The Dread Download word...

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001

    Few words strike such fear into the hearts of many new Internet-users as download. (Perhaps the fear is equalled by the phrase email attachments. This tutorial will try to help allay some of the fear.

    Some of the fear is due confusion. The word gets missused frequently, confused with the somewhat similar process of saving a file. Here's the difference. When you create a file on your computer, in your word processor or some other application, you save the file on your computer's hard drive (or to another disk). You can similarly save to the drive on another computer connected to yours with a network. And when you are viewing a web page, you may choose to save the page onto your computer. You're still saving a document that you have been viewing.

    Sometimes, using the Internet, you may choose to transfer an already-made file to your computer, saving it on your computer's disk without loading it into an application like a word processor or a web browser. In that case, you are downloading the file. The reverse is also possible-- you may upload a file from your computer, storing it on an Internet server. (You need to get permission to do this).

    But saving a file and downloading a file have a couple of things in common:
    -- You should indicate a location for the finder, preferably a folder that you will be able to locate later. Often, your web browser (or word processor) will point to the last place someone saved/downloaded to. Pay attention! This might not be the location that you want to use.

    -- You can accept the default name for the file, but you can also change it into something you're more likely to remember. PC users need to be sure that they don't mess around with the 3-letter file-extension, if this is visible. Changing it will make it more difficult to load your file into the correct application.

    In fact, the dialogue box in your browser when you download a file will be virtually identical to the one. Here is the Windows 95/98 version, in Netscape (Internet Explorer is similar).

    Windows 95/98 Save As dialogue

    1. List of files and folders in the current location.
    2. Drop-down arrow to move to a different drive or folder
    3. Icon to create a new folder in the current location
    4. The default file name, highlighted so you can type to change it
    5. Click the Save button or press Enter to save.

    Mac users have it easy! Recent Mac browser versions automatically download files to the desktop, and automatically open compressed files in Stuffit Expander. Very slick!

    Spend time practising saving/downloading files to different locations, then finding them again using My Computer (Windows 95/98/NT/2000), File Manager (Windows 3.1) or the Mac Finder.

-- Many people find it handy to create a folder on the Desktop (the computer screen when no programs are running), perhaps naming it something like Downloads (How original!). A very nice feature in Windows 95/98/etc is the ability to do this right in the Save dialogue box...when you click the down-arrow near the top (#2 in our picture), you'll find the Desktop at the top of the list. Click on it to go there (we're already there in our Windows 95 picture), and click on the New Folder button (#3) to make a new folder, and type in the name of your choice. Then double-click on that folder to open it. (If you see its name in the Save in: box on the top, you're inside the folder).

Nice feature: Both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer remember the last place you saved a file, and will go back there the next time you want to download/save a file.

Another nice feature: While your file is downloading (which can take a while), you can browse to another web site, close your browser, and even open other programs unless you're using an older computer that is too wimpy to do more than one thing at a time. But now for the big question…

Now that you've got the file, what are you going to do with it?

    Unfortunately, there's no simple answer to that. But first, you have to do two things:
-- Locate the file wherever you saved it. (See why I suggested putting it into a folder on your Desktop or right onto the Desktop itself

-- Double-click the file. This will open it, load it into an application, run it (if it is an application).
You should see one of these things happen:
  • If the file is a document, and if you have an application that can deal with those kinds of documents (and if you are a Windows user, the document has a filename that ends with the correct 3-letter extension) then it should open up in an application—a word processor document in your word processor, an MP3 music file in a music player, a video clip in a video player, etc. On a good day, this will work as expected.
  • If the file is an application, it will run. Often, what appears to be an application is, in fact, a self-extracting archive. This is a way to send a collection of files in a single package, while making it relatively easy to open them up. Windows self-extracting archives will have file-names ending with .exe (which is also true of normal applications), while Mac self-extracting archives will usually have file-names ending with .sea. The Mac ones will usually simply create a folder in the same location as the original file (usually the Desktop). Then look in the file for the contents—you'll often see a program installer. Windows users double-clicking on a self-extracting Exe file may simply start the installation process. In other cases, they will often see something like this:
  • WinZip Self extractor dialogue

    In this case, they are being prompted to select a destination folder for the compressed contents—the default (this time), is a file on the Windows Desktop called Guess. Clicking the Unzip button will accept this, or they could Browse to a different destination. Pay attention to where you are choosing to send the files (just like when downloading!) so that you can find them again.

  • The file may be a compressed archive (not self-extracting). Like self-extracting archives, these allow you do receive a set of files at once, and save you some time because they are compressed. With these files, you will need a utility to uncompress them, restoring them to their original format. Windows compressed files are most often zip files, and have a filename ending in zip. Mac compressed files may have filenames ending in bin, hqx, or most commonly sit.
  • Windows Zip files are most often opened up using the shareware WinZip. Shareware programs can be freely downloaded (in this case, from, but on the honor system should be paid for if you're going to continue to use them. WinZip costs US$29 to register. A free alternative is PowerArchiver which can be downloaded from Either program is relatively easy to use—as long as you pay attention where you unzip the contents. Note that the latest version of Windows, Windows ME can automatically unzip zipped files without any extra software.

