Yes, there are many benefits, even with today’s fast broadband internet connection. Roland Waddilove tries four free tools
Back in the days when everyone used dial-up internet through a modem, a download manager was an essential tool to have on your computer. The internet connection was slow and unreliable, and connections were often dropped. A download manager enabled you to fetch big files much more easily. Most people today have the luxury of fast broadband internet access, and with the rise of fibre connections you may wonder whether a download manager is still needed.
There is no doubt that the importance of the download manager has declined in recent years, and many people can manage quite happily without one, but they still have their uses, and in this article I’ll examine some of the ways in which they can help, no matter how good your internet connection is.
Although dodgy internet connections and download reliability problems have mostly gone away, the files that we access on the web are much larger than they used to be. Minecraft is 0.6GB, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is 1.37GB, Linux Mint 64-bit KDE is 1.6GB, openSUSE Linux is a DVD-filling 4.7GB, to mention just four popular programs you might have downloaded to your PC. When downloads are measured in gigabytes, a download manager utility can help in many ways.
At one time, you could only download a couple of hundred megabytes during the peak hours of the day from 4pm to 11pm before you were penalised. This took the form of limiting your bandwidth, which slowed internet access by as much as 75%.
It’s good to see that many popular ISPs no longer have traffic management systems, and they do not limit the bandwidth at peak times of the day. This may not be true of all ISPs, though, and you should check the terms and conditions, which can usually be found on their websites.
If you have an old contract with your ISP and a regular broadband connection, the old terms and conditions with bandwidth limitations might still apply, so don’t assume you can download as much as you like at peak hours without checking.
A download manager enables you to schedule downloads to occur at a time of the day that is most convenient for you. This is a core feature of all download managers, and it’s one of the most useful. You can create a list of files that you want to download and then schedule them to occur when you’re asleep at night or out at work during the day. Most download managers have another useful feature, which is the ability to switch off the computer when all the downloads have been completed. You can therefore set it going and go to bed or to go to work, and your PC will fetch the files and then switch off.
Scheduling downloads avoids peak hours, and even if your ISP does not impose restrictions, there are other reasons for avoiding peak hours. During the evening, many people watch online movies and TV using services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer and so on. If you’re downloading big files from the internet on your computer while someone else in your home is watching streaming HD video, it might cause them to experience problems like stuttering and buffering, even if you have a reasonably fast broadband connection. Schedule that 4GB Linux distro download to occur later at night, and you’ll avoid the problem.
Free Download Manager lets you schedule a download when an item is added, or you can add downloads and then set the schedule later. It can be set to any time and date. The download can be repeated on a schedule, which could be used for a file that’s regularly updated to ensure you always have the latest version. It can shut down the computer when downloads are complete.
Download Accelerator Manager has a scheduler, but it’s not quite as comprehensive. It doesn’t repeat downloads, for example, but downloads can be set to start at any time and on any day. The PC can be shut down or put into standby or hibernate mode when downloads are complete. Download Accelerator Plus has similar facilities, and there’s a global scheduler that enables you to set a time of the day or night when downloads will start. It’s straightforward to set up and add scheduled downloads, and the PC can be switched off when the last one has finished.
EagleGet has scheduler, and instead of downloading immediately or adding a file to a list, it’s added to a queue. The queue can be started and stopped at set times, so you can easily define the hours of the day or night during which downloads take place. It doesn’t allow individual files to be scheduled, though.
Scheduling downloads to occur when you’re asleep or out is not always desirable, and sometimes you want the download immediately rather than waiting until tomorrow. A large download, such as a Linux distro or movie, can put a heavy load on the internet connection, and doing anything else on the computer that uses the internet, like browsing the web or fetching your email, can be slow and tedious. Bandwidth management solves the problem.
Some download managers can set a different download speed for each item. Setting a low speed means that you can browse the web, watch YouTube or Netflix videos and so on at the same time. This is a useful technique, and downloads trickle down in the background. You could even set a large download, like a Linux distro, to run slowly in the background all day while smaller ones download at normal speed.
Free Download Manager and Download Accelerator Plus have global user-configurable connection modes that determine how much bandwidth the program uses. Free Download Manager is easier to use, though, and you can instantly switch modes by clicking buttons in the toolbar. You can also set individual speed limits for each download. EagleGet has one global setting, which you have to go into the settings to change. Download Accelerator Manager does not have any bandwidth management at all, and it downloads at maximum speed all the time, which is disappointing.
Is your Downloads folder an untidy mess? A common problem is that you download lots of files and then forget them or don’t have time to view or examine them all. The Downloads folder fills with files with obscure names, whose purpose you have forgotten. A download manager solves this by assigning downloads to subfolders. They typically have folders for software, music, video and other files. When adding a download, you can specify which folder to place it in, but even this isn’t always necessary ,and some programs can automatically assign the right folder based on the file extension (.exe is software, .mp3 is music and so on).
