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What’s in a browser?

Posted in Accessibility

So what’s all this fuss about Internet Browsers? Maybe, like a lot of people, you didn’t realise there was a choice: if you’re a windows user, you click the big blue ‘e’ to connect to the internet, and if you’re a Mac user you click the little compass on your dock – that’s all there is to it!

First up, if you’re a Mac user, you’re in luck. Safari (the little compass) is an excellent internet browser: fast, secure and modern. Exactly what you’d expect from Apple.

Unfortunately Windows users are by far in the majority and Microsoft haven’t given you the best start with that blue ‘e’. The program’s called Internet Explorer and it’s probably not your best option by a long way.

The good news is it isn’t your only option – there are other programs out there that you can use to browse the internet, but make your experience of the internet a lot richer, faster and more secure!

There are five big players. Internet Explorer is the ‘out of the box’ browser for Windows and Safari is it’s Mac counterpart. You’ll probably know about Chrome if you use Google as your search tool (you probably do): they still push that annoying ‘download Chrome’ button at the top right of the window. Firefox is the fourth browser and Opera is the fifth.


Firefox is my favourite browser. It’s fast, secure and offers and adheres to internet standards. Even better, it updates itself so it’ll never be out of date!

Mozilla who make it are a non-profit company too, so they’ve got the best interests of the internet at heart; not making boatloads of cash (I’m looking at you, Microsoft, Apple and Google…).

It is by far the most customisable browser, so if you want to have your own background picture behind your bookmark buttons at the top of the browser you can. There are thousands of extensions and gizmos that you can install to make your experience of the internet as great as possible.

Download Firefox here.


Even though it ships with a Mac, you can still download it for Windows if you like. It loads quickly and renders pages the way they’re intended. It’s also very secure. It updates along with your Software updates if you use a Mac and you’ll be reminded to update it alongside iTunes if you use Windows, so you’ll never be left with an out of date version.

What’s even better is that, if you use a Mac and an iPhone, iPad or iPod, you can sync your bookmarks across your all of your devices. For me the best feature is the lack of scroll bars on the right of the page – they only appear when you scroll so there’s more room to look at the website you’re on!

Reader is also a great feature. At the click of a button it takes the text from a webpage and converts it into a highly legible style that resembles a piece of paper with black text on a greyed out background. Click the button again; Reader disappears and the webpage reappears!

Download Safari here.


Chrome is very slick. It looks particularly good in Windows as it removes the top bar from the window, giving you more space to view the web. It updates itself in the background so you never have to worry about it being out of date (great for security and your browsing experience).

The only place it falls down is its RSS support, which is non-existent. You have to install an extension to make this work, which seems very strange to me, as RSS is a fundamental feature on the web and lots of people won’t be interested in installing add-ons and plug-ins to make things work. The only other way of doing it is a rather archaic ‘right click, “copy link as…”, paste into RSS reader’, which assumes some knowledge of RSS, ie. which reader you want to use, where to paste the link in your reader, etc. Bananas!

Download Chrome here.


Opera is kind of a one stop shop- as well as being an internet browser, it has email, RSS and chat integration as well as being a fast and secure browser that displays webpages properly, in line with web-standards! It feels extremely solid to use, which is never a bad thing. Feel free to download and enjoy!

Download Opera here.

Internet Explorer 9

So now we’re on to the dreaded subject of Internet Explorer (IE)…

With IE9, Microsoft have finally got it right. Sort of. IE9 is good. If you’re a windows user and you can’t imagine clicking anything other than the big blue ‘e’ to connect to the internet, I’d try one more time to persuade you to use a different browser like Firefox then finally concede defeat!

It renders pages the way they are designed without many extra ‘hacks’ needed from your friendly neighbourhood web designer and it supports most of the new internet standards, as the rest of the good browsers do. It’s also fairly secure. But not the quickest at loading webpages…

It’s also only available for Windows, so Microsoft have done every Mac owner a favour and excluded them from the worst of all the browsers. Although, in their wisdom, Microsoft also decided that if you run anything less than Windows 7 you can’t upgrade to IE9. The mind boggles!

Internet Explorer 8

Which brings us to version 8. It’s ok. It needs a few extra prompts to make sure it’s displaying a page properly, but overall, it works. It’s so old that it doesn’t understand a lot of newer commands, so your view of the internet won’t be the richest: no boxes with rounded corners, drop-shadows, gradients or any other fancy styling. So your experience will be bland. Functional but fairly lifeless.

Security is one of my biggest issues and IE8 isn’t the most secure of browsers. Don’t trust it with any of your credit card details or passwords as it’s relatively easy for someone who knows how to intercept them, when compared to a modern browser.

The good news is, although you can’t upgrade to version 9, you can install one of the better browsers, like Firefox or Opera, on your Windows XP or Vista machine and benefit from all of the lovely things the modern internet has to offer. Ditch IE8 – it’s old hat.

Internet Explorers 6 & 7

I’m not going to bang on about these two for long as it’ll only get me down! They’re hardly worth considering anymore as they’re so out of date. And you’ll only have them if you run Windows XP. If so, skip the IE upgrade and get yourself a good browser like Chrome or Safari.

A quick overview of why IE6 and & are bad starts with, most importantly, security. If IE8’s not great, these two are terrible. As far as how they interpret a webpage, they look awful, particularly version 6, and they need a lot of extra work to display and function properly. And they’re slow.

Luckily lots of big internet companies like Google and Wordpress have dropped support for IE6, which means you can’t use their products in this browser (Google Docs, Gmail, Wordpress’s blog, etc.), forcing people to upgrade or change browser. In fact, Microsoft have even introduced a website that charts and encourages the decline of IE6!

Internet Explorer 7 is also on the way out. Not quite as little-used as 6, but not far off! The best advice is to drop IE, whatever the version.

That’s not all!

There are other browsers out there too, but they make up a tiny percentage of the market so I’m not going waste your time talking about them!

I hope that’s been informative, and if you’re not using Safari, Opera, Chrome or Firefox, why not!?

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    Some people use the keyboard to get around their computer. Knowing how to do this is important for accessibility testing and to inform design.