Has something hijacked your home page?

It is quite common for both malicious and benign software to decide (rather arrogantly) that it’s going to replace your browser home page with something else and that it’s not going to ask your permission or even tell you about it. This blog explains how to put it back again.

To begin with, what is your browser home page? It is nothing more than a specific page on a specific website that your browser opens when you first start the browser running or when you click on the browser home button (usually an icon of a house). Also, it may or may not be the same page as is opened when you open a new tab in a browser window (so that you have more than one web page open at once in the same browser window).

There’s room for a bit of confusion here as the term “home page” is also used to mean the “main page” or “beginning page” of any website. As such, a website’s home page is usually (but by no means always) the first page of that website that a visitor will land on. So, it’s quite likely that your browser’s home page (the first page it opens) is also the home page of the website it opens.

All browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari etc) give you the option of deciding for yourself what your home page should be. In practice, I would guess that about two thirds of all the home pages I see on my computer support clients’ browsers are set to the Google Search page (https://www.google.co.uk). A fair proportion of the rest are set to the BBC home page at www.bbc.co.uk. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend the latter as the BBC’s web pages are technically complicated, with loads of images and links to flashplayer etc, so the page may load quite slowly. Fine if that’s where you want to go, but a bit inefficient if the only reason for using that page as your home page is that you’ve got to start somewhere.

If you wish to change your browser’s home page, it’s a good idea to open the browser and navigate to the page you want to make your home page before following the instructions below. This is because you often get the opportunity to choose your “current page” or “current pages” (the web page(s) you are currently looking at) as your home page(s). That way, you can see you’ve got it right before choosing the page(s). Be careful, though: if you currently have six tabs open then all of the six open pages will become home pages, opened whenever you start your browser!


Firefox – see Figures 1a and 1b

  • Click on the menu button
  • Click on “Options”
  • Click on “General” on the sidebar list
  • Enter the webpage address or select “current”
  • Close the current tab (called “Options”) or close the browser and re-open it

Firefox Options 1

Figure 1a) Firefox Options


Firefox Options 2

Figure 1b) Firefox Options


Chrome – see Figures 2a and 2b

  • Click on the menu button
  • Click on the “settings” option
  • Under the “On Startup” heading, select “Open a specific page or set of pages”
  • Click on “Select Pages” and either select “current pages” or type in the website address (also known as the URL)
  • Close the current tab (called “Settings”) or close the browser and re-open it

Chrome Settings 1

Figure 2a) Chrome Settings

Chrome Settings 2

Figure 2b) Chrome Settings


Internet Explorer – see Figures 3a and 3b

  • Click on the “Tools” icon of a cogwheel
  • Click on “Internet Options”
  • Click on the “General” tab
  • Enter the web address(es) or click on “Use current”
  • Click on the “OK” button

Internet Explorer Tools 2

Figure 3a) Internet Explorer Settings

Internet Explorer Tools 2

Figure 3b) Internet Explorer Settings


Safari (on a Mac) – see Figures 4a and 4b

  • Click on the “Safari” menu option at the top of the screen
  • Click on “Preferences”
  • Click on the “General” tab
  • Enter the web address(es) or click on “Set to Current Page”
  • Close the “Preferences” page

Safari Settings 1

Figure 4a) Safari Settings

Safari Settings 2

Figure 4b) Safari Settings


If you are unable to change your Home Page, or if it insists on going back to a page that you have not chosen, then I’m afraid it is likely that you have malware on your computer and more drastic measures are indicated.

What is the difference between “saving” and “running” files downloaded from the internet?

Download Button - 1Actually, probably not much in most circumstances. When you “run” a file from a website, it is downloaded to your own computer and placed in a temporary folder. You probably can’t easily see where that temporary folder is and you probably won’t care as the assumption is that you will “run” the file just once and then won’t need it again. The file that has been placed in the temporary folder will probably be deleted some time in the future (especially if you run a Windows disc cleanup utility or a third party utility such as CCleaner). So, when you take the option to “run” the file, it is downloaded to a temporary location and then run from there.

If you choose to “save” the file then it is saved onto your hard drive in the location that is stipulated in your browser for the storing of downloaded files. You may then need to navigate to that location to double-click on the file in order to run it. This can be made easier by your browser offering a button which opens up a list of recently downloaded files and/or the contents of the download location.

