Over the past decade, free software has become part of the mainstream computing experience. In part, this is down to the open-source movement, which has moved from the realm of the bedroom hobbyist to the everyday computer user.

Open-source projects have produced several outstanding consumer-oriented programs. The Mozilla Project has spawned a market-leading internet browser in Firefox (Firefox review here - download Firefox here), an email client, an HTML (hypertext markup language) editor and more.

Meanwhile, the OpenOffice suite (OpenOffice review here) has finally matured, with Microsoft Office-compatible programs that are the equal of many commercial competitors. And the list goes on.

In short, these are well-designed, fully fledged software packages that don’t time out after 30 days. And they’re free.

Free advertising-supported software and web services are also growing. Internet advertising is back with a vengeance following the dotcom crash in 2001. Analysts predict revenues from web adverts will reach $31bn (around £15bn) in 2007, compared with just $10bn in 2002. As online advertising gathers momentum, it no longer seems inappropriate to give away bandwidth.

Cover-disc software

Free software is widely available on the internet. Some of it’s good; some of it isn’t worth your time. Some of it is actively bad. As you know, at PC Advisor we have always offered free software on cover discs. While a good piece of software is likely to attract a casual buyer, such discs have other advantages too: the suites that appear on covermounts have been carefully chosen from the applications available.

Get details of the latest PC Advisor cover disc here

"We’re cutting out the legwork for the reader," says PC Advisor's CD editor, Richard Clooke. Such programs are tried, tested and proven. With malware attempting to hide itself on the web in all sorts of guises, this in itself can make such discs invaluable.

Another plus point is the special deals that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. The discerning magazine buyer can hook a good bargain when it comes to cover DVDs.

"Look out for six-month trial versions. These software packages are often about to be retired at retail and offer a genuine saving over the period they're used," Clooke says.

It’s also worth looking out for software packages that turn into ‘lite’ versions after a 30-day period. Instead of timing out altogether, the latest, full version jettisons some features, but it remains a perfectly usable application in its new lite incarnation.

So what do the software publishers get out of the deal? First and foremost they’re looking for people to upgrade to the paid version at the end of the trial period. However, covermounting has also helped a number of foreign software developers to break into the UK market.

Moscow-based security software specialist Kaspersky Lab and software all-rounder Ashampoo have both benefited by using magazine covermounts as an effective method of distributing their software.

Free software links

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In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.