Web Watch

Free stuff online! We've reviewed the top e-mail, calendar, Web hosting, and community sites on the Net. Our picks are fast and efficient, feature-rich and advertising-poor -- and in most cases, you won't find them on portal sites. We've also tracked down the best free Windows and Web utilities, and the best sites for tech support.

Simple Fax

www.efax.com

EFax.com A good idea whose time has come, EFax.com provides fax forwarding via e-mail. Register online, and you'll be issued a fax number that you can provide to anyone wishing to send you a fax. EFax.com reformats all incoming faxes as e-mail attachments, which you can read via the free downloadable (and self-installing) fax viewer. It's perfect for those of us trying to run a truly paperless office. How does EFax.com make money? The company plans to offer future premium services for a fee, including the option to send outgoing faxes via e-mail; and incoming faxes come with splash-screen ads.

Web acceleration that works

www.web3000.com

NetSonic Web 3000's NetSonic is everything that Web acceleration ought to be. When your modem is idle (while you are reading an already-loaded page, for example), NetSonic prefetches the Web pages that you're likely to visit. (It keeps track of the sites that you visit most frequently.) Then it grabs only the new elements from a page. The result: faster surfing.

You can set limits on the cache to keep your hard drive from being eaten alive. A retail version is available, but the freeware version of NetSonic covers all the basics.

MP3 for the masses

www.inst.eecs.berkeley.edu/ctsay/mp2win32.html

Maplay 1.2+ Plenty of MP3 players exist; pure versatility is what makes this one so popular. MP3 is the controversial media format that lets users quickly and easily create, post, and download audio files, regardless of whether the audio is licensed. A full 32-bit application, Maplay has built-in support for MP3 but can also tackle almost any multimedia format your system supports -- WAV, MIDI, Sun AU, Apple QuickTime, Video for Windows, Video CD, MPEG video, CD audio, and so on. A built-in playlist editor lets you create, edit, and save playlists of downloaded files, and you can associate images or text with each track, making your own virtual packaging.

Help others help you

www.supporthelp.com

SupportHelp.com SupportHelp.com features a searchable database of tech support resources you can sort by keyword, company, or product. While it provides little original content, it excels at getting you data about individual hardware and software manufacturers. But the real prize here is the direct links to dozens of online forums and newsgroups via Delphi Forums, where you can post specific questions about whatever is giving you trouble.

The Web's the game

www.shockrave.com

Shockrave Macromedia's playground/showcase for the latest and greatest in interactive Web goofiness. Here you'll find dozens of cool games that work directly through your browser via Java and Macromedia's own Shockwave technology. (You have to download the Shockwave plug-in, but the process is fast and painless.) Check out the Arcade section for scaled-down replicas of your favorite eighties' coin-operated video games.

Web utilities -- Seek and find others onlinewww.icq.comICQ ICQ is the wildly popular instant-messaging system that enables real-time communication with other users on the Net. Much like AOL's instant-messaging system, ICQ lets you chat and exchange URLs or images with other registered users at any time. This model has a ton of advanced new features, including multiuser chats, real-time gaming, and support for Internet telephony. What's more, it's free for anyone to download and remains simple to use despite its growing popularity and feature set. You can choose to work in Advanced or Simple mode, a nice option for new users.

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