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My current favorite BROWSER is Mozilla, downloadable for free here. I find it is quicker than other browsers and I like the feature of tabs at the top of the window which allow me to keep several windows 'live' at a time without clogging up the taskbar.
As for CONNECTION/ISP service, I have never been an AOL user so cannot offer a comparison between AOL and 'regular' ISP/browser access.
Safari does require OSX. I'd suggest finding a new (real) provider other than AOL. Any of the aforementioned ones would be fine. Cable or DSL is preferred for speed reasons. Once you have a real ISP (e.g. not AOL), you can use whatever browser you like. For the Mac, running OS8.x or 9.x, IE 5.2 is one of the best browsers. Mozilla and Netscape 6 are somewhat slower, at least in some operations, and not quite as mature. I havent' tried Safari yet. Netscape 4.7, although older, is still faster in some ways than Mozilla, NS6, or IE 5.x. I keep it around for that reason. (super fast when using Audioasylum.com for example). IF you can, upgrade to Mac OS 9.2 - it's the latest Mac OS 9 operating system, and very stable and fast. I run it on my 2 macs (yet to make the switch to OSX). 8.6 is a bit older and while decent, not as fast as OS9.2.
Ed Sawyer's advice is spot-on. Safari is dead stable on Mac OSX ONLY. You cannot use it on any previous version. Mac OSX in it's current version 10.2.6 (NOT the earlier 10.1 versions) is an OUTSTANDING operating system but requires a bit of re-learning if you are used to the older Mac systems. DO NOT by any means use Netscape with a 9.X operating system; not only is it slow but it is VERY unstable and crashes frequently in my experience. If you decide to stick with one of the classic versions of Mac OS (8.6 - 9.2.2) then use Internet Explorer 5.1.2 currently available for free online, as are most, if not all, browsers. One further word of caution on upgrading to OSX. If you do want to maintain your older files and entire classic system as it stands now you must first upgrade to 9.2.2 in order to jump to OSX smoothly. Not doing so may result in much more trouble than it's worth. As Ed points out, 9.2.2 is a fast and fine operating system. OSX is an ENTIRELY different environment....also it really needs around 256MB RAM to run smoothly with other programs, though the minimum requirement stated is 128MB. OSX LOVES RAM. RAM is dirt cheap right now. DUMP AOL the first chance you get and get a decent ISP and have them help set up your computer for mail and web. DSL is best as Ed said. AOL is a worthless Disneyland of a plastic Big Brother interfaces that is so clogged up with users, filters and firewalls, and lots of pretty colors, bells and whistles that even a supossitory the size of Kansas wouldn't loosen up those binary bowels!!! Dump em' and never look back. Stay away from the bigger ISP's like MSN. Try to find a more local or regional company that's been in bussiness for a long time and that other customers are happy with. If you must go with a larger ISP I've heard some good words about Earthlink.
I have a Macintosh and have switch to Apple's Safari browser. Safari requires Mac OS 10.2 or higher to operate. This browser is a huge improvement over anything that has been previously available for the Mac. I also have a very fast cable connection that helps everything work smoothly.
Microsoft has announced that they will no longer develop internet browsers for the Macintosh, so IE 5.2 will be the last version available from them. Good riddance in my opinion as Safari 1.0 is in another league compared to IE 5.2.
If your computer will allow (or if you can possibly afford it), I highly recommend switching to OS 10.2. This is a MAJOR upgrade from even OS 10.1. Everything moves faster and it is VERY stable (no overall system crashes). Also, I like the new address book and mail applications that are available only for 10.2 users. OS 10.3 is due out by the end of 2003 and will have still more improvements. Since your newest computer is running only 9.04, I would suggest a computer upgrade. You would not need the newest Macs to run OS 10.2, but perhaps one newer than you current computer. A business lease on a new Mac G5, or a soon-to-be-replaced Mac G4 may be an attractive option.
If you decide to upgrade your computer be sure to budget for updates for all your essential application software. Make a back-up of all of your files since you should be able to use an edit all of them on the new system. If you upgrade, resist the temptation to use Mac Classic, the version of OS 9 that runs under OS X. I have found that all of my applications now have updates that run much faster and better in OS X and I do not even have Classic (OS 9) installed. Also, If you choose to go with a cable modem, you will be able to set up an ethernet network so that all of your Mac computers will be able to use the same cable modem.
