I recently had to reinstall a whole slew of applications on my work PC, following a clean install of Windows Vista. It took me the better part of the day to get my most important packages up and running. And weeks later, I'm still reinstalling the odd utility or game that helps me make it through the day. But in the end, I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly it all went, and how much of the resurrection occurred without reliance on CDs or DVDs.
Practically everything I needed was a download, from PC World's corporate servers, from the Downloads folder on my hard drive, or from the Web. Almost nothing was on a disc, which certainly wouldn't have been the case several years ago. It made me wonder: Is the age of shrink-wrapped software ending? If disaster strikes, are you better off with discs, or are downloads good enough?
Some people are simply more comfortable using discs, and in some instances, with good reason. "They want the CD-ROM in case anything happens or they have to boot from the CD," says Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis for the NPD Group, which tracks software sales. Others might not have room on their hard drives to store a lot of installation files. But often, downloading software makes more sense than getting it from discs.
Broadband makes it feasible for people to download large programs that they would never have dreamed of obtaining over a dial-up connection. And as more software becomes available electronically, more customers are forgoing discs. Even Microsoft is climbing aboard the download wagon, with a trial download program for its new 2007 Office software suite. Adobe now sells its entire line of content creation software electronically, and though the company won't disclose what percentage of its sales are downloads, that business is definitely growing, says Mark Floisand, the company's director of worldwide direct commerce. Meanwhile, 45 percent of customers who buy an edition of Intuit's QuickBooks at QuickBooks.com download it, says Heidi Jackman, group marketing manager for its site. And at about 430MB, QuickBooks isn't a trivial download: Intuit estimates a download time ranging from 20 to 45 minutes over broadband. Adobe's Creative Suite, meanwhile, requires more than 5GB of hard drive space, so it's a very lengthy download even with a broadband connection. With files this big, you might want to use a download manager (if the software maker's store allows you to) that will let you resume the transfer without starting over if, say, your Internet connection drops. For this purpose, my colleague Erik Larkin recommends [LeechGet] , a free utility that works with all the major Internet browsers.
Many shrink-wrapped Adobe packages come with hefty printed manuals. But if you buy the software as a download, you'll get the manual only in electronic form (as a PDF). Adobe is willing to send download buyers the printed manual, but at a cost of US$35 to $50 for something that buyers of the shrink-wrapped product get for free. In this case, I'd defer the instant gratification and instead go for the box with the discs and the manual.
If you want both the convenience of downloading and the insurance of having physical media on your shelf, you may be able to purchase backup installation discs. Intuit charges about US$10 to cover shipping and handling; and Adobe charges between $10 and $20, depending on how many discs the product requires.