Changing some basic browser settings

from the February 2007 Actrix Online Informer
by Rob Zorn

Your browser is the program you use to view (or browse) web pages on the Internet. Most people use Internet Explorer because it is installed by default with Windows, though lots of people prefer non Microsoft browsers such as Opera or Mozilla's Firefox.

There's been a lot of competition in the browser field over the last few years, especially due to the rise of Firefox. A lot of people like this browser and it is really the first competitor to Internet Explorer that has made a few Microsoft people nervous. Internet Explorer used to claim 97-98 percent of market share, but estimates for Firefox use vary now between 12-20 percent.

Browsers like Firefox and Opera started to become popular for a number of reasons. A few years ago Opera hit the market claiming to be the fastest browser on earth, and its stripped down simplified nature certainly appeared to make it so. It still did everything an Internet surfer needed but with seemingly less fuss. It was also attractive because it was less prone to hacking attacks, and this was simply due to the fact that it used by less people. It wasn't worth a hacker's time to figure how to exploit it.

Opera is still used a fair bit, but Firefox is now the main alternative to Internet Explorer, and its popularity seems to be increasing all the time. A lot of people like it because it is open source and free, and just "not Microsoft". It also introduced a number of innovations such as tabbed browsing which real net-enthusiasts (who have lots of browser windows open at the same time) really liked. Tabbed browsing allows you to have just one copy of the program running with tabs for selecting between all the pages you have open. Until the latest version (IE7 now includes tabbed browsing) Internet Explorer made you open another copy of itself to achieve the same thing.

Interestingly, all three of the browsers under discussion at the moment are very similar when it comes to how to use them. If you use one, you'll have no trouble using a different one. This is partly because there has been so much competition and each browser copies the best aspects of its competitors.

In this article we'll cover a few of the basic functions behind the scenes in Internet Explorer 6 and in Firefox. We'll leave Opera out for the sake of space. It isn't a bad browser (I really like it) but it probably isn't used by a lot of Actrix customers.

Internet Explorer is installed by default on Windows machines. You can download Firefox from www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/. Some people worry that if they download and use Firefox it will delete or interrupt the way Internet Explorer works. This isn't the case. If you download and install Firefox, Internet Explorer won't be affected at all. In fact, you can use both browsers at the same time, and even have them visiting the same web pages concurrently.

Changing settings for each browser is reasonably straightforward. In Internet Explorer the settings are mainly found under Tools/Internet Options. In Firefox they're found under Tools/Options. For either browser this will bring up a box containing various groups of setting which can be altered. The groups of settings can be accessed by clicking the various tabs or page within the box.

For Internet Explorer 6 you should see: General, Security, Privacy, Content, Connections, Programs and Advanced. For Firefox you should see: General, Privacy, Content, Tabs, Downloads and Advanced.

Setting your homepage

This is probably one of the most basic functions. It determines which web page your browser automatically loads when you start it up. Both browsers allow you to type in the web address you would like, or to simply click the Current button to automatically insert whatever page the browser is currently at. Each browser also has a little picture of a house somewhere up in its toolbar. Clicking this will automatically take you back to your homepage at any time.

Default browser

When you first run Firefox (or any other new browser on a Windows machine), it will ask you if you would like to tick a box to make it the default browser. If you do, then Firefox will take over as the one that launches automatically when you click links. It's up to you whether you do this, but you may want to try Firefox for a bit before you accept it as the default. At any time you can make either Internet explorer 6 or Firefox you main browser. For Internet Explorer the setting is on the Programs tab (Internet Explorer should check to see whether it is the default browser). For Firefox it is on the General page (Firefox should check to see if it is the default browser when starting). If you tick this box in either case, then the next time the browser starts it will check whether it's the default, and ask you whether you would like to make it so.

Your browser history

Browsers are able to remember pages they've been to which is why they will often drop down a list of recently viewed pages when you start typing in a web address. You can set how long your browser will remember recently visited pages. While it is convenient to have pages remembered, especially if you're having difficulty remembering one you want to go back to, some people don't like having a record of their behaviour stored anywhere and will set the days of memory to zero. In Internet Explorer 6, set your history under the General tab of the Internet Options box. In Firefox, you'll find the setting under the History tab of the Options box. Both browsers also feature a button next to the setting allowing you to clear the history manually.

In both browsers you can turn a sidebar on and off that will show you your recent browsing history. Again, this can be handy for finding pages you have recently visited and want to see again. To turn this on in Firefox click View/Sidebar/History. In Internet Explorer 6 click View/Explorer Bar/History. When you've done this, simply click a page in the list to go to it.

Dealing with cookies

Cookies are little text files that many sites write to your hard drive so that they can read them again next time you visit. This is usually a good thing (but not always), and you can learn more about the ins and outs of cookies here. Both browsers allow you to view whatever cookies have been collected and to delete them all with a single mouse-click. Do this if you want (it won't do any real harm) but you may find sites you visit that remember things about you such as your name or preferences, will not recognise you next time back. You can also set your browser to refuse to accept cookies from websites. This isn't really recommended as many sites will then pester you or refuse to let you visit.

Internet Explorer 6 lets you deal with cookies under the General Tab. Firefox's cookies settings, which are more sophisticated and allow you a few more options, are found under the Cookies tab of the History page. I particularly like how Firefox allows to you set things so that all cookies are automatically deleted each time you close the program down - sort of the best of both worlds.

