November 1st, 2013
The Web Browser is one of the – if not the – most-used tools on a modern computer. But I’m finding, when dealing with many customers, that it’s also the most misunderstood. So here’s a guide to understanding exactly what your browser is, and what it does. It’ll help you stay safe, make fixing problems so much easier, and perhaps even make your computing life that little more fun… 😉
What is a Web Browser?
A Web Browser (or simply ‘browser’) is a software program that displays websites. It may also do other things, and you can often add new features to it, but at its most simple, it displays websites, such as the one you’re reading now!
What isn’t a Web Browser?
A Web Browser is not to be confused with:
- Search Engines: which are websites which have a search tool on them, such as Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo.
- The Internet: which is the network of computers around the world, including yours, which are wired together in a lovely fluffy family
- The World Wide Web: which is the collection of web pages served up via the Internet and viewed in your Web Browser
- Your Home Page: the website that is set to open when you start your Web Browser. Common ones are Google’s search engine, Yahoo.com and MSN.com.
Which Web Browser do you use?
This is a crucial question, as it’ll help you to talk through problems with PC repair types over the phone. Here are some screenshots showing the major Web Browsers currently available for Windows, and which you are most likely to be running (click for larger versions).
Have a look at your Web Browser window – its toolbars and buttons – and work out which one you’re using. This info will be of great help to anyone trying to help you over the phone, in preparation for a visit to repair your computer.
The parts of a Web Browser
Every Web Browser will have some or all of these parts (click the image for a larger version). Get to know which ones are part of your Web Browser, so you’ll know when new things appear or old ones disappear. Here’s what the different parts do:
- Menus: give access to all of the things that the browser can do, including browsing the web, listing sites you’ve been to in the past, bookmarking sites for easy finding later (see Bookmarks below), or changing the appearance and other settings.
- Tabs: each tab is like a separate Web Browser, but doesn’t clog up your screen with separate windows (like Web Browsers did in the old days). The tabs let you have more than one website open at a time.
- Address Bar: every website has an address, also called a URL (a Uniform Resource Locator for jargon fans!). It is displayed here, or you can type one in yourself if you know it (such as www.bbc.co.uk).
- Icon buttons: these buttons give quick access to tools also found in the menus (see Menus above). You can add new buttons for tools you use often, or remove them if they merely clog up the screen.
- Bookmarks: just like the physical bookmarks in your books and magazines, bookmarks are shortcuts to websites you visit often. Clicking on a bookmark takes you to a website without you having to type out the full address (or URL, see Address Bar above).
- Website: everything between the collection of buttons and text at the top, and the Status Bar at the bottom (see Status Bar below) is the website. We’ll go into a little more detail in a moment, but suffice to say it’s important to know which things on your computer screen are part of a website, and which are not. I’ve often come across computer users who have mixed these up, which can cause confusion when problems arise.
- Status Bar: as you can see, the Status Bar in the picture above is empty, but sometimes Add-ons and Plugins (see Add-ons and Plugins below) can add things to it. If your web browsing needs are basic, you may never even see the Status Bar, let alone use it.
The website versus the web browser
I just said that it’s really important to understand where the boundary line lies between your web browser and the website you are viewing. It boils down to this: the web browser is part of your computer – it’s yours, you control it – whereas the website is on another computer, somewhere else in the world, and belongs to someone else.
Why is this important? Well, if you type something into a website, then the website owner may be able to find out what that was (and this is often necessary to using some websites, like search engines or online shopping). Anything you type into your browser does not get sent across the Web without your say so (such as when you press the Enter button once you’ve typed a web address). The difference between what is on your computer, and what is on the web, is key to keeping your computer secure, as we’ll see in a moment.
Now you know what your browser normally looks like, you’ll be able to tell when something gets added to it without your permission.
Add-ons and Plugins
Most modern Web Browsers allow you to add new abilities to them by installing Add-ons and Plugins. For example, some types of media (music and video) cannot be played by a Web Browser without installing an Plugin which allows it to do so. You may have heard of the Flash Player (which allows you to, amongst other things, watch videos on YouTube), the Windows Media Player plugin, or the Java plugin.
Other Add-ons give your Web Browser new abilities, such as sharing your current page on Facebook, block annoying adverts, or check the current website for malicious activity. They might add a new button to your browser (near the Icon Buttons for example) or even add a new Toolbar. The Bookmarks area and the Status Bar are all examples of Toolbars, so if you see a new line of buttons appear below your Bookmarks or Address Bar, you may have just installed a Toolbar, perhaps inadvertently (see Unwanted Toolbars below).
Finally, some Add-ons can change the colours and other parts of the appearance of your Web Browser, and may be called Themes. They’re not so crucial to this post, but explore them at your leisure
Toolbars have been around for a while, and could enhance your Web Browser in the way that Add-ons have been doing more recently. However, toolbars are a lot less essential these days. Google stopped maintaining their toolbar a few years back, and apart from that there were few worth installing anyway. Even so, lots of my customers call me with odd problems on their PCs, which can be traced back to toolbars getting themselves installed without the user being aware of it. They change your home page, add new adverts into your search engine results, and even change the very search engine you thought you were using.
I’ll go into more detail about how to avoid unwanted toolbars in a future post, but I hope that, now I’ve given you a guided tour of your Web Browser window, you’ll be able to spot when malicious software changes something about it.
It’s Your Web Browser
I hope this tour of your Web Browser has given you a little insight into what the different parts of the screen are. This information should help you spot problems with your Browser, and also help you to help your friendly technician when you give them a call. If you’ve any questions, do get in touch with Ship Shape via the Contact Us page and I’ll do my best to assist.