Share and share alike – file sharing clients uncovered
Following the immense success of Napster, it was only a matter of time before someone posed the question, why not develop a program that allows people to exchange other file types as well as MP3s? A very good question, and one which was swiftly answered by a deluge of file sharing clients based on the now infamous Napster protocol.
For those of you who haven’t been formally introduced to file sharing clients and are wondering what all the fuss is about let me explain. Despite the gamut of different interfaces and slogans, all file sharing programs share the same basic premise; they allow anyone with minimal computer know-how and an internet connection to become part of a gargantuan, global file sharing community. Once you’ve chosen your bandwagon and you’re comfortably sitting on board, the sky’s the limit; you can download any file format imaginable, no matter how large it is, or where in the world it’s located. So in a nutshell, file sharing clients provide an efficient means of exchanging data over a digital medium.
While some clients hinge on the operation of a central server or servers and so are vulnerable to attacks from the lawyers of irate pop stars, others allow you to connect directly to the computers of other uses and hence side step any legal wranglings which may ensue. The best example of the first variety of client is Napster. Whenever you connect to the Napster exchange, a list of the files you wish to share is automatically uploaded to one of the Napster servers. Your list is then juxtaposed with the lists of other users and hence can be searched by anyone currently logged into the network. Connecting to a central server inevitably means that you lose your privacy, yet it does have the advantage of providing faster searches and transfers.
On the contrary, peer to peer connections offer much greater privacy, but also bring with them the drawback of longer search times and slower downloads. These systems operate on the foundation that the computer of every user connected to the exchange becomes a client as well as a server. One of the most noteworthy examples of such a network is Kazaa, which we will be taking a much closer look at shortly.
Nevertheless, the story doesn’t end there – your third option is to connect to a network without using a client at all. These ‘gateway portals’ are much like web search engines in that you simply pop along to a web page and enter your query into a search box. The results appear as direct links to files, which can then be downloaded using either your browser or a download manager in much the same way as you would download files from any other web page which hosts freely available files. These aren’t really exchange networks in their own right, nonetheless, the reason they have been included in this discussion is because they allow you to search other exchange networks which are set in motion by third party clients such as the ones made available by Napster and Lime Wire for example. While you can download files from other users via these portals, you are never really part of the community because you aren’t logged into the network using a client, and hence you are restricted from uploading files in return. Although this might not worry you very much now, keep in mind that if everyone was merely a leecher there would be no files in circulation at all! Successful file sharing necessitates a give and take relationship so make sure you do your bit to maintain the equilibrium. The real beauty of these portals is their simplicity, the only prerequisite to using one is that you can type, and as they tap into preexisting exchanges they have an instantly accessible user base of millions.
Aside from the latter variety, file sharing clients tend to be a fairly homogenous breed so if you’ve dabbled in a spot of MP3 collecting, searching for other file types using one of the many Napster clones should be a breeze. So now that you have been acquainted with the basics, let us take a closer look at how exactly these clients operate while we consider the special charms of each particular program.
While some clients insist that you logon to their network using a unique username and password, Napster and Kazaa for example, others will let you jump in with both feet straight away without registering, take Lime Wire for instance. The advantage of obtaining your own username is that you become more involved in the community, you have a net name which you can use to identify yourself in chat rooms and you can recognise your friends (or enemies!) when they are on-line. Also you can make note of other people’s net names so that you can contact them to organise file exchanges at a mutually convenient time etc. This is especially handy if the network is set up in such a way that your username forms part of the email address you will use to sign in. If you wish to contact a member of a file sharing network which uses this arrangement you don’t even have to be connected to the exchange to send a message, instead you can simply send an email using your usual email client. Conversely, clients which do not require you to register before joining the network offer the advantage of being much more anonymous; each time you logon you are nothing more than a series of digits (AKA an IP address). Again, Lime Wire is a good example of such a system.
On connecting to your chosen network, to enable you to regulate the extent to which other users can explore the contents of your hard drive, you are initially asked to select a directory where your shared files should be placed. It is also possible to restrict the types of files which can be remotely accessed by other users so that you are safe in the knowledge that no-one can tamper with any data that you don’t want them to have access to. Whatever you store in this directory can be searched for and downloaded by other users on the network, and obviously this works vice-versa. Although, if you’re a real party pooper you can disable this option completely. This will allow you to download files from other users while preventing them from accessing your goodies, not very charitable, but if you’ve only got a 56k modem there may be no other way. Keep in mind though that some programs will allow users to prevent ‘free loaders’ from accessing their computers, so if you’re being a scrooge, it’s quite likely that the library of files available to you will be restricted somewhat.
