What Is Shareware? And Is It Actually Free (and Safe) to Use?

Ana Jovanovic
Ana Jovanovic Editor
Updated on: May 15, 2024
Fact Checked by Kate Davidson
Ana Jovanovic Ana Jovanovic
Updated on: May 15, 2024 Editor

Shareware lets you try out software through desktop or mobile apps for free, often on a trial basis or with limited features. This means you can give it a go and see how useful it is. While some apps may remain free indefinitely, full access generally requires a purchase.

You’ll find various types of shareware designed for different purposes, such as photo editing, budgeting, productivity, antivirus protection, education, and many others. These might include trialware, freemium and demo software, adware, and others.

However, it’s essential to approach this type of software with caution. Some of these programs could bundle potentially unwanted programs (PUPs), expose you to security risks, or contain malware, especially when coming from unreliable sources. For this reason, if you’re using shareware, it’s important to use a reliable antivirus to detect and neutralize any associated threats. I recommend Norton, which had a flawless malware detection rate in my tests.

Read on to discover everything you need to know about shareware.

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Shareware vs. Freeware

Shareware and freeware are both types of software typically available for free — but each has specific licensing terms. Shareware is effectively a trial version of software that you can use for a limited period or with restricted features. This allows you to fully evaluate the software before committing financially.

Generally, to continue using it or to unlock all its features after the trial expires, you’ll need to purchase a license. Additionally, you may be asked to donate to support ongoing development and updates.

One example of shareware is Adobe Lightroom Mobile. You can use it for free indefinitely on iOS, iPadOS, or Android devices with restricted features. However, you would have to pay a nominal monthly fee if you wanted to unlock all features.

On the other hand, freeware is completely free. You can use the software and access all its features indefinitely without any financial obligation. This makes freeware an attractive option if you don’t want to pay for software. Again, the authors may ask for donations to support ongoing development since this is the only way they earn an income from their efforts.

The difference between shareware and freeware lies mainly in how support and updates are handled. Shareware typically receives consistent updates and active support from its authors. This means the software is more likely to remain compatible with your devices for longer.

Freeware, on the other hand, may or may not be regularly updated or supported. This really depends on the specific freeware app. The lack of updates could impact its functionality over time — especially with the release of newer operating system versions.

Shareware Freeware
Price Free for a restricted time or free for certain features only Always fully free
Features Sometimes the features are restricted during the trial (Adobe Lightroom, for instance) All features available
Trial period 7 days up to indefinitely No trial period
Distribution May or may not be free, author’s permission often required Completely free
Examples WinRAR, Adobe Creative Cloud (Lightroom, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and others), Parallels, Crossover HWInfo, GPU-Z, CPU-Z, GIMP, Audacity, LibreOffice, VLC Media Player
Advantages Longer support and update periods, generally doesn’t contain malware or other potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) It’s free to use as long as you want
Disadvantages Not free Can sometimes include potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) and other malware, and might not get regular updates

Types of Shareware

Here, we’ll cover the most common types of shareware. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but shareware falls into the following categories 99% of the time.

Demo Software

Demo software serves as a preview of the full version, typically offering limited functionality to give you a taste of what to expect. These versions may lack certain features or have features that stop working after a certain period.

For instance, many video games offer demo versions that allow you to play the first few levels for free before requiring a purchase to access the rest of the game.

This type of shareware is not just popular among game developers. Many other software developers use this strategy to entice you to “try and buy” their products. One example is Autodesk AutoCAD, which is a computer-aided design (CAD) app. Autodesk offers a 30-day free trial that lets you fully explore its capabilities before committing to a subscription for continued access.

Trialware

Trialware allows you to evaluate the full version of the software for a limited period. This period is often between 7 to 30 days (or longer), after which you’ll have to purchase a license to keep using it.

Adobe Creative Cloud is one example of trialware, as it offers a free 7-day trial. After that, you must subscribe to continue using its library of apps. Another example is Microsoft Office 365. The trial period for it is 30 days, during which you can use all its apps and features. Again, after the 30 days is up, you’ll have to purchase a license to continue using the service.

Freemium

Freemium apps provide basic access to their services for free while charging for advanced features or functionalities. This type of shareware is common in apps that offer core services at no cost with optional premium features.

