Installing software safely and with minimal impact

I’d wager that the number one cause of system stability issues, disk space loss, unexpected behavior, and even malware is the software that we actually invite onto our machine.

I’m not talking about opening the accidental attachment. That’s bad when it happens, but it’s not as prevalent as what I’m discussing.

No, I’m talking about the stuff that we actually ask to download – the stuff we seek out.

I’m talking about the software that we explicitly and intentionally install on our computers.

Installing software safely is all about taking a few steps to minimize the impact of what we’re about to do to our machines.

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Avoid it if you can

My number one recommendation for keeping your machine clear of cruft is to think carefully before installing anything.

I’m not really talking about updates. Those are things that you almost always want. I’m talking about new programs, add-ons, plugins, and other things that so often vie for our attention and play on our curiosity.

I’m also not saying to never install anything. That kind of defeats the purpose of having a general purpose computer or computing device.

What I am asking you to do is think about whether you really need whatever it is you’re considering installling. Is it something you’ll actually use or is this idle curiosity? Do you understand why someone or something is even suggesting that you install some random tool that you’ve never heard of? If you’re ever not sure, just wait until you find out more. You can always install something later if you find that you have a need and use for whatever it is.

But remember: a program that’s not installed can do you no harm.

Do your testing elsewhere

Sometimes, we just don’t really know if the software we’re looking at is something worthwhile. In fact, we won’t know until we actually try it out – perhaps it’s a trial version or it’s just a package that we’re installing, because we really need to play with it a bit before we decide to invest further.

As you might imagine, this happens to me all the time.

One approach to testing software safely is to use what you might call a “sacrificial machine” – one that you don’t really care about or isn’t particularly important.

If you don’t have a second physical machine available for that, one solid approach is to use a virtual machine. This is nothing more than a software simulation of PC that runs within a window on your desktop. I actually have several virtual machines that I’ve set up here on my main desktop machine: one each for Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8. When it’s running, it’s like having a completely separate PC except that it’s running on my single desktop.

Testing your software elsewhere allows you to avoid having any of the side effects of that software from appearing on the machine that you do care about – the one that you use every day. Once you determine that the software is indeed going to be useful, you can then install it “for real” on your main machine. That test or virtual machine can be left alone, reformatted, restored from a backup, or completely discarded depending on your own desires.

Of course, if you decide that the software is not what you had in mind, then you’ve come to that conclusion without putting your most important machine at risk.

Choose custom – always

As a way to be helpful and ensure that software is installed with the most appropriate set of optional components, many setup programs will offer you a default installation. Essentially, this is a set of decisions made for you that ideally install the application in a comfiguration that’s ready to go for the most people. It’s been a convenience and an easy way to get software installed quickly without needing to spend a lot of time understanding obscure details.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the default choice is very often the wrong choice.

As we’ve seen, many software vendors, particularly those whose products are free, are including in their default installations unrelated additions. More often than not, that comes in the form of an additional toolbar that will later appear in your web browser, but this “foistware”  (as it’s sometimes referred to) can actually run the range from the benign to the downright malicious.

Custom installation (hidden)
A case where a (fairly reputable) software package actually tries to discourage the “Custom” installation path.

The only way to avoid it for many software installations is to select the Advanced or Custom option, if it’s offered during the setup process. That typically exposes all of the optional choices that you might have, including whether or not to accept the unrelated software that you probably really don’t need.

Un-check options you don’t need

Regardless of whether you needed to select Custom or Advanced to expose them, many software installers – particularly for larger packages – include an array of options that allow you to pick and choose what parts of the product you actually want to have installed on your machine.

Office Component Selection

Regardless of what type of package you’re installing, if there are options exposed, it’s worth having a look and seeing whether the additional components are indeed items that you need. If not, consider un-selecting them, so that they’re not installed. Not only does this reduce the amount of disk space that the install will take, but it typically also reduces the impact on system resources (like the registry) and reduces the number of components that may need to be updated in the future.

Opt out of unrelated options

As mentioned earlier, software packages will often include components that aren’t even a part of the software that you’re installing. Typically, this is a source of additional revenue for the software vendor, but in general, it simply adds confusion and unnecessary software to your machine.

Custom installation (revealed)
Custom installation option revealing items actually unrelated to the software being installed.

The most common additional and unrelated items are things like toolbars or limited trials of more powerful paid versions of the free software that you’re installing. Unwanted changes aren’t always limited to software, but they will also often include unexpected changes to browser search engines and home pages.

Opt out. Just say no. Or, at least make it a decision on your part that you actually want whatever it is that’s being offered.

My guess is that saying no will keep your machine cleaner and your experience less frustrating.

Start when Windows starts isn’t always needed

Many programs install components that want to start running every time you reboot or log in to Windows.

In some cases, it’s the right thing to do. You want your anti-malware tools to always run without having to think about them, so having them start when when Windows starts is a pretty clear choice.

At the other end of the spectrum are utilities that just don’t need to run right away, period, yet the installer (or rather, the developers who created the installer) feel that their program is just so important that it must run always and as soon as possible.

