Whether you’re on the lookout for a laptop, a new broadband provider, a console or a mobile phone, it’s never been easier to get your hands on the goods without paying anything. The offers I’m talking about here aren’t the ones promoted via tacky banner ads on suspect websites – they’re advertised in reputable newspapers, on billboards and even on mainstream TV channels.

Of course, offers of something for nothing have been around for years. In the computer industry, the free software movement has convinced many of us that we needn’t pay inflated prices for bread-and-butter applications; there are alternatives for which you needn’t pay a penny. Many of these software products are produced by the open-source movement or by dedicated techies who simply want to share their creations.

But now the freebies extend to products for which we’ve become accustomed to paying hundreds of pounds. Two deals in particular made the headlines during the summer. PC World set the ball rolling in July when it promised a new laptop worth £300 to anyone who signed up for a two-year Orange Broadband contract. Not to be outdone, The Carphone Warehouse followed two days later, promising a free Dell laptop to customers who bought a two-year contract for AOL’s £20 broadband service. The PC World deal has since been discontinued; The Carphone Warehouse’s was still on the table as we went to press, although the company was making no promises as to how long it would continue. But the message appears to be clear – laptops are now regarded as commodities that can be thrown in when you buy other services. We wouldn’t bet against more of these deals surfacing over the coming months.

Nonetheless, most people’s instinct is to err on the side of caution. How can these deals possibly make financial sense to the ISPs and retailers offering them? It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that 18 months of payments for a broadband subscription barely cover the apparent cost of the laptop you’re being promised. So where’s the catch?

In this month's cover feature we investigate these deals, explaining which ones can be trusted and which ones don’t make financial sense in the long run. As well as free laptops, we look at free broadband, free software, free mobile phones and free games, among other things. There are some great deals out there, but make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before taking the plunge.

Dump the junk

Many of those who’ve taken up the free laptop offer may have been convinced to do so because their ageing computer has finally reached the end of its natural life. However, there will be others with relatively new systems who’ve simply become frustrated that their PC has slowed down to a crawl and feel a replacement is the only answer – particularly when such good deals are on offer.

If that sounds like you, read on. It’s often fairly simple to give your computer a new lease of life. If you regularly download and install new programs, your computer will get jam-packed with junk that clogs up your hard disk and increases the load on your processor. But things don’t have to be that way. Various tools are available that can clean up your PC – and many of them are free. Get the December issue of PC Advisor to see our pick of the plethora of PC cleaning tools available on the web. You may end up with a PC that’s as good as new.