One of the most popular examples is Spotify. In the free version, you can listen to its content as much as you want, but you’ll be presented with ads and a limited number of song skips per hour — unless you upgrade. In a way, Spotify blends elements of freemium shareware and adware.

Adware

Although not strictly categorized as shareware, adware often follows a similar model, where the software is free but includes ads. This type of shareware serves two purposes — it allows you to use apps for free while also allowing the developer to earn an income from their efforts.

You can also often eliminate the ads by paying for the app. There’s more to it than that, though, so I recommend checking out our comprehensive article if you want to learn more about adware.

One example of adware is uTorrent, which is a popular torrent client. The free version includes ads within its user interface. You can use the free version forever, or you can upgrade to uTorrent Pro (which removes these ads and includes additional features).

Crippleware

Crippleware involves allowing free use of software while restricting access to many — often critical — functions and features. Generally, it’s missing key features like printing, saving projects, or accessing other functions.

The idea is to provide enough functionality to demonstrate the software’s potential while incentivizing you to purchase a full license. Most often, the developers understand that professionals will eventually have no choice but to pay for these critical missing features.

Adobe Lightroom Mobile is one example, even though the app falls under the trialware category as well. It blends aspects of both trialware and crippleware. Lightroom Mobile intentionally cripples very useful photo editing features to incentivize you to pay for the full version.

Donationware

Though free, donationware encourages you to donate to the developer to support their efforts if you find the software useful. This model relies on your goodwill and the value you receive from the software rather than mandatory fees.

By contributing financially, you can support the future development and maintenance of the software. Donationware is particularly popular among indie developers and small projects, where community support plays a crucial role in sustainability.

One example of donationware is MSI Afterburner, an app for Windows that allows you to control and overclock your graphics card. It’s completely free — but you’re welcome to donate to the author if you find the app useful.

Nagware (or Annoyware)

Nagware, also known as annoyware, frequently reminds you to purchase the full version of the software through persistent messages or reminders. These notifications appear while using the free version, aiming to persuade you to buy the full product. The goal is to highlight what you’re missing or simply make you “annoyed” enough that you’ll give in and buy the product.

This certainly is an effective strategy, though one that’s generally frowned upon. Alas, it remains a common tactic in the software space. For example, WinRAR is a popular file compression and decompression app for Windows known as nagware. Though it’s completely free to use forever, it frequently delivers pop-ups that encourage you to purchase a license even though you don’t have to.

Is Shareware Safe?

Generally, shareware is safe, but that’s not always the case. You must keep your safety in mind when using it. Here are some of the most common cyber security risks of shareware:

  • Malware. Some shareware can be bundled with malicious software. This includes viruses, spyware, or adware that may be installed without your knowledge. Malware can compromise your system’s security, steal sensitive information, or damage your files. For this reason, I always recommend using a trusted antivirus app to protect yourself and your devices.
  • Data leakage. Some shareware may require you to provide personal information before downloading or during installation. Poorly secured shareware can expose this data to unauthorized parties, leading to privacy issues and potential identity theft.
  • Adware. While technically a form of shareware, adware supports itself through ads that might not only be intrusive but also could be a vector for malicious files. Clicking on these ads can lead to malicious websites or can download further dangerous software onto your computer. Again, a good antivirus like Norton can protect against these kinds of threats.
  • Lack of updates. Shareware may not receive regular updates, which can leave software vulnerabilities unpatched. Hackers exploit these vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to your system. Using outdated software increases the risk of a security breach.
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Why Use Shareware?

Shareware offers several advantages that make it a worthwhile option for both personal and professional use.

  • Cost-effective trial. Shareware allows you to test an app’s functionality before buying a full license. This means you can thoroughly evaluate how well it meets your needs without investing money upfront. If it doesn’t meet your expectations, you can simply choose not to upgrade.
  • Access to premium features. Unlike freeware (which might limit functionality), shareware often provides access to premium features during the trial period. This access lets you experience the software’s full potential and determine if the advanced features are worth the cost.
  • Flexibility. Shareware typically offers flexible licensing options. After the trial, you can decide to purchase the full version, continue with a limited version if available, or simply uninstall the app. This allows you to use the software according to your budget and needs.
  • Support and updates. Many shareware programs provide customer support and updates during the trial period. This support can be really helpful for navigating initial setup issues and optimizing software performance.

