Hareware

 Q: I've had it with Internet Explorer—the browser crashes, like, every two minutes, and it's lousy with video. I tried the latest Netscape, but all the AOL add-ons give me the willies. Any alternatives?

Microsoft's Internet Explorer is, indeed, a maddening piece of code. Crammed with useless features and obscure plug-ins, it's about as reliable as a $10 Rolex knockoff. Netscape's sturdier, but has gotten bloated since AOL took over. Still, 98.7 percent of surfers use one of the behemoths, according to the research firm OneStat.

Don't get freaked by the whopping numbers. The Web teems with excellent alterna-browsers that'll make you regret sticking with Explorer for lo these many years. If you can spare 10 megabytes, give one of the indies a test drive. That's what Mr. Roboto did last week, putting three popular upstarts through their paces. One flunked badly, but two get gold stars for speed and value.

illustration: Lloyd Miller

The laggard was NeoPlanet (Neoplanet.com), the browser equivalent of an over-tanned dating-show contestant. The appearance is lovely, with a sleek tool bar (available in 595 different color schemes) and a disembodied female voice cooing, "Welcome to NeoPlanet!" It also aims to make sense of mistyped URLs, a godsend for stubby-fingered keyboardists. But NeoPlanet's a bit of a con; it needs to run atop Internet Explorer, so forget about trashing your built-in browser. A slowpoke on big downloads—Mr. Roboto made coffee while waiting for one Acrobat file—it tried to log on automatically after every reboot. Oh, and there's no Mac or Linux version. Goodbye, and good riddance.

Norway's Opera (Opera.com) was a big step up in terms of speed. Streaming videos, JPEGs, WAV sounds—Opera powered through every multimedia task with flair. The keyboard shortcuts also delighted, especially the ability to toggle graphics on and off with a press of the G, a must-have if you'd prefer to save your color printer some needless wear and tear. Best of all, it's able to fool Web sites into thinking you're using Explorer, which means pages rarely render incorrectly.

The free version of Opera is ad-supported, so you'll either have to deal with banners or ante up the $39 purchase fee. Mr. Roboto didn't take the plunge (note to editor: how 'bout an expense account?), but word is the pay version features a less cluttered tool bar. Let's hope so—the freeware's a visual mess.

Rounding out the trio was Mozilla (Mozilla.org), an open-source version of Netscape. If you're of a certain age, it'll conjure up memories of your first Web forays, when browsers were still simpler than fighter jets. Mozilla's performance was top rate, on par with Opera in terms of multimedia. It can't mimic Explorer, however, so sites like the Microsoft-funded Slate loaded poorly, and there were issues with a few e-mail services. Neophytes might find the options a bit user-unfriendly; changing the security levels, for example, is trickier than sliding Explorer's tabs from "medium" to "high."

Mozilla makes up for the geekery with the coolest feature of the bunch—a pop-up killer that zaps any unrequested window. Opera has an ad buster, too, but it's skittish, killing too many windows you actually need. That's not the case in Mozilla, which'll spare you the worst commercial excesses.

So which should you go for, Opera or Mozilla? Depends on your tastes—the former if speed and accessibility are priorities, the latter if you prefer smooth interfaces and smart features. Mr. Roboto wavered, but Mozilla's the one he kept. Perhaps he was subconsciously swayed by the browser's mascot, a fire-breathing dragon reminiscent of Lizzie from the '80s video game Rampage. Sometimes it's the little things that count.


Cracking Microsoft's Xbox has been a hacker Holy Grail since the gaming console debuted last year. MIT student Andrew Huang has finally figured it out. Last month he published a paper detailing how he snagged the software "key" with a homemade circuit board. Huang's keeping the key secret for now, lest he run afoul of copyright laws. But he's creating a legal boot disk that'll let hackers write their own Xbox programs. The joys of controlling your toaster with a joystick are, of course, obvious.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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