Enjoy, don't fear, e-mail attachments

April 19, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

While viruses attached to electronic mail messages have grabbed headlines in recent weeks, many computer users have a more prosaic problem with e-mail attachments: They don't know what to do with them.

As a result, I frequently get requests for help like this one: "My son e-mailed me a picture of my grandchildren, but I can't see it. How do I get it on my screen?"

Actually, managing e-mail attachments isn't hard, but it requires a bit more geeking around than most of us are used to.

First things first. E-mail attachments are files that are sent intact -- in their original form -- along with a regular e-mail message. An attachment can be a program, a word processing or spreadsheet document, a photo or a sound file, to name a few common varieties. Sending files as e-mail attachments is a convenient way to get information from user to user, but in an age of viruses and malicious pranksters, some attachments are potentially dangerous and should be handled with care.

As I mentioned last week, most e-mail programs announce an attachment with a paper-clip icon or similar indicator (America Online uses a "shadow" image behind the file icon.) When you call up a message with an attachment, a more specific icon may appear at the bottom of the screen, telling you what kind of file it is. For example, a Microsoft Word document will show up with the familiar "W" icon that Word documents display on your desktop. AOL doesn't tell you what type of file you're getting, but does display two new buttons on the mail window, marked Download Now and Download Later.

Windows programs get their basic information about a file from its "extension," the three-letter abbreviation tacked onto the file name after the period at the end. Executable programs have EXE or COM at the end. Microsoft Word documents typically have the extension DOC, while Excel spreadsheets use XLS and Lotus 1-2-3 worksheet extensions begin with WK. Simple text files have the extension TXT.

The most common extensions for graphics and photos are GIF, JPG, TIF and BMP. Each type of graphics file stores its data in a different way, and to view these files or edit them, you'll need the appropriate software. GIFs and JPGs are favorites on the Internet because they're compressed for faster downloading and all Web browsers can view them.

You may find attachments with other extensions. WAV files contain a voice or music that can be played with the Windows Media Player. PDF files are documents that require Adobe Acrobat software for viewing (available free from www.adobe.com).

Some e-mail programs make it easy to see the contents of graphics files. For example, Microsoft's Outlook Express, bundled with Internet Explorer, will automatically display JPG, GIF or BMP attachments. If you download a graphic attachment from AOL using the latest software, you'll see the photo as it downloads.

But with most e-mail software, you'll have two choices. First, you can save an attachment to your disk drive and try to view or edit it later. This generally requires clicking the right mouse button on the attachment icon and choosing the "Save As" function from the menu that appears. This is the safe alternative, because it gives you a chance to scan the file with an antivirus program.

The other alternative is launching the file directly by double-clicking on it. If you have a program installed that's designed to edit or view the file, it will start running and the file will appear in your window. As I mentioned last week, you should never directly launch an EXE, COM, DOC or XLS file, because these can harbor viruses. It is safe to launch graphics and sound files -- they can't do any harm.

AOL handles things a bit differently. It doesn't automatically download message attachments unless you click on the download button. And AOL won't let you launch a file attachment automatically -- probably a wise precaution given the inexperience of so many AOL customers.

So what's the best way to deal with those photos of the kids? Once you've stored the attachments on your disk, you have a couple of alternatives.

First, try double-clicking on the photo file to see if there's a program registered to open it. If there isn't, you can try Windows Paint (in the Accessories folder of the Programs menu). The Windows 98 version will load and edit JPG, BMP an GIF files, although the Windows 95 version is limited to BMPs.

But the easiest way to view a JPG or GIF file may just be to start up your Web browser and drag the file's icon to the open window. The kids' pictures will appear.

Next week we'll discuss how to liven up your e-mail with photos and voice attachments.

Pub Date: 04/19/99

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