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.)
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 rst--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.
NetAccelerator is the only accelerator here that doesn't make your PC a proxy server or change your browser's settings, so it reduces the risk of a crash. Instead, it revs up your browser's own caching feature. Start your browser from within NetAccelerator to preload pages into your browser's cache. (For top performance, double your browser's disk cache and, depending on your current RAM level, increase the memory cache, too.) NetAccelerator does preload pages with frames slower in Internet Explorer than in Navigator. But overall, it's hassle-free. You can even pause it to perform higher-priority tasks (such as e-mail) faster--a feature only PeakJet shares. By the time you read this, the speedier, more customizable NetAccelerator 2.0 will be available. If you've purchased 1.1 within the past six months, upgrading is free.
$30; www.imsisoft.com/utilities.html ; free 30-day demo
If you want an all-in-one Web utility, the Blaze Web Performance Pack is worth looking at. But if you want the best accelerator, metasearcher, and bookmark manager, pass on this one. The Blaze accelerator works fine with both browsers, and it speeds up links at some sites. Like PeakJet, however, it not only sets up its own cache on your PC, but replaces your browser's. As a result, if you don't close it before you close your browser, you're in for a browser crash and reconfiguration. (We had to reinstall the accelerator.) On the plus side, Blaze does several useful things, including letting you choose the number and size of pages it prefetches. Its metasearch tool is basic, but it serves up fully sorted results in a folder, and you can schedule and repeat searches. Blaze's bookmark tool adds some useful sorting capabilities to Internet Explorer's and Netscape Navigator's, and it can index and search pages.
$35; www.speeditup.com; no trial period
Got It is a basic Web accelerator with a bargain price to match. Nearly indistinguishable from the other proxy-server accelerators, it moderately increases browsing speed and crashes your browser if you don't close it first. One extra: By clicking Got It's icon in the system tray on your desktop, you can pick specific pages of a cached site to look at immediately. Otherwise, Got It gives you little reason to get it.
$20 shareware; www.goahead.com/gotit
PeakJet sped up some links more noticeably than other Web accelerators did. Links at PC World Online, for example, worked faster with PeakJet than with NetAccelerator 1.1. Unlike other competing products, however, PeakJet did absolutely nothing to improve linking at some of the other sites we visited. PeakJet has the same handy pause feature as NetAccelerator, letting you (for example) perform a large upload faster. As with the Blaze Web Performance Pack, however, PeakJet replaces your browser's cache. In the event of a crash, you'll have to fix your browser's settings.
$30; www.peak.com; free 30-day demo
Speed Surfer 3.2 has the same limitations as every other proxy-server accelerator, but it offers few of the extras--such as cache pausing--that might justify its price. Like Got It, Speed Surfer lists the pages it has prefetched when you click on its system tray icon. But you can't choose pages to view.
$30; www.kissco.com; no trial period
WebSnake 1.23 offers an apple you'll want to bite. This easy-to-use utility wriggles through sites and delivers unique and useful results, including a map of the site's structure, or files that contain keywords you specify. And WebSnake's three-paned interface is easy to use. Its wizard can schedule recurring or single sessions. The only hiss WebSnake deserves is for the help it give spammers: It copies all the e-mail address references on a site, a handy feature for mass marketers.
$30 ($45 for disks and manual); www.anawave.com/websnake; free 30-day limited
Don't worry--despite the name and its VCR-like interface, WebVCR is easy to program. Once you've "taped" a Web site, WebVCR loads it into your browser as it would appear if you were online--complete with correct URLs. (In contrast, most other offline browsers translate sites into cryptic-sounding files on your hard disk.) WebVCR compresses HTML pages into a single proprietary file, which helps save almost as much disk space as WebWhacker does. When you load a Web "tape," WebVCR sends the site to your browser, and voilą: offline surfing at its best. If your buddies have copies of WebVCR, you can share browser-viewable sites with them. If not, you can export WebVCR files to HTML format so others can read them.
