Internet Tips: Better Browsing: Add-Ons, Plug-Ins, and Extensions

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Any plain-vanilla Web browser will display most sites just fine. But some enhanced browsing experiences require help from what Internet Explorer calls "add-ons," and what Netscape, Mozilla, and Firefox refer to as "plug-ins." While Adobe's Acrobat Reader, Macromedia's Flash player, and other common plug-ins suggest themselves the moment you encounter a site that requires them, other browser helpers are harder to find. Here are some of my favorites, all free.

Not every plug-in you can add to your browser is a boon, of course. I've taken care to weed out products that also install spyware or adware, or that otherwise jeopardize your privacy and sneak around behind your back. And I'll show you how to make browser add-ons go away, should they become tiresome.

IE Enhancers

Internet Explorer, once the pride of Redmond, Washington, has gradually fallen behind competing browsers in key areas--I mean besides security issues. Fortunately, IE add-ons and shell programs rectify most of these deficiencies.

Until Windows XP Service Pack 2 came along, IE's most glaring omission was the ability to block pop-ups. The browser keeps these unwanted windows at bay just fine with SP2, so you don't need to download a separate tool for that (see October 2004's Internet Tips for more on SP2). If you've been using Google Toolbar to block pop-ups, however, keep it around. Though the toolbar's blocker is no better than the one now in IE, it's worth having for its ability to highlight search terms that appear on the page, its form filler (which speeds entering your personal data at shopping sites), its button for adding the current page to your Blogger blog, and other features.

By default, the Google Toolbar sends anonymous information about each of the sites that you visit back to Google, but you can disable even that innocuous phone-home behavior by checking the Disable advanced features option during installation of the toolbar. MSN Toolbar and Yahoo Toolbar function similarly, providing links to those services' e-mail, search, and instant messaging features. The Yahoo Toolbar comes with an optional anti-spyware tool as well.

Browsers are good at displaying lots of photos, but saving several images to your hard drive isn't always easy. The Picture Tools IE add-on makes it easy to grab some or all of the images from a Web page for future reference. Another handy IE helper, Easy Go Back, lets you navigate back and forth through your browser history by gesturing with your mouse. And yet another, called simply Pluck, is a Swiss-army-knife add-on that automatically resubmits search terms on Amazon, EBay, Google, and RSS news feeds, and notifies you when the results change. Pluck also turns IE into an RSS reader, organizes and uploads your bookmarks for use from any computer, and lets you create shared folders online (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: The free Pluck add-on teaches IE to read RSS feeds and to do your Amazon and EBay shopping for you.

Microsoft may have finally gotten pop-up blocking right, but IE still lacks tabbed browsinga??the ability to switch between multiple Web pages in the same browser window. If that sounds like something that could make you more productive, check out two IE shells (programs that add interface elements and other functions to the browser but remain IE underneath). Both give you tabs for each open Web page. The first of these is Maxthon, formerly known as MyIE2, which also lets you block ads, browse by gesturing with your mouse, and use custom "skins." Avant Browser features a filter that screens out time-consuming Flash animations; it also lets you browse via mouse gestures, add skins, and more.

Get Mo' Zilla

Internet Explorer plug-ins require a download, but the Favorites toolbars in the separated-at-birth Mozilla and Netscape browsers have links to sites brimming with older-style plug-ins and newer extensions. The next-generation Firefox browser supports some of these, and it has a link to its own extensions page that lists dozens of free enhancements for the browser. Here's a Mozilla sampler.

Preferences Toolbar: Disable Flash or JavaScript, clear your browser cache, and reset other preferences without having to dig through layers of menus and dialog boxes.

Mouse Gestures: Navigate through your recently viewed pages by exercising a little mouse fu.

Bookmark Links Checker: Add a handy check button to Firefox's Bookmarks Manager dialog box to place an X next to dead links.

Tab X: Tabbed browsing is great, but closing tabs is harder than it should be. This extension attaches a close button to each tab.

Manage Your Plug-Ins

The problem with browser add-ons, plug-ins, and extensions is that there are so many of them. If your browser toolbars have become overloaded with buttons and menus, take steps to bring things back under control.

If you feel the need to reassert your dominance over Internet Explorer 6, choose Tools, Manage Add-ons. The resulting dialog box lists all of the browser add-ons currently loaded for the program. To view the ones that have loaded in the past but aren't currently active, choose the Add-ons that have been used by Internet Explorer option in the Show drop-down menu. If you'd simply like to block an add-on from running temporarily, select it in the list of add-ons and click Disable under Settings. To reactivate an add-on, select it and then click Enable. Take a good look at the programs installed for your browser: If you see something that has a dubious name or that you just can't identify, try disabling it. It could be an unwanted bit of adware or browser hijacking code. If disabling an add-on causes problems, return to this dialog box and re-enable it.

To remove an add-on permanently, select Windows, Programs (All Programs in Windows XP) and look in the menu for an uninstall icon in the program's folder; or select the add-on in Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs and click Remove.

Uninstalling extensions in Mozilla is a bit more difficult. It turns out that no one ever got around to creating an uninstall feature (Mozilla's developers refer to this state of affairs officially as bug #170006). To deal with the problem, offers manual uninstall instructions for extensions.

All the more reason, then, to try Firefox instead, which manages extensions easily. To remove an extension, choose Tools, Extensions, select the one that you want to uninstall, and click Uninstall. You may be able use the same dialog box to check for updates to your installed extensions, by selecting one and clicking Update (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: Managing your browser extensions is a breeze when you use the free, open-source Firefox program.
). Unfortunately, each time I tried this technique with one of my installed extensions, I got a message stating that no update service could be found. Maybe it's just that all of my extensions are lazy.

Oval Office Eavesdrop

Wish you could be a fly on the wall of the White House? It may not be able to transport you to the Oval Office in real time, but the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs has a free service that lets you in on the intimate conversations of some of our past presidents since World War II: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.

You may not be interested in hearing LBJ order a new pair of custom slacks, but who wouldn't want to listen in on what Nixon had to say about Donald Rumsfeld and John Kerry back in 1971? The Center's site offers hour upon hour of presidential prattling on subjects ranging far afield of politics (and you thought these were busy people). The recordings are available in a variety of audio formats, including MP3, Flac, Ogg Vorbis, and Windows Media Audio. (Our thanks to Garth Wermter, director of technology at the Miller Center, for letting us know about the recordings.)

Join the RSS Race

In a world of online information overload, what's a news addict to do? Pile on even more, of course. The perfect tool for perusing your dozen or so favorite online publications is an RSS reader. RSS may or may not stand for Really Simple Syndication; see "News on Demand" from the July 2004 issue for more. It uses XML to connect your PC to the digital newswires produced by hundreds of online publications, including the New York Times, CNN, and of course PC World. With RSS, instead of your having to remember to go to the news, the news comes to you. My favorite RSS reader is FeedReader, a simple, open-source, utterly free program that sits unobtrusively (most of the time) in your system tray. Should a new story appear on one of the RSS feeds that you subscribe to, a small window will pop up from the tray icon to notify you. Click the link to display the story in FeedReader's main interface. And that's the way it is.

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