Do you know what a web browser is?
Almost everyone uses one every day. If you’re reading this page, you’re using a web browser. It’s funny, though — browsers are so easy to use that some of us hardly think about the fact we are using them at all. We just go on the web without a second thought.
A web browser is application (or software program) that lets you view and interact with web pages. If you use Windows and click on a blue e icon, you’re using Microsoft’s browser (either the venerable Internet Explorer or the new Edge browser). If you use a Mac and click on the Compass-shaped icon, you are using Safari.
You don’t have to use the app that came with your computer. Just because Microsoft and Apple want you to use their web browser, doesn’t mean you should.
Even if you are going to use the web browser that came with our computer, you may not be getting the most out of your browser. There are more features than you are probably using. Some of them you don’t need, but some of them might make your online experience much better.
What does a browser do?
To understand why you might want to try a new browser, or dig a little into your current browser, it’s helpful to understand what exactly a browser does and how it works. This requires understanding how websites work.
When you view a page website, you aren’t viewing a single document, laid out by a designer like a newspaper or magazine page. Rather, a web page is a collection of several different files:
- An HTML document that contains the content of the page and information about all the other files
- One or more stylesheets that define every aspect of the visual design: the layout of the content, the fonts, the colors, the size of images — everything.
- Individual images, videos, and other media
The browser handles asking the server for all of these individual resources, and then handles assembling them into a usable, viewable page. This is why the same website might look different on different computers, or with different browsers — even though the assembly instructions are the same, the browser might interpret them differently. This might be because the programmers who built different browsers understood the standards differently, or it may be that one computer or another doesn’t have all the same resources and capabilities, or it might just be that the screen sizes are different.
Above we mentioned different interpretations of “the rules.” This has to do with something called “web standards.”
The designers of all the different web browsers aren’t just making up their own rules about how to read and interpret the code that makes up a website — it is all based on a standard, or specification. The standards tell browser designers how they should understand the code that website designers create.
Google Chrome is the most popular browser by far, with roughly half of all internet users using Chrome to get online.
Taken altogether, this adds up to the fact that the exact same website can look a little different, and act a little different, on different browsers. Most of the time this doesn’t matter, but sometimes it does.
Where it is most likely to matter is complex web apps — online applications like Gmail, Facebook, or your bank’s online bill-paying system.
Use the browsers your developers use
Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari in combination control 95% of the browser market.
For example, you might use Gmail and Google Apps, and you certainly use Google’s search engine. Google also makes a web browser called Google Chrome. As you might expect, Google’s other applications work better on their own browser than on any other browser.
The browsers most frequently used by developers and designers — the people who build websites — are:
We’ll talk more about each of these later in this article.
It might be unfortunate, but very few professional developers or designers use Internet Explorer (or Edge) on a regular basis. Bugs are likely to creep in and then go unnoticed because the people building websites never see how things work in that browser.
A bit about each major browser
Microsoft’s Edge browser is the successor to the Internet Explorer browser that has been on every Windows installation for the last two decades. It is now the default web browser on Windows 10. Edge is supposed to be light-weight and standards compliant for modern websites.
Because it is so new, it is uncertain whether Edge will become a major player in the browser world. Early reports seem to indicate that most users abandon it for other browsers (mostly Chrome and Firefox).
Microsoft Internet Explorer
If you have a PC running Windows, and you don’t have the latest version of Windows, you probably have Internet Explorer. If you click on an blue lower-case “e” with a little halo on it to get to the internet, you have Internet Explorer.
IE has been through several versions, and several versions are still widely in use. The oldest version still in use on a meaningful number of computers is IE6, which is widely recognized as not a good browser. IE7 was much better, and each version since then has been a little better than the one before.
Still, even with the latest version of IE, the standards were not well-implemented, leading to poor performance and bugs in some complicated web apps.
Developers and designers tend to dislike IE, so they tend not to use it. This can have an impact on overall compatibility.
Safari is the default web browser built-in to Mac OSX. It is a decent, standards-based browser. It’s two biggest advantageous stem from the fact that it is designed and distributed by Apple:
- Upgrades and Patches automatically through the App Store system
- Apple’s approach to UI
Firefox is Free and Open Source. It does not include any spyware or any other data-gathering mechanism, which the other browsers often do.
Firefox has a number of developer tools — utilities and add-ons that help computer programmers do their job. Because of this, and because it is Open Source, is very popular among developers. If you are using a web application, the chances are that the person who actually made that application were using Firefox while they built it.
Firefox has a feature which (at the time of writing) none of the other browsers have, and which is great if you read a lot of longer articles online — news, essays, blog posts. It’s called the “Reader View.” Click the book-icon in the address bar and the main content of the page will be displayed in a format optimized for reading — with all the ads removed. You can even pick your own font and text size. This is great if you often find yourself zooming in on a page to read it better.
Chrome is a relatively new browser (first released in 2008, as opposed to 2002 for Firefox). It looks and feels like a slick, cleaned-up version of Firefox, and in fact provides many of the same types of benefits. Unlike Firefox, which was adopted primarily by developers and power users, Chrome became popular with average users.
