BOOT CAMP 484 (10/07/07)

Alternative Browsers


Microsoft would like you to believe that Internet Explorer is the only way to access web pages on the Internet but nothing could be further from the truth. There are scores of alternatives to IE and if you really want to get the most out of the web it is worth installing a second or even a third browser to take advantage of extra features on offer, not forgetting the improved security most of them provide, or simply just for a change of scenery. As we showed last week it costs you nothing, you can continue to use IE as normal and it won’t affect your PC or Internet connection, so what have you got to loose?


Mozilla Firefox is the most popular alternative to Internet Explorer. It began life as Netscape Navigator, which first appeared in 1994 and dominated the market for several years but by the late 90’s IE – included in Windows 95 -- had virtually wiped it out. In 1998 Netscape released the source code – the software than makes it tick -- into the public domain and launched the Mozilla Project.


Firefox is an Open Source browser, which basically means users are actively encouraged to contribute to its development and this clearly illustrated by the hundreds of ‘extensions’ and ‘themes’ that add extra features and content or change its appearance, everything from displaying weather summaries on the Status bar, to checking ‘hits’ in a web search, showing whether or not they contain malware or dubious content.


Firefox was one of the first browsers to have ‘tabbed’ windows that let you quickly switch between web pages. Other useful features include a spell checker, you can access multiple search engines and websites, such as ebay, from its search window and you can manage RSS feeds. It is very secure too, with phishing protection and it won’t let you unwittingly install malicious software plus there’s a built-in pop-up blocker but it’s the huge number of extensions and themes that really sets it apart. For just a small sample of what’s available take a look at the Firefox Add-Ons page. Firefox is also marginally faster than IE, both to launch the program and display pages and because it allows access to its configuration settings advanced users can ‘tune’ it to make it even more responsive.


Opera has also been around since 1994 and was developed by the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor. The most recent version (v9) has some genuinely impressive features, like ‘Speed Dial’ that shows a page of ‘live’ thumbnail views of your favourite pages. It’s particularly good at downloading large multimedia files through its built-in BitTorrent application. It is also very secure with advanced fraud protection that checks sites against a blacklist of known scammers. A Content Blocker button shows or hides images with a single click and there’s a pop-up blocker.  Needless to say it has tabbed browsing and an interesting ‘Fast Forward’ button that guesses what the next page should be.


Users with impaired vision or difficulty using a mouse will appreciate the ‘Voice’ facility that responds to spoken commands and reads highlighted text and documents aloud (see also this week’s Top Tip). You can also translate highlighted text to or from more than a dozen languages with a single click. There’s also something called ‘Mouse Gestures’ that interprets a range of mouse movements as commands, to step pages forwards and backwards, open a new window or tab, scroll up and down, zoom in and out, restore and minimize pages, plus much else besides. Opera is also highly customisable with downloadable ‘skins’ to change its appearance and there’s a built-in email client and RSS newsfeed reader.


Safari has been the standard browser for Apple Mac computers since 2003 (prior to that it was Netscape Navigator and IE) but now there’s a version for Windows. Safari for Windows is still partway through a ‘Beta’ trial, prior to an official launch; most of the bugs have been ironed out and it is reasonably stable but be warned that the odd glitch is still possible. 


The most noticeable thing about Safari is the clean, simple styling that takes its cue from the distinctive Apple operating system. Apple reckons Safari is up to twice as fast as IE, and 1.6 times quicker than Firefox.  Such claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt – browser performance is only one of the factors involved -- nevertheless, it is very nimble and the program opens and displays pages quickly. It has the now obligatory tabbed browsing facility plus a neat ‘Inline Find’ option, which search for keywords on web pages. There’s a built-in RSS reader, pop-up blocker and SnapBack, which comes in handy when you’ve been following links on web pages and lost your way; one click of the mouse takes you back to your starting point. Safari isn’t as feature-rich as some of its rivals but it has all of the basics and it ticks all of the right boxes for Apple fans roughing it with Windows and anyone looking for a fast, simple and slick looking browser. 


Next Week –  Moving to a new PC





Peer-to-peer file sharing for distributing very large files (typically audio and video material) spreading the data across a number of download sources



Fraudulent e-mails, purporting to come from banks, building societies etc., directing victims to bogus websites requesting details of bank or credit cards



Widely accepted to mean Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. A system using XML (Extensible Markup Language) for informing subscribers to websites and blogs etc. of new or updated content




For those with disabilities that make it difficult to surf the Internet there is a very good selection of specialist browsers that cover a wide range of visual, physical and cognitive impairments. These include browsers that convert text into speech, respond to voice commands and specially designed input devices or employ large character and high contrast display schemes. You will find a comprehensive list on the Web Accessibility Initiative website at:



© R. Maybury 2007, 2006

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