Finding what you need can take too much typing, too much clicking, and too much waiting. Cut back your search time and trouble with these freebies from PC World's Downloads library. This month, we look at one tool that speeds up Web browsing, another that produces search results you didn't know you sought, and a simulation that lets you explore the universe without leaving your desk. All three downloads are free, free, free.
Browse without clicking
Web tasks like shopping can dissolve into a nightmare of clicking through and clicking back. Browster's Browster, a plug-in now in beta, substitutes mouseovers for clicking. Whenever you see Browster's lightning-bolt icon (you'll find it most frequently on auction sites like eBay) you can hover your mouse over it to open the linked page in a preview pane. To explore the opened page further, click the page. To close it, just mouse off the preview pane.
Instead of offering separate downloads for Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer, Browster includes both versions of its add-on in its installation file. In IE, Browster works as a Browser Helper Object, so don't be surprised if your anti-spyware software flags it.
Browster makes money and keeps its product free of charge by placing ads on the pages that Browster opens.
Watson gives Holmes a run for his money
If you like to stay in the know -- but too much typing dulls your curiosity -- check out Intellext's Watson. This free program searches the Web for information related to the document, Web page, or e-mail message currently open. You don't have to lift a finger to use it. Watson searches as you type or read, and then fetches results related to what you're working on.
Watson works with several popular programs, including Microsoft's Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Internet Explorer; plus Mozilla Firefox. A light-bulb icon in the system tray turns yellow to signal that Watson has found something it thinks you'll find interesting. It divides the results into Top Results, Web, News, Blogs, and Shopping. If the initial results are too broad, you can narrow the search by typing words or phrases into Watson's search-refining bar. The results aren't 100 percent useful, but even a few useful links seem like a good return for little or no extra typing. Watson stores no searches or personal data, so there's no danger of confusing your spouse or coworkers with information they don't need to see.
The version of Watson that I tested included a Browser Helper Object for IE. Although this BHO was actually helpful, it tripped my spyware detector's traps. Intellext promises that a patch available soon (perhaps by the time you read this) will include instructions on dealing with the warnings. In the meantime, Intellext recommends either temporarily disabling your spyware detector or setting it to allow that particular BHO.
Watson's free version is supported by clearly labeled ads. To evade them, sign up for Watson Professional, which costs US$10 per month, US$100 per year, or US$200 for a permanent license that carries a US$40-per-year maintenance fee.
Sometimes it's not the click of the mouse but the grinding of mental gears that wears us down -- and then it's time for a break. We've seen a screen saver that serves up a sky full of stars, but Celestia's different: It's a program that you manipulate yourself, like a game. It's also the best-looking free astronomy software that's come into my orbit.
You start out on Earth, appropriately enough. From there, you can navigate to a favorite place by typing in the name or browsing the solar system or star index. With the Eclipse Finder function, you can view previous solar and lunar eclipses for several planets, or predict the next one. If you really enjoy what you're seeing in real time, you can use the image or video capture functions to immortalize that moment in the universe. A community of developers works on this open-source project, offering Mac and Linux versions as well as a galaxy of add-ons.
-- PC World Associate Editor Danny Allen contributed to this story.