Finding software bargains

Features James Hunt Jan 15, 2013

What good is a system without programs to run on it? James shows you where to look for software bargains

As expensive as it is to keep hardware up to date, PC owners also have to factor in the cost of buying the software they need to get the most out of their system. After all, what good is it to have the best CPU and the most RAM if you don’t have any games or applications that can actually use the latest features of the hardware, let alone stretch them? Not much good at all, is the answer!

Unlike hardware, it’s much easier to find good bargains in and around the software market. You just need to know where to look. To help you find the best prices, we’ve compiled this helpful guide to the various ways you can find the best software at discount prices, whether cheap or expensive, whether games, applications or operating systems.

Buying old/second hand

The second hand market for software - particularly games - has come under fire in recent years. Publishers have long agonised over their inability to get a slice of the secondary market, and have employed all sorts of tricks and traps to inconvenience second hand gamers into buying fresh copies at retail. These include limited-edition download content and online keys, both which must be purchased separately if the games aren’t bought new.

Luckily, application developers aren’t quite as draconian about resales of their software, usually because they know a new version will be out soon with a range of new features and technologies that people can’t get anywhere else. The release of a new version alone can reduce the price of ‘old’ software to a fraction of its initial cost, and that makes buying second hand software an easy way to get your hands on nearly new programs without breaking the bank.

Generally, the only concern you should have when buying applications second hand is that the license keys are genuine and haven’t expired or been used up. Most licenses are valid for a certain number of installations and/or individual systems, so if you’re buying second hand you need to ensure that you’re still able to use the license key and that the seller has removed the software from the machines they have it installed on - otherwise you might find yourself locked out of a program you thought you legitimately owned!

Although applications lose their value quite quickly, it’s far less simple to find a bargain where second hand games are concerned. Even the worst, most critically lambasted titles inexplicably hold their retail value for a few months, and certain titles simply won’t dip below half price no matter how long you wait. Obviously, there are some savings to be made if you avoid new releases entirely, but whatever a game is selling for 2-3 months after its release is likely to be its price for a long, long time.

Buying overseas

The Internet has turned the world into a global village, giving all of us access to retailers in every country, so why not take advantage of this the next time you have to pop down to the virtual shops? Buying software from abroad can knock huge percentages off the price thanks to favourable exchange rates and differing taxation systems, and the comparatively low shipping costs mean you won’t get too badly stung on delivery prices either. Sure, you have to wait a while, but if you’re not in a rush, it’s certainly worth investigating.

For example, if you’re looking to buy a particularly expensive suite, such as Photoshop CS6, it costs $529 in the US and £613.49 in the UK! If you can buy it abroad, you stand to save almost £300 in real terms.

Of course, companies have also noticed that overseas prices can be favourable. In recent years, software publishers have done their best to crack down on the international ‘grey import’ market, banning retailers from shipping their products abroad, so it can be difficult to find a company that’ll sell expensive software to people across the Atlantic at the risk of losing their license to distribute copies entirely. Conversely, prices in Europe tend to be higher than in the UK, so there’s no advantage to be found there. Remember, too, that you may be required to pay import VAT (on items over £15) and customs duty (on items over £135, if the amount calculated is more than £9) so there may be extra charges.

Still, none of those restrictions stop you from picking programs up while holidaying abroad, or asking someone else to do it for you. The versions on sale are normally identical to the European or ‘international’ version, bar the inclusion of certain language packs, and region selection should mean that you can even convert it to British English from the American default without much difficulty.

Buying download versions

A convenient alternative to retail purchases comes in the form of digital distribution. It’s hard to overstate the convenience of being able to download the software you want direct from the manufacturer, even if it’s not quite as cheap as you’d expect. 

For instance, it would be fair to assume that the price of downloadable software would be substantially lower than the price of boxed retail copies, because they involve no fabrication process, and distribution is both more efficient and economical. There is normally some discount to be had, but much of the ‘value’ of software is deemed to be inherent in its existence, rather than its physical form.

In actual fact, a large part of this is because publishers don’t want to upset long-nurtured relationships with various retail partners. If people can download a copy of software, they’ll be less likely to make the effort to go and but it in its physical form from a shop. If people stop buying a product from shops, retailers will recognise that and use the shelf space for programs that they can actually sell, a downward exposure spiral, which can end with the product becoming relatively obscure. The way publishers combat this problem is by ensuring that download prices don’t undercut the price of physical copies in any significant way, so that there’s still an incentive to buy in-store.

There are benefits to buying a physical copy of software, of course, not least the potential secondary market value - you can’t resell a download. However, if you’re looking for a lower price, you can save a small amount by going purely digital.