No doubt you’re eager to get started so let’s take Kazaa as an example, dip our toes in the file sharing pool and see what we can find. Now that Napster is six foot under and pushing up the daisies, Kazaa is looking like a better prospect by the day. Most noteworthy is the fact that it uses a decentralised network so is less prone to attempts to shut it down. In addition, it speeds up download times by accessing parts of the same file from multiple sources simultaneously, is capable of resuming broken downloads, includes a built in IRC client which can be used to chat to other users and even provides its own media player which lets you view partially downloaded files. Furthermore, since Kazaa has such a colossal user base there is a very good chance of you tracking down whatever it is your heart desires, whether this means finding the latest music albums, full games, applications or movies. Absolutely any file format in existence can be downloaded providing a currently connected user has chosen to share it. In short, it’s pretty damn good.
As much as I hate to knock Kazaa, I feel it’s only fair to point out its limitations as well as its strengths so you can see the wider picture. One minor niggle I have is that the client can be quite slow and clunky due to its reliance on a web based interface, yet I’ve also heard reports that the transfers themselves can be slow at times. Not that I’d know anything about that – I’ve known snails to overtake my 56k modem! Most significantly, however, is the fact that the FastTrack network, which serves as the backbone of the client is riddled with misleadingly named files, viruses, worms and trojans, which if you’re not careful can bring your computer to its knees in the blink of an eye. People have been known to spend many hours downloading full game ISOs, only to realise when they unzip them, that what they have is a totally different game to the one they were led to believe they were transferring because it has been deliberately renamed to trick them. Worse still, you could discover that what you’ve downloaded is actually malicious code designed to infect your computer! Nevertheless, providing you are aware of these pitfalls they shouldn’t be cause enough to deter you from continuing to use Kazaa. What is called for is a combination of common sense and a reliable virus/trojan scanner. If you search for a full ISO game and the hits returned consist of tiny exe files your alarm bells should be set ringing. These files will definitely not contain the game you searched for. First of all they will be far too small, and secondly, game releases are not packed in executable archives unless they’ve been tampered with. Compressed archives can be turned into non-threatening, self extracting exe files, but since there is little point modifying the archives created by the release groups, you should be very suspicious of anyone who claims to have turned their shared games, applications etc into self extracting archives. If the size of a file appears to be realistic yet the format is executable I would still recommend steering well clear of it unless you know for certain that the original format should be exe, as is the case with many shareware applications for instance. Of course, anything you download from Kazaa, or the net in general should be scanned for viruses and trojans regardless of how suspicious you are of their legitimacy.
A final handicap to note is that the search results appear very cluttered because the program simply tries to display too much at once without segregating the information properly. The column widths of the results window can be manually resized to make things a bit more organised, yet frustratingly the client is incapable of remembering your settings the next time you return to the search window. Despite a few minor niggles though it’s one hell of a good client and will only get better with time.
OK, are we sitting comfortably boys and girls? Then we will begin. First of all I should point out that it is not recommended that you download the official Kazaa client, but instead opt for its much improved, cut down younger brother known as Kazaa Lite. This takes all of Kazaa’s superfluous, bloated and privacy intruding ‘features’, mercilessly hacks them out and throws them in the trash can where they belong leaving a much leaner, more stable and most importantly of all ‘clean’ client. When I say that Kazaa Lite is ‘clean’ I’m referring to the fact that it no longer contains spyware, adware or banners of any kind. Many people erroneously believe that the lite version of Kazaa also contains spyware, yet if they had done their homework they would know that what their spyware scanner is actually detecting is a kind of spyware emulator rather than the real thing. You see, Kazaa will not function if it detects that its spyware has been removed, and this is why it has to be replaced with a dummy file instead. In Kazaa’s case, the integrated spyware file responsible for invading your privacy is known as Cydoor and has the filename ‘cd_clint.dll’. If after installing Kazaa Lite, your spyware scanner insists that you banish this file from your system, you should inform it that you know better and tell it to leave it be. Once this file has been identified it would be a good idea to add it to your scanner’s exclude list to ensure that it isn’t removed by accident in future.
