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World Wide Web Browsers Go Head-to-Head

When it comes to browser features, they come in plenty—so many that choosing one browser can be like choosing just one dessert from the local bakery's display case. Don't give up yet. If you're just starting out on the Web, use this article to weigh your Internet needs and match them to a Web browser. With all the choices, you're bound to find at least one that grabs your attention and takes you for the best Web ride you've ever had.

Can I Get By Without a Web Browser?

Getting connected to the Web without a browser is like watching a movie with the sound turned off—and the color muted, the curtain pulled down, and even the popcorn machine broken. In other words, the Web just wouldn't be the same without a browser.

A browser is your manager on the Web. The browser speaks to the servers to which you're connecting, grabs the Web pages you want, and displays the files within the browser interface. The files are in the language of the Web, called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), and the HTML codes tell the browser how to structure the document within the browser. Without the browser, you would be reading a bunch of HTML codes that don't do much on their own (see figure 1). The Web browser brings the codes to life, and makes your Web surfing fun (see figure 2).

HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is the language of the Web. The HTML codes tell the browser how to structure the document within the browser.

Types of Browsers

Browsers come in several different flavors. Graphical interface browsers display the images, links, and text in full color. The most popular graphical browsers include Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and NCSA Mosaic.

Internet Services Providers such as America Online and CompuServe give their own graphical browsers to their subscribers. Many online services, however, offer their users a choice between the ISP browser and a commercial browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.

Some users want just the basics. They're content to cruise the Web using character-based browsers, such as Lynx. Although these browsers have hypertext links, they don't show any images. Heck, you don't even need a mouse to use character-based browsers.

Where Can I Get Browsers?

Before you grab your checkbook and start writing away your money for the latest browser, take a look at what's already on your computer. If you bought a computer with Windows 95, chances are that you got a copy of Internet Explorer with your system.

If you're connecting to the Web through an Internet Service Provider, ask them about the browsers they offer. Kai Pan is the marketing director for Clarity Connect in Ithaca, N.Y. He said that they provide Netscape Navigator for free to their Internet subscribers. Most national ISPs have a browser embedded in the software that you install when you subscribe.

If you like to do your own thing, you can buy browsers at a local computer software vendor. They range in price from $40 to $100.

Don't be afraid to try out several browsers. With the various features, you may find a Web site looks like a Degas exhibit on one browser, while the same site looks like a kindergartner's scribbles on a different browser. Check out the Web sites for browser companies because many offer free downloads of their browsers. If you have the space, you can load browsers until your hard drive is stuffed. The following table lists available browsers and URLs from which you can obtain them.

Web Browsers

How to Get Freebies Without Dumpster Diving

Keep your money held tight if you are part of an educational institute or government agency. At the Netscape Web site (, you can download and use Netscape for free. It's easy, and Netscape only asks for the name of your school or agency.

Another trick of the free trade is to become an active member of Netscape's beta program. In the beta program, you can try out copies of new applications while they're in test phase. Giving a browser the ol' test and retest is a sure fire way to figure out whether the browser suits you. Check out Netscape's home page at to learn more about which applications are in beta.

What You Need to Get a Browser

Browsers tuck easily inside most computers. As the Web sites add more images, sound, video and animation, though, you need a muscle machine with a faster processor and more RAM (Random Access Memory) to keep up with the Web crowd.

If you think creatively, you can still use the Web without a Godzilla machine and a rocket-fast Internet connection. The most bare-bones system can use the Web with a shell account and a character-based browser. It might not be like zipping through pages at warp speed, but it can be done. For the current versions of Web browsers, here are the basics that you need.

Minimum Hardware Requirements for Each Browser

Netscape Navigator 3.0

386 CPU Processor

3 MB of Hard Drive Disk Space

8 MB of RAM

Internet Explorer 3.0 and 3.1

386 CPU Processor

3 MB of Hard Drive Disk Space

4 MB of RAM

NCSA Mosaic 2.1.1

80386SX-based machine

3 MB of Hard Drive Disk Space

4 MB of RAM


Most UNIX, DOS/Windows, Macintosh, Amiga and Atari machines work fine if they have VT100 Telnet capabilities.

Getting a Browser That's Made to Order

Some people take the easy way out. John Schmitt, a faculty member at Indiana University, for example, uses the America Online browser at home because it was a no sweat installation. "Somebody sent me a disk with free time on it, and all I had to do was stick it into my computer," Schmitt said.

