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A Beginner's Guide to Electronic Software Downloads

Kevin Lo


As high-speed Internet connections become more commonplace, software companies are forgoing traditional boxed packages and instead offering their products for download over the web. Although free programs and trial versions of commercial applications have long been available online, many software vendors are now selling full versions of their programs as downloads. Many of TechSoup's donor partners' products can also be requested via electronic download.

Obtaining software via electronic software distribution (ESD) is often a more convenient option than purchasing packaged software, but it's also a more environmentally friendly approach that cuts down on the amount of cardboard boxes, CDs, and plastic wrap that eventually ends up in landfills.

If you're new to downloading software, you might have a few questions. So before you fire up your browser and get down to business, acquaint yourself with some of the basic concepts surrounding downloading software.

Basic System Requirements

Before you begin the process of downloading a piece of software, you must first check to see whether your computer meets the minimum system requirements in order to ensure that it is capable of running the program.

First of all, you need a fast Internet connection. Although different groups define "broadband" differently, in general if you have a DSL, cable, or satellite connection you have a fast enough connection to download software electronically. If you have a dial-up or ISDN connection, it is not advisable to use this method to acquire software, and you should opt for the media version instead. If you are using a cellular network, be sure to familiarize yourself with any traffic overage charges that may apply.

Secondly, to verify that your computer can run the software you wish to download, check to see that your operating system (OS) version is compatible with the program. You should also ensure that your computer has enough memory (RAM) and a fast enough processor to run the program. Another factor to consider is whether your computer's hard drive has enough free storage space, to not only temporarily hold the download file but also permanently store the installed program and any of its associated files.

The vast majority of software vendors disclose a program's minimum system requirements somewhere on their website, often on the same page as the link to the download. If you do not see system requirements located on the same page as the download link, you may want to search the vendor's site or use the site map to find this information. If the software in question is a TechSoup donation, its requirements will be listed on the product description page.

To find system details about computers running Microsoft Windows, right-click on the My Computer icon on your Desktop, then select Properties. In the General tab of the window that appears, you will see the OS version, processor type, and amount of RAM installed on your computer. To check free hard-drive space on a computer running Windows, open My Computer and check the drive to which you wish to install your program; its free space is indicated either in a numerical or graphical format. In Mac OS X, you can click on About This Mac in the Apple menu; if you need more information, click on the More Info button to open the System Profiler application.


File Types

Like most other types of computer files, software installation packages have an extension — letters following the period at the end of a filename — that designates what type of file the package is. If you have purchased software as a download from a commercial vendor, the manufacturer will likely point you to the file type that is compatible with your computer's OS. On the other hand, if you're obtaining software from a free or unofficial download directory, you may be presented with a variety of file types for the same program.

To help you quickly decide which type of file will run on your computer's OS, you may find it helpful to familiarize yourself with the most common types of software installation files associated with the various platforms. All downloaded programs and installation packages are compressed to conserve bandwidth during transport, and your computer will need the proper program to be able to use these files.

  • ZIP: ZIP is a common compressed file format that can be opened natively by Windows and Mac. These files can also be opened with third-party programs like 7-Zip, StuffIt Expander, or WinZip.
  • EXE: These files are "executable" files, which can be opened directly. You will sometimes download a small EXE file that is a download and installation manager program that completes the rest of the download package automatically.
  • MSI: These files are Windows installation files that are used for Windows programs.
  • DMG: These files are Mac OS installation volumes. Once they are downloaded, they appear as a separate drive on your desktop, and the installation file appears within this "drive."

Lastly, an OS-agnostic format, ISO, is a popular and efficient way by which software is distributed. ISO files are image files of an entire CD or DVD. In Windows 7 and Mac OS X, you can "burn" or write these files onto a disc using the built-in programs. If you are using other OS versions, you will need a third-party program like the free ImgBurn to either physically burn the disc or "mount" the file virtually using an application like MagicDisc in order to read its contents as if it were on a physical disc. If you can manage to install the program without burning it, it is often faster to access the files, as well as more environmentally friendly.