Sooo, moving swiftly on. Download the program, install it and then click on its icon to get it up and running. When the wizard prompts you to enter a username and password, follow the instructions and then proceed to connect to the network. If you’re using a slow connection it would be wise to set some limits before we move on, so click on the ‘tools’ button located on the menu bar and select ‘options’. Now click on the ‘uploads and downloads’ tab and reduce the number of simultaneous connections; sadly, two is more than enough for us poor 56k-ers. While we’re here you might also want to set the directory in which you would like to store (and share) your files – make sure it’s located on a drive with plenty of space. When that’s taken care of click on the ‘search’ tab, select which file types you wish to search for, type in your query and hit the ‘search now’ button. Wait for the results to appear and then double click on whatever takes your fancy to begin downloading it. You can do this with as many files as you like without straining your internet connection since they will not start transferring immediately, but will instead be added to your download queue. As your current files finish downloading, new ones will begin transferring automatically analogous to the way in which your download manager works. To check that everything is going according to plan you can click on the ‘traffic’ button. From this menu you can cancel, pause or resume your transfers in addition to being able to send a message to the users you are downloading from. Once a couple of files have finished downloading you might want to preview them using Kazaa’s built in media player which is located under the ‘theatre’ tab. That’s all there is to it. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Gnutella began life as a file sharing client much like any other, however, the original program which was responsible for spawning a multitude of clones has now been abandoned and the developers are urging people to stop using it. Nevertheless, this isn’t the end for Gnutella, it is merely the beginning of a new era. A common misconception is that Gnutella refers to a particular client which connects to a single, self contained exchange network, but this simply isn’t the case. It is a free for all, decentralised peer to peer network which can be accessed using a variety of different clients, all of which are far more advanced than the original vanilla flavoured version which was developed by two Nullsoft employees.
No doubt the first question on your lips relates to the origin and significance of the name Gnutella. According to the FAQ on the home page, the ‘Nutella’ part refers to a “chocolate and hazelnut spread that is phenomenally popular among Europeans”. The ‘G’ tacked onto the beginning is reminiscent of the Unix-like operating system, GNU, which was the seminal work of the Free Software Foundation. Richard Stallman et al believed that source code should be made freely available allowing people to modify it to create their own software with the caveat that whatever is produced may also be recycled – Gnutella was built with the same philosophies in mind which is precisely why there are so many variations of the original client to choose from. I’m sure the addition of the ‘G’ also helped to avoid legal battles over patented trade names. I hope that serves to satisfy your epistemophilic urges. 😉
Pushing semantics aside for now though, what advantages does Gnutella offer over centrally indexed networks? Well, the first thing you will notice is the fact that Gnutella needs no centralised server in order to share your files, unlike programs such as Napster, for which this is a necessity. The reason for this is that the users themselves create the servers in a peer to peer network model. In layman’s terms this means that you connect directly to the person’s computer from which you are transferring data. As a result, no logs are kept of your searches, so anyone who is paranoid about the existence of echelon or an omnipotent ‘big brother’ can relax safe in the knowledge that they are anonymous.
Also, because no central server exists the system cannot be shut down, and since there is no single individual or company that can be held responsible for its creation, Gnutella is practically bullet proof in that it is capable of withstanding attacks from the FBI, lawyers, earth, wind and fire (did I leave anything out?). Another rationale for this fact is that Gnutella is basically a protocol, which in theory can be used for illegal purposes, but was not specifically designed with these intentions in mind. Analogously, the same can be said for cars, hammers, kitchen knives and all sorts of other seemingly harmless objects, and no one is likely to attempt to ban mundane items such as these are they?
But enough talk, it’s time for action! To get started you’re going to need a client to tap into the Gnutella network. In the early days you had an extremely taxing decision to make; you used either Gnutella 0.56 or you used Gnutella 0.56, but nowadays the options are much more varied so if you don’t instantly gel with one client you can simply banish it to the recycle bin and test drive another. If you try counting all the different varieties on offer you’ll run out of fingers and toes in no time. Many of these are a waste of time and bandwidth so let me save you the hassle of separating the wood from the trees by directing you towards the best of the bunch from the outset. These include Xolox, Lime Wire, Bear Share, Gnucleus and Phex and I’ll deal with each one in turn below.
When Gnutella first took off it was necessary to manually enter an IP address into the client to allow you to join the network. Any old IP address wouldn’t get the job done, however, it had to be the address of a user who was already connected to the Gnutella network and to find out this information you had to visit a central repository of IP addresses. This was very inconvenient as you had to find a new address each time you wanted to logon, so to circumvent this problem the client developers introduced a system which gathered these IP addresses and automatically connected your computer to them whenever you opened the client. Consequently, if your client still asks you to manually enter an IP address it is likely to be very outdated, in which case you would be best advised to update it. Because there is no central server which deals with all the file searches and transfers which go on between users, the system must rely on direct peer to peer connections. While this process is now completely automated, what your client is actually doing when it starts up is looking for users who are already plugged into the network. When it spots these users, it connects you to a small selection of them and in turn these users will be connected to a further group of users in such a way that eventually all the computers in the network will be daisy chained together. Whenever you perform a search, in the blink of an eye your request is filtered through thousands of computers across the world before the results are presented on your screen.