So, a downloaded file is placed in a “normal” folder on your hard drive. It is not going to be deleted by running utilities that clean up temporary files.

Download Button - 4In lots of cases it really doesn’t matter whether you chose to “run” or “save”. If you “save” then you do have the extra steps of opening the file location and double-clicking on the file. This disadvantage is weighed against the advantage of knowing where the file is and knowing you can easily open it again, copy it, move it, etc.

Whether you tend to “run” or “save” downloaded items, it is a good idea to know where downloaded files are saved. The default folder for Downloads depends on the operating system rather than the browser. This means that if you don’t change the Download folder then all browsers will save downloaded files into the following folders:

  • Windows XP – \Documents and Settings\username\My Documents\Downloads
  • Windows Vista/ Windows 7/ Windows 8 – \Users\username\Downloads
  • Mac – /Users/username/Downloads

.. where “username” is the name of the logged-on user.

You can change the default location if you wish (for instance, your hard drive may be partitioned into drives c: and d: and you may wish your downloads to be placed in drive d: rather than c:).

Changing the place where your downloads are stored is achieved as follows in the different browsers:

Firefox

  • Click on the “open menu” button (top right)
  • Click on “Options”
  • Click on the “General” tab
  • Change the Downloads location as shown
  • Close open dialog boxes

Internet Explorer 11

  • Click on the “Settings” button (top right)
  • Left-click on “View Downloads”
  • Left-click on “Options” in the bottom lefthand corner of the window
  • Change the Downloads location as desired
  • Close open dialog boxes

Google Chrome

  • Click on the Menu button (top right)
  • Left-click on “Settings” option
  • Scroll down and click on “Show advanced settings”
  • Scroll down to “Downloads” section and change as necessary
  • Close “Settings” window

Safari

  • Click on the “Safari” command at the top left of the screen
  • Left-click on “Preferences”
  • Click on the “General” tab
  • Change the “Save downloaded files to:” option as desired
  • Close Preferences window

PS: I don’t know why Google’s Feedburner service delivered the blog emails one day late last week. My aim is to publish the post by 12:30 on a Saturday and Google seem to deliver it by about 3pm on the same day. They do pretty well, though, considering that (a) this is only the second or third time they’ve been late in four years and (b) the service is free!

Download Button - 2Download Button - 3

Would you like the good news first, or the bad news?

Error 500 message #1

A typical Error 500 message

Sometimes when you attempt to visit a website you may be presented with a fairly blank screen that just has some incomprehensible (and somewhat intimidating) text. This text comes in lots of variations that mention either or both of “error 500” and/or “internal server error”. Some examples are:

  • Error 500. Internal server error
  • HTTP 500 Internal Error

Gulp. You may feel further intimidated if the message adds text such as “Also, a 500 Internal Server Error error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.”

“OMG – what have I done? I think I’ve broken the internet.”

Well, the good news is that you haven’t done anything. It’s very unlikely to be anything to do with your computer or anything you did with it. In rather plainer English, there is some problem with the website that you are trying to visit and the website is, consequently, unable to display the web page that you requested. And if you see the further message about an “ErrorDocument” that just means that the website can’t show you a nicely written web page explaining the situation (probably because the website does not have such a nicely written web page).

In other words, when you see an error like this, it means that there’s something wrong with the website you are trying to visit. There’s nothing wrong with your internet connection or anything you have done.

Now the bad news. Since it’s not a problem at your end, there may be nothing you can do about it. Nevertheless, there are some things that you can try that might, just possibly, resolve the issue and show you the page:

