Create Your Own Ad-Free World

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Tired of blinking, flashing come-ons cluttering your screen? Even if you've developed the ability to ignore banner ads, they still waste screen real estate and slow browsing speed. Guess what: You can avoid downloading them if you want to. Many people argue that Web ads are a blessing, providing an income source to sites and services you'd have to pay for otherwise. True, but nobody says you have to watch them, any more than you're obliged to watch television commercials. Why else were the remote control and the refrigerator invented? So let other users support the advertisers. Here's how to enjoy an almost ad-free environment.

Bust The Banners

Filtering out Web ads isn't as easy as switching channels on the television, but you can do it. At least a dozen utilities--some free--banish banner ads from your browser. And such products aren't just hackerware--even big-time software vendors sell them. Symantec Corp. recently licensed WRQ's AtGuard ad blocker and incorporated it into its Internet Security 2000 package. And Siemens AG, Europe's gray eminence of Net security, promotes its WebWasher to companies that want to reduce their network bandwidth consumption.

Most of these applications are special-purpose proxy servers. Strategically situated between your browser or other Internet software and your connection to the Internet, they examine the link addresses that your browser requests when it loads a Web page, comparing them to a frequently updated list of known ad server addresses. When the proxy server finds a match, it discards the browser's request to retrieve the ad. This may alter the Web page layout slightly in some cases, but the benefits--fast loading and fewer irritating product pitches--usually outweigh this minor inconvenience. And because many banner ads use cookies to track your surfing habits, banishing the banner ads reinforces your online anonymity as well.

If ad-blocking software sounds like overkill for your needs, or if you just want to disable ads temporarily to speed page downloads, an easier alternative is to turn off all graphics. All you'll see is a page's text (and background color, if any), which could be a problem at sites that rely on image maps and buttons for navigation. To turn off graphics in Internet Explorer 5, choose Tools*Internet Options, click the Advanced tab, scroll to the Show pictures setting, uncheck it, and then click OK. To allow ads to download but prevent them from animating, uncheck Play animations instead. In Netscape Navigator, choose Edit*Preferences, select Advanced, and uncheck Automatically load images.

More Connection Troubleshooting

In February's column (www.pcworld.com/feb00/hh_internet), I talked about how to use the Ping command and a Microsoft Web site to troubleshoot sluggish Net connections. I received a lot of mail about the item--mostly requests for additional help--so let's take a closer look.

But first, here's a follow-up on another February tip. The URL we printed for Microsoft's Bandwidth Speed Test works, but if you don't have a cable or DSL connection, you'll get better results with www.computingcentral.com/topics/bandwidth/speedtest.asp.

Now some more about Ping: It's a great tool when it makes contact with the server on the other end. But when Ping returns a 'request timed out' message, it could mean any number of things. The most likely of these is that the request simply timed out--the connection was so slow that Ping gave up waiting for a response from the remote server. On the other hand, the time-out message could mean that the destination site is simply ignoring you. If you tried pinging www.pcworld.com--the example that I used in February's column--you experienced the latter. For whatever reason (probably because thousands of readers started pinging our server), PC World's Webmaster decided to turn off the software that replies to Ping requests. The same goes for America Online and many other large sites. So don't be surprised if certain addresses never seem to respond to your request.

Ping can also be misleading in other ways. A Web server bogged down with users may nevertheless respond promptly to Ping requests, for example. Despite these quirks, this utility's forte is testing whether your connection is working at all--if the connection seems dead, and half a dozen or more sites time out when you ping them, you probably have a basic failure to communicate. Start over, this time checking your modem settings, dial-in number, and IP and DNS addresses.

Take the trace route: If Ping reveals that your Internet connection is functional but frustratingly slow, you need to know where the problem lies.

Perhaps things have bogged down somewhere beyond your ISP's control (and yours). Or the problem could be closer to home--in your home, even. To pinpoint the bottleneck's location, use the Tracert command. Like Ping, the command--short for trace route--is part of Windows 95, 98, NT, and 2000. As its name implies, Tracert follows the path that data takes between your computer and any remote address you communicate with. To trace the route between your system and Microsoft's Web site, for example, open a command prompt window (select Start*Run, then type command), type tracert microsoft.com, and then press .

Tracert's text output shows you how quickly data travels between your location and each network router along the way. As with Ping, time displayed is in milliseconds, and larger numbers mean slower performance. Tracert tests each new network segment (these are known as hops) three times and posts all three numbers. A star in place of a number signifies a time out. If Tracert reports times in single or double digits for the first five or six hops but then suddenly encounters a segment in the high triple digits, you have found your slowdown--or at least part of it. The bad news: The Internet is slow. The good news: It's probably not your fault or your ISP's.

If slow Ping times consistently commence on the second or third hop, your ISP will probably want to know about it--the backbone service it connects to, the high-speed lines it uses to connect to the backbone, or the ISP's own internal network or servers may be faulty. If the problem shows up on the first hop, however, it most likely involves either your equipment or the phone company's.

Review your basic modem and network settings, as well as the physical phone wiring both inside and outside your home or office. Disconnect all other phones and telephone devices that you use, including your answering and fax machines, to determine if they might be responsible for the problem.

If you become a habitual pinger and trace-router, you may want to pick up some extra-strength tools. Webmaster of the 82nd Airborne Division Kip Keziah wrote in to recommend NeoTrace, a graphical trace-route utility that charts route performance and plots the path on a map of the world. Download an evaluation copy from FileWorld or from www.neotrace.com. The registration fee is $30.

Reader Jim Bartek prefers PingPlotter, which combines ping and trace-route tools in a graphical interface. The program (only $15) is available on FileWorld or at www.nessoft.com/pingplotter.

Download Of The Month

Index Your Web Site

As your site grows horribly out of control, you can easily misplace important data and links in its forgotten backwaters. Like any publication, your site needs an index. But indexing is a task from hell--and even if you do it at the outset, revising the index as your site evolves is something you'll probably keep moving to the end of your to-do list. Mark Howard's free Index Generator 2.1 (available on FileWorld or at www.mh.ic24.net/idgen) makes that daunting task automatic. Once you get Index Generator's settings tweaked to your satisfaction, you can generate a new list with a few clicks.

Set Default Web Editor

You can specify an HTML editor by choosing Start*Settings*Control Panel, double-clicking Internet Options, and clicking the Programs tab. But, you may not find any editors available in the drop-down list--even if likely candidates are installed on your system. Choose View*Folder Options*File Types in Windows Explorer (Tools*Folder Options*File Types in Windows 2000), select the HTML document entry in the list of file types, and then click the Edit button and assign a new program to the edit action.

Find files from this article at www.fileworld.com/magazine.

Send your questions and tips to nettips@spanbauer.com.

We pay $50 for published items. Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

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