Beef up your browser
June 5, 1998
by Arnie Keller, Matt Lake and Dan Littman
(IDG) -- Does your browser perform like a 98-pound weakling? Does it lack tone and definition as it schleps from one boring link to the next or drags around looking for search results? Then maybe it's time to expose that lightweight to some physical culture and sculpt its Web surfing muscles.
Browser add-ons are the protein shakes of the Web. These low-cost or free utilities promise to beef up your surfing experience by adding features your current browser implements poorly or not at all. But just as some fitness aids aren't worth their weight, some surfing utilities won't do much to turn your browser into the hero of the beach. And hundreds of programs are out there. Which ones are worth trying? So you can gain without pain, we scoured store shelves as well as all the major shareware sites, including Tucows and PC World Online's FileWorld. Altogether, we reviewed 38 promising utilities. Though our Best Buys may not give Navigator or Internet Explorer buns of steel, we promise you'll notice an improved physique, making the Net faster, easier, and more interesting to use.
These top browser utilities coax the best performance out of Navigator and Internet Explorer. IMSI's $30 "NetAccelerator 1.1" will help you sprint through Web page links, while Anawave's $30 "WebSnake 1.23" is the best program for downloading Web sites onto your hard drive for browsing at your convenience. Tired of trekking between search engines to find what you want? Inforian's $25 "Inforian Quest 98" hits hundreds of sites at once and delivers the results to you.
With an enthusiastic roar, Aaron Ostler's $15 download manager, "GoZilla 2.52", stomps through the Web and locates the site that will download your chosen file the fastest. Looking for an easier way to manage, organize, and access your favorite sites than your browser's current bookmark manager provides? The unobtrusive "QuikLink Explorer" fills the bill for $20. Finally, the free "Dunce 2.52" is the smartest choice among connection aids, providing a range of handy utilities. Dunce automates dial-in tasks, starts multiple programs once you're online, and even reconnects you when you get dropped.
If you find paging through a Web site more tedious than doing morning sit-ups, check out our review of Web accelerators and offline browsers in "Browsing Faster." Both types of utilities claim to make links connect faster. Web accelerators speed up your browser's built-in page caching, install their own cache on your PC, or do both. Offline browsers download a site's links plus--unlike Navigator and Internet Explorer--its entire structure onto your hard disk. They work on the assumption that you can browse a site more quickly and conveniently if you don't have heavy Web traffic or a slow modem connection to contend with.
All five of the accelerators we tested shaved a few seconds off some link-to-link jumps, but beware: Because of the way they work, some programs can crash your system. Our Best Buy, IMSI's $30 "Net-Accelerator 1.1", was the only accelerator that didn't bring our test system down.
Offline browsers, we found, vastly improve page-to-page progress. These utilities take up space on your hard drive with downloads, but they won't corrupt your browser settings or hog your CPU the way accelerators can. Our favorite, Anawave's $30 "WebSnake 1.23", can fetch particular pages, the entire structure of a site, or individual files that contain keywords you specify.
In "Browsing Better," we look at utilities to help you hone your technique: metasearchers, bookmark managers, download managers, and connection aids. Metasearchers offer the convenience of performing ganged searches using multiple search engines like AltaVista and Yahoo. As promised, they're faster than hitting search sites one by one, and they gave us more thorough results. Our winner, Inforian's $25 "Inforian Quest 98"--a thorough, easy-to-use, and relatively inexpensive tool--is far better than the so-called search tools you'll find in either major browser. (Neither Internet Explorer 4.0 nor Netscape has a metasearcher; both of them query multiple search sites one by one, rather than all at once.)
Navigator and Internet Explorer can download files, but that's all. It's up to you to find the files you want--unless you use a download manager. These utilities ask you to enter the name of the file you're looking for and the search engines you prefer; the program then finds the file, removes duplicate entries from its master list, and sends the results to your browser to do the downloading. Our Best Buy download utility, Aaron Ostler's $15 "GoZilla", even steers you to the site that will download the file fastest and then performs the download itself.
Do you need a more capable bookmark manager than the ones that come in Internet Explorer and Navigator? If you're a typical surfer who keeps only a handful of URLs for quick access, probably not. But if you tend to rack up dozens of sites and want more organization options than the two big browsers offer, consider QuikLink Software's $20 "QuikLink Explorer", our Best Buy bookmark manager. It provides a convenient pop-up list from which you can get to your favorites more quickly, and it costs less than other bookmark managers with similar features.
Of all the utilities we looked at, connection helpers struck us as the least worthwhile. These programs dial up for you and fool your ISP into thinking you're busily surfing away, so it won't suddenly disconnect you--not exactly crucial functions. Still, they can save time and frustration. We liked Vector Development's free "Dunce" the best. The version of "Dunce" we tested doesn't include a disconnect stopper (a.k.a. a "pinger"), but a forthcoming version called Dunce Gold will. (Its release date was unknown at press time.)