Free Download Manager categorises downloads automatically, and you can override the selection and choose your own folder. Instead of using your private Downloads folder, it stores downloads in C:Downloads, which is irritating and is accessible to anyone who uses the computer. Download Accelerator Manager automatically categorises downloads, and although the Documents folder is the default location, you can easily change it to your Downloads folder.
Download Accelerator Plus downloads to a single folder in Documents by default, but it’s possible to enable categorised downloads in the settings. The program will automatically assign a category, but you can manually select one yourself too.
Download Mirrors – Fastest Download
Many file downloads are available from several websites, and a download manager can examine these and select the fastest one. The sites are called mirrors, and it can be useful to find the fastest mirror if speed is important.
Free Download Manager supports download mirrors, and you can manually add and configure them. You do need a bit of technical knowledge to do this, but it’s possible. Download Accelerator Manager and EagleGet do not support mirrors, but instead download from the URL that is given. Download Accelerator Plus automatically searches mirrors and uses them where possible.
Most of the software on the internet is thankfully free of malware, but if you download a lot, you will occasionally come across a rogue program. Anti-virus software will check downloads as they’re written to the disk or accessed afterwards. However, it’s also possible to configure a download manager to use anti-virus software installed on the system to scan each download as it’s completed. All the download managers tested have an option to pass the file to an anti-virus program for scanning. You need to go into the settings and configure it, but it isn’t difficult.
Some download managers have extra security features, and Free Download Manager has a community feature that enables you to write comments about a download and to read what others have written. You can read them and see if anyone has reported that a download is malware. Not all comments are useful, but it is an extra tool for spotting bad downloads. Download Accelerator Plus lists the top downloads in several categories, and the user ratings for each program are a useful way to find good downloads and avoid bad ones
Some download managers are able to download streaming videos in addition to files. For example, YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, Facebook and others. Instead of streaming your favourite video clip yet again, you could simply play a downloaded copy stored on the disk drive, saving bandwidth and lessening the load on the website.
Although video downloading works well with the most popular websites, it doesn’t work with all video sharing websites. There are also legal issues, because the videos may be copyright, or the terms and conditions of the website may not allow downloading. Be careful not to break the law when saving streaming videos.
Free Download Manager can download Flash-based videos from the web and convert them to several other video formats. You just copy the URL of the web page and paste it into the program. It lists everything it can find, and you choose the file to download, which is usually the biggest one. It isn’t perfect, and adverts can cause problems; you might only download the advert and not the video.
Download Accelerator Manager has a media grabber function, and as you browse YouTube, for example, it adds the videos to a list. You can then download them either all at once or individually. It seems to cope well with videos that have adverts at the start, and it cleverly skipped them. The ease with which videos can be downloaded is the program’s best feature, although you have to use Firefox rather than Chrome.
Download Accelerator Plus was also good at downloading online video, especially YouTube. You can copy the URL of the page containing the video into the program, but there was an even better way. On a page of thumbnails, such as a search result, you can right-click a video thumbnail and download it without even going to the page or watching the video. EagleGet is another good tool for downloading YouTube and other videos. It has a media sniffer function that detects videos and other files, and you can select and download media files linked to on the page. It’s slightly better than the other tools for sites other than YouTube.
Free Download Manager and Download Accelerator Plus can both download streaming video from sites like YouTube and then strip out the audio and save it as a separate file in several different audio formats, such as MP3. As with video downloads, it isn’t perfect and success is not guaranteed. YouTube is the best supported site for video, and music downloads from others may or may not work.
Be aware that most music is copyright, and while the facility to save music tracks in videos may be available in the download manager, it may be illegal to use it in some circumstances.
BitTorrent is a type of file sharing networking protocol that works over the internet, and it’s useful, reliable and good for large downloads. Linux distros, which are often over a gigabyte in size, are often available as torrents, for example. BitTorrent is the best way to download them.
Free Download Manager has BitTorrent facilities built in, and a torrent URL can be added or the torrent file can be saved to disk and then loaded into the program. It works well, and bandwidth settings and other rules let you determine the download speed. It has most of the features of a dedicated BitTorrent utility, so you don’t need a separate program for torrents. Download Accelerator Manager, EagleGet and Download Accelerator Plus do not have BitTorrent support.
Not everyone needs a download manager, and people on fibre connections with unlimited downloads will find them the least useful. However, it all depends on the size of the files and how many people in your home are sharing the internet connection. Anyone not on fibre should definitely install a download manager. With download speeds of around 17Mb at best and possibly half this if you are unlucky, it’s easy to overload the connection and prevent anyone else in your home from accessing anything while you’re downloading.
Four free download managers were tested, and the open-source Free Download Manager was the best for general downloads. Download Accelerator Manager, EagleGet and Download Accelerator Plus were good at downloading online video. Which one you choose, if any, is ultimately dependent on what you need.