So all in all it’s quite an impressive system, don’t you think? Gnutella is the future, embrace it with open arms zombies… erm, I mean people, commence dribbling and chant after me “Gnutella is our leader, we love Gnutella”.
…and now without further ado let’s welcome on stage the reviews…
The Xolox developers have chosen to take the Microsoft approach in that they’ve designed a client which insists on doing absolutely everything for you whether you like it or not, the result being that half the people who have tried it loathe it with a passion, and the other half think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. The majority of the features you will find incorporated into rival clients are missing with the exception of an IRC chat applet, and again, this can either be a bonus or a curse depending on your level of experience of the Gnutella exchange.
If you’re a Gnutella novice this is the perfect client for you because there are no options to tweak; run the client and a plug and play style auto configuration system takes care of the rest leaving you to get on with the task of searching for and downloading files. Gnutella doesn’t get any more idiot-proof than this – if you can’t fathom out Xolox you shouldn’t be let loose on a computer.
Other benefits include the utilisation of ‘background intelligence’, which in theory allows the client to maintain connections and continue downloading in spite of transfer problems without any intervention from the user. Downloading from multiple sources, known as ‘swarming’, is supported effectively boosting transfer speeds, no spyware whatsoever is installed along with the client with or without your consent, plus the client itself is tiny and extremely resource light. Further enhancing Xolox’s almost ‘hands-free’ operation status is its ability to automatically complete search strings a la Internet Explorer. Each search query is conducted within its own window allowing you to multitask, and search results are continuously updated as and when new users join or leave the network to keep them current. Downloading of partially completed files is also supported providing many more connection outlets from which to download in addition to reducing the strain for those users who possess the complete file you wish to transfer.
Until recently, the Xolox project had been all but abandoned. The resurrected version therefore has a bit of catching up to do before it can compete with the better established clients in terms of stability and reliability. If you’re looking for hassle free downloads and are prepared for a few teething problems I’d enthusiastically encourage you to give Xolox a whirl. If on the other hand you were born to tweak I would advise you to look elsewhere for your Gnutella fix.
The most striking thing about Lime Wire is how pretty it all is. It uses those perfectly rounded aqua-effect buttons throughout, which are all the rage on web sites at the moment and the whole thing smacks of Apple Macism (look, I’m allowed to make up my own words, it’s my site), which is no bad thing seeing as Mac applications are so much more aesthetically pleasing than PC equivalents. Oh and another thing, the startup logo reminds me of one of my favourite t-shirts, which is nice (well it matters to me, OK :p).
Pretty graphics do not a good file sharing client make, however, so what else has it got to offer? Well my inquisitive chum, for a kick off, because it’s built on the foundation of the very popular Gnutella network there are always plenty of files to go round. What’s more, while many file sharing clients are restricted to use on Windows based computers, because Lime Wire is coded entirely in Java it will run equally well on Windows, Mac or Linux systems. Another major bonus is its ability to search for virtually any file type irrespective of its copyright status, which makes a refreshing change subsequent to using the new watered down version of Napster. The logical way it handles downloaded files is worthy of a mention too. Files are first downloaded into an incomplete downloads directory, and only when they are complete are they moved into your shared folder – a nice touch which should help to reduce the distribution of incomplete files. A final plus point to consider is Lime Wire’s extremely intuitive interface, which really couldn’t be any easier to navigate. In fact one of the program’s major benefits is that you can jump right in with both feet and start searching without so much as a glimpse at a FAQ entry or tutorial.
Sadly though, the flip side of this particular coin is also one of its most salient drawbacks. Because the Lime Wire development team have done their best to aim for simplicity, you often find yourself somewhat restricted in terms of the search refinements which are possible. For example you cannot specify minimum or maximum files sizes, connection speeds, file quality ratings and so on, so much of the filtering has to be done by hand.
Another feature which can be considered both an advantage and a disadvantage simultaneously is the ‘punish freeloaders’ option, which allows you to prevent people from downloading your files if they are refusing to share their own. This sounds logical in theory yet the program offers too many options which limit the number of simultaneous uploads and the bandwidth which is allocated to each upload. While this should encourage more people to share their goodies, it also leads to a situation where you find yourself sitting around in endless queues while you wait for other user’s free upload slots to become available.
Yet another limitation arises, not as a result of the program itself, but due to the network which its operation hinges on, the Gnutella exchange. Because so many people are all scrabbling around for the same files at the same time, the speed at which transfers commence can suffer and it can also take quite a while to connect to the network in the first place. Nevertheless, this will be the case no matter which Gnutella client you choose, so we can hardly hold Lime Wire responsible for this.
