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Browser Boosters

Cover Story
These utilities work when you can't.
Notes from the Lab: Site Retrievers Web Utilities Reviews

-- by Lenny Bailes

Spend a little time peering into the Web from the comfortable confines of your browser and pretty soon you'll want to do just a little bit more. The information is all there--corporate profiles, stock quotes, convention schedules, online magazines--but pulling the plug and being offline may leave you out of touch. Now, however, you can break your link to the Web and still access Web pages or even an entire site. So if you're jetting cross-country to an important meeting and need to bone up on details--or if you just want to catch up on CNN's news en route--you can still enjoy "information at your fingertips" miles away from a Web connection.

Most browsers--including Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer--are specifically geared for online operations. While the latest versions of these popular browsers are expected to incorporate new information-processing features--some of which are only available today in third-party utilities--the widely used 3.0 versions of both have only limited options to save Web content to your hard disk or to print it. If you've ever tried to do either, you know what a nuisance it can be to capture and save each page and inline graphic separately, assemble the pieces--and hope that the links still function properly. In fact, to view all the captured pictures or make the right jumps, you may have to roll up your sleeves and edit the HTML source code.

To reduce online time and save useful information, you must be able to capture pages or sites with graphics and live links, do multiple-level printing, monitor sites for content changes and schedule all these activities for convenient batch operations.

Your browser probably can't handle many--or any--of these chores, but several products exist that fill these gaps. You'll still rely on your browser as your primary Web transport, but these utilities work alongside it to create an effective Web information-processing team. And while most of these utilities don't plug directly into your browser, they offer enough integration to work conveniently from within it.

How Site Retrievers Work

Site retriever utilities let you select the number of levels of a site to download. Most will also retrieve appropriate HTML links, both under the domain of the original page and to off-site addresses. You may be able to specify whether to capture graphics, embedded multimedia files and references to downloadable binaries. A good package should also include a bookmarking interface for tracking and managing visited Web sites. These bookmark managers complement the list you maintain with your browser, with a facility for creating folders so you can sort sites by category and then revisit them with a single mouse-click. Bookmarking utilities that simply point your browser to a saved shortcut while you're online are also available, but the products we looked at offer even more functionality--such as launching your browser to display saved sites offline.

Site retrievers that provide bookmark interfaces, capture Web content for offline browsing and automate access to Web search engines typically are not browser plug-ins, although some make use of plug-in technology. Generally, Netscape plug-ins and Microsoft ActiveX applets are dependent on the browser and designed for online use at Web sites with content enhanced for the specific plug-in. But page-capturing utilities like Tympani Development's NetAttaché Pro, DataViz Web Buddy and ForeFront Group's WebWhacker can work in the background independently of a specific browser. FirstFloor's Smart Bookmarks downloads pages in the background or superimposes a nested-folder bookmark tree directly into a browser window.

What to Look For

The type of content available on the Web is changing rapidly, so you may need to download more than just text and graphics. Some site retrievers we tested met the challenge of ever more sophisticated Web content. Others had difficulty processing elements such as CGI scripts or embedded Java, Shockwave and QuickTime objects.

Another important feature in page retrievers is built-in scheduling support that automatically recontacts designated sites at specified intervals. Each package we reviewed in our sampler of utilities was able to do background monitoring of a bookmarked site on a daily basis--some provided update scheduling by the minute, hour, week or month, as well. More sophisticated programs like NetAttachˇ Pro can constantly watchdog changes in either text or graphic content, automatically retrieving revised pages and highlighting the differences in your browser.

Here's the icing on the cake: Some of our reviewed packages can perform keyword queries using popular Web search engines and retrieve the information into pages that you view offline. Search capabilities vary. You may be able to simultaneously access multiple search engines or narrow your query with advanced Boolean operators. Search results may be accessible through a basic browser index page, simple text search in the browser, or more advanced topic sorting and filtering criteria. Of our offline page retrievers, Smart Bookmarks and NetAttachˇ Pro include search engine support. We also looked at two dedicated search retrieval packages, ForeFront's WebSeeker and Symantec's Internet FastFind.

Sharing Web Info

Storing captured Web information on your hard disk is fine if you're the only person who's going to use it. But several utilities provide printing and conversion capabilities that make it easier to share your downloaded data with co-workers.

Of course, you want to start with a package that does a first-rate job of grabbing the material; then you'll need conversion filters such as those offered in DataViz's Web Buddy to translate and export Web pages into formats compatible with popular applications and other commonly supported formats, such as Rich Text Format (RTF) and ASCII.

In some cases, it may be more convenient to hand out hard copies of the Web data you retrieve. ForeFront's WebPrinter lets you print as many Web pages as you like and convert them into convenient booklet formats.

The Future of Offline Browsing

At press time, a number of utility publishers announced upgrades or new products in response to users' requests for more functionality and the inevitable challenges that will come from Netscape's and Microsoft's new browsers.

Under redesign are Traveling Software's WebEx and Tympani Development's NetAttaché Pro. FirstFloor's currently available Smart Bookmarks 3.0 already has a limited ability to publish Web bookmarks and retrieved Web pages over a network. And ForeFront plans to introduce an enterprise version of WebWhacker that will serve downloaded pages over a local network.

Whichever browser you use today--or plan to use tomorrow--you'll undoubtedly stumble on some functional gaps that cramp the way you'd like to use Web information. The following reviews are of some currently available utilities designed to improve the way you collect and use Web data.

Notes from the Lab: Site Retrievers