Most software is expensive and bloated. Yet free software typically does one task and does it with precision and elegance.
Among the thousands of free apps available on the Web, how do you find the best, most reliable ones for your needs?
To produce this story, we asked PC Magazine staffers to share their best-loved free software and were inundated with responses.
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Our recommendations are the apps that real people use everyday, at work and at home, for all kinds of tasks — photo editing and DVD burning, database work and intrusion detection, VoIP calling and stargazing.
They're tried and tested, the best tools you can get — and they're all free.
Many of the programs we cover are open-source, with their source code available for use and modification as others see fit.
We also help you navigate SourceForge (www.sourceforge.net), one of the best sites for finding open-source software.
But before you start downloading, make sure to protect yourself. In researching this story, we had an encounter with a Trojan horse, which is not unusual.
So we turned to our security expert, Neil J. Rubenking, for tips on how to protect yourself from malware. And by the way, once you get started with free software, it's hard to stop.
avast! 4 Home Edition
This slick, skinnable antivirus app looks like a high-tech media player, but it's really a virus fighter. It scans files on demand and on access, including e-mail attachments. No scheduling — you have to pay for that — but it can send a warning on detecting malware. A boot-time scan option removes tenacious malware. And it's 64-bit compatible. — Neil J. Rubenking
AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition
This program splits its user interface between Control Center and Test Center, which can be a bit confusing. But it does what an antivirus app should: It scans files on access, on demand, and on schedule. It also scans e-mail, both incoming and outgoing. According to Grisoft, it's totally Vista-ready. — NJR
The new kick-ass choice for free firewall protection, Comodo Firewall keeps hackers out and keeps unauthorized programs from accessing the Internet, even tricky ones that sneak around normal program control. And it resists being forcibly terminated. It works as well as all but the very best for-pay firewalls. — NJR
McAfee's back-end servers crawl the Web to evaluate sites. Does the site host malicious software? Will it spam you? Are there exploits in the code? If SiteAdvisor red-flags a site you're visiting, get outta there! It evaluates all the links from Google and popular search engines so that you need never find yourself on a red-flagged site. — NJR
When we last tested it, Tenebril's SpyCatcher did very well both at cleaning out spyware and at preventing further infestation. The free SpyCatcher Express edition has almost all the features found in the paid version. It lacks antiphishing and a few high-end tools, and you have to check for updates manually, but it does the job. — NJR
StartupMonitor alerts you to programs that try to install themselves whenever you boot up Windows. Unlike most similar utilities, this one is unobtrusive and won't interfere with program installations that reboot automatically. — Ed Mendelson
SuperStorm Freeware protects a sensitive file (up to 200KB) by encrypting it and hiding it inside a JPEG image, and then securely deleting the original. A for-pay Pro edition has no size limit and can encrypt with a user-defined password. SuperStorm can extract anything hidden by the Pro edition, and it uses a simple drag-and-drop interface. — NJR
Microsoft bought Windows Defender's technology about two years ago, but the software colossus doesn't seem to have done much with it. The product's ability to remove entrenched spyware is mediocre, and it's not a lot better at keeping spyware out of a clean system. But it's free and built into OneCare and Vista, so use its on-demand scanner for a "second opinion." — NJR
The venerable ZoneAlarm doesn't have all the features of ZoneAlarm Pro's firewall. Its program control asks you whether to allow programs rather than consulting the SmartDefense Advisor database. It doesn't have the component control or OSFirewall features, so it won't block "leak test" techniques. But it's tough as nails; malware can't disable it. — NJR
Windows Notepad works — that's about the only good thing we can say about Microsoft's built-in text editor. EditPad Lite, on the other hand, has lots going for it, including a tabbed interface for editing multiple files, line numbering, auto-indenting, and printing blocks of text. EditPad Pro ($49.95) does add a lot of goodies, of course, including spell-checking and syntax coloring. — Ben Z. Gottesman, freelance writer
If you're looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office, try OpenOffice.org. Though not as full-featured as the offering out of Redmond, the suite includes a very capable word processor and spreadsheet that are compatible with MS Office files. There's also a presentation app, a diagramming tool, and a database. OpenOffice.org may be all the suite you need. — BZG