  • Error 500 message #3Hit the F5 button. This is the key on the top row of the keyboard labelled F5 (natch). If your keyboard has been configured to use the “function” keys for something different then you may have to depress the key marked Fn and then hit the F5 key. This causes the web page to re-load. It’s just possible that the problem was very temporary and that this time you will succeed.
  • Navigate away from the page (ie go to another website) and then come back to the troublesome one again. First of all, this will convince you that it’s not your internet connection at fault as you will (presumably) be able to visit the site you are navigating away to. The second thing this will do is give you a second chance, just in case something very odd but very fleeting happened the first time you tried to connect.
  • Clear the browser’s cache and then try again. A “cache” is simply a collection of saved data. It may have an error in it. Clearing the cache may solve the problem. Most browsers clear their cache if you depress the control key (marked “Ctrl”) and then hit the F5 key. Click on the following link for a much more detailed set of instructions for clearing history and cache information.
  • Try accessing the web page from a different browser. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that it’s a good idea to have two or more browsers installed for just this sort of eventuality. If you normally use Internet Explorer or Safari then I would definitely recommend installing Firefox as well.
  • If possible, check that the website address you typed in was accurate. This isn’t really feasible if the address is a couple of hundred characters long and full of weird characters like slashes, percentage signs and so on. In that case, you probably got the address from a link so go back to that link and try again.
  • If nothing helps then just leave it for a while and come back and try again. If the website is a major one – especially if it is an e-commerce site – then any error like this will probably be sorted out pretty quickly – especially if the problem is stopping the site from taking money.

Error 500 message #2

This message does, at least, attempt to be light-hearted. But it still doesn’t make it clear in plain English what’s happened.

If it’s a small site – maybe a personal or community site – then it might be worth sending an email to the website administrator. An email will usually get through if you send it to webmaster@brokenwebsite.com (where brokenwebsite.com is, of course, the name of the site in question).

Java is a security risk and is now of very little use

What is Java?

Java logo #1Java is a programming language that is often installed (free of charge) onto computers. It works via an “add-in” to the web browser. A browser is the program you use to view and interact with websites (eg Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Opera or Safari). Java is used to run special bits of code on websites (such as animations) that could not be programmed in the main browser programming language (known as “html” – hypertext markup language). Note that “Java” has nothing at all to do with another programming language called “Javascript”. You have no need to worry about Javascript. Also, note that the security problems with Java are not actually inherent in Java but are caused by the “browser plug-in” that allows Java to talk to the web page.

The Java browser plug-in has often been exploited to install malware onto computers. That goes a long way to explain the regular notifications in the bottom of your screen that a new version of Java is available. The new version will be amendments to stop recently-discovered exploits from working.

Why Remove it Now?

As it has become more apparent that Java has big security issues, more and more web designers have moved away from using it to deliver their “fancy” content to your browser. Adobe Flash is now a much preferred languaging program. I have recently seen figures that suggest that Java is now installed on less than 0.2% of all websites.

What will happen if I remove it?

Java logo #2Probably nothing at all. The worst thing that is likely to happen is that a part of a web page that is trying to deliver you some fancy content won’t be able to. You may well see a white box where the content would be displayed if you had Java installed (see the illustration below). There may also be a reference to a “missing plug-in” or something similar.

How do I remove it?

In Windows, go to the Control Panel and choose the “Programs and Features” option. This option was called “Add or Remove Programs” on versions of Windows before Vista. Highlight the Java entry (or, indeed, “entries”. Java has been infamous for installing loads of new versions without cleaning up after itself by removing the redundant versions). After highlighting the entry, click on the “uninstall” option and follow the on-screen instructions.

On a Mac, open Finder, open the “Applications” folder, right-click on JavaAppletPlugin.plugin and left-click on the “Move to Trash” option.

Also, disable any Java plug-ins in your browser.


How do I check to see if Java is (still) installed?

Go to www.java.com and click on the link that says “Do I have Java?” Then click on the “Agree and Continue” button. If Java has gone then you will see a more-or-less blank box (as in the illustration below).

Java Not Present Screen

The grey box with “this plug-in is not supported” indicates that Java is not installed. You would probably see a similar box on any other site that tried to display Java content when Java was not installed.

What if I need it back?

There’s just a very tiny chance that something on a website that is important to you will cease to function if you remove Java. In that case, I would suggest installing a browser that you don’t normally use (“Opera” is a good one) and install Java on that browser. Then, only use that browser for the site that includes the Java programming. Be very careful that you only install Java from www.java.com. There are fake “Java updaters” out there that will install malware onto your computer if you give them half a chance.

Why Now?

Nothing spectacular has just happened, or is about to happen. Things have just moved on and now is as good a time as any to take action. It’s probably worth removing rather than just ignoring it as the popup boxes advising upgrading it are a nuisance and every time you upgrade it there is a chance of falling for the disgraceful trick built into the upgrade process that causes you to install the awful “Ask Toolbar”. See this link for more on this practice.