"Somebody sent me a disk with free time on it, and all I had to do was stick it into my computer."

That's the way to get started, but if you're planning to be a serious cyberhound, take a minute to ask yourself how you want to use the Web. With all the features and the various Web sites, everyone has different reason for getting connected. Some things you should consider include:

  • E-mail. E-mail is like the chocolate candy rewards that keep kids from misbehaving. Some browsers, however, offer limited e-mail features or none at all. With other browsers, like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can even write your messages in HTML code and receive messages with hotlinks embedded in the text.

  • Internet Browsing. Browsing the Web doesn't have to be like searching the ocean for a lost diamond earring. Browsers help you sift through Web sites, customize your browser tools, search for information, and organize your favorite Web pages. With all the features floating around, it's better to look at each before you leap into the Web ocean without a lifejacket.

  • Intranet. If you plan to use the browser for business, you'll need a browser that supports Intranet capabilities. An Intranet is an internal Web for companies and institutions. Company employees view the information through a Web browser, but outside users can't access the information. Some WWW browser companies, like Microsoft and Netscape, are delivering Intranet support to your company's front steps.

Getting Deep with Browser Features

Now that you've settled your personal browser needs, it's time to look at what browsers offer. If you've ever had the pretzels, peanut butter, and chocolate in Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby, then you know how mixing flavors can make eating a delight. Similarly, browsers mix and match features to give you an exciting Web ride. The following list describes the basic Web features that you should snatch up and make no exceptions.

Basic Features

When you take a trip, you probably pack your suitcase with basic necessities, such as socks and a toothbrush, that you can't travel without. In the same way, you'll need to bring the basics for a smooth WWW voyage. This section looks at the basic browser features that make your ride on the Web quick and easy.

Easy Install

After setting up your Internet connection, installing a browser will be a piece of cake. Ask your browser distributor for instructions. Most installations should be as easy as clicking a button and counting down about 30 minutes until Web launch time.

Easy to Customize to Support Web Document Types

Customizing your browser doesn't just mean making the browser a snug fit with your Web personality. It means configuring your browser so that images, movies, sound, and files can be downloaded in a jiffy.

If you've ever had to convert documents from one software application to another, you know what a headache incompatible formats can cause. Helper applications in browsers are aspirin for the headache. Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer both let you use plug-in applications to help the browser deal with new file formats. Before you start jumping links on the Web, take some time to use the menu commands in the browser tool bar. That's where you choose the helper applications for each file format.

Foreign file formats can confuse character-based browsers, such as Lynx. If you know you'll be diving into sites with non-HTML text files such as those in PostScript or Portable Document Format (PDF) page description formats, you'll want to get a browser with helper application support.

Easy Web Navigation

Getting through the Web can be like cutting through a brick wall with a putty knife. But if the browser is worth a dime, it should be as sharp as a sword cutting down all that stands between you and your information quest.

Geek Speak: Navigation Terms

Home Page This is the first page of a Web site. It usually includes a summary or links to the information provided in the whole Web site.

Link A link works as a pointer to another location or document. It is also called hypertext link.

Dead Link This is a hypertext link that is outdated and leads you to an error message.

Surf People move through Web documents by surfing. Sit back, relax and ride the Web waves. See? You're surfing!

URL An acronym for Uniform Resource Locator, an URL basically is a Web document address.

A decent Web navigator enables you to hop back to previously visited sites with a click of a button, such as with the Back button in Mosaic. Other browsers enable you to take running leaps through the sites you visited, rather than forcing you to walk back baby-step by baby-step. The Go menu in Netscape Navigator 3.0 shows the last 15 Web sites you visited in the current session. You can jump five or ten sites backward, and the jumps don't make the browser cough at all.

In Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can bookmark your favorite sites. (Microsoft Internet Explorer calls this feature Favorites.) Suppose that you read the New York Times CyberTimes each day. You can mark the site in the Bookmark or Favorites menu, and jump to the site quickly when you're ready for the news. You can also set the New York Times as your Home Page that downloads automatically when you open up your browser. That way, the New York Times is on your cyberspace doorstep everyday!

