Once you have your computer, you'll need an operating system and software. Many computers come bundled with an operating system (such as Windows XP or Linux), but if you build your own computer or buy a used computer, you may still need an operating system.

Because Microsoft Windows is still so popular, you might be tempted to buy a brand new copy of Windows XP. But if you can find an old copy of Windows 98 or Windows Millennium Edition (Me), you can buy the upgrade version of Windows XP and save money over the full version. Just load Windows 98/Me on your computer, and before you start installing any software, load the upgrade version of Windows XP.

Be careful though. If you can only find an old copy of Windows 2000, you must upgrade to the Windows XP Professional Edition instead of the Home Edition. Naturally, the Professional Edition costs more, so you may find it's easier just to wipe Windows 2000 off your hard disk, install Windows 98/Me, and then upgrade to the Home Edition of Windows XP.

If you plan to use Linux, you can download a copy for free. Some popular Linux distributors that offer free copies include Red Hat (, Mandrake Linux (, and Debian (

If you don't have the time or patience to download a copy of Linux and you don't want to buy a boxed retail version from a store, you can order Linux CDs from CheapBytes (

For true computer renegades, skip both Windows XP and Linux and go for a pure Unix environment in the form of FreeBSD ( or OpenBSD (

Shareware and freeware

Shareware programs can be used for free during a trial period (usually 30 days or so) after which they generally ask you to pay a reasonable amount if you continue using them. Shareware programs are often just as good (or even better) than their higher-priced, brand-name counterparts. No matter what type of program you need (virus scanner, word processor, paint program, and so on), you can almost always find a good shareware version that equals the features of a commercial program.

Freeware programs are given away—you can legally use and own them without ever paying for them. Freeware may be software that has been abandoned by a company, or it may be a limited version of a program given away to help market the full-featured commercial version. (The idea is that if you like the freeware version, you might want to upgrade to the commercial version later to get more features.) To find great collections of freeware and shareware, visit the following sites:




Buying software at an academic discount

College and university bookstores usually sell academic versions of nearly all major software at a substantial discount—the software companies want to get students hooked on using their program instead of a competitor's. So a program that normally costs $495 might be sold by a university bookstore for $100.

Of course, the catch is that if you want to get this academic discount, you must have a student ID. If you know of someone in college, ask them to buy software for you (and in exchange, you can buy them beer). As another alternative, just sign up for one class, get your student ID, and then drop out (just pretend you're a football player). Now you can use your student ID to buy all the software you want, at academic discounts.

Upgrade offers

In an effort to grab as much market share as possible, nearly every software publisher offers two different prices: an ordinary retail price and a discounted upgrade price for people who own the previous version of the program (or sometimes a similar rival program). Unless you have more money than sense, you never need pay full retail price for any software.

To qualify for the upgrade price, you may need proof that you own either a previous version or a rival program, or have an actual copy of a previous version or rival program on your hard disk. Microsoft typically sells special upgrade versions of their software that peeks at your hard disk for a previous version or rival program. If neither one exists, the upgrade version won't install itself.

Here's where you can get creative. If you're buying software directly from the software publisher, they'll ask that you mail or fax them proof that you own a previous version or a rival program, such as the front page of the manual. So if you want the upgrade version of Microsoft Excel, you'll need to prove that you own a rival spreadsheet, such as Lotus 1-2-3 or Quattro Pro.

The simplest way to handle this is to find a friend who owns the program you need (such as Lotus 1-2-3), and fax a photocopy of the manual's front page.

If you can't find anyone with the program you need, try to find an older version of the program either online or at your local computer store. By buying an older version (which you can always sell on eBay), you'll qualify for the less-expensive upgrade. The cost of the upgrade plus a boxed older version will nearly always be less than the full retail price for any program. Or maybe better yet, just use the older version of the program—who needs the latest version anyway?

Try these sites for older versions of software:

Ellen's Software Collection

Surplus Computers


Low-cost Microsoft Office alternatives

Most computer stores and mail-order dealers sell the most popular software, but unless you know better, you might think that what you see in the stores or mail-order catalogs is the only software available. Rather than spend hundreds of dollars paying for commercial software, hunt around the Internet and look for alternatives instead.

If you need to share work with others, chances are good you'll be stuck using Microsoft Office. Of course, Microsoft Office costs hundreds of dollars and offers hundreds of features that most people never need or use, so rather than torture yourself using and learning Microsoft Office, try one of the many Microsoft Office alternatives listed below:



PC602 Pro PC Suite

SOT Office 2002

ThinkFree Office

Pirating software

Sometimes even the best shareware or freeware programs don't come close to offering what a commercial version offers. So rather than buy software, many people just copy it instead, a practice known as software piracy.

Legally, you could be practicing piracy every time you install a program on two or more computers, even if all those computers belong to you and you're the only one who uses them. Because software piracy laws can seem ludicrous at times, many people feel no qualms about copying and using software that they never bought.

When "borrowing" a friend's copy of a program, you'll probably find that you need a CD key or registration number to install it. If you're installing from an original CD, the CD key is usually printed on a sticker glued to the back of the CD case. If you don't have the CD key or it's missing, you have two choices:

  • Visit a hacker website that lists valid keys for various programs, and pick the one you need (search for the product you're looking for together with the search term "serial," "crack," or "appz").

  • Use a special CD key generator program (on a friend's computer if yours isn't working yet) to create a key for your particular program, and use the generated key to install your software (see Figure 14-1).

    Click To expand Figure 14-1: The XPKeyGen program claims it can create valid codes necessary to activate illegal copies of Windows XP.

If you can't be bothered with borrowing a CD (or you can't find anyone to lend one to you), there's another simple solution to getting software—find and download your programs online. Many hacker websites post entire pirated programs, called warez or appz, that have been cracked to remove annoying copy-protection schemes. Just visit one of these websites and download all the software you want.


Most pirated programs on websites are games, but if you hunt around, you'll find all kinds of pirated programs.

Needless to say, warez and appz sites with serial numbers, CD key generators, or pirated software move around a lot. To find them, search for "serial numbers" (see Figure 14-2), "pirated software," "warez," "cracks," "serials," or "CD key generator."

Click To expand
Figure 14-2: Many websites contain lists of valid keys for a variety of programs.

Just don't forget the risk involved in using warez. Sometimes the programs aren't complete, so you could waste time downloading them only to find they don't work. Even worse, many hackers like to infect warez with viruses or Trojan horses to "punish" people for trying to use software they haven't bought.

Cracking software

But don't let someone else do all of the work—why not crack some software yourself? Software cracking involves modifying a program to either turn a trial version into a fully functional one, or to shut off a shareware program's nag screen that keeps reminding you to register. Essentially, cracking allows you to trick a program into thinking it's registered when it's not.

To crack Windows software, you need several tools:

  • A disassembler to reveal the program's assembly language source code, so you can see how it works, such as IDA Pro (

  • A debugger to examine how a program runs, so you can identify the part of the program that you want to change (generally the part requiring a registration number), such as MULTI Source-Level Debugger (

  • A hex editor to modify the executable version of a program, such as UltraEdit ( or Hex Workshop (

  • A Windows registry viewer to modify any Windows registry entries necessary to make the cracked program run properly, such as Registry Crawler ( or Registry Toolkit (

Remember, software cracking requires an intimate knowledge of assembly language, so it's not for the beginner. To learn how people crack software or how to become a software cracker yourself, search Astalavista ( or CyberArmy ( for the programs and tutorials you'll need. To read more about cracking software and how programmers try to defend their programs against crackers, pick up a copy of Crackproof Your Software by Pavol Cerven, published by No Starch Press.