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Do you need a program that can read your incoming e-mail messages to you in a human voice? How about software that can create a boot disk to coax a crashed computer back to life? Those programs and thousands more can be downloaded in a matter of minutes from the Web — many at no charge. Such programs are part of the vast collections of software known as freeware, first cousins to the low-priced category known as shareware. They’re available from several Web sites that have collected links to the programs’ developers. Most of the sites group the offerings by category, some have search engines, and a few have reviews of the most popular downloads. Shareware programs usually sell for less than $40; some are free for personal use and must be purchased only if used on a business computer. A good example is the personal firewall program ZoneAlarm 2.6, which is offered free to home users and sells for $39.95 for an enhanced, professional version. Here are some Web sites that offer freeware and shareware: PC World Magazine www.pcworld.com/downloads/ This site has featured a $40 system-backup utility, some free programs designed to block those annoying pop-up Web ads, and some free downloads that can change a Windows 9x desktop to look like Windows XP. CNET www.download.com This site recently has featured a collection of chat programs — some free, some costing up to $32 — that a network administrator could use to set up an instant-messaging system on a local area network. Files are transferred from third-party sites, usually from software developers. CNET also offers a free e-mail newsletter that announces new shareware programs. Tucows www.tucows.com Launched in 1993 with a name drawn from the acronym for The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software, this site claims it was the first to offer software on a freeware and shareware basis. The library of programs now numbers more than 30,000 titles and features reviews of some of the programs. The software can be searched by operating system: Windows, Macintosh, Linux and more. A handy feature is a list of the programs that are downloaded most often.

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