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Off line Browsing and Monitoring Techniques

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There are three main reasons for wanting to use this sort of software.

  • You want to minimise or optimise your time spent online. Most of the world pays for local phone calls.
  • You want to have a permanent copy of all or part of a web site which you want to read or refer to regularly.
  • You want to check to see if a web site has been updated.
  • You want to collect web pages to read, to use in a project, or to build into a presentation.
If you want to do any of these things, read on.

I got my first experience of off-line browsing, and monitoring changes to web sites with Smart Bookmarks, and later I tried the first versions of WebWhacker and Freeloader. These tended to be a bit awkward or unstable, and I did not really understand what I was trying to do. There are now lots of programs which have made it easy to make a copy of a web page, or indeed a whole site onto your hard disk, where you can read it at your leisure, free of any telephone charges.

The easiest way to do this costs nothing. When you view a web page in Internet Explorer or Netscape, you can save the HTML source code which generates the web page by clicking on File/Save as File.... on the Browser menu. If you open this file in your browser at any time when you are not connected to the Internet using (File/Open), you will recreate the original web page without the graphics. If you want the graphics, save them all at the same time from your browser into the folder containing the source code. In Windows 95 you just right click on each graphic in turn, and use Save Picture as to copy them to the chosen folder. The latest version of the OPERA browser has this as an option. Off line browser programs do all this for you automatically, but they also bring a lot more tricks and sophistication to the exercise.

It is impossible to say which of the programs is best, and with the speed at which they are all being improved, the situation will change constantly. You need to decide what you want to do, and then make up your own mind. I have tried to set out below the sort of things the better ones can do, so check before you choose. Then I have added the ones I use, and my reasons for choosing them.

Precision

  • Most can make an exact copy of the site. This is useful if you want to make a mirror of the site, or if it is your site, you can edit it and then upload it back to the server again. You may not be able to browse all the site from your hard disc.
  • All of them can make a copy of the site and make all the links refer to files saved on your hard disc. This is what you want so that you can browse the site off-line.
  • They can restrict the download to 1,2,3... links or levels away from the starting page. The more sophisticated programs will allow you to control the download by restricting it to specified directories only, and by including/excluding any external web sites.
  • Most can allow you to choose the type of files to be downloaded. Text, graphics, sound, Java , ActiveX...., and most can now download frames.
  • Some can generate a map of the web site. This is very useful when you want to work out how to download only a small part of a complex site.

Speed

  • Choosing text-only makes downloads much faster. Image files are much bigger.
  • The newer programs can download from 5 to 15 files simultaneously (via different sockets - its like downloading in parallel). This is very useful with slow connections, and can speed up the downloads dramatically.

Filtering

  • Most can now handle sites requiring a password.
  • Some programs can filter out pages being downloaded which contain specified keywords, and increasingly it will be possible to search the downloaded web sites.
  • Many of the programs can also check to see if any changes have been made to the pages since they were last downloaded or checked.

Scheduling

  • Most of the programs will now allow you to schedule the download at a time when the Internet is less congested.
  • Some of these will also automatically dial up an Internet connection and then close it down when the download is complete.

File Format and Data Sharing

  • If you want to use html/gif/jpeg files from the downloaded pages, it is easier if the program saves its files in these formats. The more sophisticated programs use their own file compression formats, making this more difficult.
  • The proprietary file formats make exchanging data with other users of the same programs relatively simple, but folders of images and html files can be shared with anyone, and viewed directly in a browser.

Software sites on the Internet

There are many freeware and shareware programs available, and they can be found at the mains software sites such as

Which programs do I use?

I like to use specialized programs which can operate independently whenever possible. Equally I don't want my browser to be taken over or branded by other programs. Sometimes my choice is a result of being involved in beta testing the early versions. Here are some the programs I am running at the moment.

  • TeleportPro has established itself as my main site download program. It is very sophisticated, but with a very simple user interface. Very fast download speed are achieved by using 9 sockets, and it was the first program I found which contained options to control how the software interacts with the server hosting the web site. The data is stored in normal html and image file formats. I use it for web site downloads, presentations, and also to collect and download the urls I find in my emails and magazines each day. WebSnake has many similar properties.
  • Tierra Highlights 2 is a sophisticated program specializing in monitoring changes in web pages, and highlighting differences. It has a very convenient interface and is easy to set up and use. It can schedule but not auto dial, and is a great way to keep an eye open for upgrades to my software programs, and updated web sites..
  • NetAttache Pro 2.5 is my recommendation to business users. It has a sophisticated, automated, rapid web site downloading system, and a good user interface. It can report or highlight changes, and monitor pages for keywords. An additional feature is the ability to query and download the results from a group of search engines. It uses its own file format.
  • NearSite is my favourite application. A Swiss Army Penknife. It stores up new urls from ezines etc., for later auto browsing. It has sophisticated, automatic site downloading into a bookmark file, but the best feature of all is a searchable cache. It acts as a proxy for the browser and, as a result, I can search for text or files in any of the pages I have browsed since the last time I purged the cache, and then view the web page containing it. This eats up hard disc memory, so I routinely search for all the graphics files in my cache and delete all but those from the last couple of days. It is a great substitute for a poor memory. <g>

Some other programs I have used have also been good, but as I said I am not in favour of plug-ins (WebEx and SurfBot) which can be heavy on memory resources, and Freeloader, WebWhacker, and Web Buddy did not offer more than I already had. The new 3.0 appears to have significant improvements over version 2.0 which I evaluated.

What new developments are coming?

The development cycle continues. Some of these basic features are now built into the new versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. I use Internet Explorer 4 as my main browser, without desktop integration, and Windows 95. IE4 has a much improved offline browsing capability. Combining the new History display, a large cache, and File/Work Offline, allows you to surf your cache of recently visited sites very easily.

Using the new Favorites Subscriptions, IE4 lets you download pages and be informed of updates. This may be sufficient for most occasional users, but I prefer the precision of specialised tools.

If you have problems with your cache, it may be worth looking at Cache Sentry, which claims to improve the way the cache files are managed. I have used it for a long without any problems.

UnMozify is a versatile way of recovering web sites from your cache and archiving them. Web sites in the cache get flushed out on a first in first out basis, once the size of the allocated cache memory has been reached. This software is available for all versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator.

The increased functionality of IE 4 is allowing further developments in this area. I now use SurfSaver as an essential part of my surfing. It runs in the background, but adds features to my right button menu. As I trawl for information I can save a complete copy of any interesting page I find, with a right click on my mouse. When I am offline I can revisit the pages directly or via the built-in search engine, and incorporate any useful information or images straight into any projects I am working on, such as this one.

One of my most useful programs is an enhanced History program called The Internet Tree. This little gem logs every web page, download, news group, gopher and chat file I receive. It then displays the day's or week's results in a convenient tree structure. It has many other features, but it has saved me on a couple of occasions when I suffered a system crash.




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Roger Trobridge, The Internet Gopher, gopher@internet-gopher.com.