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What is the best way to browse the Web?

In light of seemingly never-ending security problems with Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), many experts advise using Firefox browser instead. Here we will examine the pros and cons of switching to non-IE browsers in general and to Firefox in particular.

The security hole, a.k.a. Internet Explorer.

For many people Internet Explorer from Microsoft is a synonym for web browser or even the Internet in general.

By the end of 1990s Microsoft had won the early Internet browser battles and managed to convince most users that IE is the best, the only and the most convenient way to surf the Internet. Most importantly, IE came preinstalled with practically every new PC, which solidified its dominance in both corporate and consumer environments. It didn't hurt that the browser was state of the art.

In the first few years of the 21st century however, using IE has become a risky proposition. Without getting too technical, suffice it to say that IE is tightly integrated into Windows operating system. Often it's hard to tell where IE ends and Windows begins. Therefore, if somebody can break into IE, they have the entire computer virtually wide open. The hacker would have a relatively easy time gaining access to the rest of your computer, including the ability to read, write and delete files, install spyware, steal your personal information and do other things that you wouldn't necessarily be happy about.

To explain the seriousness of this problem, consider an example. Imagine, if you will, that you're a hacker and your next big "project" is to design a program that will allow you to break into as many computers as possible without having to be physically close to the actual hardware. The malicious program would need to be able to do two things:

1) Get deep into the computer's operating system in order to gain access to data.
2) Communicate with the outside world.

At this point you (the hacker) happily realize that you don't have to write a new program. It already exists. All you have to do is find a way to hack into IE and you're in!

Fortunately for the hackers and unfortunately for everybody else, it turned out that IE presents a number of ways to break into itself and therefore into the rest of the computer. But don't judge too quickly. Remember that IE and Windows are extremely complicated products written by some of the best software engineers in the world. Instead of indiscriminately blaming Microsoft for all the security holes in IE, we have to acknowledge the difficulty of the problem and Microsoft's continuous efforts to improve user experience.

Although Microsoft has been releasing security patches on a regular basis, they are usually followed by discoveries of new security holes. In addition, many people are either ignorant about the updates or simply don't bother. After all, it sometimes takes literally hours to install an update and there are more urgent things to do.

IE is not the best game in town.

Enter Firefox. Many people would argue that the best thing about this browser is that it's not IE. Indeed, it's not a part of Windows operating system; therefore, even if hackers can break into it, they are still not in the position to cause major damage to your data. The Firefox browser is not as widely used as IE, which makes it a less lucrative target. In addition to being fast and user-friendly, it is also free, just like IE. Downloading and installing is easy and takes under 10 minutes if you have a broadband connection.

Sometimes IE is your only choice.

If Firefox is so great, then why isn't everybody using it? First of all, IE comes standard with Windows. In fact, many novice computer users assume that IE is the Internet. Another reason is that no browser is 100% compatible with IE. For example, some pages may look great in IE, but will be out of alignment in Firefox. Some pages may have elements that would work correctly only in IE. This doesn't mean that one browser is better than another, it simply means that they interpret standards differently.

Mixing and matching is worth a try.

Are you completely confused? You may be saying: "IE is dangerous but works with more sites than Firefox, but Firefox is more secure and has cool features. Which one should I use?"

This of course is a matter of personal preference (or a policy of your company). One of the strategies that many people have adopted is to use Firefox whenever possible and temporarily switch to IE if the website does not function properly in Firefox. It's also important that you update all your browsers with the latest security patches. Firefox will automatically notify you when an update is available. IE patches are usually a part of the Windows Update.

Congratulations, now you know more than most people about browser security!

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Updated on August 26, 2012.