Managing Your Favorite Web Sites

Libraries that have been cataloguing books for years can't figure out a way to classify the numbers of Web sites that fly by night. But it doesn't hurt for you to try to organize your favorite sites into hierarchies, categories, or maps. The following bookmark utilities might do the trick:

ClearWeb for Windows 95


Vizion WebSpecial

Netscape SmartMarks


KnowIt All

Tight Security

The Internet is a free enterprise, and when the free spirits roam together, they can add up to quite a crowd. It's like going to a free concert for 500 people when 10,000 people show up at the door. When you connect your computer to the Internet, you become part of the system. That means that your computer is somewhat vulnerable to the few evil spirits that wander online. Most browser companies work hard to ensure secure transactions on the Web, but it doesn't hurt to be cautious and make sure your browser protects your privacy.

Supports Other Internet and Usenet Tools

If you're a person who likes the convenient one-stop-and-shop stores, look for a browser that adds all the Internet tools to your Web toolkit. You'll want to send and receive messages through e-mail and Usenet newsgroups, access ftp and Gopher servers, and use Telnet applications.

Steve Sigma, a spokesperson for America Online, said that most people get online to use e-mail. "We're up to 7 to 8 million pieces of e-mail a day," Sigma said.

"We're up to 7 to 8 million pieces of e-mail a day."

That's just at AOL, and if you plan to be using your Web browser for work and play, make sure your browser has full e-mail support. For some time, users have been able to view their e-mail right in the Netscape browser. Microsoft Internet Explorer was just a pace behind and recently integrated e-mail with their browser.


Most of us know what a traffic jam feels like, so you won't feel like a fish out of water when your Web surfing becomes more like Web sinking. More than anything else, your browser's speed depends on the speed of your Internet connection. But browsers have some tricks up their sleeves that give users turbo in the Web race.

You can configure Netscape Navigator to display images after the page has loaded. That way, you can see quickly the text on the Web page. Before the images download, you can scram from the site if the content doesn't suit you.

Stopping the page can save you a lot of time too. Don't let long downloads make you feel like you're stuck in jail and have to wait for the page to fully download before escaping. Many browsers, like Netscape, let you click the Stop button or press the Esc key while the Web page is downloading. You'll be free in a flash and on your way to a previous page, a new link, or a new search altogether.

Advanced Features

If you've gotten caught in the Web wave, you're probably ready for some features that will make your TV shutter for fear that it's been replaced. With goofy names like Java and ActiveX, the latest in multimedia, three-dimensional worlds, and animation is bound to catch your attention. In order to take the new technology by the reins, you'll need a browser that can support the following features.

HTML 3.2 Support

HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language. The HTML codes help the browser decipher the content of the Web page. Unlike style sheets, like Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect, HTML codes tell very little about how the Web page should look in the browser. HTML describes how the document is structured, rather than its appearance. The users can control font types, sizes, and colors.

As the Web designers get more picky about the way their pages look online, they are begging for more control. That's why what started as a simple coding language with HTML 1.0 has developed into a more complicated series of codes that Web developers use. With HTML 3.2, Web designers can do the following: insert tables; center and right-align text on the page; align text and images; and include mathematical equations in pages.

To get the biggest bang for your buck, your best bet is to use browsers such as Netscape Navigator 3.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, which support HTML 3.2. If you can't stay away from a hip new browser or an oldie but goody, you might have trouble viewing Web pages that use HTML 3.2 codes.

Web Authoring Tools

If you've got an inkling to be your own publisher, the Web is a free and easy place to get started. Netscape 3.0 Gold has an HTML editor smack dab in the middle of the browser.

The only glitch is that the HTML editor doesn't offer advanced HTML features, such as forms, frames, imagemaps, or Java applets. Web developer newbies, however, should be content. Netscape has some fired-up Web page templates at their Web site ( that beginners must check-out.

HTML editors

If you've been itching to get your own Web page online, but don't want to go cross eyed over HTML code, HTML editors can give you the tools that make the coding tricks easy. Here are some powerhouse editors that you can download on the Web.

HotDog Pro ($99.95)

HTML Markup ($20.00)

HoTMetal Pro ($159.00)

HTML Assistant Pro ($89.95 or Free)

HTMLed Pro ($59.95)

Webmaster Pro ($59.95)

Netscape Extensions

Netscape has a knack for pleasing Web designers. They've created even more HTML codes (usually called HTML tags) known as Netscape Extensions.

Unlike this page in this book, which was printed with an exact page layout specification, the Web browser interprets the HTML codes. Sometimes the HTML codes and the browser don't communicate very well, and the page looks differently than the Web designer expected.