Download Management and Tips

While very simple applications may come in small installation packages that are only a few megabytes in size, more complex, feature-packed programs may come bundled in files that total as much as several gigabytes. So if your organization's Internet connection has a limited amount of bandwidth, downloading a large file could take many hours or even fail altogether due to timeout errors when more traffic is going through your network than it can handle. The following are some guidelines to downloading these large files.

First of all, as downloading large files takes a while, it's best that the station at which you are downloading be as idle as possible. For example, the Adobe Creative Suite download from TechSoup, using a mid-tier DSL broadband line, can take at least 12 hours. It is best for the computer to not be multi-tasking or otherwise engaged in activity, as an errant click or program crash may mean you have to start all over again. You could choose to initiate the download at the end of your workday, when you and your coworkers won't need as much bandwidth. Be sure to check that the computer is not set to go to sleep; you can check this setting in the Power Options of the Control Panel in Windows, and in Energy Saver under System Preferences for Mac OS.

You might also find it useful to install a special program called a download manager to throttle download speeds or schedule downloads over the weekend. If downloading while the office is idle is not an option, being able to manage the speed of your download will enable you to set your download such that it won't take up the entirety of your bandwidth. Slow Internet connections can bring download speeds to a crawl or even halt file transfers altogether. Unexpected system crashes can also cause downloads to fail, which can be a big problem if the software vendor gives you only one chance to complete the download. If reliability is a concern, you may want to use a download manager option instead.

Additionally, since most of us download and use the web via a browser, there are extensions, or supplementary browser applications, that can help with downloading. DownThemAll is a popular add-on that Firefox users use for download management. In addition, many websites have built-in download manager options. TechSoup members who have requested Microsoft, Adobe, or Symantec donations may have seen this option when requesting electronically distributed software. This option is generally the most reliable way to download software. For example, it will account for your location to find a server that is closest to you, and support resumption of download should your connection be broken. If your download were to be interrupted, the download manager option would provide a shortcut or link. For a regular browser option, while you can attempt to resume a download by visiting the link again, you may or may not have to start over from the beginning.

You may also be given a choice between downloading via HTTP and FTP downloads. HTTP is the common protocol by which most web traffic is transported; this is the same "http" that precedes a web address. FTP, or file transport protocol, was the original protocol used to transport files. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on your network setup. In general, unless you or your system administrator installed a specific FTP client on your computer or imposed special rules to facilitate FTP transfer, HTTP would be the more accessible way for you to download programs and files.

And finally, depending on your OS, downloading files from the Internet will offer the ability to either Run or Save the selected file directly from the host server. For most, we recommend selecting the Save option to download the selected file to your local hard drive before beginning the installation. Once the complete installation file is downloaded and saved locally, this gives you the option of performing the installation to multiple computers quickly, instead of performing the download again and again for multiple installations.

After pressing Save as in the figure above, the next dialog box shows you how to select a location to store your file. It is important to remember exactly where on your local computer you are storing the temporary installation file. The default location for Firefox is Downloads in My Documents.

After your download completes, you should keep the file safely archived, either by burning the files onto CD or DVD, or in a file server on your network. Be sure to keep any registration and activation information handy in case you need to reinstall the software (as the version you registered may no longer be available from the vendor) or transfer the license to a different workstation.



ESD is becoming the norm, as network speeds increase and more devices come without CD or DVD drives. In addition, considering the energy and resources to produce a DVD, package it, and ship it, ESD is an overwhelmingly greener option. Following these simple tips above will ensure that you get and use your files and applications in the most efficient way possible.

Find tools and tips for greening your nonprofit through TechSoup's GreenTech Initiative, where social benefit organizations can share and learn more about technology choices that can help to reduce our overall impact on the environment.

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from an article authored by former TechSoup staff writer Brian Satterfield in August 2007.

Image: Download Folder Red Iconset Glossy, Pixabay