How to Protect Your Device & Data While Using Shareware

Shareware comes with some risks, so it’s essential to protect yourself. Here are some tips to help you stay secure while exploring shareware:

  • Use reputable antivirus software. Before downloading any shareware, make sure your antivirus software is active and up-to-date. This software will help detect and neutralize most threats that might come bundled with the shareware. I recommend Norton 360  — it consistently scored a 100% malware detection rate in my tests.
  • Download from official sources. Always download shareware directly from the developer’s official website or a reputable software distributor. This reduces the risk of downloading malicious or altered versions from third-party sites.
  • Read user reviews and ratings. Before installing shareware, check out reviews and ratings from other users. Feedback can provide insights into any potential issues, including security concerns or bugs.
  • Monitor installation processes. During installation, pay close attention to the prompts. Opt out of any additional bundled software that seems unnecessary or suspicious, as these can sometimes include harmful elements.
  • Keep software updated. Once installed, keep the shareware up-to-date. Developers often release patches and updates to fix vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.
  • Limit the permissions. When installing shareware, review the permissions it requests. Only allow permissions that are necessary for the software to function and deny any that seem intrusive or unrelated to its purpose.
  • Use a firewall. Ensure your firewall is enabled to monitor and control incoming and outgoing network traffic. This can prevent harmful data exchanges between your device and potentially unsafe networks. Learn more about the best firewalls available today.
  • Create strong, unique passwords. For shareware that requires creating an account, use strong, unique passwords. Consider using a password manager to easily generate and store your passwords securely — my top pick is 1Password.
  • Regularly back up your data. Maintain regular backups of important data. If shareware compromises your system, having backups means you can restore your information without significant data loss.

Though these tips are a great starting point, it’s important to remain vigilant and use common sense. I recommend being extra careful when using shareware — especially during the download and installation process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does shareware still exist?

Yes, shareware continues to be a prevalent software distribution model. It offers you a chance to test fully functional software before making a financial commitment, ensuring that it meets your needs before you purchase.

If you’re considering various software options, explore the different types of shareware available today. Understanding these can help you choose the right software for your needs, as each type offers unique features and trial conditions.

What is an example of shareware?

Adobe Creative Cloud is a great example of shareware. It provides a free 7-day trial that allows full access to its extensive library of apps. After the trial, you must subscribe to continue using the software.

This try-before-you-buy model helps you assess whether the software meets your needs. If you’re interested in exploring more benefits, discover why using shareware can be advantageous.

Do you have to pay for shareware?

Sometimes, you need to pay to continue using shareware after the trial period ends. Other times, the software is always free (but with limited features). This trial period allows you to evaluate the software’s full capabilities and decide whether it’s worth the investment.

If you decide to purchase, you’ll get additional support and updates. This can be beneficial for professional or high-cost software.

What is the difference between free software (freeware) and shareware?

The difference between shareware and freeware is that freeware is completely free for you to download and use, while shareware is only temporarily free (or free with limited features).

Shareware sometimes allows free use only during a trial period, after which you must pay to continue its use. Other shareware apps are always free, but only offer limited features.

What are the disadvantages of shareware?

There are a number of disadvantages of shareware. For instance, after the free trial, you must pay to continue using the software. This potentially leads to unexpected expenses if the software becomes essential to your workflow.

Shareware also might restrict some features during the trial and can pose a risk if not downloaded from reputable sources. It’s important to evaluate each piece of software carefully. For guidance on how to do this safely, check out how to protect your device and data while using shareware.

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About the Author
Ana Jovanovic
Updated on: May 15, 2024

About the Author

Ana Jovanovic is an editor at SafetyDetectives. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, proofreading, fact-checking, and rewriting content for dozens of websites covering various topics, including two dedicated to antiviruses, VPNs, parental controls, and password managers. Prior to joining the SafetyDetective team, she led a team of SEO content editors working in several niches, including cybersecurity, finance, and technology. Ana has also worked in printed media and the book publishing industry as an editor and translator. When she's not working, she enjoys reading, cooking, and taking care of her plants — she has over a hundred of them!

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