Cache control

To speed the loading of pages, your browser keeps what's called a cache (pronounced "kaysh", or less commonly - "cash"). When it is loading up web pages for you, it will save a lot of the images and things to do with the page in there. Next time it has to load the same page, it can grab the images out of its cache rather than having to download them all from the Internet again. 

You can change your cache settings in Internet Explorer by clicking the Settings button under Temporary Internet Files on the General tab. You can also use the slider bar set the size of your cache (the bigger you have it set, the more it can remember, but the more hard disk space it will absorb). There are also buttons there to let you view whatever files are in your cache. You can delete everything in it by clicking the Delete Files button back on the General tab next to the Settings button. There is no harm in this.

In Firefox, similar cache controls are found on the Cache tab of the General page of options, though it is less good at showing you the contents of your cache.

Just as a matter of interest, browsers also keep a RAM cache. They use a portion of memory to store Internet content in so that they can display it for you immediately. You'll see this when you click the Back button through a series of previous pages and they load without any waiting.

Colours and fonts

You may not have realised it, but you actually have a fair bit of control over the colour and font of the web pages you visit. When someone makes a web page, they will usually specify what font should be used and what size and colour it should be. If the designer hasn't specified font characteristics, your browser will display them according to whatever your own default settings are.

You can over-ride a designer's font specifications if you want, and this can be especially useful if you have difficulty reading small text or certain colours. In Firefox, go to the Content page of the Options box. There you will find fields in which you can choose default font and size. Under the Colors button you can play with background, text and link colours. Under the Advanced button (be a little more careful in here) you'll find a number of settings. Most of these aren't things to worry about, but the minimum font size might be important to some. If you're changing settings under the Colors or Advanced buttons, you will need to untick the box labelled "Allow pages to choose their own...".

In Internet Explorer 6 the choices are more limited, but some alterations to font size and colour can be made by clicking the Fonts and Colors buttons at the bottom of the General tab.

Both browsers allow you to make quick changes to text size on the fly if you need to, without having to go into the settings described above. Click the View menu at the top of either browser and then click Text Size in the dropdown menu.

Bookmarks

Bookmarks are really handy. They allow you to visit pages you go to often with a single mouse-click. In Explorer, if you want to bookmark a page, click Favorites in the menu at the top of the page, and then Add to Favorites. If you just click Okay, the page will now appear in the dropdown list each time you click Favorites in the top menu. Click the Create in button to add folders if you would like to group your favourite pages in folders. You can make and label folders by clicking the New Folder button. Then when you click Favorites, rest your mouse over the folder's name, and all the links in it will pop out to the right.

There should be a Links folder there by default. This is a special folder and you can get any links you put in there to actually appear along the top of your browser on what's called a Links toolbar. To get the Links toolbar to appear, click View in the main menu, then Toolbars and then Links.

In Firefox it all works pretty much the same way. Click Bookmarks in the main menu, then Bookmark this page. Use the Create in field to assign it to a folder, and click the down arrow to the furthermost right to find a button allowing you to create a new folder if you need to.

To save links in a toolbar, choose the Bookmarks Toolbar folder which is there by default. To get the toolbar to display in your browser, click View/Toolbars/Toolbar folder.

Customising toolbars

If you had a look under the View menu for how to turn your Bookmarks/Favorites toolbar on, you will have noticed that you can also turn other toolbars on and off. Feel free to experiment here. If something important disappears you can put it back by returning a tick next to its label under View/Toolbars in either browser.

But there are also ways of customising your toolbars. You can add some buttons not installed by default, or remove some you don't use. You can also choose between having large or small buttons/icons displayed.

In Firefox this is particularly easy. Click View/Toolbars/Customize and simply drag buttons to or from between the toolbar at the top of your browser and the Customize Toolbar box. This is how you can add buttons allowing you to open new tabs or print, all at the click of a mouse. You can also choose what sort of display you want (single icons, text labels, or icons with text) and whether you want large or small icons.

In Explorer you also use View/Toolbars/Customize to find the toolbar settings. To add buttons, select them in the left box and click the arrow pointing right to move them to the toolbar. To remove buttons, click them on the right and use the arrow pointing left. There are dropdown fields at the bottom of the Customize Toolbars box that can be used to select icon size and labelling options.

If you get yourself in a bit of a mess playing around with your toolbars, you can always use the Reset button (Explorer) or Restore Default Set (Firefox) to return to 'factory settings'.

Clear private data

The last function I'd like to cover isn't available in Internet Explorer 6, though it is in both Firefox and Opera. Clearing private data is a function that allows you to quickly delete everything about your surfing that you may not want others to know about. It can remove records from your browser including its history, cookies and cache. To clear private data in Firefox just before you shut down, click Tools and then Clear private data. You can set what data is actually removed via the Tools/Options box. Choose the Privacy page and then the Cache tab. Down the bottom of this page there is a Settings button next to a sentence about the Clear Private data function. Click this to place a tick in the boxes corresponding to the information you'd like removed. You can also tick a box there to make Firefox do this automatically for you each time you shut down.

If you don't like this function because you believe there are times when you need to check on what others have been doing on your PC, there's not a lot you can do to prevent its use. If you need to check what your kids have been up to, for example, you may need to use a program such as Norton Internet Security which keeps an independent record of wherever your PC has been that can be password protected under the Administrator's account. Clearing private data in Firefox won't remove web history from that list.