran revo uninstaller pro twice. It stopped showing up in the installed programs but as soon as I started Chrome the Funmoods tab popped up. I had to go into “customize and control Google Chrome” several times to stop it from showing up but I will bet you it is still in a temp file somewhere in my computer.

  • “Muttley”

    As Karl says above, portable is the way to go it it’s available.

    Otherwise, do a test install first with a virtualizer running. Returnil has saved me several times.

  • http://blog.aditech.info Adithya Uday

    I hate CNET downloads because of this

    The crappy website downloads the light online version of download which will later download the full fedged version of that software along with some crap adware

  • http://www.needcomputerhelp.com Unlocalhost

    http://www.ninite.com

    This site listed above actually strives to provide crapware free software. You may not find all the brands you like here. What you will get is a site than will download multiple utilities at once and download and install them crapware free on your system. I use this site quite often in the field on new computer builds and setups. For most of you this is the real answer to the question.

    • http://www.paleografie.tk Cerberus

      Allmyapps is a bit like Ninite, but it has tons more applications. I believe they make sure no crapware is installed along with the programs (I can’t be sure, but I have never found any that passed through Allmyapps). For some applications, you still need to click through (part) of the installers, so perhaps that is done so that you can block crapware if Allmyapps doesn’t know what to do or something. In general, it works well, although I haven’t used it in a while.
      http://allmyapps.com/

  • http://www.just-think-it.com Floyd

    Ok, I’ll bite. What is so special/helpful/insightful about the word “portable”?

    • Crispy

      “Portable” software is software that does not use an installer. i.e. you usually just unzip the package and run the executable. Good portable software also only writes configuration settings to it’s local directory (ie not to the registry or the users “applications” settings folder.
      The advantage of portable software is that you can put it on a USB drive and run it on any machine with leaving traces behind. To remove the software all you have to do is delete the application folder. See portableapps.com. This is a launcher + portable apps designed to run off a USB drive (although there are others that do a similar thing)

  • http://www.paleografie.tk Cerberus

    Note that Firefox prevents the installation of add-ons and plug-ins from outside the browser, and changing the home page too. It gives you a prompt whether you want the installation/changes the first time Firefox starts up. You will of course not approve. So it seems immune to that crap, or at least fairly well protected.

  • Brody

    I had a friend that when she got her 1st computer years ago had the knack of installing every tool bar and piece of crapwear out there. This was 8 (?) years ago back in the Wild Tangent days. I discovered a free program called Win Patrol that monitors for homepage hijacks, unauthorized tool bar installs, software installs, etc. It soon put a stop to all those problems. Of course my friend soon found other ways to mess up her computer! lol I heartily recommend this free program. I even have a portable version for my portable Firefox.

    • Samer Kurdi

      @ Brody: I used WinPatrol as well at some point. Don’t know why I forgot about it. Good program

  • Bo

    I use freeware Toolwiz TimeFreeze to capture a quick image of the PC before I install. It records and saves changes to the system while it’s on and then you can revert everything if something goes wrong. Only problem is, I wouldn’t run it more than say 1/2 hour after you finish an installation. The reason is that you can’t make any meaningful changes to anything until you turn it off and make your decision whether to save or discard the changes. If you KNOW what’s on your machine, you can go to Add/Remove to make sure nothing strange has accompanied an installation and then roll back the changes if so. That’s the real benefit of TimeFreeze…

  • DrTeeth

    Watch out for double-negatives, *especially* if English is not your first language. I know some languages use them a lot (I speak one of them), but their meaning is not the same in English. Also, watch out for those installers which look as if one is cancelling the install for the ‘main’ program, just go with it as it’s another trick.

  • http://sleve.wordpress.com/ Steve

    A recent install of Adobe Acrobat installed some McAfee crapware, without ever mentioning it. It may have been hidden in the “Details” pulldown menu. But I’ve not had a problem with it in the past. Dang you Adobe.

    One more reason to change all my browsers PDF readers to PDF-XChange Viewer. Your favorite and mine, with lots more power and it’s faster.