By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
Computers have changed, and so have we. Not long ago the most important thing your computer did was word processing, but these days it's more likely to be e-mail and Web browsing.
Windows PCs and Macintoshes both have top-quality software for those two Internet functions. With Linux gaining quickly in popularity -- already, there are as many Linux users worldwide as Mac users -- it's time to take a look at the best e-mail and browser software for Linux. Word processing is still important, of course, so we'll also see what's available for Linux in that area.
Linux comes with a couple of old-fashioned programs that handle e-mail, but most new Linux users will want modern software instead. Far ahead of all possible rivals is the mail program built into the suite called Netscape Communicator, at http://www.netscape.com/. It works just like the Windows and Mac versions of Netscape Mail, so you'd have nothing new to learn.
Netscape Mail does a great job handling the three kinds of mail -- normal, rich text and HTML -- and knows how to send and receive attachments without making enemies of your friends. The address book is a model of how things should be done. But Netscape Mail can't handle more than one standard e-mail account, so if you have multiple accounts you'll have to forgo Netscape Mail or use another mail program for the accounts that are secondary. (As I do, you probably get most of your mail through one account and only a few letters on the others.)
My choice for those secondary accounts is kmail -- Linux has a lot of lower-case programs -- which is part of the KDE graphical interface. KDE is installed automatically in many versions of Linux, including the one I use, Caldera OpenLinux 2.2. There are many other modern mail programs for Linux, so try them out if you like adventure. A bug in kmail will drive you crazy if you try to make it automatically get your mail, because it refuses to recognize your password. In manual mode it's OK, however.
The best browser? Later this year or early next year that answer is likely to be Mozilla, the successor to Netscape Navigator, at http://www.mozilla.com. But at this time you can't do better than Netscape Navigator 4 for Linux. I'm using version 4.61 and like it very much.
Navigator is part of the Netscape Communicator package, so you get it when you install everything. It's fast, easy to use and, at least in version 4.61, very stable. The only real flaw is a tendency for small fonts to appear in an almost unreadably tiny size. Use the Preferences menu to make the fonts 14 points if that's a problem on your monitor.
There aren't many other modern browsers that are worth using. StarOffice (http://www.stardivision.com) is a suite of programs that work like the ones in Microsoft Office 97. It includes a browser that seems to work acceptably at first, but the StarOffice browser is horribly slow and tries to hog the computer's attention. The file manager in KDE is also a Web browser, just as the Windows Explorer is, and it does a passable job. But it's no match for Netscape Navigator.
But StarOffice redeems itself with one of the best word processors for any computer system. The word processor built into StarOffice could be called a clone of Microsoft Word 97 except for the fact that it actually works better than Word 97 in some ways. The spell checker and thesaurus are better, for example, and many other little things are handled a great deal more sensibly.
StarOffice can work with Microsoft Word 97 documents and with documents created by Microsoft Excel. It's compatible with other Microsoft file formats, too, but I haven't tried the other ones.
WordPerfect fans have WordPerfect 8 for Linux (http://linux.corel.com). It's a big program and drives me batty trying to figure it out -- I'm the kind of user who thinks the last good version of WordPerfect came out in 1988 -- but I know others who love it.
And fans of fast modern word processing should look into a new program named Ted, from http://www.nllgg.nl/Ted. It's quickly gaining a reputation as the Linux version of WordPad, the free word processor included with Windows. It's a rich text editor, as WordPad is -- the next time you use WordPad, change the default file format and you'll see what I mean -- and handles larger and smaller fonts, images, tables and charts within documents just as WordPad does. It even has a good spell checker, one thing Microsoft left out of WordPad.
Ted can even turn rich text documents into HTML documents. And documents it creates are 100 percent compatible with Microsoft Word (from Word 6 to the present) and, of course, with WordPad.
Ted is also very fast. It's ideal if you want a good word processor but don't want to mobilize the national guard just to write something fancy.
All these programs are free. Linux is an Open Source computer operating system, meaning it is freely available. Packaged versions of Linux are sold in computer stores and are usually easiest to install. Gigantic downloads of the Linux system are free off the Web, and CDs containing can be ordered by mail for as little as $2.95 plus shipping.