If you’d rather not remove it yourself and are a computer support client of mine then I could remove it on my next visit. Alternatively, I’d be happy to remove it for you via a Teamviewer remote control session.

From time to time, clients ask me which browser I use, and I reply “Firefox”..

I started using Firefox just because it wasn’t the leading browser (which was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer at that time). However, there were a few substantive reasons as well – it was faster, more secure and (most relevant for this blog post), there were lots of bells and whistles you could add on to it.

Firefox is developed and made freely available by an organisation called Mozilla. This is a community of programmers who spend their own time developing Firefox. Mozilla is also responsible for the “Thunderbird” email program. Since Firefox is an open source program, outside programmers and organisations can make their “bells and whistles” (more properly known as “add-ons” and “extensions”) work nicely with the main product.

By the way, having a touch of pedantry about me, I’ve been trying to find out exactly what differentiates “add-ons” from “extensions” and can’t find an answer. This is made worse by also having things called “plug-ins” that seem to do the same thing. The important point here, though, is that there are hundreds of these goodies that you can add to Firefox. I don’t recommend installing them willy-nilly and then keeping them installed unless you find them useful, as there’s bound to be some kind of overhead in having them there. At best, they may have an un-noticeable effect on the performance of your browser. At worst, they can slow it down disastrously or even break it.

But now – at last – to the main point. I don’t like adverts on websites – in particular, the ones that blink and shout and scream at me. I spend lots of money every month with Mr Google so that he will advertise my services on Google Search pages, so I accept that I could be accused of hypocrisy in complaining about ads and even trying to block them. I prefer to think in terms of pragmatism. Anyway, when I discovered an add-on for Firefox called AdBlock Plus I was more chained to Firefox than ever, as it does exactly what it says on the tin (yes, I know that expression comes from an ad).

TfL Journey Planner Website with Ads

TfL Journey Planner with ads highlighted (by me) with red frames

AdBlock Plus will more-or-less remove all ads from most browser windows. I hardly ever encounter ads when I’m at my own main laptop. Today, however, I was updating my client database and needed some information from the highly recommended Transport for London Journey Planner. So I opened Safari on my Mac Mini, went to the TfL website, and was quite unreasonably annoyed to have ads distracting me. I decided to put in a bit of work to see if AdBlock Plus is now more widely available than just for Firefox.

TfL Journey Planner Without Ads

Aah, that’s better. Now the dog can see the rabbit.

And it is! See https://adblockplus.org. If you visit that site, it will recognise which browser you are using, so will offer to install the correct version. I notice that the Mac Safari version is a “beta” version. This means that it is developed to the point that they want a lot of people to be using it so that they can see if it works, and find any wrinkles that need ironing out. So, you install anything that is flagged as a “beta” version at your own risk. If you ever encounter a program described as being an “alpha” version then run away from it very quickly unless you are very nerdy and looking for trouble.

So, I’ve put the beta version of AdBlock Plus on the Mac Mini and we’ll see how it goes. Upon installation, it also offered to do the following:

  • Block known malware websites.
  • Remove social media buttons (Facebook “likes” etc). Most people don’t realise that these are trackers and you don’t need to click on them to give your browsing habits to Facebook.
  • Disable tracking in other ways.

I’m in favour of all of these, so I’ve turned them all on.

AdBlockPlus logoNot only is AdBlock Plus now available on Safari, but also on Chrome, Android, Opera and Internet Explorer.

I do accept that there is a debate to be had about whether it is right to block ads, since that is the source of revenue for a lot of websites. Just to toss a few ingredients into that debate:

  • Why do the ads have to have those incredibly annoying and distracting animations? Surely they put more people off than they attract?
  • There are other ways of financing things. Lots of mobile apps, for instance, offer a free, ad-supported version and an inexpensive alternative that is ad-free. I think this is a brilliant idea. You can use the free one to see if it’s an app that you really want and then pay for it to remove the rubbish if you want to. Maybe that idea isn’t easily transferrable to website financing.
  • Ads are just not appropriate on lots of websites. Are they appropriate on TfL’s Journey Planner? I was about to say “no” and then I thought about the gerzillions of posters on the tube. Would I ban those? No, I don’t think I would.

