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Connectix Surf Express claims to increase your Web browsing performance to new, previously unimagined, pinnacles of speed. As with any such claims, they must be absorbed by a skeptical mind.
Surf Express is a nice little utility, though it would be of use only to hard-core Web junkies who frequent the same pages over and over. Connectix has, with Surf Express, done what Connectix does best. They have taken an existing piece of software, and invented a hack to make it better. Surf Express markedly improves the cache that your Web browser uses. Keep in mind that this only works with Netscape and Internet Explorer. If you use an old version of Mosaic or, God help you, Cyber Dog you're out of luck.
The cache is a set of files that your browser saves that allows it to load images and text into the browser from your hard drive instead of over your modem. For example, when you view a Web page, Netscape checks a list of pages you've been to before. If you've been there recently, chances are that most of the page is sitting on your hard drive. Netscape checks the remote page to see if anything has changed, and if it hasn't, the items are loaded quickly from your own computer, rather than putting along at 28.8 bits per second.
It is important to note that Surf Express is only useful for people with slow (i.e. 33.6K modem or slower) network connections. As the speed of your connection increases, the usefulness of the cache itself decreases, so speeding up the cache isn't likely to help you much. Connectix should be given some credit for including this information on the Surf Express packaging.
The way browsers handle caches is to dump every piece of a web page into separate files, which means a cache folder will typically contain a huge number of small files that are being deleted and replaced with alarming speed. Surf Express, however, stores each piece in one large database file. In addition to this being more efficient, it is also much kinder to your hard drive. My biggest complaint about Netscape was how the cache scrambled my hard drive. All those files being deleted and replaced caused me to have to run a disk-fix program at least once a week. If you optimize your hard drive, the sections of the disk used by the cache create a giant mess. Also, there is the matter of minimum file allocation size to consider. If you have a 2GB hard drive, the smallest space any file can occupy is 32K. Why this is so is beyond the scope of this review, but trust me when I tell you that the 1K GIF on your favorite page takes up more than 1K of space on your hard drive. When this is multiplied by 1,500 files, the space lost adds up in a hurry. By storing the entire cache in one file, Surf Express can also save you quite a bit of space.
The more technical among you will no doubt say, "But Shawn, my drive is HFS+ and I don't have to worry about that." This is true, but it has been my experience that most users either don't know about HFS+, or are too paranoid to use it. If you fall into the prior category, HFS+ is a new drive format available in MacOS 8.1 that lowers the minimum file size to as low as 1/2K on any sized drive. What makes people paranoid about this is that the popular hard drive tools do not know what to do with the new format. If your HFS+ drive crashes, good luck getting anything back. (For the curious, both of my hard drives are HFS+ formatted. What can I say? I like to live on the edge.)
But I digress. Connectix recommends reviewers test 20 different web sites before and after installing Surf Express. I was lazy, I only checked 15, and here are my results:
I should point out that, no, I don't spend countless hours at either Coke or Pepsi's web sites. I was shooting for a representative sample. In my math-minor days I heard that this was a Good Thing. At any rate, it was interesting to learn that Surf Express, on occasion, actually slowed down performance. What this says to me is, simply, the software ain't perfect. Overall, you will notice a performance increase in your web browsing. Keep in mind that Surf Express does not speed up your network connection in any way. If you hop around to different sites like a psychotic frog, you wont see any improvement, because you are always loading new data from the network.
Surf Express also features a find function that works on your cache. You can find individual images or texts within the cache file, based on typical search parameters. I've had this thing installed on my machine for a few weeks now, and I've only tried to use it once. I wanted the image file for the Mindjack header frame, and since it is a background I couldn't just click and save it. So I used Surf Express' cache find. I was disappointed. The search was dismally slow, and I never did find the file even though I had been at the site not five minutes before. I wouldn't get too excited over this feature.
In addition, Surf Express can create random and bizarre problems with your browser. I had it installed before Mindjack went live. Donald sent an email to all of the writers telling us we were up and running, so with excitement I went there (here?) and was greeted with "Mindjack: Going live late April." After mailing the esteemed Mr. Melanson about this, I wondered if it was a problem with Surf Express. After clearing my entire cache file, the page came up perfectly. I don't know why this happened, and since then I have not had a similar experience, but it is an irony that requires reporting.
The Straight Dirt
Surf Express will speed up your Web browsing if you have slow connection and you visit the same pages frequently. It is certainly something you can live without, but it is handy to have around. As with any extensive third-party modification to an existing piece of software, be prepared for strange behavior and interesting errors. Surf Express does do what the packaging claims, and after several weeks of use I can recommend it to anyone who visits the same web pages frequently.
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