Even if you buy retail, look through the back of a computer magazine for advertisements from mail-order companies to gauge current pricing. Even call two or three of the toll-free telephone numbers listed because printed prices might have changed since the ad was created.
If you have Internet access, World Wide Web sites such as Computer Shopper's NetBuyer (www.netbuyer.com) automate the process of comparing prices of the same product from different vendors.
If you don't have a state-of-the-art computer, it might not make sense to pay top dollar for state-of-the-art software. You may not even be able to run the latest programs on your system.
The UsoX (www.midwinter.com/usox) is a classified-ad Web site for Windows, Mac and other platforms. Nearly 900 programs currently are listed. You can quickly search through the site's database for what you want.
Run any program you buy through a virus checker. The site warns you not to use this location for software piracy. If you make a copy of a program for yourself, don't try to sell the original.
Recycled Software [(800) 851-2425] of Las Vegas, NV, buys used software, inventories it and marks it up before selling it. It's currently selling Microsoft Office Professional 4.3 for $199. For your money, the service virus checks each program and ensures that all disks are included.
In addition, most of its programs can be registered or upgraded. The company says it doesn't sell any software whose licensing agreement prohibits its resale or transfer.
These flea market-like events are held on weekends at race tracks, convention centers and college campuses. Vendors range from regional distributors trying to clear out inventory to individual entrepreneurs. Check newspaper or magazine advertisements for shows near you.
Don't buy a "For evaluation only" version of a program-you won't be able to get support for it or a discount on future upgrades.
These programs are meant to be shared so you can try before you buy. If you use a program regularly, you're asked to send the developer a registration fee, which is the equivalent of buying it. Registration fees usually are lower than the prices of commercial programs, though any given shareware program may not be as polished or feature-laden as its commercial equivalent.
With the popularity of the Internet, many shareware catalog companies have gone out of business. Software House (formerly Shareware Express) of Palm Harbor, FL, still mails out its catalog for free [(800) 346-2842]. The company selects what it regards as the best shareware titles for its inventory and virus checks each program. It charges $2.99 for most titles plus $4 shipping and handling per order.
Even if you have Internet access, it can make sense to buy registered shareware programs at discounted prices through this service-you'll eliminate screen messages nagging you to register and the possibility of a program disabling itself if you don't.
Still, the fastest way to get shareware is through the Internet. The best shareware repositories include CNET's Shareware.com (www.shareware.com) and Jumbo (www.jumbo.com).
Academics, Seniors and Nonprofits
Ace Software Express [(800) 377-9943] of Cliffside Park, NJ, offers discounts on Windows and Mac software to students, teachers and-with programs from Corel-to senior citizens and nonprofit organizations as well. The programs are identical to full-priced versions, except they can cost less than half as much.
There's little worse than spending a couple hundred dollars for a heavy-duty program only to find it doesn't meet your needs. Software demos may be of little help because many are just marketing tools.
Most software renting was made illegal in 1990 by the Computer Software Rental Amendments Act. Some companies have bypassed this law with a setup that lets you make a deposit to preview a program before deciding to buy. If you buy, your deposit is applied toward the purchase price. If you don't buy, you simply return the program and forfeit your deposit.
For a week-long preview of a program, including all manuals, Wedgewood Rental [(800) 433-2938) of Fort Worth, TX, charges anywhere from $10 for games to $115 for Adobe Photoshop plus postage. The company has more than 5,000 Windows and Mac titles in stock.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway." He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or on the Web at www.members.home.net/reidgold.