With Netscape extensions, however, Web designers can jump the user hurdle. They protect their Web documents and can specify relative typeface size (such as larger or smaller than another font) and color (such as red or maroon). Web developers can also use Netscape frames to divide the Web browser window into different "panes" or frames. Developers can put a table of contents on one side of the page and display the different chapters of the site on the other side of the page (see figure 4).

The only problem with Netscape extensions is that you can't count on every browser to support the extensions. Microsoft Internet Explorer only grudgingly (Microsoft calls the codes "Netscapisms") accepted the codes in their newer browser versions.

Netscape Plug-Ins

If you've ever tried to learn a foreign language, you know how a browser feels when it can't make heads or tails of a document. These days, though, browsers are getting smart in their capability to handle diverse file types. Netscape introduced plug-ins, which are applications that work "inside" Netscape Navigator 3.0 to display various file types, such as Excel worksheets, Macromedia Director files, and ASAP presentations. To move the helpers to the front lines, you'll configure your browser to go get a helper application when the browser meets a foreign file.

Netscape isn't the only one using plug-ins. Microsoft Internet Explorer just added support for plug-ins to their most recent browser version.


Imagine spending a weekend in New Orleans without moving from your computer seat, or visiting your friend in Seattle without leaving New York. VRML (Video Reality Modeling Language) can turn the Web into a three-dimensional space for walking, skipping and hopping.

VRML can be a refreshing way to do research. Rather than jumping pages through hypertext links, VRML enables you to interact in three-dimensional space with documents, files, databases, and other users. Why go to the library in the middle of a January blizzard, if you can flip the pages of a book on your warm computer screen.

Java and JavaScript

The logos and graphics that you see spinning and jumping on the World Wide Web aren't just excited to be downloaded to your browser. They're the lively critters written in the Java language and inserted into Web documents.

Java is the programming language from Sun Microsystems that promises to someday run on any operating system. It's taken the Web by storm because, like HTML, the Java applet programs can run through browsers, regardless of the computer platform. Both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer support Java.

The Java Jive: Security with Java

Java is hot, and like the caffeinated drink, it's full of life. In other words, it's a live-wire program that runs when you download a Web page with Java applets or JavaScript programs in it. Sometimes life brings sickness and unhealth. With Java programs, it would be easy for someone to infect your computer by hiding a virus inside the program.

Java can also make your CPU processor grind and moan as it runs the mini-animation program over and over. If you don't have a high-end computer, you might consider turning off Java and JavaScript support.

In Netscape, an option in the Security Preferences dialog box makes it a snap for you to turn off Java.

ActiveX Support

If you feel like you've been riding a time machine to the future, ActiveX will take you a few light years farther. ActiveX takes the plug out of Netscape Plug-ins. Rather than seeing static Web pages, you can view Web pages with animation, virtual reality, and video (see figure 5). You don't need a utility to run the application, like you do with plug-ins, because ActiveX runs on any computer that has ActiveX-compliant Web browser. You can even view and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents within the browser.

With Internet Explorer 3.0, Microsoft introduced its ActiveX technologies, which used to be called Object Linking and Embedding (OLE). If you'd like to be the first to see where the Web is headed, check out the ActiveX Gallery on the Microsoft home page (

Future Trends: WebTV is Here

If you thought you had to give up your TV time in order to make room for Web cruising, WebTV might change your mind. You pay around $350 for a box, trade in your remote control for a cordless keyboard and mouse, and you'll get the Web live through your television screen.

You might think that the WebTV will revolutionize the way we see the World Wide Web, but it really hasn't changed much. You still connect through a telephone line, and you still need to pay for online service. What WebTV does do is let you relax and surf from the couch, rather than cramping your neck and back in a computer chair. You can even visit most of the sites listed in this book through your WebTV. If you want to find out more about what WebTV can do for you, check out WebTV Networks Inc. site at

Head-to-Head: How the Browsers Stack Up

Getting in deep with browser features is a little silly, since most browsers are like chameleons—changing their colors and features every couple months. But, some things never change, like the hot competition between Netscape and Microsoft. If you're swaying in browser no-man's land, use this information to help you choose sides.

Netscape Navigator 3.01

Netscape Navigator holds about 80 percent of the World Wide Web browser market, and the company isn't letting go of any customer easily (see figure 6). Users keep biting at the Navigator bait, and they get hooked to the navigator speed, status, and cool plans.

