Before you plunk down your hard-earned cash for a piece of computer software, it's a good idea to check what's available for free on the Internet.
Many software companies offer demos --- try-before-you-buy versions of their programs that can be freely downloaded from the Web. Some demos have built-in expiration dates, after which you'll have to pay to play. Others offer limited features in an effort to whet your appetite for the full commercial version. For a sampling of available demos, see ZDNet Downloads at www.zdnet.com/downloads.
Better yet, there are scads of perfectly good, full-featured programs free for the taking. Many of these programs are similar to expensive commercial software, minus a couple of bells and a few whistles. You can find a huge catalog of these no-strings-attached freebies on the TUCOWS Network at www.tucows.com.
This reminder comes courtesy of a handful of readers who e-mailed me about two products mentioned in recent columns.
Regarding the nifty new Internet search assistant X-Portal Findware, a $40 program featured in last week's column, Mark Quigg wrote to recommend a free alternative: BullsEye 2, from IntelliSeek.
"It will search around 450 search engines, eliminate bad links, and download matching pages in a prioritized list," Quigg wrote. "It has advanced features like a 'sounds-like' match capability, Boolean operators, a built-in index of words, etc. Very nice product."
Quigg said he paid $50 for a previous version of BullsEye. The new version is free because, like many other Internet freebies, it's supported by advertising that appears on your screen as you use the software. BullsEye 2 also features a shopping "bot" that helps you find products and prices offered by online merchants. Download it at www.intelliseek.com. Like X-Portal, BullsEye works only with Windows 95 or higher.
By the way, if you want to learn more about X-Portal, don't guess at a Web address. A couple of readers did and ended up at an adult site. The Web site you want is at www.kcsl.ca.
Several people sent e-mail suggesting an alternative to Norton Internet Security 2000, a $60 program that creates a "firewall" to protect your home computer against Internet intruders. That program, featured in this column earlier this month, also performs other functions such as blasting annoying banner ads on Web pages and letting parents set up special filtered accounts for their children.
But if you're just looking for basic, no-frills protection from hackers, these readers recommended ZoneAlarm, a free program available from Zone Labs. …