SQL Manager Lite
EMS creates powerful database tools and applications for data management. Of particular note is the free SQL Manager Lite edition of its software for databases including MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQL Server, and Interbase/Firebird. — Jennifer DeLeo
Ready to start blogging? WordPress is among the most powerful of the many free personal blogging tools around. You can host WordPress on your own server or get a free blog at wordpress.com. Unlike most other free hosted blogs, you can have multiple contributors, customize the looks, and get the word out via RSS. — BZG
Utilities & PC Management
AllChars lets you type foreign characters such as ñ or ü in any application. Just tap the program's hot key (Right Ctrl or any other shift-style key) followed by two characters such as n and the tilde or u and a double quotation mark, and the combined character you want appears in your document. It can also type boilerplate text such as your name or address. — EM
AnalogX MaxMem is the cure for when your older, slower system has the hiccups and needs a reboot. It saves you this annoyance by freeing up memory with just a click, giving your computer its second wind. — Whitney A. Reynolds
The open-source AutoHotkey lets you automate all of your repetitive tasks. Scripts can be compiled so you can share them with people who don't have the app. Not ready to create your own? You'll find dozens of user-contributed scripts on the Web site. — BZG
Clipomatic is the most compact and usable of dozens of clipboard extenders. It stores text that you copy to the Windows clipboard for pasting into any application. You can also store boilerplate text such as names and phone numbers. But avoid it if you use version 7 of Acrobat or Adobe Reader, because it blocks them from saving to the clipboard. — EM
Ever need to extract text from an e-mail message or Web discussion, but the message is full of angle brackets (>) or other symbols? Or maybe it's got little bits of HTML strewn about. eCleaner quickly goes through these files and strips out the detritus. It's not fancy, but it works. — BZG
FileZilla is a full-featured FTP client that supports Secure FTP, SSL, and other protocols in a slick interface, complete with a tree-structured site manager that lets you store settings for multiple sites. An option to set speed limits can prevent download quotas from being triggered on networks that monitor bandwidth usage. — EM
Adobe Acrobat, the ubiquitous software for PDF viewing, can slow older systems to a crawl — or even crash them. Foxit Reader lets you get your PDF goodness without the Adobe bloat. It runs small and swift, either as a standalone app or from within your browser. — WAR
Gaim hooks into most any chat service you could possibly want. It's a multiprotocol instant-messaging client that works with Google Talk, AIM and ICQ (Oscar protocol), MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, SILC, Novell GroupWise Messenger, Lotus Sametime, and Zephyr networks. With Gaim, you can talk with your boyfriend on AIM while chatting with a "friend" on Yahoo! Messenger. — JD
Google Desktop includes a huge collection of widgets for displaying weather, news, file searches, Gmail, translation services, and more. Google's hard drive index searches only standard file formats. — EM
Mozy is a Web-based backup system that gives you 2 GB of free storage, or 30 GB for $4.95 a month. Sign up with an e-mail address at which you won't mind getting a Mozy newsletter, download the client, and let it automatically back up My Documents and any other folder you choose. — EM
MWSnap doesn't let you capture scrolling windows or have all the features of the best capture tool out there — SnagIt — but it gives you a lot more control than Windows' native capture utility, and it throws in some cool tools, such as a screen ruler and color picker. — BZG
PopTray is the premier pop-up mail checker for standard POP3 and IMAP mail accounts, including Gmail, and it can be coaxed to work with HTML-only mail such as Hotmail by following the instructions at the PopTray site. PopTray lives in the system tray, pops up reports of new messages, can be controlled entirely from the keyboard, and can be customized. — EM
RoboForm automatically fills in username and password fields in your browser, with an option to password-protect some or all of the passwords it stores, so you get better protection than you do from the storage features in IE and Firefox. Its SafeNotes feature stores credit card numbers or other secret data. The free version stores ten log-ins; a $29.95 Pro version stores an unlimited number. — EM
Microsoft's super-tweaker tool for Windows XP is the program to install immediately after installing XP. Tweak UI fine-tunes Start Menu and Taskbar settings, helps specify which icons appear on your desktop, sets auto log-in so you can skip entering a password, and much more. — EM
Ultimate Boot CD for Windows
