Sometimes - depends on whose it is
First, IMHO, not much could be worse than Symantec/Norton. However, you have to be VERY careful about "FREE" stuff - especially emoticons, fonts, and "cute" stuff, because it often comes with a hidden load that you don't want.
That said however, there are some truly superlative FREE applications. Why a free version? 1. They hope you like it so much, you want more. 2. Their primary income is from corporate applications and they are good net citizens - what makes the internet safer for Tom, Dick, & Harry, makes it safer for their corporate clients too. 3. Some are really smart kids that LOVE to have the recognition of people using stuff they write and maybe make a few bucks from donations. 4. Some ask you to donate if you like it (I always do - even $1 over a lot of people makes a difference). 5. They hope that if enough people start using it and it gets really popular and is on more PCs than not, THEN they can make some real money on it - hmmm, who did that? Oh, yes...Microsoft Windows OS!!
Some GREAT!!! FREE applications:
AVAST Anti-Virus - absolutely the bomb! They can even scan your web pages before they are delivered to you - and that's the free version. They have corporate clients paying their big bills and they are good citizens. I bless them every day.
ZoneAlarm - outstanding, super protection if set up properly. Also have corporate clients. I'm a little confused about their paid version - I was going to buy it until I found out that they charge an annual fee if you have the paid version, but not if you have the free version?????
Spywareblaster - also the bomb! However, to get the best use of it, the $10 annual fee for daily autoupdates is worth every penny and then some. It runs once at boot up and then shuts down, but somehow keeps ugly stuff from installing on your PC in the first place! I haven't had Ad-Aware or Spybot S&D (both good apps) find anything since I installed it. The daily autoupdate downloads all known signatures of adware, spyware, etc. etc. You can do this manually for free, but the peace of mind and protection is WELL worth $10/year to me.
ERUNT & REGOPT - backup, restore, and defrag your registry (does not scan for errors). Very fast. There is a way to have it run a registry backup at each bootup and store it where it can be accessed by the recovery console. (I don't do that because I use ACRONIS True Image (not free, but great) so I can just step back in time whenever I need to, whether windows will boot or not.
Win2Pdf - anything you can select to "print" (any application), you can save as a PDF file.
Foxit pdf Reader - Smaller, faster, & better than Adobe
MWSnap - best app I've found (and I tried MANY) for clipping any part of window or screen - can be set up on an "Fkey" with really easy operation IF you read the directions and set your defaults intelligently.
TreePad by Freebyte - great notpad with clickable "tree" index - another app with so many features, you need to read the directions to take full advantage of it. Outstanding. I graduated to one of the paid versions "TreePadBiz7" (that's why they offer the free ones). I love this app. & the free version is not shabby at all.
Free Internet Window Washer
CCleaner - cleans up extraneous files on your pc - internet, index.dat
Free Registry Cleaner by Eusing - I have NOT tried this yet, but I hear its good.
There are free registry tweaks by Steve Gibson that NO computer should be without: ShootTheMessenger, SocketToMe, DCOMbobulator, MouseTrap, LeakTest, UnPlug'nPray, etc. Check out his site.
I have an .reg file that clears my page file at shutdown, but I can't remember where I got it. Probably from "KarenWare Power Tools" or "Kelly's Korner". Along with Steve Gibson, these guys offer so much good stuff for free.
MoffSoft FreeCalc - Good free calculator with a savable "tape"
Fantastic batch file renamers - strip nums/chars,replace nums/chars, very flexible. Drag files in, see what change would do, then change.
FileRenamer (by VirtualZone - requires no install), ReNamerII (by Softpedia),
XPInfo - no install needed
There are a couple of good free icon clippers/extractors/editors around also... Randy's Icon Editor, IcoFX, GoldIcon, etc.
There is LOTs of EXCELLENT free stuff out there. But research and get forum opinions (google search) before you install ANYTHING on your PC - ESPECIALLY something FREE.
Gates is looking to dry up the free software market with VISTA - it has some bad stuff in it that will be really bad for the average user in the long run. VISTA is the first step toward your PC belonging & being controlled by Microsoft (you just pay for it). I hope and pray people do NOT fall for VISTA.
My very best paid programs - I've used for years and don't begrudge a dime that I paid: Acronis True Image, WinZip, TreePadBiz7, SecondCopy, ExpressAssist8, SmartPopUpKiller (no longer available, but still works fantastic), Roboform (Love this), PerfectDisk8, I'm still looking for the perfect Registry Cleaner - jv16PowerTools is one I'm considering.
Oh yes, when you install free stuff (or not free stuff) if they offer to install MORE free stuff (toolbars, etc.) say "NO" loud and clear.