$40; www.netresultscorp.com ; free 15-day demo
The granddaddy of offline browsers, WebWhacker has a couple of unusual positives. It saves disk space by crunching Web sites to a tenth of their GIF and HTML sizes. When we downloaded www.computerpress.org using WebSnake 1.23, the file took up 803KB; WebWhacker slimmed it down to 319KB. And like WebVCR, WebWhacker can export pages into HTML, so you can share downloads with others. We also like its history feature, which lets you see the titles of all the pages you have "whacked" and sort them into categories. And unlike the other offline browsers, WebWhacker can refresh downloaded pages at the press of a button. It also has a search engine for pages you've visited. But for all WebWhacker's charms, we found WebSnake more useful overall.
$50; www.bluesquirrel.com/whacker ; free 30-day limited demo
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.
IQ 98 could be renamed IQ 140: Its high IQ makes metasearching simple. By using its themed searches (technology, for example), or by creating your own collection of search sites, you can hunt through hundreds of search engines--the largest number here--on the Web or Usenet. The program has two interfaces: a wizard for beginners, and a single search form for advanced users. Both are simple, and you don't have to wait for all the results to appear before you visit promising sites. Best of all, IQ is $15 cheaper than the next most useful product, WebSleuth.
$25; www.inforian.com; free 30-day demo
Correction: This paragraph has been edited to correct an error. --Editor
SSSpider is ssslow--but worth the wait. Enter keywords, and (unlike other programs) it creates a Web page on your hard disk (including a helpful abstract) of results from up to 200 search robots. This lets you view results offline but still link to them quickly. Also unique: SSSpider lets you group and save searches to repeat later, or run a batch of searches. Lethargy is its drawback: It's slow to load and search, and unlike other products, it won't let you check sites while it's processing. But its relevance-sorted results are easier to interpret and use than most.
$30; www.pkware.com/ssspider ; free 15-day demo
WebFerretPro is a quick, simple tool that searches up to 20 search engines and returns relevance-rated results in an Explorer-style window. You can search using keywords, Boolean expressions, or phrases. But it's pricey for what it offers. You don't get context for the results--just titles and URLs (though you can menu-surf to get a description of each result, one by one). The freeware version lacks even relevance ratings.
$27; www.ferretsoft.com/netferret ; unspecified free demo period
With a built-in browser viewer that previews pages, an intelligent sorting method, and a choice of beginner and expert interfaces, WebSleuth is a great metasearcher. Too bad it's so costly. Its wizard helps untutored users, and its results window homes in on the information you want--in part by showing alphabetical lists of words and phrases you can click to preview a result. Like our Best Buy, Inforian Quest 98, WebSleuth shows results as they arrive, so you can visit potentially helpful sites before all the results appear. But the program's extra features don't justify its high price.
$40; www.promptsoftware.com ; free limited demo
It doesn't search as many engines (only 30) or offer as many options as Inforian Quest, but ZurfRider is a good choice if $20 is your limit. As with SSSpider, you have to wait until all results are processed before you can look at any of them. But ZurfRider can save search queries for reuse, rare among metasearchers. It also generates additional terms to help refine a failed search. Once you turn off the silly start-up tune, ZurfRider is a fine way to search.
$20; www.zurf.com; free limited demo
GoZilla flattens the competition with snappy operation, a slick interface, a low price, and cool sounds. If your browser is already open at a page that shows a file's URL, you can simply drag the URL onto GoZilla. Alternatively, it can find and retrieve files for you--again and again, for as many files as you like. When you're ready to download, the program quickly tests download sites and selects the fastest. Then away it roars (literally emitting a bellow). You can also schedule downloads, and GoZilla will establish and end your connection. A $20 version 3.0, just released at press time, adds such welcome features as a monitor for updates of your favorite programs, and what it calls a "leecher," which keeps trying to connect with a busy site (like Jackhammer).