Conclusion: as long as ads are irritating and intrusive I’m going to continue to block them when I can. Good on you, AdBlock Plus.

Computer error messages are only as good as the programs that call them

In other words, if the program is badly designed or badly tested then you may not be able to glean any useful information from a displayed error message other than “something’s gone wrong”.

Here’s an example that I would guess at least 80% of computer users have encountered at some time:

Your email is automatically being checked in the same way that it’s always automatically checked every five or ten minutes when suddenly a box pops up suggesting that your password is wrong. I have known people spend hours trying to find the “right” password, whereas the real problem is that there is something else preventing the email from being accessed. The password hasn’t changed and it isn’t wrong. Or, more likely, the password wasn’t wrong when the error message popped up, but you’ve now tried so many different possible combinations that you have little chance of getting back to the right one if you haven’t properly recorded the password somewhere. See one of my previous harangues on this subject.

I had something a bit like this happen to me this morning. Too early in my brain’s daily cycle to tackle anything meaningful, I idly clicked on a new email from LinkedIn advising me that someone had kindly “endorsed” me for something (no, I’m not convinced, either, that any of this stuff has any merit or meaning). Then I clicked on the “People you may know…. see more” link on the LinkedIn website. Instead of leading me to waste another precious three minutes of my life wading through pages of people I may know, I was taken to a badly formatted page that suggested that I was being penalised for having had too many of my “let’s be friends on LinkedIn” requests rejected by people saying they don’t know me.

"Problem Exists" messageHuh? How come? I never send such requests to people I don’t know. Even allowing for the odd case of poor memory, it’s just not possible that LinkedIn’s allegation could be true – and I’m not paranoid enough to be persuaded otherwise.

Well, the caffeine finally kicked in and I got on with my day. A little later, a website that I visit from time to time wouldn’t take me to a particular page and I happened to notice that there was a reference at the bottom of my browser (Firefox) to javascript. Nothing was happening and the reference to javascript just stayed there. “Aha”, methinks, “maybe javascript has got itself turned off”. So I dived into Firefox’s “config” page (bravely ploughing on past Firefox’s wonderful warning of “here be dragons”) and, sure enough, javascript was set to “off”. No idea how it happened, but I turned it back on and the website I had been trying to access let me carry on as normal.

"Press Key" messageA little later, the caffeine had really started working on my synapses and it suddenly occurred to me that my problem with LinkedIn might have been related to javascript and its offness. If so, normal service should be resumed now that I’d turned javascript back on. And so it was. Clicking on the “People you may know…. see more” link once more displayed pages and pages and pages of people who I either don’t know or don’t want to know any more.

"Change user" messageWhat had happened in this case wasn’t exactly an incorrect error message, but something in the programming on LinkedIn’s web page went wrong when a piece of javascript couldn’t execute, and I was left wondering what I’d done to upset LinkedIn. The answer was “nothing”. I hadn’t upset them. It was just a problem on their web page and I’d allowed myself to be misled as to the cause.

"Enter Prime" messageThere’s definitely a moral here about not completely trusting what you read on a computer screen when it doesn’t behave the way you expect it to. Although, deep down, we really do know that a computer program (or web page) is not human and is not capable of making the infinitely subtle and nuanced decisions that human beings can make, nevertheless our initial tendency when something unexpected happens on the computer is to believe what we are looking at! Maybe that error message on the email programs that suggests that you’ve either got your username or password wrong should really say something to the effect of

“Bit of a problem, I’m afraid. Can’t access your email. Maybe your username or password has been entered incorrectly or maybe there’s some other problem. By all means have a go at re-entering your username and password. If you still get the same result then the problem lies elsewhere and I can’t help any further as I’m just a humble little error message that gets called up every time something goes wrong, and I’m ever so sorry but I’m not clever enough to suggest anything more sophisticated than checking your username and password. Oh, one final piece of advice: don’t risk re-entering your password unless you are absolutely sure that you know what it is”.

Now, why couldn’t Microsoft think of that?

Have you ever wanted to compare the contents of two browser tabs side by side?

A quite common situation occurred to me a few days ago when a client asked me to compare two computers that she had shortlisted for possible purchase.

