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The Lowdown On Downloading

How to download files safely

Everyone can benefit from the vast amount of information that can be found on the Internet, but computer owners may find online resources particularly helpful. Not only can those of us who own a computer get information off the Net whenever we want, we can also download tons of software to make our computers more productive, easier to use, and a lot more fun.

Instead of having to sort through catalogs or visit far-flung computer stores with high prices, we can now go online for the solution to most of our software needs. From utilities to web browsers, to games to icons and sounds, just about anything you might want for your computer can be found on the Internet.

However, all software is not the same. Before you download a program, you should know what you're getting:

Freeware, as its name implies, doesn't cost you a cent. There are a lot of great freeware programs out there, but most of them are small, add-on programs, plug-ins, and the like. If you want more powerful software you will have to shell out some money.

Shareware is software that has a "try before you buy" policy. Usually created by independent programmers, shareware is either fully functional once you download it, fully functional for a limited time, or partly functional. In all cases, if you like the software, the creator asks you to register and pay a nominal fee (often just $10 or $15) or delete it.

Paying the fee not only rewards people for their labor and encourages them to keep developing great software, it may also unlock certain features of the software or eliminate annoying registration reminders. The registration can usually be done online if you pay with a credit card. The software will be unlocked automatically or you will be sent a password via e-mail.

Demos are Demonstration versions of larger, more complex programs. They are often fully functional, but only contain a fraction of the whole program. Demos are often used to give you a taste of a serious game, application or utility program that will motivate you to go out and buy the full version. The line between a Demo and shareware is fuzzy (and unimportant) sometimes, but the cost for the full version of a Demo will be much higher than the typical shareware fee and you may not be able to download the full version.

Unless you have a high-speed connection you're better off buying the CD-ROM than waiting for hours to download and having your connection give out after getting only half of a 20 MB program.

Besides trying and buying new software, the Internet is the best (and sometimes the only) way to get the little pieces of software that make your computer work better: Patches, Drivers and Plug-Ins.

Patches or Updates are files that fix bugs or add certain functions to software and your operating system.

Drivers are files that allow your computer to operate additional hardware, such as printers, sound and video cards, and external drives.

Plug-Ins are files that work seamlessly with an application to improve its functionality. Most of us are familiar with browser plug-ins such as QuickTime and Java.

Before you go download crazy, however, you must have the right tools. The majority of files available for downloading are compressed and encoded in some manner. Compression reduces the file by "squishing" more data into less space, which reduces download time significantly. The type of compression can be identified by the file's suffix.

Stuffit (.sit) and Zip (.zip) are the most common. Encoded files can also have a suffix such as BinHex (.hqx), Mac Binary (.bin) and uuencoded (.uue).

Lucky for you, many of the programs you download are saved as a Self-Extracting Archive (.sea), which means the file is compressed, but it decompresses itself with a simple double-click. If you download one that's not you'll need to have a program that can decompress your files before you can use them. There are several great programs, such as Aladdin Systems' Stuffit Expander and Winzip, available on the Net.

Stuffit Expander exists as freeware so you can download it for free and decode just about anything. It can be found at http://www.aladdinsys.com/expander/index.html. Note that Mac users will have to add Expander Enhancer (about $30) to get full functionality. Winzip, probably the most popular compression utility for Windows users, can be found at http://winzip.com.

A neat feature of the latest version of Winzip 6.3 is the Internet Browser Support Add On that you can download from this site as well. This add on will automate much of the work normally associated with downloading compressed files from the Internet. When you click on a Zip file using Netscape Navigator/Communicator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, WinZip will take over when the download is completed. WinZip automatically moves the downloaded file to your download folder (initially set to c:\download) and then (optionally) opens the file.

Protecting Your Computer Because programs spread viruses, you should also use an anti-virus program, such as Symantec's Norton Anti-Virus (available at http://www.symantec.com) to check all of your downloaded software before installing it on your hard drive. (To get more information on viruses review June's Netspeak column found on TCIG&D's web site at http://www.tcigd.com.)

Now that you've got the right tools and have an inkling of what's available, it's time to hit the Net! Some of the most popular and trustworthy download sites include:

* Jumbo (http://www.jumbo.com), * Shareware Junkies (http://www.sharewarejunkies.com), * Shareware.Com (http://www.shareware.com), * TUCOWS (http://www.tucows.com) * ZDNet Software Library (http://www.hotfiles.com), and * Download.Com (http://www.download.com).

All of these sites are well organized, have links with good connections and are safe. You don't need a secure site, but you should be suspicious of any site that requests personal information before allowing you to download free software.

It's a good idea to start downloading smaller files first to get used to decoding and dealing with the inevitable broken connections. Some programs are supposed to pickup the download where it left off when your connection breaks. Oftentimes, however, you will have to start over at the beginning.

As data rates increase with cable modems and the like, it's probable that a majority of software will be transmitted over the Internet rather than sold on disks or CD-ROMs, so you'd be wise to become an expert now. By getting your practice in on files that are just a few hundred kilobytes, you'll be able to deal with issues that arise with multi-megabyte downloads in the not-too-distant future.