Chrome has special features that allow it to work particularly well if you have a Google Apps or Gmail account. Among other things, it uses your Google login to sync your browser settings, preferences, bookmarks, and history across any computer you use.
While this is a benefit for some users, it does require that a great deal of personally-identifiable information is being stored by Google. If you also use Google’s search engine, Google Apps, and YouTube (also owned by Google), this might make you uncomfortable.
Browsers and Operating Systems
One of the reasons that Firefox and Chrome are both very popular is that they are the only two “mainstream” browsers which are available on all major platforms — Windows, Mac, and Linux. Internet Explorer and Edge are only available for Microsoft Windows, and Safari is only available for Mac.
This provides another good reason to use one of those two browsers — it makes it easier to switch back and forth between platforms.
Convergence of best features
Ten years ago, or even five years ago, different browsers were very different from each other. The user experience of each was different, the rendering of each was different — everything was different.
One major trend in web browser design is convergence. This means that all the different browsers become a little more similar with each new release. The companies that develop them copy each other, new technology enables advancement to all of them at the same time, and design trends sweep across the industry.
There are still differences — mostly minor, as mentioned above — and those differences can cause differences for website performance. It’s still a good idea to try a new or better browser, but things are a lot more stable today than ever before.
Basic Browser Use
There’s not that much to using a browser — they are designed to be very easy to use. You probably even already know how, even if you aren’t sure what everything is called.
- The main control panel for a browser, at the top of the window, is the Navigation Menu (or Navigation Bar). Within this panel is:
- The Address bar — This is the text-box that displays the address (URL) of the current page. Most browsers have an auto-complete feature built-in — as soon as you start typing an address or website name, it will start offering choices based on previously visited sites.
- The Back and Forward buttons. The Back button takes you to the previous page. The Forward button, which only works if you have used the Back button, brings you (back) to the page you were on before hitting Back. Note about Back buttons: Don’t use the Back button in web apps or after submitting forms. It can sometimes cause problems, like forms being re-sent.
- The Refresh button, which usually looks like a circular arrow. This button re-loads the current page by resending the original request. This is useful if the information on a page has gone out of date, or if there was a problem loading the page. Doing this after submitting a form can cause the form to be submitted twice, so don’t do that.
- Most browsers (including Chrome and Firefox) have a Star Icon that allows you to Bookmark a page. Bookmarking just means saving a local link to that page, so you can find it again later without having to remember it.
- To the right of the navigation panel is a menu icon. In Firefox and Chrome, it looks like three horizontal lines. In Internet Explorer, it is shaped like a gear. In Edge, it looks like three dots next to each other. This provides most of the other main utility items you might need:
- Zoom in and out
- The bulk of the browser window is the main Viewing Panel, which is where you see the actual contents of the website.
- Whenever you hover over a link with your mouse, there is a little text pane that pops up at the very bottom-left corner of the Viewing Panel. This shows the URL (address) of the link. If you click on the link, you will be taken to that page.
Most browsers have a “Private Browser” mode (in Chrome it is called “Incognito”).
When you browse normally, your browser activity is saved on your computer. This lets you find old pages easily and also helps pages load faster — elements of the page are stored locally so they don’t have to be fetched every time.
Sometimes, though, you don’t want to leave browser history. If you share a computer with someone else, you might not always want them to know what you have been searching for, reading about, or viewing. The private mode will also prevent the browser from storing account login information.
When you use a Private Browsing session, everything from your session is deleted when you close the window. No history or saved information is kept — it’s as if you were never there.
This can also be good if you need to login to the same webpage or app under two different usernames. Use Private (or Incognito) browsing for the second login, and you won’t confuse the application.
Important note about private browsing: This mode only affects the browser itself. It does not protect your anonymity regarding the server itself, and it doesn’t fool network routers and servers. If you are at work or school, or somewhere else where you browsing is monitored by the network, using Private Browsing will not help you.
All the browsers now have some form of Start Page. This page shows you the most common pages you visit, under the assumption that you might want to get to them quickly — and that works because you probably do.
Sometimes, though, the browser gets it wrong. For example, if you move back and forth between two pages on the same site a lot, the browser might provide both of them in your Start page, even though you really only want and need one of them.
In all cases, you can customize what appears on your Start Page. Usually, there is a link to do this on the Start Page itself.
Apps and Add-ons
Another reason that Firefox and Chrome are popular is that they both have plugin mechanism — you can install add-ons to the browser that provides additional functionality.
Chrome has full-blown Apps — software programs with stand-alone functionality that run inside the browser, like Apps on your phone. The range from simple games to complex office software and everything in between. Many of them are connected to the internet and take advantage of the connection to a web browser.
Add-ons, which exist for both Chrome and Firefox, add functionality within the main use of a browser. (They are actually only called Add-ons in Firefox. Chrome calls them Extensions.) For example, there are several popular Screen Shot add-ons that allow you to take a picture of whatever is currently in the View Panel.