Browsers - Basics and Beyond

What is a web browser?  A web browser is a computer program (or smartphone application) that connects to the Internet and displays websites and related web content like videos.  There are five prominent web browsers you should consider (listed here alphabetically by manufacturer):  Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera (by the company of the same name).

How do I know which browser (and version of it) I’m using?  First, look for the icon in the upper left corner.  The icons for the various browsers are:

Browser icons

For details about your version, go to the browser’s Help menu and choose the About option.  Or, check one of these websites: www.whatbrowseramiusing.co or www.thismachine.info.

Why does it matter if my browser is kept up-to-date with the newest version?  In a word: security.  Most updates that software developers release for browsers fix a known security risk.  To help prevent vicious malware and viruses from infecting your computer, you should keep your browser up-to-date.  (When a major new version is released, you will also see improvements in speed and features, of course.)  What to do?  On the browser’s Help menu, look for an option to check for updates.

Which browser is right for me?

Google Chrome:  Chrome claims to be the fastest-loading web browser available.  It has integrated Adobe Flash player and innovative programming that predicts which links you will click on a site and pre-loads the content for those links before you click, which results in reduced wait times when you actually click the link.  Chrome has a simple interface and is great for general web browsing, especially sites that are media-heavy.  It may have some compatibility problems with older-generation websites, especially the back end of web-based tools.  However, it's the most compatible with other Google products like Google Docs.  Get it:  free download from www.google.com/chrome.

Apple Safari:  disputes the claim that Chrome is the fastest browser available.  Regardless of who’s right, it’s a strong competitor in the same market.  Like most Apple products, it has a clean, intuitive interface and is noted for its stability and for being less vulnerable to Internet security threats.  As the built-in browser on Mac computers, it’s obviously a Mac-user favorite, but is also available for Windows PCs.  Get it:  free download from www.apple.com/safari.

Mozilla Firefox:  the only completely open-source and non-profit browser available, Firefox is a strong, steady workhorse.  It’s not as fast as some of its competitors (although the newest version improved speed significantly), but for people who need to do a lot of online heavy lifting (teaching online courses and managing websites in content management systems, for example), Firefox is a friend you want to get to know.  It’s also a solid all-around browser – which is why it has overtaken Internet Explorer as the most commonly used browser in the world.  You should definitely consider it if you like the idea of breaking away from the products of the “Big Three” software corporations.  Get it: free download from www.mozilla.com.

Microsoft Internet Explorer:  this is the standard Windows browser, an old familiar program for PC-users.  Most PC-users will find its controls easy to use (even if they aren’t objectively the most intuitive) by virtue of having used its predecessors for years.  Explorer has lots of useful features and available add-ons, and the newest versions (IE8 & IE9) have improved on safety concerns.  However, Explorer also has some compatibility issues with older-generation websites, especially the “back-end” where Firefox and Opera are more reliable.  Get it:  You probably already have Internet Explorer 8.  If your computer runs Windows 7, and you want to upgrade to IE9, go to http://windows.microsoft.com and look for the IE9 promotional button.

Opera: the browser you’ve probably never heard of (but should have).  From Norway!  Also disputes the claim that Chrome is the fastest browser, and according to some, actually has the proof to back it up.  Because it has a smaller presence on the web, it’s less vulnerable to Internet security risks.  It has a sleek, intuitive interface and, like Chrome, seamlessly installs updates to Adobe Flash Player.  Opera also claims to have more built-in features than any other browser available.  So don’t be scared off by the unfamiliar – Opera might just be the perfect browser for you.  Get it:  free download from www.opera.com/download.

Want to read more about the browser wars?

Check out these stories from LifeHacker and NPR News

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