- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Usually, the slogan, “you get what you pay for” applies in the software realm. There are exceptions, but whatever the benefits of a “freeware” computer program, it often falls short of the thing you pay money for.

Here’s a couple of exceptions: Mozilla Firefox, a Web browser, and Thunderbird, an e-mail “client” that handles newsgroup and RSS (or Internet-based “Real Simple Syndication”) feeds. Both are available for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and Linux operating systems, from www.mozilla.org, and yes, both are free.

I’ve been using both, on the Mac, for about a week, and I’m tempted to stick with Firefox, and less likely to make Thunderbird my e-mail client of choice. Given a couple of tweaks, Thunderbird would top my list.

Here’s why: These are two highly stable, feature-rich, easy-to-use programs that behave really well. The Firefox browser functions nicely with a wide variety of Web sites, including secure ones such as my bank.

There are some nice plug-ins, called “extensions,” that add functions such as “picture zoom,” which offers true close-up views of any picture on a Web page. At the largest size, those enlargements are pixilated, becoming a series of large dots, but more normal-sized blowups are quite good.

I also like the “search” feature Firefox offers on a given Web page. There’s a small search bar at the bottom of the screen with controls to search forward and backward on a page. You can enter new search terms quickly and easily. I’ve not seen anything like it on any other browser.

I’m told that Firefox is more secure and less vulnerable to Internet attacks than is Microsoft Internet Explorer. It won’t load “Active X” control programs, which offer some conveniences but also can be used for malicious attacks.

Indeed, the latest “preview release,” offers users an additional protection against spoofing attacks: When a user visits a secure site, the browser window highlights the Web site address and displays the name of the Web site: if there’s a discrepancy, you see it instantly.

The pop-up window blocker works quite well, but can be selectively turned off for necessary pop-ups. The built-in Web search tool will look up things on Google, but also on EBay, amazon.com, Dictionary.com and Yahoo — just take your pick.

Thunderbird, the e-mail client, is a no-nonsense program that supports both POP3 and IMAP accounts. Configuring each type of account was easy; the program walks you through the steps. There are options to make sure everything is handled properly, including formatting, type styles and e-mail signatures.

The program will send e-mail in both plain text and HTML formats, which makes it suitable for just about every type of e-mail recipient. It will request return receipts on a per e-mail basis, something Mac applications such as Microsoft’s Entourage and Apple Computer’s Mail.app would do well to emulate. It offers mail filters and rules, and it’s said to be good at blocking spam.

But that’s a minor quibble. Overall performance for Thunderbird is outstanding and very fast. If you have a bunch of e-mail accounts, you can aggregate them into a single in box, or your can have separate files and folders for each account. E-mail can be forwarded “inline” or as attachments; quoted copy from an e-mail to which you are replying can be placed before or after your reply text.

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