Firefox-logoShe sent me the links to the web pages that she had been looking at and I duly loaded them into my browser (I still use Firefox as the privacy add-ons are better than on other browsers). This meant that I had two different tabs open and, as you might expect, I found myself clicking between them, comparing feature with feature on the two products. This soon started to fry my brain and I decided that it would be better if I could see them both at the same time, side-by-side. I couldn’t immediately think how to do that and thought instead about opening another instance of Firefox (which you can do by right-clicking the taskbar icon – on Windows 7 and 8, anyway – and taking the appropriate option).

IE9 - Internet Explorer 9 - logoThen it dawned on me that this was one of those occasions where our habits tend to lead us to do something that is sub-optimal because we can’t be bothered to spend a bit of time learning a better way. I’m pretty sure that we all do that quite often. Sometimes I’m looking over a client’s shoulder and catch them doing something a long way round. I’m very happy to show them a quicker way if I know one. In these situations, I am always reminded of the way I used to drive around London (before giving up driving altogether over 20 years ago). I would drive from known point to known point until I got near where I was going and only then would I think about how to home in on the destination. It meant, of course, that I was zig-zagging around town like a demented yachtsman, instead of learning the proper way (“No wonder you gave up driving”, I hear you say).

Anyway, I decided on this occasion that it’s time I sorted this one out and shared it with you.

Dragging a browser tab to a new window

Left-clicking on the tab in the red ellipse and then dragging in the direction of the black arrow caused the tiny window in the green ellipse to appear. Letting go of the mouse then turned this into a full-blown window. The image is of Firefox, but all the major browsers behave in a similar manner.

After a bit of playing around with different browsers, I discovered that, although their shortcut keys and menus are still different, ALL of the major browsers except Opera allow you to move any tab into its own window just by left-clicking on the tab itself and dragging the tab away from its normal position. Then let go of the mouse button and a new window immediately opens up on the correct web page.

It’s possible that this doesn’t work on older versions of browsers. I’m not going to molly-coddle users of such browsers by investigating and providing alternatives because I’m not going to encourage the use of old versions of browsers. It’s a good idea to keep your browser updated. Holes in browsers are a major entry point for the baddies out there to get at your computer, so it’s a good idea to keep up with the latest browser.

Putting my head on the block, I think the versions I tried this method on are the latest:

  • Firefox – 23.0.1
  • Chrome – 29.0.1547.57
  • Internet Explorer – 10
  • Safari – 5.1.7 on PC and 6.0.5 on Mac

I couldn’t find a way of moving a tab to a new window in Opera. Instead, you can arrange tabbed windows side-by-side by right-clicking on a tab and then choosing “Arrange” and “Tile vertically” or “Tile horizontally”

Chrome-LogoIf you are still using Windows XP, then the latest version of Internet Explorer you can install is version 8. This version does not allow you to drag tabs away from their bar. In that case, you may think you’ve just wasted five minutes of your life, but I’m going to take the opportunity to remind you that Microsoft will cease support for Windows XP (and Office 2003) in April 2014 and it may become very unsafe to use your computer online thereafter. Start thinking about replacing it. See this previous blog about Microsoft ceasing support for Windows XP and Office 2003.

Having split your tabs into two separate browser windows, you can then easily show two windows side by side by allocating half the screen to each window – if, that is, you are using a PC with Windows 7 or 8. I detailed the process for this here.

So, there you go, a shortcut that’s easy, almost universal, and intuitive (once you’ve used it once or twice).

The latest version of Chrome allows you to request that websites do not track which other sites you have visited

Homburg and binocularsIn my blog post of 12/08/12 – “What is “Do Not Track“”, I wrote that Chrome does not support “Do Not Track”. Well. they have now included it in the latest version of the browser. This is version 23.

To find out whether you have the latest version of Chrome:

  • Click on the “settings” button. It looks like this:
    Chrome Settings Button

    Chrome Settings Button

  • Click on the “About Google Chrome” option on the menu that pops up:
    Chrome Settings Menu

    Chrome Settings Menu

    Continue reading »

What are the main internet browsers and are two – or more – better than one?

