For years, Microsoft has been including a web browser known as Internet Explorer with Windows. Windows 7 shipped with version 8 of Internet Explorer, better known as IE 8.
Many people settle for using Internet Explorer simply because it’s supplied with Windows, but it is by no means the best web browser available. You’ll find it’s worth looking at the competition and choosing one which suits your needs. In fact, there’s nothing stopping you from using multiple browsers. This is a useful approach because some sites still work better with one browser than with another. You can pick a browser as your default and then use another browser as a backup if it’s needed.
The browsing environment
One of the things that makes it easy to run multiple browsers is that all browsers work in pretty much the same way, so once you know how to use one, you should have little trouble switching to another.
Take a look at the screenshot of Internet Explorer 8 (you can click it to see a full-sized screenshot). All of the major elements present in IE 8 are also present in its competitors, although the position and exact contents vary. You’ll find:
- An address bar with a box into which you type the addresses of the sites you want to visit, plus navigation buttons for moving backwards and forwards between sites.
- Menus containing browsing commands.
- A toolbar containing links to favorite sites (also known as ‘bookmarks’).
- A tab bar containing a tab for each web page you are currently browsing. Tabs let you view one site while loading other sites in the background.
- The viewing window in which the site you’re visiting is displayed.
- A status bar along the bottom.
Each browser adds its own special features to this core set of browsing tools. There are dozens of browsers available and they’re all free, but five stand out from the crowd: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari.
Chrome is Google’s entrant in the browser stakes. On first sight, it doesn’t look all that exciting. Despite its name, Chrome’s allure doesn’t come from a shiny, exciting exterior; it’s the plumbing work you’ll never see that is its real attraction.
Chrome is a browser built not merely as a viewport on the web but also as a platform for running web-based applications. Google’s goals with Chrome were to make a browser that’s more stable, faster to start, faster at loading pages, more secure, and clean and simple to use. It has managed to achieve much of this by giving Chrome the ability to multi-process. Each browser tab runs as a separate process. By doing so, Chrome isolates the tabs from one another. If a site crashes in one tab, it leaves the other tabs intact. If one tab starts to bleed memory, closing it stops the leak and releases that memory for re-use. If one tries to communicate with another—well, it can’t, so what you do in one tab is secure from “prying” from a site in another tab.
Each Chrome tab also sports its own address bar and toolbar, so it’s completely independent of its tab siblings. Click and drag a tab to deposit it on your desktop. It will spring open in its own specially-sized window. Drag the tab back into the main Chrome window and it will reinstate itself alongside its tab siblings. You can also reorder tabs by dragging them within the window.
Not surprisingly, Chrome oozes search features and in true Google, less-is-more fashion, they’re all neatly tucked into a single interface element: the address bar. Google calls it the Omnibox, a conceit you’ll probably forgive as soon as you realize the power at your fingertips. Naturally, you can type addresses in the Omnibox, but it’s also a fully-functioning Google search box. The combination is very powerful.
Firefox has long been the darling of the Web surfing cognoscenti for a number of reasons. It has all the standard features most people want in a browser—tabs, RSS support, pop-up blocking, excellent on-page searching and good standards compliance—all presented in an uncluttered interface. It’s easy to customise and its support for third-party extensions makes it a snap to add features, rectify omissions and generally mold the browser into your own personal plaything.
The third-party extensions which make Firefox so much fun to use have been something of an Achilles Heel as far as security goes, but the most recent versions of Firefox have beefed up security considerably. Where Firefox has started to slip behind is in performance. Once you add in a bunch of extensions, you may find your browsing slow considerably. The other browser makers have been playing this up and have promoted the speediness of their latest versions.
Despite any speed deficiency, if you spend a lot of time in your browser, you’ll find Firefox’s flexibility hard to beat.
Internet Explorer 8
Although more people use Internet Explorer than any other browser, this does not reflect any inherent superiority, merely the fact that it is the browser shipped with Microsoft Windows. In fact, for a long time Internet Explorer has been plagued with security problems and has been less than competitive in terms of features.
Internet Explorer 8 is a big improvement on earlier versions. It has better security and a more flexible interface. The Quick Tabs feature is great: click the Quick Tabs button at the left of the tab bar and IE8 displays all open tabs in a visual array; you can click any of the preview images to bring that site to the foreground. IE8 also has the best printing and print preview controls of any browser and an excellent page zoom feature.
IE8 features solid phishing protection, parental controls, and a Protected Mode to guard your computer against attack. The new InPrivate browsing mode lets you surf the web without leaving any traces on your computer: all cookies, history and temporary files are deleted once your session is over.
The browsing world would probably be a completely different place had Opera Software chosen to give its browser away for free right from the start. If it had done so, there’s no doubt this most innovative of browsers would have garnered many adherents. Now that Opera is free, and advertising-free, too, it deserves a lot more attention.
Opera is speedy, highly standards compliant, comparatively secure and bubbling over with features. It was one of the first browsers to implement tabs, mouse gestures, RSS support (an unmatched implementation) and a BitTorrent client for peer-to-peer file sharing. It has its own email client built in, too. It also has voice control, IRC chat, accessibility aids and Widgets—little mini applications which enhance the browser.
Opera Link lets you synchronize bookmarks, browser history and other items between computers, while its powerful Quick Find feature remembers not only the pages you’ve visited but also the content on those pages.
Because it uses its own proprietary layout engine, it’s not vulnerable to flaws inherent in the more commonly used browsing engines nor affected by attacks targeted at those engines.
The main complaint people level at Opera is that it has a confusing, cluttered interface. That’s true, although the design is elegant enough. If you like the other features Opera offers, it won’t take you long to grow comfortable in its environment.
Safari is Apple’s web browser—the browser you’ll find on Apple Mac computers. There’s a version for Windows, too.
Apple is not known for creating software that performs at its best on Windows and Safari doesn’t always behave as you might expect. As soon as you open it, you’ll notice it doesn’t quite nail that Windows look and feel.
On the other hand, it has a lot of Apple’s well-known graphical fireworks, such as cover flow. This is the same cover flow you’ll find in Apple’s other products like the iPhone and the iPad, and it gives you the ability to flip through thumbnails showing your browsing history. Safari also opens up to display a set of top sites, with thumbnail views of each site. As you surf, this display gets updated to reflect your surfing preferences, or you can edit the display manually.
Safari, like IE8, has a Private Browsing mode, which lets you surf without leaving traces on your computer.
The latest release, Safari 5, has introduced support for extensions. This is a welcome addition because the browser offers few other customisation options.
When it comes to browsers, you have real freedom of choice. There’s no need to settle for a single browser; instead, you can install and use as many as you like. To increase security, for example, you could use Opera or use IE8’s InPrivate browsing mode, then switch to Firefox for regular browsing and the benefit of its many add-ons.