The current generation of Mac OS software can be set to search for updates automatically. This generally works best with a cable or DSL modem since the updates sometimes run in the tens of megabytes. I think this update system started on OS 9.1 or 9.2. This keeps your computer up to date, and perhaps more importantly, more secure. When a defect in the security or operation of an Apple program is found, the system will notify you that an update is available. The updates are free and you always have the option to download or not. These are minor system updates so, for instance, this online system would not update from OS 10.2 to OS 10.3. That will require a purchase that you would have to make separately. Programs free from Apple can be updated automatically using this system. For example when a Safari 1.0 update is available, I will be able to download it free of charge using the system update feature since Apple does not charge for this program. Some third party programs also use a version of this update system, although they will sometimes charge for their updates. All of these can be set to check for updates periodically: every month, week, day, etc.
OS 10.2 also has a (free) program called iChat that will allow instant messaging. It should work with all of your instant messaging friends that are still trying to use AOL. Apple also has a beta version of iChat called iChat AV that will allow the use of video an audio. You can read about it here: http://www.apple.com/ichat/
Just to add a slightly different insight, I have been a CompuServe subscriber since the late 1980's (when they were the best game in town for business users), but CS was acquired about 4-5 years by AOL. AOL promised to maintain CompuServe as an independent ISP, and for the most part they have kept their promise. However, AOL has been badgering their CompuServe for more than a year to get them to subscribe jointly to AOL and CS (at the same price). The CS browser is decent, although it allows too much spam through to please me. Many of the AOL features (such as Instant Messaging) have migrated into the CS software. I suspect that it is just a matter of time before AOL drops any pretense that CS is a separate provider, and CS ceases to exist. When that time comes, I will find another ISP, since I think AOL is an abomination.
A little info on ISP's.
There are two services that you need to "connect to" the internet: Access and Content.
For the AOL that you are using now, access is provided free through you local phone company. Content is provided through one of AOL's servers. (Note: Technically, you are not "on" the internet, AOL's server is, and they allow you access through this.) If you choose to stay at 56K dial-up, you can choose another content provider such as Earthlink. I had good luck with them before I went to cable.
If you want to increase your speed you could choose DSL. This is usually provided by a phone company and is usually access only. If it is access only, you can choose you own content provider (such as Earthlink). DSL runs at about 640K-1500K for uploads and downloads when sold for home use. This may be a good choice if you upload a lot of large files (unlikely since you now use a 56k connection.) It can be more expensive than you think because you have to pay for the access (DSL) and the content (Earthlink?) separately.
I chose a cable modem because the download speed is incredible and the access AND content is provided by my cable company for one monthly fee. Also, it is cheaper for me to use this than a DSL connection. The cable modem is usually faster than DSL for downloads. Using various speed tests on the internet, I got between 1600k and 4000k during the middle of the day. The variation can depend on traffic on the internet, and traffic on the local cable system. It never seems slow to me. I do not know the upload speed, but it is not as fast as the download speed. This is not important to me because I rarely (never) try to send tens or hundreds of megabyte files. If I want to send that much, I would be better off just mailing a CD.
I do not use the cable company's start page. I make good use of the bookmarks in Safari so this is not necessary. I have the browser set to open to a blank page when a new window or tab is started because this is much faster. My home page is set to apple.com.
First of all, you dont need a new browser, you need a new isp. AOL is the bose of the isp industry. Im not even going to get into a debate on your use of a mac, so ill just suggest alternative isp's.
Earthlink does good usually, and its pretty cheap.
If you can justify the $50 per month bill, cable is the way to go, usually from your cable company.
I also have several friends that use netzero, both paid and free. They seem to like it and its good if you dont really use the internet all that much.
I'll bite at that one One-Shot. Are you dissing Mac's? Have you used OSX (now a Unix-based system) and Safari?! DEAD stable. Simple, functional, well-designed interface with a brilliant array of user-friendly integral software. I'm clearly biased being a photographer. I'd guess a good 80% of all professionals in the graphics-related industry are on Macs as they are clearly superior in those realms. Always have been. The margins have been getting closer, but with OSX Mac's still RULE for Graphics. Pretty damn good with audio and video as well. Even using more basic programs (average home-user stuff) I'd MUCH rather be on a Mac if only for the simplicity of the interface and the speed. I guess if you are into gaming or more obscure specialties like dentistry or various other business-specific programs Macintosh is NOT the system to be on. They cost a bit more money, but are well worth it IMO. As far as AOL goes, I fart in their general direction.....utterly worthless Orwellian tool of corporate America. AOL is that warm patch you swim through in the swimming pool of the internet that some kid left who couldn't hold it in anymore. A putrid stench which has only befouled the world of ISP's with it's bad reputation. Don't get me going here!