My final whinge is that unless you choose to opt out of installing the bundled software which is integrated into the installation package, your system is infected with spyware. You aren’t forced to install these privacy invading ‘features’ yet I’d be much happier if they weren’t on offer at all. This represents half of Lime Wire’s revenue model. The other half involves the implementation of revolving ad banners. These are present only in the free version of the client; the pro version, available for a small fee, contains no ad banners or spyware. Buying into this ‘less is more’ upgrade may be cheap, but why you’d want to bother at all when there are much better alternative Gnutella clients available for free is a mystery to me. In any case, if you really wanted to, you could use the free version of the client to locate and download the ad-less version to save yourself a few quid. Personally I’d rather use Gnucleus instead.
If only Bear Share was a bit more like Yogi, smarter than the average bear that is, we might have a half decent client on our hands. As it is the only pluses can be attributed to the Gnutella network rather than the program itself and since you can enjoy these benefits using any client which taps into the Gnutella network they aren’t worth restating.
While Bear Share does come bundled with a host of irritating third party spyware junk, it doesn’t insist that you install it. It is an optional extra and providing you don’t just click ‘OK’ at every stage of the installation process it shouldn’t concern you. On the other hand, the second source of intrusion, the banner adverts, can’t be avoided unless you upgrade to the pro version. The same goes for the automatically generated pop-ups which are thrust into your face periodically whenever you run the client. Furthermore, the whole thing is riddled with marketing gimmicks which desperately try to draw you back to the Bear Share home page like a neurotic human magnet.
As if these invasions of privacy weren’t bad enough, Bear Share also brings with it certain security risks. For example it will quite happily display your IP address for all to see so that anyone with the right computer know-how can access any part of your system with minimum exertion. What is also very disconcerting is the constant flow of traffic between your computer and the servers you are connected to – even when your transfers have completed the program still maintains a persistent level of incoming and outgoing data. A logical explanation for this has yet to be ascertained and therefore it should be treated as a major cause for concern. While we’re on the subject of security, another worry is the fact that the developers haven’t even bothered implementing a filter to protect you from the Gnutella worm, again putting users at risk.
You want more reasons not to use it? Well it’s also plagued by an inability to refine your search queries, which results in endless lists of irrelevant files. The downloads are particularly slow and unreliable, even when taking the inherent network problems into account. When you uninstall the damn thing it leaves spyware files behind, the interface is particularly uninspiring and isn’t nearly as intuitive as that of Lime Wire and finally, in terms of available options, the client offers only the bear necessities (actually this isn’t true, but I couldn’t resist getting at least one bear joke into this review :D).
In fact, Bear Share’s only saving grace is that it employs ‘swarming’, a technique which enables you to download files from multiple sources simultaneously to speed up transfers in a similar way to that of Flashget. That said, this is rapidly becoming a standard feature of all the best file sharing clients so is hardly a sufficient reason to warrant using this CPU hogging piece of BS (hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t name it!).
Having extensively researched the whole conglomeration of Gnutella clients you get the feeling that once you’ve seen one you’ve them all, yet this is exactly why Gnucleus comes as such a refreshing change. While it’s not going to revolutionise the Gnutella experience it does have one or two unique features which set it apart from the crowd, and after all, when you’re presented with such a homogenous bunch of programs it’s the little things that count.
While the interface is far from visually inspiring it excels in terms of functionality; it’s clean and uncluttered and only presents the most salient options initially, making it simple to use even for the most uninitiated Gnutella newbie. Also, because you are not instantly bombarded with options and menus Gnucleus has a very gentle learning curve allowing you to begin downloading within seconds of running the client. This isn’t to say that Gnucleus lacks the more advanced features of other clients, it’s just that they are neatly tucked away out of sight so that only the people with the necessary knowledge to understand their purpose will stumble across them if they wish to delve a bit deeper.
Another facet of the client which you are unlikely to find in rival software is its ability to use multiple windows allowing you to multitask just like you would in Windows. Best of all, this provides the means to conduct as many searches as you like simultaneously, so for instance, if you have a vague idea of the name of the file you seek you could type in five slightly different variants of it and then sit back and watch the hits filter through without delay. Also worth noting here is the fact that searches have no definite end state; they are constantly updated as and when new users log on or off ensuring that you always have an accurate impression of what’s out there, and more importantly what’s available at that precise moment in time. These search results can be further refined using none other than the ‘refine’ box. How’s that for intuitive? This allows you to locate your desired files with pinpoint accuracy as it provides the means to filter out irrelevant hits. What’s remarkable about this function is that it works in real time so each time you type in a character, the results are instantaneously updated so you can type, delete and type again without having to actually submit your query in the usual manner. In practice this works much like one of those grappling hook games you’re likely to find at a fun fair, except that it’s free and isn’t rigged to make sure you lose nine times out of ten.
