Just browsing, thank you

Most people use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to browse the Web, but there are alternatives. We tried the new version 9 of Opera (www.opera.com), for example, and it was fun.

Opera 9 is free and, like another free browser, Firefox, lets you do tabbed browsing. That means you can have more than one Web site or page open at a time. Each time you go to a new site, a tab is created on the toolbar at the top of the screen. Click on those tabs whenever you want to switch, and you go immediately to that site or page.

Pressing the F6 key on your keyboard while Opera is open brings up a tiny treasure trove of fun and useful tools. You can choose to have a game, a calendar, a news aggregator and dozens of other neat things. Each appears as a window taking up about one-sixteenth of your screen (you can close any of them at any time). A news aggregator collects headlines from any number of sources you care to select. Click on the headline and you get the story. You could also open windows for podcasts and reference tools, like a dictionary and encyclopedia. Perhaps because Opera is a Norwegian software company, the calendar and some other features are available in many languages.

One last note about using relatively unknown browsers: In general, most spyware, malware, viruses, etc., are designed to invade systems using the most common Internet browsers. As a practical matter this means Internet Explorer, which is the browser that comes with Windows and is used by close to 90 per cent of people searching the Internet. Using other browsers makes one less vulnerable to attacks, if for no other reason than that the smaller numbers alone make it less profitable for attackers to go after those users. All in all, Opera is fun and seems safe, and you can’t beat the price. NOTE: Version 9 is a beta version, and we did have some problems printing Web pages.

A Torrent of bits

One of the more interesting features of the “Opera” browser is that it comes with “BitTorrent.” This is a file-sharing program for fast transmission of large files between computers. You can download BitTorrent without the Opera browser, but Opera makes it easier. Just choose “BitTorrent” from the drop-down list of search engines when you’re in Opera to look for “torrents,” which can be movies, music, audio books and the like. When you click to download, Opera saves the file automatically. We downloaded a P.G. Wodehouse novel in MP3 format. We opened it in RealPlayer, a free download from www.realnetworks.com, and it played fine, though we couldn’t get it to open in Windows Media Player.

BitTorrent is free from download.com, and what it does is break up large files into small packets that can be sent and received quickly and then reassembled into the whole. The key is what is called a “peer-to-peer” network. That means that each computer using the Bit Torrent software is available for moving packets through to other computers. This program has become so popular that about half of all peer-to-peer traffic now uses BitTorrent.

Members of the Motion Picture Association hate BitTorrent because it could be used to move illegal copies of movies around the Web quickly. Despite the bad press this kind of file sharing has often received, it is not solely or even primarily for sharing illegal copies of copyrighted work. There is a lot of legal material available at www.legaltorrents.com. There we found audio books for “The Wizard of Oz” and P.G. Wodehouse, arcade games, and Fatman, a free adventure game. Of course, businesses use BitTorrent regularly for large file transmissions.

Just recently an alternative to BitTorrent has become available; it’s called “BitComet.” It, too, is available from download.com and has drawn enthusiastic comments from early users.

Words, words, words

We have two places to go for free word processors.

ThinkFree is a new online word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program available at www.thinkfree.com. The word processor is compatible with Microsoft Word and can both read MS Word documents and save its own documents in MS Word format or as PDFs. ThinkFree has a bulletin board feature that allows the user to post notes that can be viewed by friends and colleagues. It also has some templates, such as invoices, resumes, profit-and-loss statements, etc. Best of all, you can share any document you create with others by sending them a link to the file. Recipients can have editing or read-only rights.

This is the second free program that offers many of the features of Microsoft Office. The first was OpenOffice, which was originally created by a German company and is available as a download from www.openoffice.org. Joy is a regular user of OpenOffice and prefers it for two reasons:

One reason is that OpenOffice is a download we can have on our own computers rather than a program that has to be used online. We’ll give up disk space for the security of always having the program available and not having to bother about our Internet connection being down or the host server being down. The trouble with any online program is that if you can’t connect, you’re out of luck and out of work. The other reason for preferring it is that OpenOffice has been around for several years and the bugs have been worked out.


There are several free dictionaries available on the Web, but the one we like best is www.askoxford.com. This is a site created by Oxford University Press, publishers of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, the gold standard in the dictionary business.

AskOxford has definitions and explanations for 145,000 words and phrases, plus some word games like hangman, crossword puzzles, anagrams, etc. It has a quiz each month, with small prizes awarded.

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