This program helps you create a CD that boots into its own copy of Windows. The disc contains tons of useful utilities, from antivirus and antispyware to network and disk-repair tools. And if you're stuck, there's "PacMan" and "Asteroids" to pass the time. Rumor has it you can use UBCD4Win to create a bootable USB drive, too. — BZG
WinMerge is for programmers who know that as code grows, it gets harder and harder to spot the differences between versions. WinMerge quickly compares two text files or two folders (including subfolders), highlighting all the differences and letting you keep everything in sync. — BZG
WnBrowse adds a super-fast, no-frills file viewer to Windows' right-click menus. It displays plain text or hex data — no formatted documents, spreadsheets, or graphics — but that's often all you need, and it opens instantly. — EM
Yahoo! Desktop Search
If you want to index everything on your system, get Yahoo! Desktop Search. It does a brilliant job of sorting, characterizing, and helping you to find all your files and e-mail. — EM
Music & Audio
This is a powerful audio editing/recording software package that doesn't require much training. It works on Linux, Mac and Windows, and it handles many file types, including OGG, MP3, AIFF, AU, and WAV (but not WMA or AAC). Its features include 32-bit/96-KHz recording and editing (up to 16 channels), independent speed and pitch control, noise removal, a spectrogram mode, and tons of built-in effects. But it's also perfect for quick recordings and editing long files. — Michael Kobrin
A robust digital music player for organizing, ripping, burning, converting, and playing your tunes, Media Monkey also has smart tagging, Auto DJ, and a Party Mode that lets you make requests without modifying the library. The free standard version gives you most features but limits MP3 encoding and slows the burn rate. The Gold version is $19.95. — Erik Rhey
dBpowerAMP Music Converter
This do-it-all program for Microsoft Windows lets you rip CDs, convert files, and record audio. It supports MP3, MP4, M4a, WMA, OGG, AAC, APE, FLAC, Apple Lossless, and more. This app integrates with Windows, so you can simply right-click on a file to convert it. — MK
CDex is a CD-ripping and file-conversion app for the extremely picky. It includes many different encoders, including LAME MP3, Fraunhofer MP3, MP2, APE, OGG, WMA, WAV, VQF, and FAAC. It also has jitter correction for error-free CD ripping and works with the CDDB database. — MK
Video & Graphics
This app backs up part or all of a commercial DVD by running your Nero burning software automatically to copy the DVD directly to a new one in compressed form. Or, if you don't have Nero installed, you can save the compressed files to your hard drive, then manually burn them to a DVD using your own burning software. For legal reasons, the site has no download link, but it helps you find DVD Shrink on other sites. To the best of our knowledge, using the software isn't illegal, as long as you're backing up your own legally bought files. — EM
If you manage a Web site — be it a personal or community site, either on your own server or a hosted service — Gallery 2 is a great tool for organizing photos and integrating them into the site. Create and manage albums, upload photos, set permissions, and much more. (See our interview with Gallery's creator, below.) — Tony Hoffman
With GB-PVR you can schedule and play back recordings from almost any current video capture card or external video capture sources, but it works best with Hauppauge's popular hardware. It also records radio or Net radio and plays back DVDs. An elegant default skin and a set of default plug-ins give quick access to standard broadcast schedules, and a growing plug-in library lets you add weather and other special-interest sources. — EM
It's not Photoshop, but GIMP is an amazingly powerful and efficient open-source bitmap-editing package that can look just as confusing as Photoshop if you open all its floating toolbars and sidebars. You'll need to get used to its nonstandard menus. If you make your living from graphics or photo editing, you'll probably go commercial, but GIMP gets the job done free. — EM
This 3D modeling tool matches what its developers call the "pencil" stage of designing — when you make quick, slightly rough-edged drawings of solid objects, complete with shadows but without the photorealism of commercial packages. This is the least intuitive of Google's software offerings, but it's easier to use than any rival 3D programs. — EM
IrfanView displays almost all standard bitmap image formats, is startlingly fast, and uses one-keystroke commands for the quickest-possible access to features such as saving in a different format or flipping upside-down images. You don't get WordPerfect Graphics (WPG) support, but everything else is there. Make this one your default image viewer. — EM
This photo-management tool from Google creates a library of the images on your computer (or on a particular drive), sorted by date. From Picasa you can edit images with a decent set of editing tools, send photos via Gmail, burn them to CD, or upload them to blogs, photo printing sites, or Picasa's own Web albums. — TH