And of course, many programs are somewhere in the middle. If used often, it makes sense that they start automatically, but if used only occasionally, it might make more sense to free up the resources and speed up the boot time by only starting them when actually needed.

Start with Windows option

When you encounter a setup option relating to automatically starting, think twice. It’s very possible that you don’t need the program to do so, and as a result, you’ll end up with a slightly faster boot time, and more system resources like CPU and RAM available for the things that you really do want to run. (It’s sometimes worth reviewing the options or preferences for programs you already have installed that start automatically and turning it off for those for which it makes sense.)

Summary

I’ve presented a few recommendations when it comes to installing software to keep your machine running as clean and as fast as possible. Those are:

  • Don’t install software unless you actually know you need it.
  • When simply testing software for fit, try to do so on something other than your primary or most important machine.
  • Always choose the “Custom” or “Advanced” installation path so as to see all available options.
  • Uncheck options that you don’t want or need.
  • Uncheck options that are actually unrelated to the software that you are installing.
  • Think carefully about whether the software actually needs to start with Windows, if that’s an offered option.

12 comments on “Installing software safely and with minimal impact”

  1. Hi Leo. May I add…
    Some sneaky installers will show a separate page for an option, allowing you to click on ‘okay, or ‘decline’, in hopes that people will think that if they click ‘decline’, they will cancel the whole installation. Clicking ‘decline’ only cancels the option on that page.
    Sneakier every day, but understandable, to an extent, as that’s how they make money, while giving freebies.

  2. I download a lot of programs. 99% of the time I have no problems. I use the advance option when installing and read all of the information before installing. In addition I download the install program first then virus scan it before installing it. Almost every program requires administrator rights to install. For that reason I virus scan it first even if the web site says it is virus free. All too frequently someone has added a virus or malware to the original program. The author of the program most likely did not deliberately add the virus or malware to the installer. Some antivirus suites like Comodo add a sandbox option which can protect you when trying new software. This is another way to protect yourself. One more thing you can do is create a manual restore point before you install the software. At least you can uninstall the program then restore your computer to the restore point you created. This will reduce the risk of trying new software if you have only one PC to work with.

  3. One piece of malware I uncovered promised to remove the Windows Genuine Advantage notification that appears everytime I boot up. So I downloaded and installed it. That WGA notification is still there, but now I have all kinds of toolbars on my browser and sometimes when I try to go to a website, it whisks me away to some ad instead!

    It’s enough to make me want to reinstall the browser – but then I would be missing all of the signons and passwords it remembers for me.

    • Reply to Richard: Usually along the top of your browser, possibly under tools, you’ll have the option to disable these toolbars and add ons added to your browser.

  4. This article is about symptoms and I agree with it. But, in my opinion, the actual problem is that Windows is archaic and its time has come and gone. Specifically:

    1. Applications are not well separated from each other which is poor, ancient OS design reflective of the time it was designed which is very different from the time we live in now. Portable apps are a big step in the right direction in this regard.

    2. There is way to validate true source of Windows software. You can trust the vendor on an iPad. And, when software is found to be malicious, Microsoft can’t remove it for their customers. Google and Apple can.

    3.. Each Windows application has to re-invent the wheel when it comes to self-updating. Not true on newer tablet OSs.

    4. You can’t backup normally installed Windows applications.

    To borrow from an old car commercial, Windows is your fathers Operating System.

  5. I hate how some installers include an unwanted toolbar or browser and the box is pre-ticked.
    They assume everyone wants and needs the Ask toolbar.
    Trouble is most people just click through without looking or reading. Then they call me when their browser is not responding or crashes or they have about 6 toolbars installed and the webpage area is less than half the normal size, lol.
    In responce to Michael’s comments about “Windows is archaic”.
    Windows is still great as long as you know how to use and maintaine it.
    Windows Image Backup backs up everything.
    Acronis and Macrium Reflect are excellent.
    Mobile devices will never replace a PC for a long list of things.
    I hardly ever use my iPad.
    I always use my iPhone as it’s my away from office link.
    If I need to work while away from office I use my “Windows” laptop. 🙂

  6. There are two other options for installing software that you failed to mention:
    1. “Sandbox” software like Sandboxie (http://www.sandboxie.com/).
    2. There is also software that “wraps around” the software being installed. An example is Revo Uninstaller Pro (http://www.revouninstaller.com/). You start Revo Uninstaller Pro and then install the other software with Revo “watching” the install so it can uninstall or change back EVERYTHING installed or changed.

  7. I would like to vouch to for sandboxie a great program handy for anyone – you can run your browser virtually through it, install stuff etc. never touches your actual files http://www.sandboxie.com/

    Also on updates sometimes you shouldn’t always update stuff as sometimes new versions have been released that are very unreliable, buggy etc. When updating my software I always check change logs and comments. I use FileHippo’s Update Checker program a lot which is great and handy {link removed}

    • I disagree with your statement about selecting which updates to install. There is no way for us computer users, “out in the wild”, to know the code and issues that are being resolved with these updates. My experience is that people who mess with the updates all the time are the ones who end up with problems. For instance, Update F may rely on something that was rolled out in Update B. Slowly over time errors will build up and result in software rot.

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