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Refresher on Internet browsers

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Internet is so ingrained in our digital lives that it's easy to forget how awe-inspiring it really is. Don't believe me?

We know that there were 634 million active websites at the end of 2012 — 51 million more than 2011.

Each site might have multiple pages, so experts guess that the web might have as many as 1 trillion Web pages.

Of course, none of this surfing and searching would be possible without something else that often gets taken for granted: the humble web browser. Many people have misconceptions about browsers. Let's clear them up.

1. A browser is a search provider. When asked what a browser is, it's common for people to start rattling off names such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. In the non-digital world, browsing and searching are similar activities. When you're shopping in a store, you “browse” the aisles “searching” for items. In the digital sense, however, they are two very different things. A search provider is a company, like Google or Yahoo, with a website. When you search, your activity is done on one site. A browser, on the other hand, is the program you use to access the entire Internet. You can access millions of sites, not just search providers. Think of your browser like a TV and websites like channels. If someone asks you what kind of TV you have, you would say Sony or Samsung, not Discovery or Disney.

2. Web browsers are all the same. A browser is transparent technology. For the most part, you don't really think about your browser; you just use it. That's how more technology should be.

Of course, at some point you do need to think about your browser. Just like older TVs can't display the newest movies and shows correctly, older browsers have trouble with newer web standards, such as HTML5. That means you aren't seeing newer websites the way you should. In some cases, they won't even show up.

Then there's the security issue. Every day, hackers generate thousands of new threats that target your computer, and your browser is a doorway that could let any of them in.

So, for those running Internet Explorer 6, 7 or 8, Firefox 3, or older versions of Chrome, it's time to upgrade. If you don't know what version of your browser you're using, it's usually under Help>About.

The best part is that they're all free, so you can download and test them out. In fact, you might end up using multiple browsers to deal with multiple tasks.

Firefox is great for people who love to have lots of tabs open at once and like to customize their experience with add-ons. Chrome is geared toward speed and staying out of the way. Opera is a solid all-around browser for speed and features, plus it works the same on every gadget.

3. You're stuck with your default mobile browser. On the whole, the default mobile browsers on smartphones and tablets are less than stellar. iOS users get a mobile version of Safari. Android uses a generic Android browser. Windows Phone 8 smartphones and Windows RT tablets have a mobile version of Internet Explorer 10.

As far as speed and features go, these aren't on par with desktop browsers. Fortunately, there are plenty of third-party alternatives that improve speed, security and features.

Google and Mozilla make mobile versions of Chrome and Firefox respectively. If you use the desktop version of the browser, you can even sync your bookmarks.

Email Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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