On the Internet, it's always Christmas.
No, you Scrooges, it's not because you spend a lot of time waiting in line and because there's lots of congestion.
It's because on the Internet, people are always giving you stuff.
Oh, sure, there are reasons behind the gifts. They may want something in return. They may want to get rid of it. Or they may even genuinely want to give you something out of the kindness of their hearts.
Whatever the reason, there's plenty of stuff out there and you should pick it up and try it out.
If you like it, keep it. If you don't, send it back.
Let's start with the browsers, the software that hooks you up with the World Wide Web.
Netscape Navigator, available at Netscape Communications Corp.'s site at no cost for three months, is most people's first choice because it handles all of the Internet's latest tricks well and quickly.
But Microsoft's Internet Explorer, available at Microsoft Corp.'s site for free, is catching up. And for those who want a simple, kid-friendly browser, Apple Computer Inc. is offering Cyberdog at its site at no charge.
Once you've got the browser you need the plug-ins, applications that let your browser do nifty tricks.
There are so many these days that it's hard to keep up with them all.
But RealAudio should be your first stop. RealAudio allows you to download sounds - ranging from songs to ongoing radio broadcasts - as fast as they reach your computer, instead of having to wait for the whole thing to download before you can hear anything.
Shockwave is another good plug-in to download because it allows sound and animation to load automatically into the browser for a more TV-like Net-surfing experience.
For 360-degree panoramic views, the kind you can't control on TV, check out the QuickTime Virtual Reality application and then log into some of the sites that take advantage of the technology, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for a virtual tour.
Netscape has a list of plug-ins on its site that links you to the ones you want.
PointCast is another application worth picking up. The PointCast Network asks you what kind of information you're interested in - ranging from news to sports scores and stock prices to horoscopes and lottery numbers. The PointCast goes onto the Internet, picks up the information and loads it into your computer. If you want it to, it will even track stocks or headlines in place of your screen saver.
Freeloader can be programmed to go onto the Internet in the middle of the night, when it's not so busy, pick up updates for some of the most popular sites and load them onto your computer. That way you can read sites such as HotWired and Sportsline without waiting for the pictures and information to download.
One thing to remember with PointCast and Freeloader is that they work only if your computer remains on and, in PointCast's case, the computer remains connected to the Internet.
Shareware.com is also a good place to pick up some stuff to try out. But remember shareware is not free - if it is, it's called freeware. You can try it out for a while, but if you use it regularly, you should send the folks who made it a few bucks.
That's only fair, right?
Besides, you'll want to keep a lot of the programs from Shareware.com, which has everything from the Doomlike, shoot-'em-up Quake to that Macaroni screen saver everyone talks about, the one where dancing macaroni noodles do - you guessed it - the macarena. Shareware.com includes utilities such as the new WinZip software, as well as operating system updates and virus checkers.
Of course, all of this is free, a year-round Christmas present from cyberspace.
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