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By Art Glick

Downloading from the Internet

(or FREE software for the taking - Part I)

(Originally Published in May, 1997)

The word "downloading" really refers to the process of receiving information from a remotely located computer, typically over telephone lines. Whether or not you realize it, you're downloading from the Internet constantly from the first moment that you make a connection.

Most browser programs (Netscape, MS Internet Explorer) support a "cache", and as you browse the web, text and graphics are automatically downloaded into RAM memory and/or a temporary subdirectory (folder) on your hard drive so that your browser program can read them and display them to the screen.

You may have noticed that when you revisit a site recently visited, your screen displays the text and graphics more quickly than it did when you first visited the site. This happens because your browser program finds the text and graphics of the site in your hard drive cache and makes a quick comparison to be certain that the site on the Internet has not changed since your first visit.

If it has not, instead of downloading the information again from the Internet, your browser program reads it from your hard drive cache - a much quicker process. By the way, certain problems with earlier versions of Netscape have been know to be solved by clearing the cache, which is easily accomplished in Netscape's network options section.

As the Internet has developed, the word downloading has come to mean more than just the normal process of receiving text and graphics for your browser to read and display to your screen. In fact, the term now almost exclusively relates to the process of downloading a file containing software and/or data, such as a shareware program, video clip or audio clip. For the remainder of this column, that is what the term will mean, as it seems to be where most people encounter their greatest frustration when using the Internet.

At this point, I have to say something I've said before but can never overemphasize. If you don't know the difference between a file and a folder, you are sorely lacking in the most basic skills required to make productive use of your computer. Take a course, read a book, watch a video - or just simply follow through the tutorials that come with any version of Windows.

If you have only the most basic of skills, downloading software from the Internet and installing on your computer is not nearly as daunting a task as it may first seem to be. Indeed, the actual downloading of the file is the simplest part of the process, and you've probably already done this, whether or not it was intentional.

In fact, here is where many users make their first mistake. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS PLACE YOUR DOWNLOADED FILES IN AN EMPTY (OR NEAR EMPTY) FOLDER. If you don't even know what I mean by this, or don't know how to create a folder, you need to learn how before you proceed to do anything else.

Virtually all the program files downloadable from the Internet are actually compressed archives of numerous files. That is, you download a single file, but, in the process of installing the program, this single file expands on your hard drive, into perhaps dozens of files.

Quite often, the single compressed file expands into a set of installation files, much like what you would have on an installation diskette had you purchased the program rather than downloading it. You then must delete these temporary installation files after running the program's installation routine, or you're just wasting hard drive space.

Imagine the mess you can create (and I have seen, most often on systems used by eager teens) by downloading files into your C:\WINDOWS subdirectory (folder), unpacking them, then leaving behind the debris. In fact, NEVER unpack a file in your C:\WINDOWS folder. You will never be able to sort out the contents of the unpacked file from the rest of your Windows files, and you could even inadvertently overwrite critical files.

This is the reason that I recommend downloading files to a near empty folder. Actually the process that I use is to create a folder somewhere called DOWNLOAD. Then, under this folder I create another folder called EXPAND. When I download a file, I drop it into DOWNLOAD, then I send a copy of it to DOWNLOAD\EXPAND, which I empty after each use.

This way, I have the original compressed archive in DOWNLOAD (in case I'd like to give it to someone else or go back to it myself), and I have the totally empty DOWNLOAD\EXPAND folder in which I can place a copy of the archive so that I can expand it, then use the expanded files to accomplish the installation. When I'm all done, I know that I can delete the entire contents of DOWNLOAD\EXPAND without concern.

The scope of the process of downloading and installing a program from the Internet is really too much for a single column, so the remainder of this first part will deal with just the step-by-step process of getting the file onto your hard drive. The next column will tell you what to do with the file, once it has been downloaded.

Again, I cannot emphasize how important it is to become familiar with the layout of your hard drive, and how critical it is for you to know how to make folders, then be able to find the folders you have created.

Let's begin by making a folder called DOWNLOAD. The most logical place for this folder would be under the folder that contains your browser program, but if you can't find this (and it's not always obvious even to a savvy user if you have Windows 95), simply place the folder in the root of your hard drive. Placed here, it will always be easy to find - its location is otherwise arbitrary.

Unless you've tampered with your browser's default settings, it should already be configured to make downloading a file very simple. Every link on a web site is actually a file. Most of these files are in "hypertext" format, so your browser simply displays them to your screen. Some links are actually files intended to be downloaded to your hard drive. When you click on any link, your browser looks at the extension of the file and decides what to do based on this.

You can actually customize your browser program to perform certain tasks (mostly by running other programs) based on the file extension that it finds. In Netscape, these are called "Helper Applications". For the most part, it's best to leave these configured as they are. If you encounter problems downloading files, however, it will most likely be because these default settings have somehow been changed.

Compresses program files that are meant to be downloaded have a particular extension such as EXE, ZIP, ARC, GZ, SIT, which depends on the format by which they were compressed. When your browser encounters such a link, it should prompt you with several choices. Among these is the choice to SAVE the file, and this is obviously what you want to do with it. DO NOT select "Pick an Application". This is how easily your default settings can get changed to something you don't want.

When you select SAVE (or SAVE AS), you get a standard box with which you should already be familiar. You see something similar every time you save a file. Simply navigate over to your new DOWNLOAD folder and save it there. You can usually accept the default file name, and you definitely do not want to change the extension. And whatever you do, please do not save the file in any of your WINDOWS system's folders. If you can't be certain that you're not doing this, you shouldn't be downloading files.

A great place to download software is www.shareware.com, and you can go there and practice downloading if you wish. Pick a program whose archive ends in EXE, so you won't have to worry about needing any special software to unpack it, but please read tomorrow's column before you proceed to do anything beyond downloading the file.

Tomorrow we'll cover the various types of compressed archives, how to unpack them and how to install the software that they contain.

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