    Mac archives can generally be opened with the free Stuffit Expander ( If you have a Stuffit Expander icon on your desktop, just drag and drop the compressed file onto it, and it will be automatically expanded. A copy of Stuffit Expander is included with recent versions of the Mac operating system. But lest you think that everything's so easy with the Mac, there are a couple of things to be aware of about Stuffit Expander:

  • Older versions of Stuffit Expander are unable to open archived files made with newer versions of the software
  • Older versions of Stuffit Expander are unable to work with some other types of Mac archive files
  • If you don't have any version of Stuffit Expander, and you go to the alladinsys website to get the newest version, you'll be unhappy to discover that you need a copy of Stuffit to open the new version that you download. Catch 22!

  • When you open up the compressed file, you should get either one or more documents, an application (ready to run), or the installation or setup file to install a program onto your hard drive. Once again, double-click on the likeliest looking file, and something ought to happen!

  • Unfortunately, when you double-click on a file, you may get an error message asking you what program to use to open the file. You might (in Windows) see something like:
  • Open with dialogue box

    If you see this, Windows doesn't recognize the three letter extension, and is asking you to pick a program from the list to use to open this file. If you know it's a graphics program, you could scroll down the list until you find the name of a program that you usually use to open graphics files. Give it a try.

    Clicking the Other button lets you browse your hard drive to look for a specific program, if it isn't in the list.

    Note the [x] Always use this program… option that is checked by default—you may want to uncheck it if you aren't sure if the program you're picking can, in fact, handle this type of file.

    Windows users may also encounter this problem if they receive a document from a Mac-user. Since Macs don't rely on three-letter file extensions to identify files, they often don't add them to the end of save filenames (Windows programs, and some Mac programs add the extensions automatically). If that happens, try to find out program they used to create the attachment. And remember, Windows users can't run Mac programs, and Mac users can't run Windows programs.

What about e-mail attachments?

A lot of the same things are true with e-mail attachments. Once you get one, if you know where it's located, you're in the same ballgame as dealing with files that you manually chose to download. The biggest trick is knowing where you put them. And how that happens depends on your e-mail program. Some programs, such as the popular, free Eudora ( ) for Windows or Mac, lets you set a folder for your attachments where they will automatically be saved. Eudora places an icon for your saved attachment at the end of the e-mail message. Clicking on it will open the file (with all the same issues we discussed above).

    The notorious NetVista mail problem

There are a lot of complaints about IBM NetVista mai (used in Vancouver schools, among other places)l, especially with the way it deals with attachments. Some of them can be dealt with. For example, when you receive a message with a paper clip in the top right corner, indicating that there's an attachment, and you click on the paper clip, you will see a dialogue box like the Windows Save dialogue box shown way up above—letting you indicate where you want to save the attachment. Again, you can navigate to a different folder (and probably should, since saving in the NetVista folder, its default, is a very poor choice). Just remember where you saved it (and what its name was), and practice your navigation skills to locate that folder. Again, saving into a Downloads or Attachments folder on the Desktop will make it much easier to find your file later. And when you double-click on it, all the usual things will happen. Except…
NetVista mail has an especial annoyance. Whenever it receives an HTML-formatted message, (like whenever you get mail sent by a VSB administrator using their standard Netscape Messenger mail program), it treats it as an attachment. But it gives it a totally non-descript filename, and (for Windows users) makes an incredible boo-boo. It doesn't give the file any file attachment at all. As a result, when you locate the file and double-click, Windows doesn't know what to do with it.
To prevent this, when you get an idiot-name no-extension attachment in NetVista, rename the file—and end the file name with a period and the three letters htm. When you locate the file, Windows will load it into your browser, where you'll be able to view it.
A better solution is to dump NetVista mail entirely, replacing it with Eudora or Netscape Messenger (free with the Netscape Communicator suite) or Microsoft Outlook Express. See my online tutorial on life without NetVista:

    What about viruses?

Computer viruses, and other malicious software programs are real. And while the first generations of viruses were mostly spread on floppy diskettes, most current viruses spread themselves as email attachments, with a few (Trojan Horses) being spread by programs that you may be tricked into downloading.
A number of recent infections have spread themselves by taking over a user's e-mail address book. This happens most often to users of Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. The result is that you may receive what appears to be a message from someone you know, perhaps telling you to check out the neat attached file.
When you double-click on the attached file, you infect your own computer, perhaps letting the virus spread itself to your friends and colleagues through your e-mail address book.
There are a number of things to do to help minimize the risk of virus infection:
  • Be wary of opening e-mail attachments if you were not expecting to receive them—even if they come from a friend or colleague. File attachments that are graphic files are relatively low-risk, while attachments that are programs (Exe files) or Visual Basic Script (Vbs files) are relatively high-risk. Microsoft Word documents (Doc files) often spread so-called Word Macro viruses that can infect every file you open in Word.

  • If you receive an attachment unexpectedly, e-mail the sender, asking if they meant to send you that message and attachment, and wait for their reply before opening the attachment.
  • Install an anti-virus program, set it to automatically scan downloads and e-mail attachments, and (very important!) update the program's virus definition files regularly. Monthly at a minimum. Some good anti-virus programs are:
  • No matter what anti-virus program you use, it will only be effective if you update the virus definition files on a frequent basis.
  • Use your anti-virus program to check your entire system periodically, and get in the habit of scanning downloaded files prior to double-clicking on them. (After installing an AV program, Windows users can do this by right-clicking the file, and choosing to check it with their AV program).
Mac users are less-bothered by malicious programs than Windows users. The highest risk are Windows users who are using Microsoft Word and Outlook or Outlook Express. Computer systems used by teenagers are often infected, as their young users frequently exchange files without taking any precautions.


Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at