Computers: Be an addict on the cheap: Nigel Willmott takes an obsessive look at this month's 'free disk' offers

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The Independent Online
The real point for addicts of the 'free' disks that come with computer magazines is not that they are useful - but that they might be. For obsessional buyers of magazines, ever hopeful of finding exactly the piece of software that will transform their lives, the satisfaction is the same as for those who collect Weetabix coupons or do the pools - the alluring prospect of something for nothing.

Of course these disks are not actually free. They come with magazines that are so full of advertising they are the size of catalogues, yet still charge a cover price of anything up to pounds 3.95 - maybe to cover hernia insurance. So what is on offer in the December issues currently on sale?

Personal Computer World ( pounds 1.95), the classy Cosmo or Esquire of the market, offers three programs. Collect is an 'evaluation' copy of a shareware program for collectors - according to list, of just about anything from dolls and duck decoys to Elvis and, believe it or not, barbed wire.

This version is restricted to antiques, firearms, computer programs, videos, music and people. Each has its own record template - video includes name, stars, director, studio, running time - and could be quite useful if you have the determination to log this sort of information. 'People' turns out to be a contact book - but oddly still includes price paid and addendum value on the template. For doing business in the Middle East, perhaps?

Collect is a typical offering: a cut down version - it takes up 941 kilobytes of disk space - with a request to 'support the shareware concept' and send dollars 24.95 to Alston Labs of Modesto, California, if you want to go on using it, which will get you a full manual, more templates and support.

The other offerings are Machine Nation, a standard shoot-em-up game; and three programs from version 4.5 (not the latest) of Norton Utilities, the system maintenance software. PCW has already provided others on previous disks and they are well worth having. This month's includes Safe Format, which will format a disk but allow you to recover the data on it if you plonk the wrong disk in the drive.

This year there has been an increasing amount of commercial software available on free disks, in cut down form or on a trial basis, including the Sage Bookkeeper accounts package, with a limit of 1,000 transactions - quite a lot for a small trader - Supercalc, the spreadsheet, and the Quicken home accounts program.

The scoop this month goes to Computer Shopper, which has the full ugrade for the Microsoft's Dos 6 operating system on its disk. For many people spending pounds 1.49 on a magazine for version 6.2 will be a lot less bothersome than applying for the upgrade through official channels.

What PC? ( pounds 2.25) has two useful looking utilities. Wingroup, lists all the programs on the Windows desktop in a drop- down menu which offers a quick way to find and launch programs among a jumble of icons; Winmap shows the memory use of programs in use. It is a bit esoteric, but its author, Olaf Wess, from Germering in Germany, charmingly offers it as 'careware' - there is no fee, but if you use it, he asks you to donate something to someone in need; clearly an old hippy.

The main offering, Almanac, is a reasonable-looking calendar/organiser which could be useful for those who do not have Lotus, but it breaks one of the golden rules for free disk junkies by too hard a sell. An intrusive 'nag' screen asking for dollars 49.95 to be sent to Impact Software of Chino, California, is compounded by a countdown of the 30-day trial period on the menu bar of the program.

Windows Slam is a table hockey game played against the computer and pretty standard stuff. But Take One breaks another golden rule. An animation system for presentations, it looks like it could be fun, perhaps even useful, but it is far too complicated to work out how to operate it in the two-minute attention span of the free-disk browser. Something for nothing, also implies something for no effort.

The same complaint applies to just about all the programs on the PC Home ( pounds 3.95) disk: Vistapro, a computer visual effects program, Goblins 3 which allows you to 'solve puzzles and escape', Beastball, a futuristic game, and Icon-Do-It which will animate your icons. Maybe people who pay almost pounds 4 for a magazine have greater powers of concentration.

PC Direct ( pounds 1.40) positions itself as a magazine for the serious user, so there are no shoot-em-ups or beer mat cataloguing programs - in fact not even any information about the disk in the magazine.

Unfortunately, this disk was guilty of the cardinal sin: mucking up the system. This happens rarely, but misbehaviour by a house guest is always unacceptable. Smartcat, a utility program which automatically catalogues disks by reading off file information from the directory, managed to close Windows while other files were still open, losing an hour's worth of work in a word-processing file.

PC Today ( pounds 2.95) offers an integrated suite of word processor, database, graphics, spreadsheet and communications programs. It is free, because it is not the latest version, but this kind of offering is really the most pointless. Just about all systems are sold now with basic software like this, and for most basic needs any sensible person is going to invest in a leading commercial package like, Microsoft Works.

Which points to the serious justification, if there is a need for one, for fiddling about with free disks - apart from keeping you off the street on cold November nights for the price of a night at the pub.

Software is still expensive - pounds 30-plus for games, pounds 100-plus for applications. For novices, in particular, to try out different kinds of program, from maintenance utilities to simulation games, would be a costly business. Freeware, shareware, trial offers and working demonstrations all allow users who may have only the most basic software to experiment and gain experience and knowledge. Of course a lot of it is trash, and perhaps very little will find a permanent place on the hard disk. But then, how often do you win on the pools?

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