QuickTime Alternative and Real Alternative
These apps let you play QuickTime or Real videos without Apple or Real's bloated, in-your-face proprietary players. While you're at the download site, get the up-to-date, extensive codec package and check the FAQs for advice on MPEG decoders and demuxers. — EM
VLC media player
The recently upgraded VLC media player plays almost any multimedia file in almost any format, in a more compact and efficient interface than any commercial product. It can't handle Real Media and a few other proprietary formats, however. Even if you prefer Windows Media Player or QuickTime, keep this one handy for files that won't play in either of them. — EM
This is a classic alternative music player, free but owned by Time Warner. It's tiny and infinitely skinnable, but the reason you want it on your system even if you use iTunes is that it supports virtually every audio format (except for DRM-encrypted ones) via its enormous plug-in library. — EM
This extension blocks even the most persistent advertising from any Web page, and a toolbar icon lets you fine-tune pages if it blocks something you want to see. If you still use the old Adblock, replace it with Adblock Plus. — EM
Try this to upload and download your bookmarks to any FTP server or WebDAV site you can access, including sites protected by Secure FTP. Keep your home and office bookmarks synchronized, or synchronize your home machine with bookmarks added on the road. Firefox 2.x users need the version found in the French-language site listed here; choose Installer Bookmark Synchronizer 1.03 or later. — EM
FireFTP turns your browser into an FTP client, with a two-pane file manager for uploading and downloading. It doesn't yet support the increasingly common Secure FTP protocol, but it's useful for working with public FTP sites. — EM
Replacing Flash animations with a tiny arrow icon, FlashBlock removes those distractions so you can enjoy fast, unmolested browsing. If you find a Flash animation that you want to see, click on the icon or use options to whitelist animations on sites where you want them. — EM
This weather station for your Firefox status bar shows anything from the temperature to a multipanel display of current and forecasted weather. A click takes you to Accuweather.com, and an option lets you create profiles for multiple cities and for displaying tooltips, labels, and alerts. — EM
FoxyTunes installs a miniature media-player control panel on the Firefox status bar. Click on a button to see what's playing in iTunes, Windows Media Player, or any standard music program. Besides the usual player controls, you can hide and display the music software or launch a floating FoxyTunes toolbar that stays open when you close the browser. — EM
Use your Gmail account as storage by uploading and downloading files through a browser-based interface. An optional status bar button brings up a miniature file manager that lets you drag files into or out of your storage space. A toolbar item brings up a full-featured file manager. — EM
With Greasemonkey loaded, thousands of user-written scripts work automatically when you visit popular sites. One script logs you into eBay; another displays only negative feedback for an eBay member; and another adds icons below a member photo on MySpace for e-mailing, deleting from favorites, and so on. — EM
MR Tech Local Install
This should be the first extension you install, because it saves extensions and themes to your hard drive so you can find them without a Web search. It enables dozens of tweaks to Firefox's menus and tabs and lets you install officially unsupported extensions. — EM
Refresh your current page — or all open tabs — at any interval you choose. This is an ideal option for news pages or sites where you're waiting for tickets to become available. It would be even better if it could remember settings between sessions. — EM
This lightweight editor creates and modifies RSS feeds, though it's not powerful enough for podcasting. It's faster, simpler, and easier than most standalone RSS editors, and it's neatly integrated into Firefox. — EM
This extension saves the layout and addresses of all your tabs when you shut down Firefox, and it also lets you reopen the session later. If Firefox crashes, just restart the browser and Session Manager restores the session. — EM
Zotero stores detailed information about books. An icon appears in the address bar when you view a page with information about a title at Amazon.com or dozens of library catalogs. Click on the icon and full details pop into your Zotero database, where you can add notes and organize items into folders. — EM
Networking & Mobility
Altiris Software Virtualization Solution