$15; www.gozilla.com; free unlimited demo
Though it's free, Dipstick isn't as good a deal as other download utilities. Rather than finding or downloading files itself, like similar programs that perform these tasks automatically, it merely points you toward sites that have the file you want and tells you how long a download will take. You still have to choose the site and download the file yourself. Dipstick's simple drag-and-drop interface is inviting, but you'll get more comprehensive features from our Best Buy, GoZilla.
Download Butler is a fferent kind of utility: It doesn't find and download files for you, but it keeps a record of files you take off the Net. After each download, it asks you to categorize the files and tell it where to store them. If the download includes a setup or install file, Download Butler can automatically run the procedure. If you often lose track of where you've placed your downloads, Download Butler is handy, but $30 seems awfully steep for the services it offers.
$30 shareware; www.lincolnbeach.com ; free 7-day trial
FtpWolf does as good a job as the other packages when it comes to finding sites with the fastest download times, but it doesn't match GoZilla's ease of use--or its price.
$25 shareware; www.msw.com.au/fwolf ; unspecified free trial period
QuikLink Explorer is a model utility: helpful, easy-to-use, and inexpensive. The program installs a handy button on Internet Explorer or Netscape; clicking it places your current URL on a comprehensive pop-up list that greatly improves on either major browser's bookmark list. You never again have to leave your browser to get at your URLs. Or you can work directly within QuikLink Explorer to manage and edit your bookmarks even more conveniently. The program comes in three flavors: freeware, standard shareware, and gold shareware. We recommend the standard shareware version over the freeware because of its fine blend of useful features (such as the pop-up list), straightforward interface, and reasonable price. (The gold version claims to offer even more features, but an installation bug kept us from testing it.)
$20 shareware (also available as freeware and $40 gold shareware); www.quiklinks.com; free 30-day trial
We don't see much value in BookLock, which presents you with a ten-page "book" where you can keep a list of site addresses. You have to cut and paste the URLs into the program yourself, since BookLock doesn't enter them automatically, as all the others do. Why should you bother?
$25 shareware; www.gttech.com; unspecified free trial period
We would like to like Linkman--in part because it's free. It sports useful features similar to other programs', such as the option to convert Internet Explorer Favorites into Netscape Bookmarks. But its interface is confusing, with too many buttons and too many soundalike options (such as 'Exit' and 'Terminate'). It's harder to keep track of URLs with Linkman than with a plain browser.
WebQuick, like Quiklink Explorer, works efficiently and in the background. Once launched, it places an icon on your system tray. Though nothing much seems to be happening, WebQuick is actually tracking the sites and pages you're visiting, compiling a list of URLs. Click an icon and you can see up to your last 1500 visits. Organizing URLs is simple, and clicking any entry in WebQuick's list launches your browser (if it isn't running) and takes you to the site. WebQuick can also check which pages have changed or ceased to exist since your last visit, something the major browsers do only if you "subscribe" to a site. Finally, WebQuick lets you yank a site from a long history list into a separate favorites location, another feature the big browsers don't offer.
$30 electronic ($50 retail); www.webquick.com ; free 15-day trial
WebTabs is powerful, convenient--and too costly for what it offers. The version we saw worked better with Netscape than with Internet Explorer. Creating a bookmark is easy, and you can organize your favorites within an Explorer-like interface. WebTabs tracks the URLs you've visited previously or in your current session--and your path to each site (something the browsers don't do). Webtabs does a somewhat better job than QuikLink of annotating URLs and searching for keywords inside the notes, but we still think QuikLink is the better value.
$35; www.rballance.com/products ; free 30-day trial
Useful, simple, and free, Dunce handily automates dial-in tasks. It can bypass the 'Connect To' dialog area, start as many as four Internet programs once you're online, and reconnect you if you get dropped. Dunce also allows you to schedule when you'll connect, and it dials your ISP when a program needs Net access. Setup consists of filling in a dialog box. If you've ever been disconnected moments before completing a big download, you might want to wait for Dunce Gold (release date not yet set), which will add a pinger to prevent your ISP from cutting you off due to inactivity (especially helpful for AOL users). The Gold version will also increase the number of programs you can start and will support more than one dial-up profile--useful if you have several accounts.