The status bar at the bottom of the Netscape display can make a long wait seem painless. You can see the browser brain working and judge how long the page will take to download. If the status bar is creeping at a turtle's pace, the impatient user will know to abort ship and jump on another link.

Netscape rocks all over the competition with speed. Images display quickly, but you don't have to wait for them. You can jump links and read text before the browser even thinks about downloading images. Netscape has a great memory too. It remembers Web documents that you've visited, so you don't need to reload a page when you're jumping back and forth.

In future Navigator versions look for HTML style sheet support and a feature to automatically install plug-ins needed to see some Web pages.

Some additional Netscape 3.0 features include the following:

  • HTML 3.2 Support

  • Plug-Ins for Live Audio, QuickTime, LiveVideo, Live3D (VRML)

  • Mail and Newsgroups

  • Cool Talk (Internet Telephone)

  • Java Support

  • Netscape Extensions

  • Bookmarks

Netscape Navigator Gold 3.01

The Gold series of Netscape Navigator includes all the fancy gadgets attached to Navigator 3.0, but the package brings HTML editing to the browser window. With Gold, users can edit existing pages by browsing the Web and switching into Edit mode. Users can also edit the HTML codes and save pages to a remote Web server or the local computer hard disk.

The only problem is that Gold hogs RAM. Although Netscape claims that the browser only needs 9MB of RAM, it can barely get the momentum to download large pages without asking for more memory.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.01

It's not surprising that Microsoft is trying to strangle Netscape. Trying to make an otherwise slow death quick, Microsoft sells the browser for nothing and includes a copy in every computer sold with Windows 95 (see figure 7). Still, Netscape folks are a dedicated bunch, and Microsoft has added feature after feature to get a portion of the browser market.

Microsoft integrated a newsreader and e-mail utility into their browser. Users can write their messages in HTML and click on interactive hyperlinks within the messages they receive.

Internet Explorer users rave most about the resizable toolbar. The toolbar gives Quick Links to World Wide Web pages. You can slide the toolbar to hide the Quick Links buttons, or slide them out to let you see the buttons called Today's Links, Services, Web Tutorial, Product Update and Microsoft. For the real cybergeek, making the toolbar small gives you more space for viewing large graphics on Web pages.

Future features for Internet Explorer 4.0 will include live "channels" of information, like real-time stock quotes. And the browser won't just navigate the Web. In the next Windows version, you'll be able to navigate your personal computer files, Intranet, and Internet within the Internet Explorer browser.

Other Internet Explorer Features that make the browser fly include:

  • HTML 3.2

  • Plug-in support

  • Java support

  • ActiveX Support

  • Favorites

  • Internet rating system (Use the Internet rating system to block certain sites inappropriate for children.)

  • Separate file download window (If you figure out that a site isn't worth the wait, Internet Explorer allows you to start another download session in a separate window.)

NCSA Mosaic

NCSA Mosaic, the grandfather of all graphics browsers, started in 1993 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The browser hasn't kept up to speed with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, but the browser is still worth a whirl.

Mosaic offers a keen feature that even the Netscapes and Microsofts haven't picked up yet. Mosaic lets you type annotations on Web pages you've visited, and the comments appear at the bottom of a page the next time you visit the Web page.

Mosaic's feature list also includes the following:

  • HTML 3.0 support

  • Hotlist Manager (like Bookmarks and Favorites)

  • Support for imagemaps and inline JPEG graphics

  • Newsreader

  • Optional day, date, and time information displayed in status bar

  • Preference options for customizing the browser

Lynx 2.6

If you like the simple things in life and don't care for graphics, Lynx—the premier character-based Web browser—is for you. But before you jump into a free download of the browser, make sure you've got the right version; otherwise you might be boarding an airplane without a propeller.

New users should get Lynx 2.6. It's the most recent version of Lynx maintained by Foteous Macrides at Worcester Foundation for Biological Research. The final release from University of Kansas is Lynx 2.4.2, and KU has no plans to upgrade the version.

Lynx may read text only, but it still jumps through hoops like other browsers. Here's the low-down on the features:

  • HTML 3.2 and Netscape extensions

  • Support for tables, frames and imagemaps

  • Color

  • Integrated Usenet newsreader

  • Jumpfiles (Type in a word, and Lynx takes you to the URL that matches the search.)



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