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Guide to Web Browsers

Web browsers: everyone uses them, but do any of us really know what they do? In these days of smartphones and netbooks and WiFi hotspots, it seems like we’re online all the time: checking email, getting caught up on the latest news, or instant messaging our friends. But how are we doing all of this?

When you get “online,” your computer (or BlackBerry, iPhone, Droid, etc.) is connecting to the Internet through an access point, either wired or wireless. Once your computer establishes that connection, you need some way to “see” all of the information out there, and to interact with it. This is where the web browser comes in.

A web browser is a computer application that more or less acts as a translator. It is an interface you can use to navigate around the World Wide Web, jumping from web page to web page. The browser translates your mouse clicks and keystrokes into commands that computers can understand, and it displays the resulting information in a visual way that you (the user) can understand.

Web pages are written using computer code, such as HTML, XTML, or CSS, and your browser turns this code into the resulting colors, images, and text. To see an example of this code, right-click on an area of empty space on any web page and from the menu that pops up, choose “View Source” or “View Source Info.” A text file should appear with lots of nonsensical words and letters. This is the source code, which your browser understands quite well.

There are many different web browsers, and each one works a tiny bit differently. If you load the same web page in four different browsers, it might look a little different in some of them, but for the most part it should appear the same.

Each browser will also have a different setup and user interface, but they all have many things in common. They will all have an address bar, where you can type in a web address (or URL) such as www.yahoo.com, and they all also have buttons and toolbars so you can customize them for easier use.

Mobile phones and smartphones that can access the Internet have their own versions of web browsers, which are usually not as powerful as their computer-driven counterparts. They can not display everything that full browsers can, such as some background images or streaming video. Also, links don’t always translate well in mobile browsers.

Your computer should have at least one web browser installed, but if it doesn’t—or if you want to try a new one—here are some of the more popular browsers (all of which are free):

• Internet Explorer
• Firefox
• Chrome
• Safari
• Opera

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