Putting Fun in Your Workout
Sometimes how fit you are matters less than how you look in your new workout togs. The same goes for your browser. If you long to see and hear more on the Web, be sure to check out "Browsing Fun," a selection of plug-ins that add music, video, and 3D to your Web surfing. "Browsing Gear," scattered throughout the story, delivers the best of the rest: top utilities that aid your Web experience by compressing files, eliminating cookies, archiving e-mail messages, and more.
You don't have to travel at breakneck connection speeds to get where you're going faster. With a Web accelerator or offline browser, you can explore sites more quickly, without paying for a costly ISDN connection.
We found that most accelerators let you click through some sites faster, but it's hard to predict which sites. For instance, we noticed hardly any speed difference on CNet, but we saved nearly five seconds per page on PC World Online.
Because most Web accelerators set up your PC as a "proxy server," your browser has to check both its own cache and the accelerator's cache before loading a page. If you don't open the accelerator first--and (later) close it before you close the browser--the browser will crash. We prefer "NetAccelerator 1.1", the only product we tested that doesn't use a proxy server. It works almost as well as the others, and at $30 costs less than all but one of them.
The speed improvements we saw with offline browsers were more uniform--comparable to the difference between the unreliable speed of a modem and the reliable, faster speed of a hard disk. Better yet, offline browsers let you visit a site when you don't have access to an online connection. It was tough to pick a Best Buy because we liked different features on each. The most well-rounded product, however, is Anawave's "WebSnake 1.23."
Despite what you may have heard, the Web is not a reference library. It has no Dewey decimal system, no librarian to find that National Geographic article for you. Instead, it has dozens of helpful search sites. But must you hit each one? Metasearchers simultaneously search multiple sites--as many as you like, including biggies like AltaVista--and then collate and (ideally) rank the findings. For a simple answer, one site will do; but for big results fast, metasearchers like our favorite, Inforian "Quest 98", run the show.
If you've ever been so desperate for a file that you've hit three different sites to see which was fastest, we have your utility: "GoZilla", our favorite download manager, picks the speediest FTP search engines.
The big browsers list your favorites and track your travels. But a bookmark manager lets you annotate and organize URLs better. Check out our fave, "QuikLink Explorer."
Finally, no pesky Web task is too small to automate. If dialing up your ISP is your least favorite task, for example, let the handy freeware package "Dunce" do it for you. And to stay connected to any ISP but AOL, use "RascalPro." But please be socially responsible; these pingers can tie up an ISP's phone resources, making it difficult for others to log on. So don't use your pinger to stay online while you break for dinner and a ball game.
For sheer quantity of video, audio, and animation--"streaming media," in Web parlance--the Net is something like cable television with an unlimited number of public-access stations. You can catch homegrown videos of someone else's life, radio stations from Nashville to Tel Aviv, and more--as long as you're not put off by occasionally choppy sound and images. Of course, watching or listening to such an enormous range of content requires player software that plugs into your browser.
Fortunately, most players are free, and you can install as many as you like. A typical installation requires a few steps and may take awhile, depending on how fast your modem is. Moreover, the software can eat up hard disk space. But once you've downloaded all the best players, you're set to experience the finest of the Web. When you click on a button or image, the appropriate player will pop up and play multimedia content, even if the page is still downloading. Here's a list of the essential players:
Stuck in two dimensions? Gain depth with CosmoPlayer. This free plug-in goes beyond the same old sound, video, and animation and lets you take a 3D look at sites created in VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). As yet, VRML Web sites are rare, but those few look like nothing else. Freeware; www.cosmosoftware.com
Thousands of Web pages -- including a cool one for viewing the inside of the new VW Beetle -- add QuickTime elements to enhance the multimedia experience at their sites. This must-have player lets you enjoy QuickTime-created video, sound, 3D, and virtual-reality Web sites in all their glory. It's also the only free streaming-media product that includes tools for creating content--so you can author your own mini-video. QuickTime Pro, which adds more development tools, costs $30. Freeware; www.apple.com/quicktime
- RealPlayer 5.0
RealPlayer's creator, RealNetworks, has a lock on Webcast audio. See its home page for a great directory of more than 650 live broadcasts, such as those at www.npr.org. Its RealPlayer video and audio streamer automatically distinguishes audio from video and opens a movie window for video clips. For $30, RealPlayer Plus offers bookmarking, somewhat better quality, and other conveniences. Most people will be happy with the free version, however. Freeware; www.real.com
- Shockwave Player
Tens of thousands of lively Web sites are produced with Shockwave, so this free player is well worth having. It lets you view animations or video created with any of the three popular Macromedia authoring tools--Authorware, Flash, and Director--without prolonged waiting. Freeware; www.macromedia.com
Arnie Keller covers Web software for various Macintosh and PC publications. Matt Lake writes frequently for PC World Online. Dan Littman is a regular contributor to PC World.
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