While these extras are great, they wouldn’t be much use if the client couldn’t perform the more rudimentary functions which define Gnutella clients, and luckily Gnucleus is no slouch in this department either. Conducting search queries is very straightforward and options are available to limit your results to particular file sizes and minimum transfer speeds. Some might say there aren’t enough options to help you narrow down your search queries, but then adding all sorts search toggles and modifiers would clearly be detrimental to the developer’s much cherished KISS philosophy. If you ask me they’ve got it spot on; anyone wanting more control over their search queries would be advised to be more imaginative with the keywords they use, by also entering file extensions for instance.
What you see is what you get with Gnucleus. It contains no spyware files and no encrypted information is passed between you and the Gnucleus HQ in the background. In addition, it isn’t plagued by intrusive banners or other marketing gimmicks as are so many of its rivals. Again on the plus side, the client is compact and fairly resource lean when compared to the competition, and perhaps best of all, it is ‘open source’. This means that the code can be scrutinized, updated and rewritten by anyone with the necessary technical know-how, and because its success and future development does not merely rely on a single person or team of programmers it is much more likely to stand the test of time and grow from strength to strength.
There’s always a ‘but’ though isn’t there, and as wonderful as it is, Gnucleus’s ‘but’ is quite a biggy I’m afraid. While you can locate almost anything your heart desires in a matter of seconds, the problem lies in actually downloading it to your own computer. Files are very often unavailable and servers can get extremely busy. When downloads do eventually kick into action they can be unbearably slow and frequently ‘time out’ before they are complete. Nevertheless, despite these transfer problems I refuse to give up on this one as it has so much to offer. I remain hopeful that with time and a bit of tweaking the situation will improve.
Like Lime Wire, Phex is written entirely in Java, however, whereas Lime Wire is a standalone application, Phex has to be propped up using the Java Runtime Environment (available free from www.javasoft.com). The client itself is a mere 670kb, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you’re getting a compact application as the Java environment setup will add another 5mb to your system. Why the developer decided to go down this route is a complete mystery to me, but I expect he’ll create a standalone package in future versions if only to silence the critics. You’d think that writing an application entirely in Java would provide some benefits, yet the rationale behind this arrangement is completely paradoxical. Because Phex is a pure Java application it doesn’t have to be installed, yet this advantage is instantaneously counteracted by having to install the JRE, without which the package is useless.
In its defence, Phex is open source which means that the developers can’t get away with hiding any privacy intruding ‘features’ in the code – not that I’m suggesting for a second they ever had any intention of doing so. I’m sure you know what I mean; open source applications are generally more ‘honest’ than… erm closed source alternatives. Complimenting Phex’s open source status is the fact that the client contains no spyware or revolving ad banners of any kind, which is always a huge bonus considering the current era of dwindling personal privacy we now find ourselves in. Yet another plus is that Phex is a multi-platform application equally capable of running on Windows, Linux or Mac systems.
It has been said that this isn’t a client for the Gnutella newbie because it incorporates so many advanced configuration options, yet it’s really no more difficult to use than any other client. What initially baffles some users is the fact that the package consists of a single ‘jar’ file. Without installing the JRE this will appear as a standard compressed archive providing you have Winzip or an equivalent decompressor installed. The confusion sets in when people try to find an executable file within the package and realise that there isn’t one. This is because pure Java applications do not use executable files, instead they only spring into life when double clicked after the Java runtime environment has been implemented. Once this is installed the file’s icon will change along with its associated application so that it can be opened in the same way as an executable file.
While this isn’t a huge inconvenience it does tend to put people off. I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad client as it does have much to commend it, most notably the way in which it intelligently and efficiently manages file transfers, but when there are so many other excellent alternatives available I can’t think of a single reason why you’d want to choose this one over the competition. In conclusion, Phex is a solid, reliable client, but unless some unique features are implemented in future versions to set it apart from the other better established clients I can’t really see it taking off.
Non-Gnutella client reviews…
I once said that “if we’re going to compare what’s hot and what’s not in terms of file sharing clients, iMesh definitely belongs in the below freezing category. It’s a lot like a fish finger which has been forgotten about and left to rot in the bottom of your freezer in that it should only be handled with extreme care whilst wearing rubber gloves and a nose peg”. Yet since then the interface has been completely overhauled and the client now connects to FastTrack, the same network shared by Kazaa, Grokster and Morpheus before it switched to Gnutella. This means that users of iMesh now have far more files available to them than ever before and since the newly revamped version of the client supports swarmed downloads and resuming, even the 56k-ers have little to fear. Whilst the Grokster and Kazaa clients are almost impossible to tell apart, the iMesh interface offers a real alternative. Search results are far less cluttered and the GUI is skinable and extremely intuitive. Because the client plugs you into the FastTrack network, the speed of transfers and the number and variety of files available should be identical. Nevertheless, many people are reporting that somehow iMesh manages to improve their experience on all three counts.