RascalPro is among the best connection aids. Besides supplying a pinger, it dials and hangs up for you, monitors how long you've been connected, and logs useful troubleshooting info such as the type of error that occurred. Like most pingers, though, it doesn't work with AOL, making it less useful than, say, Stay Connected. And unlike Dunce, it ain't free.
$30 shareware; www.basta.com; free 30-day trial
Jackhammer is a pinger for Web sites or FTP servers. When you can't get through, it keeps banging until the site lets you in. It can run up to five "hammerings" at once, and even prioritize them. But given its one function, it's pricey.
$25 shareware; www.sausage.com/sitemap ; free 14-day trial
Like some other pingers, Stay Connected installs an icon on your system tray; but unlike others, the icon's color changes to show your connection status. It's the only pinger we tested that consistently protects against AOL's sneaky connection dialog box, which can silently pull the plug on your connection. But even so, we urge you not to follow the example of one user mentioned in the documentation, who stayed connected for 300 consecutive hours. Other AOL customers deserve a break.
$20 shareware; www.inklineglobal.com ; unspecified free trial period
StealthPing is a one-trick pony: Launch it, click Start, and from then on it pings away in the background. You can adjust how frequently it pings according to your ISPs' drop time. On AOL, StealthPing isn't quite as consistent as Stay Connected. In the end, StealthPing is too one-dimensional. Dunce does more, for free.
$25 shareware; www.ditr.com; free 10-day trial
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many files on the Web (such as the IRS's tax forms at www.irs.gov) are saved in Acrobat's PDF (Portable Document Format). Any system equipped with Adobe Systems' free Acrobat Reader can display these files in its browser, regardless of the application in which they were originally created. The Reader can search text, present a table of contents, and link between words and pages inside PDF documents.
Cookies may sound tasty, but on the Web they're the sneaky way many sites keep track of who you are and when you visit. If you've instructed your browser not to accept cookies, many sites will either bar you from entering or pester you with multiple requests for permission to install their cookies. With AyeCor Software's Cookie Cutter PC, you can accept cookies wholesale when you arrive at a site and then delete them after you leave. The $15 program displays a list of the cookies it finds in your system, letting you choose which ones to delete.
Attention information pack rats: ForKeeps (by Ragnar Hellspong) archives thousands of e-mail messages and threads from newsgroup or CompuServe forums in its relational database. Once you master its daunting interface, you can retrieve them anytime. Mail, newsgroup, and CompuServe modules cost $39 for one, $64 for two, or $79 for all three; the $50 Pro extension expands the search engine's features and adds other advanced tools.
Inso's QuickView Plus is a more full-featured, commercial version of Windows 95's built-in file viewer. Few of us have every program installed that people use to create files on the Web. This $39 utility reads the file formats of about 200 programs--word processors, spreadsheets, graphics programs, and others--and displays them instantly.
The Internet equivalent of getting buttonholed by a drunken boor is suffering a barrage of junk e-mail, or spam. Like a good bouncer, SpamKiller ejects the jerks before they can get in your face. The $30 program from Novasoft prescreens messages from most e-mail packages (not AOL, alas), and deletes any that arrive from several thousand addresses known for originating spam. The SpamKiller blacklist updates itself automatically and you can alert ISPs whose users are sending spam.
Almost every Web utility downloads as a compressed zip file, which means you need a sharp unzipping program before you can install them. WinZip, a $29 shareware utility from Nico Mak Computing, helps PC-phobic users zip or unzip with an easy-to-follow wizard. It extracts archived files singly or in groups and checks for viruses before they're released onto your desktop.