Internet Explorer

IE9 - Internet Explorer 9 - logoSupplied by Microsoft as part of Windows, this used to be the leading browser. The European Commission judged that Microsoft was taking unfair advantage by supplying their own browser with their (almost ubiquitous) operating system. A deal was struck in 2009 whereby new Windows machines pop up a screen pointing out that Internet Explorer is not the only browser. It then offers links to download other browsers. For more information, see this link to the Microsoft Competition Case.

Firefox

Firefox-logoFirefox is produced by Mozilla, a non-profit organisation. The main advantage of Firefox is that there is a huge range of “add-ons” that you can install to the browser. Other browsers also allow add-ons, but Firefox’s range is probably the biggest. Firefox gained a lot of fans a few years ago at a time when it was thought that Internet Explorer was insecure.

Chrome

Chrome-LogoChrome is produced by Google. It’s a fairly new browser (released in 2008), but is now probably the most popular (see the end of this article). In Google’s own words – “Chrome is a fast, simple and secure web browser, built for the modern web.”

 

Safari

Safari-logoSafari is Apple’s browser, installed as part of both its desktop/laptop systems (Mac) and its mobile systems (iPhone and iPad). Don’t ask me why Apple are allowed to bundle their own browser in their operating system but Microsoft have to offer alternatives. The only reason I can think of is that Apple is such a tiny minnow in comparison with Microsoft (as far as browser use is concerned) that no-one thinks it worth pursuing Apple for unfair practices. There is a version of Safari for Windows PCs but it doesn’t seem to be very popular.

Opera

Opera-logoThe other “main player” in browsers is Opera. This is a Norwegian product that is possibly not as well known as the others mentioned here, but seems to me to be stable and highly useable.

 


 

Can you have more than one browser installed?

Yes. Browsers are just like other programs in that they shouldn’t interfere with each other. In the same way that you could have two or more media players (such as iTunes and Windows Media Player) installed at the same time, you can also have several browsers. In fact, the only major area of software in which you must not have competing products is security software such as antivirus programs and firewalls. You can even have different browsers open at the same time.

Why have more than one browser installed?

There are several reasons why you might wish to have more than one browser installed on one system:

  • As a troubleshooting tool. Sometimes you might find that a website does not display properly or does not behave properly. This could happen if an “add-on” that you have installed on the browser isn’t “playing nicely” with some aspect of the website you are visiting or with other aspects of the browser it’s working with. It could also happen as a result of the browser itself interpreting the website’s programming in a manner not envisaged by the programmer. So, if a website is driving you mad because its behaviour isn’t what you expect, I would advise launching the same web page in a different browser to see if there is any difference. In my own system, for instance, there is some problem stopping me from accessing my online banking details when I use Firefox. There’s no such problem when using Opera.
  • To stay logged into Google without them knowing everything you do on the internet. If you use Google services that require you to be logged into your Google account (such as Gmail or AdWords), it’s very easy – and convenient – to stay logged in while you use the browser for other purposes. That’s exactly what Google want you to do as they can then track your movements as you browse the internet. If, like me, you don’t want Google to do this, but often forget to log out of your Google acount, then a simple solution is to use one browser exclusively for websites where you have to be logged in to Google. Just minimise the browser when it’s not in use and use a different browser for other online purposes. I’m sure the same principle applies for other online services that require you to be logged in but then use this to track your online activities.
  • To use services that require a specific browser. There are some things you can not do on Microsoft sites, for instance, unless you are using Internet Explorer. Downloading Microsoft program updates is an example. If you are using a Windows computer and prefer a browser other than Internet Explorer, I would not recommend un-installing Internet Explorer: just leave it there but don’t use it unless you need to for specific purposes.
  • Personal preference – different people using the same computer may prefer different browsers.

It might be logical for me to offer an opinion as to the merits and drawbacks of different browsers but, to be honest, I really don’t think there’s a lot to choose between them if you are an average user (and I think that covers all my own computer support clients). I use Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera on my PCs, Safari and Firefox on my Mac, Safari on my iPhone, and Firefox on my Android tablet.

