If an automobile aficionado (okay, 'car nut') can 'soup-up' his or her engine, then why can't a Web whiz soup-up a browser?
After all, Web browsers are the engines that drive us along the 'Information Superhighway' (okay, the Internet). And thanks to their extensible architecture, we can soup-up these browsers' capabilities by installing third-party add-ons called plug-ins. Popular plug-ins from RealNetworks (RealPlayer), Apple (QuickTime), and Macromedia (Flash) run or display multimedia content, empowering browsers like Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla, Safari, and Firefox to play movies, animations, or audio clips right in the browser window. The Web offers several plug-ins for your browsing enjoyment. Here we look at some of the very best!
- Pop-up Blockers You can banish annoying pop-up ads by downloading and installing a free pop-up blocker. If you install Windows XP SP2 (Service Pack 2), you automatically set up a pop-up blocker for Internet Explorer. Read more at "Block Pop-up Windows with Internet Explorer". For Windows operating systems other than XP (SP2) you can obtain free blockers elsewhere. For example, Netscape offers the free Netscape Toolbar for IE: Block Annoying Pop-Ups as does Google with its Google Toolbar. Netscape for Windows and Apple's Safari for Macs include pop-up blockers. Just remember to activate them.
- Netscape Desktop Navigator Beef up your Windows-compatible browser with Netscape's Desktop Navigator, a Google-based tool kit available right from the browser window. Desktop Navigator includes a Web search tool, the latest news headlines, local weather, Mapquest access, and more. In preview beta release at the time of this review, it works with any Windows browser. You need only provide your zip code at installation (for local news, weather, movie showtimes, and the like).
- Macromedia Flash Player Often you'll visit a Web site and discover that multimedia content (such as video, audio, and animated images) or interactive content (such as menus that slide) does not display correctly. An older or missing Macromedia Flash plug-in might be the culprit. To ensure that you can view Macromedia Flash content on the Web, download and install the Flash Player (at no charge). Setup automatically installs the required files in your browser's plug-ins folder. There are versions available for Mac OS X, Linux, Pocket PC, and Windows. Windows users who want to save Flash movies from the Web while running Internet Explorer should also download and install the Flash Saving Plugin 1.1. Once installed, it places a click-on button in the Internet Explorer toolbar for easy access.
- Macromedia Shockwave You'll want to download and install the free Macromedia Shockwave Player to ensure that your browser can play back applications created by Macromedia Director Shockwave Studio. Shockwave offers built-in support for 3-D environments and interactive simulations. There are versions available for Macintosh and Windows, Safari, America Online, Internet Explorer, and Netscape.
- Adobe Reader The fashion world has faux fur and Gucci knock-offs; the computer world has PDF (Portable Document Format) to replicate the look and feel of documents created by applications that may not be installed on your computer. When you generate a PDF file from an original, you create a read-only "look-alike," preserving text, graphic, and color layouts. You can share this PDF with others across platforms, networks, and operating systems, even if they don't have an installed copy of the original application or the fonts used to create the document. With the Acrobat Reader plug-in installed, you can view, print, and search these PDFs right from your Internet browser.
- Adobe SVG Viewer SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is a relatively new file format based on XML (Extensible Markup Language). Smaller in size than its JPEG or GIF raster counterpart, it can hold its resolution at any zoom size. This gives you more precise control over layout, fonts, color fills and gradients, animation, and printing. To ensure that your browser can display SVG files, be sure to download and install Adobe's SVG browser plug-in. It's available for both Mac and Windows platforms.
- QuickTime By installing QuickTime (it comes with a browser plug-in), you can view QuickTime animation, video, music, MIDI audio, and VR (Virtual Reality) panoramas directly from your browser window. Apple includes QuickTime on Macs with the installation of the operating system (it's part of the package). On PCs you must visit Apple's QuickTime Web site to download and install the software (it's free).
- RealPlayer Those of us who use the Web for classroom instruction or research quickly discover that increasing numbers of Web sites transmit audio and video files over the Internet in RealPlayer format. Without the player installed on your computer, you'll be hard-pressed to enjoy this streaming media extravaganza. At the Real.com Web site you can download RealPlayer versions for Mac OS 8/OS 9/OS X, Windows 95/98/NT/2000/XP, Linux, and Unix. Older versions of the player are available from the Real Legacy Software Archive.
- Panda ActiveScan This free online antivirus utility works within Internet Explorer 4.0 or later running under Windows. It uses Microsoft's ActiveX technology to scan your hard drive for 70,000+ viruses and Trojan horses. You won't need to install any software. Just connect to the Internet, head for the Panda ActiveScan Web site, and click the Scan Your PC link.
- Netscape Browser Central At this plug-in center you'll find links to the five most popular browser plug-ins (QuickTime, RealPlayer, Flash, Shockwave, and Adobe Reader), plus a link to Netscape Plug-in Manager, an online application that will check to see if you have the most popular plug-ins plugged in!
- Java Plug-in Technology The Java plug-in enables Windows browsers to run applications, called "applets," written in the Java programming language. Once installed, you can view Java-based 3-D graphics such as the Library of 3-D Molecular Structures or the Clock Applet, as well as play online games, run spreadsheet calculations, and more right from a browser window. The Java 1.4.2 Update for Macintosh OS X browsers is available from Apple.
- Cortona VRML Client Plug this VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) client into your browser and you can bring 3-D virtual worlds to your Web desktop. Navigation controls allow you to interact with objects on screen, spin them around, and view them from all angles. A Macintosh compatible version of this browser add-on is available at Cortona VRML Client for Mac.
Carol S. Holzberg, Ph.D., is an anthropologist, educational technology specialist, and computer journalist in Massachusetts.