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.