So there’s the good, the bad I’ll discuss in a moment and now that it comes equipped with a skinable interface, it’s only as ugly as you choose to make it. One thing which hasn’t changed since I declared installing iMesh on your computer to be the equivalent of demonic possession for the cyber age is that it is still riddled with spyware and an excessive amount of other bundled junk. Technically it is the third party software which contains the malware, but why split hairs? If it comes in a single package it amounts to the same thing in my book. In iMesh’s defence, you are given the choice of whether or not to install this extra filth so it isn’t all forced on you without your consent. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for the ads, yet why worry about any of it when you can visit the iMesh Lite home page and download the much more compact, de-junked version. As for the negatives, I can’t think of any others. It’s no longer “as stable as Del Boy’s Robin Reliant” as I once complained, and it’s not the system resource guzzler that it used to be.
If you love the FastTrack network, but yearn for a break from off-the-peg, carbon copy clients like Grokster and Kazaa this is definitely worth a shot. Yet the critical deciding factor should be your preference for ladybirds – I bet the programmers are inundated with bug reports, lol!
As I’ve already explained what spyware is, and why you would want to avoid using spyware ridden software in the anonymity tutorial, I’ll skip the definitions and move straight onto to telling you what you can do to rid your system of it. File sharing clients, as I’m sure you are well aware by now, are renowned for including spyware files in their installation packages. While spyware files can be tricky to remove without completely disabling the application they came bundled with, it is possible. The way in which this is done varies from one client to the next, yet I’m not going to provide detailed explanations of how exactly to go about this for the sole reason that it is a waste of your time and mine. Why so? Well, since Dr Damn of Clean Clients fame has already gone to great lengths to hack the spyware out of many of the most popular file sharing clients and made his much improved modified versions available to anyone who wants them, there seems little point in using the official versions and doing the dirty work ourselves. Unsurprisingly web hosting companies aren’t exactly falling over themselves to host Dr Damn’s creations and as a result he’s currently websiteless. Not to worry though, I’m sure a quick search at Google using the keywords “dr damn” and “clean clients” will bring home the bacon.
If you want to use a client which hasn’t been given the Dr Damn treatment I would suggest using Ad-Aware to remove the spyware manually. This operates much like a virus scanner, but instead of detecting viruses, it searches for spyware, and once found, it gives you the option to have it removed. If you find that you can’t remove the spyware from an application without completely disabling it, I would encourage you to uninstall it and look elsewhere for an equivalent spyware-free program – there are plenty out there so there is no reason you should settle for second best. Not sure if the program you want to install contains spyware? Whack its name into the Spy Checker search engine and find out. Prevention is always better than cure!
Another good tip to aid your war against spyware is to install a firewall. You should really have setup a good firewall long before now, but if you haven’t, do so now. An excellent free firewall can be found at Zone Labs, but if Zone Alarm isn’t your cup of tea refer instead to my other recommendations in the tips section. With a firewall installed you will be able to vito applications before granting them access to make external connections. Zone Alarm is one of the few firewalls that will ask your permission before taking action of any kind, which is why it’s such an effective anti-spyware measure. Other firewalls will also deny spyware files access to the outside world to relay information regarding your surfing habits etc, yet more than likely they will not alert you to the fact that these attempts are being made at all. If you are kept informed of which programs are talking behind your back, you can stop them in their tracks by uninstalling them and removing any orphan spyware files using Ad-Aware.
Sometimes the challenge is not ridding your computer of spyware, but eliminating banner adverts from applications. You may consider these annoying or distracting rather than intrusive, but many of them are akin to spyware or web bugs in that they are capable of transmitting details such as the OS or browser you have installed, your screen resolution or even your IP address to third party advertising companies. Be that as it may, eradicating this further source of intrusion can usually be done with 100% effectiveness and without tampering with the application in question because the majority of ad servers transmit their spam by the same means. The solution to this problem requires you to edit your operating system’s ‘hosts’ file. This is nothing more than a simple ASCII text file minus the extension and so can be edited using Notepad or an equivalent text editor. Because different Windows operating systems can place this file in various locations I would advise you to use your operating system’s built-in search tool to track it down – simple type in ‘hosts’ with no extension and click on the find button. Once found, right click on it and select ‘open with’, choose Notepad and click OK to delve inside it.
