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Power Up Internet Explorer with Three Shells

by Ron White
03/23/2004

Think you're pretty happy with Internet Explorer (IE)? You won't be if you supercharge Microsoft's browser with one of three Explorer wrappers: NetCaptor, Avant Browser, or MyIE2. They each give IE powerful new functions -- once you use them, they become something like Google. You can't imagine how you got along without them.

The browsers work with the IE engine intact beneath them. The Microsoft engine and browser functions still work. That includes IE's security measures, and vulnerabilities. The wrappers contribute popup ad blockers and ad filters, protections that aren't due to appear in Explorer until the Windows Service Pack 2 debuts later this year. The browsers won't annoy you with animated advertising and spyware. Their only source of income is donations from users, usually less than $15.

What you get for your donation -- or even if you don't donate -- varies slightly among the browsers. The features in Avant Browser and NetCaptor are so similar that the browsers could be clones. MyIE2 does 99 percent of what the other two browsers do and much more that they don't.

They all allow multiple Internet pages open at the same time. When you open a new page, any other page you have open remains active. The new page covers it, except for a tab sticking up behind the active page. The tab gives you an easy way to bring it to the foreground. There's no limit to the number of pages you can have open simultaneously, although after a dozen or so the tags become too small to be intelligible.

The three browsers use similar schemes for managing all these open pages. They save several open pages as a "group." You can have one group with several pages dedicated to, say, auction sites. Another group can hold several news pages, or pages for tech support. You can open or close all the pages in each group with a single click.

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Avant Browser and MyIE2 let you tile or cascade open pages, but it's not exactly a good way to work with more than three or four pages. The area for each page becomes too small to contain helpful information, but it's handy for an at-a-glance check of what all your open pages contain. Another helpful option all the browsers have is automatically bringing up a group of screens that were open the last time you were on the Net. It's the same concept as a homepage, only more of a neighborhood page.

The browsers share other abilities that should be standard in Internet Explorer, such as off-the-cuff translations of foreign pages. Each has "Mouse Gestures," which let you navigate with only the vaguest of mouse movements. To go back, for example, you'd move your mouse to the left. To go forward, move it to the right.

Each of the browsers has a few tricks the other two can't do, but MyIE2 puts on the most dazzling show. It has an endless capacity for plugins and an endless train of web sites run by fans who provide the plugins and support. MyIE2's plugins pile on handy extra capabilities such as a jukebox and local weather report. UCMore automatically finds other sites that expand on the content of the current page. The best added tool, Simple Collector, lets you built a collection of text and graphics culled from different web pages by simply dragging them to an icon.

The developer of MyIE2, Chen Ming Jie, still holds on to his day job creating software for a small Chinese company. He reports that the browser has about 600,000 users in China and the same number in the rest of the world. Still, with donations that, when they do trickle in, range from $5 to $10, having a 1.2-million-user base hasn't been enough to let him quit his job.

Use any one of these three browsers for a day, and you'll never go back to plain, unadorned Explorer. Which begs the question, why hasn't Microsoft with its limitless resources done the same thing that three developers have done on their own?

Avant Browser

PROS: Polished, fast, built-in Google, Flash animation, and popup blockers.

CONS: No flaws, but lacks some of the bells and whistles in MyIE2.

Download at www.avantbrowser.com; free.

Click for larger view
Avant Browser allows several open web pages to be tiled for a handy, if cramped, display of what's on each page. (You can click on the screen shot to open a full-size view.)

NetCaptor

PROS: Constantly being improved. Good handling of CaptorGroups -- collections of related pages.

CONS: The unregistered, free version has ads and doesn't block popups and other ads. Tabbed pages can't be tiled.

Download at www.netcaptor.com. Free; pro version for $29.95 includes ad blocking.

Click for larger view
NetCaptor lets you collect various web pages into CaptorGroups that can be saved and opened as a group. (You can click on the screen shot to open a full-size view.)

MyIE2

PROS: Extensive collection of well integrated plugins -- some unique -- and good forum support from fans worldwide.

CONS: Drabbest collection of skins you've ever seen.

Download at www.myie.com; free.

Click for larger view
MyIE2 brims over with helpful plugins on every edge of the screen. (You can click on the screen shot to open a full-size view.)

Ron White is a longtime technology journalist and author of numerous books, including How Computers Work.


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