Just out of interest, though, here’s a graph showing how the popularity of the different browsers has changed over time. This shows that Internet Explorer’s supremacy may at last be over as Chrome is now slightly ahead in terms of market share (the exact figures on this graph are Chrome – 28.4% of the market, Internet Explorer – 27.6%, Firefox – 22.8%, Safari – 14.1%, and Opera – 2.3%, miscellaneous – 4.8%). Source – w3counter

Browser Market Share 2012

You may also be interested in this previous blog post on the subject of web browsers

We can never be completely certain that a website is safe, but we can definitely reduce the chances of ending up in a bad neighbourhood

1) Be careful of misleading subdomain names

It’s very easy to do a “Google Search” and then click on a result that takes you to a fake site. Suppose, for instance, that you are searching for a product called “Fred Smith’s Widgets” and you use that as your search term in Google. If Google then returns a result with a headline of “Buy Fred Smith’s Widgets at 90% Off” and a website address of “www.fredsmith.salesdeals.co.uk” then it would be very easy to assume that this is, indeed, the website of that well-known and reputable firm “Fred Smith Widgets Co Limited” and that by following the link you would end up in the Sales Department of that firm’s website.

Not so. Apart from the fact that anyone at all could have registered the name “fredsmith”, the actual name of the domain is “salesdeals.co.uk”. The prefix of “fredsmith.” is what is known as a subdomain. It is a sub-division of the “salesdeals.co.uk” domain and probably doesn’t have anything to do with “Fred Smith Widgets Co Limited”. Anyone can create subdomains of domains that they control and can give the subdomain any name they like. Subdomains can be freely created and are not regulated in any way. So, if the primary apparent link between what you are looking for and the Google result is nothing more than a subdomain name then it might be wise to be careful.

2) Scan a site before visiting

Even if the website is genuine, it is possible that it has been infected by malware that could damage your system – with or without the knowledge of the website owners. If you want to visit a website but prefer to make sure first that it doesn’t harbour anything nasty, you can use a free scanner to check it out. Follow this link for the Sucuri sitecheck scanner. Then enter the name of the website you wish to check. A check of my own website has just given the following result:

Sucuri Site Checker Result

Result of checking www.davidleonard.net with Sucuri Site Checker

Norton offer a similar “instant scan”. Just visit http://safeweb.norton.com/ and enter the site you wish to check. Here’s what it said about www.davidleonard.net

Norton Safe Web Result

Result of checking www.davidleonard.net with Norton Safe Web


3) Be critical of the spelling, grammar, and presentation of the website

Although it’s true that some malevolent sites are very well written and presented, it’s also true that most of them are not. Undoubtedly, we shouldn’t expect the same standard of English on a website in a non-English speaking country. Nevertheless, I believe that it’s worth including the standard of the English in an assessment as to whether to trust the site. I really don’t want to sound like a Little Englander, or suggest that “foreigners can’t be trusted” or anything like that. I’m just saying that a professionally presented website is more likely to be trustworthy than a shoddily presented one. English is undoubtedly the lingua franca of the internet so you would expect a genuine, professional, organisation to take a certain amount of care in this respect – whether the website originates in an English-speaking country or not.

4) ALWAYS look for the “https” on “Financial Pages”

If you are on a webpage that is going to ask for confidential information – including, of course, credit card details etc – then make sure that the address of the web page (at the top of the browser) begins with “https” and not the more usual “http”. The “s” stands for “secure” and it ensures that the data is encrypted as it flies through cyberspace. The “s” may not give 100% security that you are dealing with a genuine organisation but if a website is asking for confidential information WITHOUT encryption then they are definitely reckless at the very least, so don’t trust them.

5) Be wary of following links

If you are considering visiting a webpage by clicking on a link in, for instance, an email then be very careful as it is easy for someone to mislead you as to the actual website you will arrive at. If you’ve clicked on a link called “www.barclays.com” and your browser address bar tells you you’ve landed on “www.cons-r-us.com” then it might be appropriate to harbour suspicions.

6) Install a link checker

AVG Secure Search – and McAfee Site Advisor – are both browser add-ons that give instant advice in the form of icons showing the trustworthiness of the site. For instance, McAfee Site Advisor adds reassuring ticks in green circles to indicate that a site is probably safe:

McAfee Site Advisor Results

Reassuring ticks in green circles indicate that McAfee Site Advisor thinks these web pages are safe

We can never be absolutely certain that the website we are about to visit is both genuine and safe, but we can certainly reduce the risks to an acceptable level by applying some commonsense, some critical awareness, and some free tools.

© 2011-2015 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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