Buying upgrade editions

One way of getting a bargain software upgrade is staggeringly prosaic, and yet it is often overlooked: all you have to do is buy an upgrade edition.

If you’ve previously installed a retail copy of almost any popular software package, be it an office suit, your operating system or an image editor, it’s a safe bet that you can also buy an upgrade edition of the same title. Publishers are keen to keep people using their software, and the best way to do that isn’t to force them to pay out several hundred pounds every few years.

Instead, if you buy upgrade copies, you can maintain your position on the software’s industry’s cutting edge without breaking the bank. One current deal allows owners of Windows 7 to upgrade to Windows 8 for as little as £25. Even at full price, it’s only £45. Both are astonishingly cheap ways to get the latest Microsoft operating system - to upgrade Windows 7 from XP or Vista easily cost double that.

There are inconveniences associated with upgrade editions, of course. The secondary market value is poor, and for obvious reasons, you can’t use them to do clean installations. This means that if you want to set the software up on a new system, first you have to install the old software, and then install the upgrade version on top of it. However, unless you do a lot of clean installs, we’d argue that it’s worth the very occasional nuisance in return for the financial savings you can make via this circuitous route.

Buying student copies

There are many perks offered to students that other sections of society are denied: reduced council tax, cheaper travel on public transport and a 10% discount at shops up and down the country are just some of them. However, good deals on software might be the most jealousy-inducing of them all. Aware of the high price retail software commands, publishers have come up with the idea of so-called ‘student editions’ and educational licenses, which offer reduced prices in the hope of getting programs into the hands of the next generation of workers. That’s great; if you’re a student.

Although the software is only legally available to students, some organisations will allow you to buy it for a student member of your family. You may need student ID, but many websites allow you to purchase student editions without even asking for that. In most cases, the software is unrestricted, except for student edition branding. In some cases, output will be clearly branded as originating from an educational copy of the software, as any commercial distribution would require a full license to be applied to it.

If you’re wondering what prevents non-students from buying educational editions, the answer, really, is nothing. That said, if non-students buy educational editions, the license will technically be invalid. In effect, you’ve pirated the software by obtaining it without the proper license, even if you’ve have paid some money towards it.

If you’re interested in student software, numerous online retailers sell it - Software 4 Students, Student Superstore (which requires a digital copy of Student ID) and Student Expressware, for example. It’s also available in campus shops.

Free alternatives

Rather than buying software at all, there’s always one alternative that can save you tonnes of money - finding free alternatives instead. There’s a perception within the computing industry that freeware applications are automatically worse than their retail counterparts, but there’s not as much in it as you’d think…

Free Operating System: Linux

If you’re comfortable using a command line and don’t fancy buying the latest version of Windows with whatever mutant interface they’ve slapped on the top this time, why not consider getting a copy of Linux instead? In case you haven’t heard, Linux is a powerful and free-to-use operating system that many organisations use to run their networks instead of Windows or Unix.
Although it has a reputation for being difficult to use, modern version of Linux are actually surprisingly easy to get to grips with if you’re a confident Windows-user. The OS can even be set up to run many Windows applications, so you won’t have to abandon your favourite software either.

Free Office Suite: LibreOffice

If you don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office, then there’s one competitor which has long been cemented as a genuinely viable alternative: LibreOffice, which is the successor to OpenOffice.org. Although its thrifty appeal is what makes it an instant hit, LibreOffice has become a genuine option to many PC users, not just those who want to save a bit of cash - partly because it still uses the old toolbar-driven approach that Microsoft has abandoned.

While LibreOffice is admittedly not quite as polished or feature-filled as Office is, all the popular functions one might want to use are included. Most importantly, the package is fully compatible with all Microsoft formats, meaning that you can save and load documents that will also work in Office 2010. Admittedly, OpenOffice isn’t a perfect replica of Office, and requires a certain degree of maintenance that might not necessarily be required with any other suite, but it’s a small trade-off between that and the price of commercial software.

Free Image Editor: GIMP

The, er... colourfully named ‘GNU Image Manipulation Program’ contains much of the functionality you’d expect out of any paid-for image editor, such as Photoshop, but provides it at a tiny percentage of the cost. Assuming you would describe ‘0%’ as a tiny percentage. It runs quickly and cleanly on both Windows and Linux, and it’ll resize your photos and colour your pictures, and you won’t find yourself weeping into your bare wallet while you’re doing it. All major file types are supported, so there’s no need to worry whether it’ll hold you back with compatibility issues, because it won’t. As with any image editor it will take you a while to learn how to use it, but as an alternative to paying several hundreds of pounds getting hold of Photoshop, its usefulness can’t be denied.