With SVS, you can run apps virtually and enable and disable programs with a click of the mouse. When the app is disabled, it's gone without a trace; when it's enabled, it appears near-instantaneously. Free for personal use, SVS is great for trying out new applications as well as running apps that conflict with one another. Apps are stored as "packages" that you can either create yourself or find prepackaged by the dozens at SVSDownloads.com, from BitTorrent and Open Office to the FlightGear open-source flight simulator. — BZG
When you're on an open wireless network, it's easy to become a little paranoid that someone is sniffing your traffic. Make your surfing invisible by setting your browser to access the FreeProxy proxy server running on your home PC, which you can connect to securely via the Hamachi encrypted link. Follow the instructions on the LogMeIn Hamachi Web site and you'll be up in no time. — BZG
There's a good chance that if you access your office from home or the road, you connect through a VPN that encrypts all the traffic between your PC and the office network. Similarly, LogMeIn Hamachi creates an encrypted tunnel between individual PCs so you can easily and securely access your home PC from anywhere on the Internet. — BZG
NetStumbler detects 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11a wireless LANs. Run it on a laptop and you can get a good overview of your own Wi-Fi network (or that of others). It seeks out poorly covered spots, and detects overlapping networks that might be generating interference (including unauthorized rogue networks). — Davis D. Janowski
Careful — the person on the other end of your Skype call might be using PowerGramo, an add-on that records conversations. The free version will save the audio for your records, but you'll need to upgrade to PowerGramo Pro ($19.95) to record each person on a different track, which is useful if you use Skype to do interviews for podcasts. — BZG
Snort is probably the world's most widely used intrusion detection and prevention software. It's open-source, with a huge community of folks working to improve it. The bad news is that unless you have a lot of expertise, you'll need to be prepared to spend much time reading and learning how to run Snort. — DDJ
SightSpeed provides the best in free (for SightSpeed-to-SightSpeed calls) video calls over the Web. It uses a proprietary VoIP/VoIM (short for voice over IM) system and Web service to carry full-motion 30-frame-per-second video calls, as well as voice, chat, conference calling, and more. You'll need a Webcam that supports up to 30 fps and a broadband connection. — DDJ
Skype is by far the most popular PC-based VoIP service; it also works in dedicated telephones and other handheld devices. The Version 3.0 beta adds click-to-call to dial regular phone numbers from your PC, and Skypecasts — moderated discussions with up to 100 people. — BZG
For years, we've enlisted the help of readers to test their Internet connection bandwidth for our surveys. We've automated the process with our own tool: SurfSpeed. The real power of this application comes after it reports to our servers and allows you to compare results with others in your ZIP code, state, or country or worldwide. Plus, you'll get a sense of how your ISP measures up to others. And so will your ISP when we publish the results! — DJ
The simplest free solution to access your work PC from home is LogMeIn Free (not to be confused with LogMeIn Hamachi). For a more powerful Windows remote-access solution, try UltraVNC. It adds file transfer and text chat and is considered the best-performing flavor of the open-source VNC (Virtual Network Computing) protocol. — BZG
Fun & Games
Banshee Screamer Alarm
It's everything you'd want in an alarm clock. Banshee Screamer Alarm lets you set multiple alarms, and when each goes off, you have a choice of playing music from a playlist, running a program (though this didn't always work), playing a CD, or shutting down your PC. — BZG
This multiplayer 3D tank battle is one of the most popular open-source game projects, with more than a million downloads. It's available for Irix, Linux, BSD, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Solaris and more. Drive your tank around and destroy your opponents, or pick up an opponent's flag and bring it back to your base. — Matthew D. Sarrel
Cartes du Ciel
With Cartes du Ciel (Sky Maps), it's easy to find out what constellations and planets are visible tonight. It displays the night sky for any location on Earth, at any date and time. For basic star charts, Cartes du Ciel outclasses many commercial astronomy programs. — TH
This efficient utility lets you create and edit icons and cursors. You can draw the entire image using simple tools such as a pen, spray, and fill. You can also import an image (or part of it), edit it, and save it as an icon. — MDS
In this turn-based multiplayer strategy game for Linux, Mac, and Microsoft Windows, you can become the leader of your own civilization and strive to attain greatness. Win by either conquering all opposing civilizations or by using scientific knowledge to build a spaceship to send to Alpha Centauri before your rivals can do so. — MDS
Google Earth 4 Beta