The reason this file is on your system to begin with is to allow you to map web site addresses to their corresponding IP addresses. It isn’t strictly necessary that you go anywhere near this file normally, yet doing so brings with it certain benefits. For instance, if you know what the IP addresses of the sites you visit most often are, you could enter these into the hosts file to allow your browser to contact the server they are stored on and load their contents faster. If no such information is found in your hosts file, your browser will instead look to your ISP for the IP addresses that are required to contact the sites. Once this DNS information has been determined your browser can proceed to load the site.
How does this help you to block out banner adverts? Well, the trick is to enter your computer’s own IP address (127.0.0.1) into the hosts file alongside the address of the ad server you wish to block to deceive it into thinking that the ad banners are located on your own hard drive. For example, if you discovered that the ads being served to your file sharing client emanated from www.adserver.com, to block them you would enter “127.0.0.1 www.adserver.com” into your hosts file. This isn’t rocket science; all you need to bear in mind is that each individual server you wish to block must have its own line and there should always be a gap of at least one space between your computer’s IP address and the web address of the server you intend to block.
With these changes in place, whenever your file sharing application attempts to call an ad banner it will look to your own computer for the files rather than the real ad server. Because the request is being made from and to the same computer, the application either assumes it has located its target and displayed the ads correctly, or after failing to locate the ads it simply gives up, leaving you with a blank space where the ads would ordinarily appear.
This isn’t the only way you can use the hosts file to your advantage. Say there’s a web site you visit regularly which you know is laden with ad banners. If you find out the IP address of the server which is making these ads available, you can block those banners too using the same method described above. It’s also possible to block access to whole sites if you so wish – this can be particularly useful if you have young children who you want to protect from objectionable material etc.
Surely it’s not possible to make ad blocking any simpler? Well yes, it is strangely enough – you could use a dedicated program to edit your hosts file, or you could even download a preconfigured hosts file and use it to overwrite your empty one. You can further your knowledge of both these techniques and much more besides by talking to the Gorilla – don’t worry, he only bites snoopers and marketing people.
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More of the same…
No sooner have I finished telling you about the dynamic duo that is Gnucleus and Kazaa and the very promising, but strangely titled Gnutella the market is flooded with new contenders for the file sharing trophy. Not to worry though, by checking back here every so often you can ensure that you are always kept up to date of any new developments:
Audio Galaxy – A lightweight, unobtrusive music sharing client, which uses private (non-Napster) servers to route traffic. Supports auto-resuming and even has the ability to download music from users who aren’t online… well sort of anyway. It’ll make more sense when you try it 🙂
Blubster – Refer to my MP3 tutorial for an in-depth review/tutorial.
Direct Connect – As the name implies, Direct Connect allows you to access shared folders on the hard drives of other users in a peer to peer fashion without the need for a centrally indexed network. Incorporates public and private chatting and an integrated search feature. Currently basking in a surge of popularity amongst the warez community, but no use whatsoever unless you are prepared to give as well as receive – before granting access most hubs will you require you to share a pre-determined minimum amount of files… and we’re talking in terms of gigabytes, not megabytes. Not one of the most user friendly file sharing clients available.
Carracho – What sets this one apart from the crowd is the fact that it is designed to be used exclusively with the Mac OS.
E-Donkey 2000 – One of the more impressive non-Gnutella clients. Doesn’t rely on a centralised network, allows you to share any file type and also includes that all important resume function. A particularly good source of full movies and ISOs, but be warned, it is not recommended for newbies since to get anywhere with it, configuration tweaking is a necessity. I can’t believe I managed to describe this one without cracking a single donkey joke!
Grokster – Plugs users into the FastTrack network to facilitate peer to peer transfers of many different file formats. Almost identical to Kazaa, so which one do you choose? Toss a coin maybe?
Morpheus – Re-branded, outdated version of Gnucleus with added marketing garbage. Stick with Gnucleus instead.
Soul Seek – No ads, no spyware, no clutter. A free music sharing client which boasts a GUI which is as simple to use as the grandpa of all peer to peer clients, Napster, once was. Looking beyond the obligatory functions, most noteworthy, it allows you to download whole folders full of MP3 files with a couple of clicks and supports ‘wish lists’ which simplify the process of performing repeat searches for your favourite music.
URL Blaze – Not your average file sharing client. In fact, it’s not a file sharing client at all – what it shares are URLs to files. It monitors the locations of the files you download from web servers and subsequently makes these addresses available to other users who may be searching for the same files. More of a link harvesting gadget then.
Win MX – Allows you to simultaneously connect to many established networks based on the Napster protocol, but unlike Napster any file type can be downloaded. Supports download resuming and offers anonymous transfers.
For more reviews and links to file sharing clients check out www.zeropaid.com.
Did I mention you can use these clients to download warez? No? Oh, well you can. So now you know 🙂