Extras – Product Review: SurfSaver

Susan Charkes is the Systems Librarian, Dechert Price & Rhoads, Philadelphia.

What is SurfSaver?

SurfSaver is a nifty utility that is quite useful for Web-based research projects. The vendor is askSam Systems, maker of the popular askSam personal full-text database, which has long been well-known as a fast and easy to use application. SurfSaver should extend askSam’s reputation for being a researcher’s best friend.

AskSam bills SurfSaver as the “filing cabinet for your Web pages.” Luckily, SurfSaver is more than a filing cabinet, it is a full-text indexed filing cabinet. It is perfect for the kind of research projects where you accumulate lots of Web pages, save them, and then need to go back and find something. SurfSaver is a mini-database that you access from your browser.

How it works

SurfSaver is activated from your browser (with Netscape, it is in the toolbar, and with Internet Explorer it is activated by a right-click). You save the Web page that your browser is displaying.

Using SurfSaver could hardly be simpler. You create folders within the SurfSaver database. You can have multiple folders (but no sub-folders). You can then save the displayed page to any or all of your folders. You have the option to save graphics or not. There is a QuickSave option that allows you to pre-designate the folder to save to, so that saving a page is a one-step operation. This is of course a great help when you are working only on one project and are in the thick of the chase.

When saving a page, you give the page a title (if no title is given the URL is assigned as the title). Other descriptive text can be added in Keyword and Notes fields. These textual fields can be edited at any time. The URL as well as the date and time you saved the document are also attached as fielded data about the page.

How to Search

To search, you select one or more folders and enter your search terms. You can search individual fields or all fields at once. Boolean, proximity, truncation and wildcard searching are supported, and you can limit by date. SurfSaver also boasts a “fuzzy” option which apparently enables you to search for a word even though you are not sure of its spelling; however, I was never able to find anything using this option even when I spelled the word right.

Searching is lightning fast, because SurfSaver uses an inverted index. The SurfSaver results list is displayed in a resizable window at the bottom of your browser window and you display the hits in your browser. You can also get right to the URL of the page to see if changes have been made. You heed not be online to search SurfSaver or display any pages, since everything is saved locally.

Tool for Researchers

From this discussion of the main features, you can see that SurfSaver is a useful little tool for the researcher. For example, if you are looking for as much information as you can find on a particular company, SurfSaver lets you throw all kinds of differently formatted documents into one database, then find the ones that address specific topics. If you are careful and plan your indexing, you can create you own controlled vocabulary for use with your database. You’d have to record this information separately since SurfSaver doesn’t have the capability to display indexing terms.

SurfSaver is ideal for research where you are collecting static documents. For documents that change, SurfSaver will allow you to get the updated version of any page you saved. This is, however, not a foolproof process since it depends on the assumption that the page has a definite URL. For dynamically generated pages this may not be true; rather the URL may be (for example) the address of the search engine that generates individual stories.

SurfSaver has a number of unfortunate limitations that reduce its utility, but which should probably improve as it matures. First on this list is its instability. Because SurfSaver works intimately with the browser, its code must be tightly integrated. With browser versions being replaced faster than you can say Tim Berners-Lee, this is a difficult task. The current version,1.11, is designed to integrate with Internet Explorer 4.0x and Netscape Navigator 4.0 – 4.5. I tested SurfSaver with two versions of Netscape. I had no problems with 4.05, but 4.04 was more iffy. On several occasions, SurfSaver locked up Netscape; twice it crashed the PC and I had to reboot. AskSam offers a 30-day trial of SurfSaver before you buy. If you’re considering SurfSaver, use this trial period to make sure it works with your environment; test it thoroughly, especially for performance in the face of exceptions such as no hits.

A more fundamental limitation in SurfSaver is that although it does very well with plain vanilla HTML documents, and even works fine with frames, it does not properly handle other document types. This includes, for example, documents that do not comply with HTML but that browsers adapt to. For example, SEC filings downloaded from the SEC Edgar site are in SGML, not HTML. SurfSaver indexes and searches the full text, but the file is unusable because it is displayed in one long line of text. ASCII text files are subject to the same indignity. More curious was that I could save, search, but not display a number of other files that appear to be HTML, such as SEC documents on WhoWhere?Edgar. (These were completely blank when displayed.)

Nor can SurfSaver save or display non-HTML documents that browsers can display, such as Word or PDF files. And one cannot save documents that are on a secure or password-protected site (such as Westlaw or Wall Street Journal).

Product Deficiencies

There are a few Surfsaver features that need work.

  • There is no way to exit SurfSaver without exiting the browser.
  • Although you don’t need much Help, still, it’s annoying that the Help files and documentation are not available except when you first start it up.
  • Searching data within tables is not 100% accurate; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
  • As discussed above, being able to set up sub-folders would significantly help the researcher organize and find files, as would the capability to independently display a list of Keywords used in each folder.
  • Finally, there is no option to highlight search terms, so you have to use your browser’s Find function.


If you do have problems running SurfSaver, expect the tech support to be very responsive. A real-live technician answered me via email within 3 hours.

If that kind of attention to the customer is representative of the askSam Systems approach, I suspect that the limitations I have noted here will be addressed and remedied to the extent technology permits. In the meantime, SurfSaver is still a very good tool for collecting, organizing and retrieving research on the Web. Its list price of $29.95 makes it a good value, and I recommend it with only a few reservations.

Version tested: 1.10; Netscape 4.04, 4.05 on Windows 95

Posted in: Extras, Product Reviews, Web Utilities