Put the world at your fingertips with this virtual globe to help you plan trips (map driving routes, find restaurants, lodgings, and so on) or have fun as an armchair explorer. Includes content from Google Earth's user community, National Geographic, the UN Atlas of Our Changing Environment, the National Park Service, the Travel Channel, and more. You can also create your own overlays. The downside: It's a resource hog, and without a good graphics processor, it may crash or freeze your system. — TH
This 3D first-person shooter, available for Linux, Mac, and Microsoft Windows, is entirely GPL and is continuously tweaked and modded. The multiplayer death match, which has minimal hardware requirements, will keep you on your toes. Choose from 15 different player models and kill, kill, kill! — MDS
In Tux Racer, you play as Tux the Linux Penguin (though it's for Microsoft Windows and Mac as well as Linux). You must steer through the flags on a slalom course while picking up Tux's beloved herring. Realistic physics means you'll notice a difference between fluffy snow and slick ice. Change the weather and lighting to add to the challenge. — MDS
The ZSNES open-source Super Nintendo emulator, available for Microsoft Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, and DOS, beats other emulators with its superior compatibility, stability, graphics, audio, and usability. The best feature: two-player gaming over the Net. ZSNES can use hardware-accelerated graphics cards, so some games actually look better than they did on the original console. — MDS
Free Software — At a Price
One Editor's Cautionary Tale
A peril in downloading free software is the possibility of picking up malware.
It's an insidious adware program that resists every effort to remove it. (Some places classify NSIS as a dangerous Trojan with the potential to offload sensitive information, but I haven't seen any accounts alleging identity theft from it.)
Many security programs don't detect it at all, and most that do — such as Spy Sweeper — don't get rid of it permanently. Although I quarantined and deleted it, it was back on reboot, along with the pop-up ads it spawns. It actually appears in the Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs list — but if you try to remove it that way, it simply reappears on start-up.
Schrock Innovations, a Web site (www.schrockinnovations.com/removensismedia.php) dedicated to removing the NSIS Trojan, recommends starting Windows in Safe Mode, then removing both the NSIS folder that appears in C:Program FilesCommon Files and a specified Firefox folder, emptying your Recycle Bin, and removing NSIS Media from the Add/Remove Programs list (and also Firefox, which you'll need to reinstall).
The Trojan is usually gone on rebooting, but it didn't work for me. Most of the forums I scoured provided either pat suggestions or complicated Registry tweaks, but one user reported finding two suspect files, krnsvr32.dll and wmdmb32.dll, in his Windowssystem32 directory. He couldn't delete them, but he was able to neutralize them by moving them to a temp file and renaming them. I followed this method, and my system is now NSIS-free.
A likely source of my infection is the Arcade Classic Arcade Pack 5, which I had gotten from Download.com, a usually dependable site. Others, too, claim to have picked up the NSIS Trojan from this arcade package, which originated from Openwares.org.
We were not, however, able to reproduce the problem. Another frequently blamed source for the infection is the Foxie browser and firewall.
Even reliable download sites can sometimes post problem software. My lessons: Look at reader reviews of the program on the download site, and do a Web search on the program's name along with "virus," "Trojan," or "malware." — TH
Don't Get Infected!
Free software is great! Everybody loves to get something for nothing. But sometimes you get more than you bargained for.
That spiffy free game might be a Trojan horse. Or your new browser toolbar could be sending your private information back to its home base.
How can you get the benefits of free programs while keeping them from dragging along viruses, Trojans, or spyware?
You could stick to free feature-limited or personal-use versions of well-known products — they're almost always safe. The vendor wants to help sales of the full-blown product by getting the free version into as many hands as possible. Including spyware would be a major faux pas! Alas, only a few of the many free programs fit this profile.
Big download sites scan their files for viruses, but they may miss more subtle problems — say, software that selects personally targeted ads by spying on your browsing habits. And with small or vendor-specific sites, there's no telling.
So use free software to protect yourself! Install a firewall. Scan for spyware before installing apps, using one of many free scans. (But beware — some rogue antispyware programs may actually be malware in disguise. Check out spyware warrior.com.)
Let McAfee's free SiteAdvisor steer you away from dangerous sites. With care, you can get something for nothing. — NJR
Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.