The Great Software Debate: To Download or Not To Download

It's not clear to me whether the Mini Idiot's Guide to Online Gambling should be a regular-sized guide for mini-idiots or a mini-guide for all sizes of idiots, so I'll try to accommodate both audiences (and everyone in between) in this attempt to familiarize future Net-bettors with the skinny on casino software. And speaking of awe-inspiring versatility, you ought to take a look at how many software choices are available. At least 40 companies have designed and assembled Internet casino suites for hundreds of Web sites that accept real-money wagers. The existence of choice is a wonderful thing, but having to select from that many sites is a bit of a burden. Truth be told, many online casino sites are cookie-cut clones, each individualized with its own theme and a garment of relatively unique graphics. To simplify things a bit, this mini-guide narrows it down to two basic types of software: server-side games and downloadable games.

The Basics    to top

Before breaking into the great software debate, you first must have a basic understanding of the client/server relationship. Information on the Internet is stored on servers, which usually operate around the clock. When obtaining information on the Web, the client (your computer) requests files from the server and the server, in turn, delivers the requested files. The process by which files are delivered from the server (their computer) to the client (your computer) is called downloading. The software used to send requests and receive data is called an Internet browser (e.g. Netscape Navigator).

The major differences in gambling software options have to do with this relationship.

The decision-making process is similar to being in Las Vegas and choosing between playing on the Strip or downtown. (Yes, aesthetics and ambience play a major role in choosing gambling software, too.) Instead, you have to choose between using server-side software or client-side software. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so it ultimately depends on your personal needs and whether you're equipped with the appropriate hardware and/or software. Perhaps you'll want to experiment with both.

Server-Side Software    to top

Server-side software, as the term implies, is software that resides on the casino operator's computer. Think of playing at casinos that operate with server-side software as being in downtown Las Vegas; you get the basics, and that's it. Downtown casinos aren't flanked by beaches, amusement parks or pirate ships, but you can get in and out of them with ease and they offer the same games that Strip casinos offer. If you're a serious player, you prefer the low-maintenance experience, and all you care about is getting down to business, server-side games might be the way to go.

The big advantage of the server-side casino is that you can get in and out quickly without having to download and install a huge software application. Plus, you don't have to worry about taking up space on your hard drive with bulky downloads. And because none of the software is housed on your computer, you can log in from any place that's wired and equipped with the minimal amount of software that's necessary. (Here's a word of advice: If you're playing in the office—during your lunch break, of course—and you hit the mother of all jackpots, wait until you actually have the money in hand before strolling into the boss's office and giving him the big adios speech while dancing a jig on his desk.)

Most server-based Internet casinos are powered by Java. That means if you've got a credit card, access to the Internet, and relatively recent browser software (version 2.0 or higher browser for Netscape Navigator, version 3.0 or higher browser for Microsoft Internet Explorer), you're good to go. Playing for real money is as easy as logging on to the casino's Web site, setting up an account, and clicking on the game you want to play.

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    It's great that you can sign up and get to playing at a server-based casino in a matter of minutes, but don't forget to do your homework before selecting a site that's suitable for you.

The same goes for HTML-based casinos, which are compatible with even older browsers. Under the hood of an HTML-based casino is an interface that delivers the games to the browser in HTML (hypertext mark-up language). The user views the games as text and graphic files, so all you need to play at one of these is a browser that can view images and frames. HTML-based casinos are typically the least exciting to look at, but they're accessible to virtually everyone on the Web, including WebTV users.

A third type of server-based casino is the media-rich Shockwave casino. To play at one of these, you must have the Macromedia Shockwave plug-in, a supplementary application that allows you to view Shockwave files. Your browser recognizes the plug-in, and its function is integrated into coding that's recognized by your browser. The latest version of Netscape Navigator comes bundled with Shockwave. If you don't already have the Shockwave plug-in, it can be downloaded for free at Macromedia's Web site, located at It's quick and easy to do.

The downside of server-side games is that they don't offer the richest experiences in terms of sight and sounds. Crisp, lengthy audio clips and elaborate animation require hefty files. Most Internet users are on a 56k or slower modem, so the designers of server-side games usually go as light on the graphics as possible. It's always nice to be in lush surroundings, but nobody wants to wait thirty seconds for a dealer to turn a card or five minutes for slot reels to come to a stop.

Downloadable Games    to top

Gambling in downtown Vegas is okay for the pure player and the casual bettor looking to get in and out quickly, but those seeking a little more luxury and entertainment often get their kicks on the Strip. Sure, you've got to walk around 43 miles just to get to places like Caesars Palace and Bellagio from Las Vegas Boulevard, but once you're in the door, the experience is first-rate. That's basically what you get when you gamble using downloadable casino software.

The bulk of the software for downloadable games resides on the player's computer and communicates over the Internet with the casino's game server. In other words, all the graphic and audio files are already on your machine, so you don't have to download them as you play. In the short-term, it seems like a hassle because it takes a half-hour or so to download the games, and the extracted software occupies a lot of space on your hard drive. Most casinos powered by software downloads will happily send you a free CD-ROM via snail mail if you want, but the bottom line is that you can't get in and play the games immediately like you can with purely server-based software. And if you download and install the software only to discover that you don't like it, the time you took doing so becomes a meaningless portion of your life that's gone forever. Another knock on downloadable games is compatibility limitations; all of them, to my knowledge, are PC-based, so Mac and WebTV users need not bother with them.

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    When opening a credit card account for real-money play, don't forget to make sure the credit card form was encrypted. To verify that a page is encrypted, look for an icon with a locked padlock at the bottom of the browser window.

The upside for downloadable games, however, is tremendous. Because all the graphic and audio files are already on your machine, the software developers can remove the shackles and go nuts with real-life casino sounds, music, 3D graphics, and full animation. In a nutshell, downloadable software usually puts server-side software to shame. And amid this robust environment, the games are usually lighting-fast because a very small amount of data is transferred during play. Sure, downloading and installation are time consuming, but once you're set up and ready to go, the games move much more quickly than server-based games.

The idea of downloading and installing software is a bit intimidating, but the process is a piece of cake because Windows operating systems and your browsing software walk you through the entire process. All you need to do is browse your way to the download page, click the file you want to download, and specify a folder on your hard drive where you'd like the file to be placed. After the download is completed, install it by opening My Computer, browsing to the downloaded file, and double-clicking it. From here, your Windows software tells you what to do. In a matter of minutes you're ready to play.

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    Don't make the mistake of downloading software that's too big to fit on your hard drive. Check out the casino's downloading instructions page and take note of how much space the software occupies once it's extracted.

Well, you've officially swallowed the bare-bones lowdown on selecting gambling software that's right for you. Happy gambling!

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