When one web designer is asked by her clients, "Why should I upgrade my browser", this is what she tells them.
by Janis Joseph
Q: Why should I bother to upgrade?
The days of plain-vanilla sites -- consisting of text stretching across the width of the monitor, blue links, and a few pie charts -- are long gone. And they don't inspire much nostalgia. Even if you use the Web primarily for research and work, rather than entertainment and random surfing, many studies have established a relationship between the presentation of information and enhanced meaning. (An excellent jumping-off point for anyone wishing to explore this issue is a book by Donald Norman called The Design of Everyday Things.)
Despite the limitations of older browsers, Web site developers have been able to provide intelligent page layout and intuitive navigation. However, the workarounds necessary to accomplish this have a major adverse side-effect:
Your time is wasted.
HTML, the markup language used for generating Web pages, was never intended to provide more than the most rudimentary elements of presentation. "Forcing" pages to display attractively involves using complex hacks and bloated code, producing long download times. The newer browsers support techniques of separating content from presentation, enabling developers to utilize more efficient methods to achieve the same, or superior, appearance.
Q: How much time, trouble, and expense is involved in upgrading?
Not much. Upgrades of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Communicator are free. Although these programs are fairly large, the process of downloading and installation has become easier and more intuitive. Also, you can obtain the programs on CDs - either from your ISP, or included with some computer magazines, or by purchasing for a small fee from the Microsoft or Netscape sites.
You might like to test your current browser online at this page, which will analyze your browser and offer suggestions for upgrading. (The glassdog site is a good illustration of what a site can look and function like when it uses some more "advanced" browser capabilities.)
Q. Which browser is best?
It is hard to say which is "best" since every user has different needs and uses. However, here are some opinions and suggestions.
As of this writing (September 2000), on the Windows platform, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 or 5.5 offers more support of the standards as set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards committee, than the other major browser, Netscape Communicator 4.72 (the latest version of the Netscape browser suite). Also, since Windows is so predominant as a computer platform, and Internet Explorer is tightly integrated into the Windows operating system, studies of browser usage indicate that most people use Internet Explorer 5.0 and higher, on Windows. Therefore, many sites will be more functional in IE5 than in any other browser, since many web developers gear their sites to take advantage of the "advanced" capabilities of this browser. If you do not have any severe hard disk or RAM limitations, and have a reasonably new PC, Internet Explorer 5.x may be your best choice right now.
Netscape has promised that its long-awaited improved Communicator will be be at least as standands-compatible if not more so: currently, Netscape Version 6 is in the 2nd phase of beta testing. For more information, go to the Mozilla Project site. (Editor's Note: Netscape 6.01 for Windows, Mac and Linux is now available from Netscape.)
For the Macintosh, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 has been widely hailed by Web experts as the most standards-compliant browser currently available on any platform. If you are a Mac user, you may want to try this browser if you haven't already. You can download it from the Microsoft IE/Mac site. One thing to be aware of, however, is that IE5/Mac by default displays fonts at a larger size than on older versions of IE and Netscape. It may take some getting used to. For more about this, consult the Microsoft site.
Although they are not free, if you wish to stay away from Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator, consider Opera (for Windows) and iCab (for Mac). If your hard disk space is limited, or if expensive dialup rates make downloading large programs unappealing, either of these options are attractive alternatives.
Q. I'd like to get Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but must I install all of its components?
No, the downloading and installation can be customized to your specifications. Just choose the option "Install minimal" when prompted, and you can save a lot of time and hard disk space. (Tip: If you're not sure whether you'll need a particular component, don't get it. You can always download it later if you find that it's necessary.)
Q. I did upgrade my browser, but Web pages still look awful. What's up?!
Often, computers are left with factory-installed defaults still in place. These affect the appearance of everything on your computer, including Web pages, which may have grainy or dotted images. Here's how to test if you're taking best advantage of your computer's capabilities (These instructions apply to a PC running Windows 98):
1) Position your cursor on the desktop, right click, and select Properties.
2) Choose the tab that says Settings.
3) In the box for "Colors" choose, if available, True Color (24 bit).
If this is not available, try High Color (16 bit). Note: Even if 32-bit color is available, this may not be the best choice since it puts a lot of strain on computer memory; 24-bit produces acceptable results.
4) In the box for Screen area try 1024 x 768 if you have a 17" monitor, or 800 x 600 if you have a 15" monitor.
5) Press "Okay" and restart your computer.
Note: if you are accustomed to a much lower resolution (640 x 480), you may at first find the new settings uncomfortable - particularly if, like me, you have reached the point of presbyopia and reading glasses. Even so, give it a day or two. You can compensate for now-smaller letters by choosing larger fonts in your Web browser (View -> Text size ->Larger) and other programs. Give it a chance! You will find your workflow enhanced, as you will need to do far less scrolling.
Q.I prefer to just see the text information and not bother with the graphics on web pages. Are there any alternatives for me?
Yes. You have several choices. Here are a few suggestions:
1) If you are using IE/Windows, select Tools -> Internet Options -> Advanced. Under the category Multimedia deselect "Show pictures" as well as any other options that you don't want.
2) With Netscape on either Windows or Mac, select Edit -> Preferences -> Advanced. Deselect "Automatically load images" as well as any other options that you don't want.
3) With IE/Mac, go to Edit -> Preferences -> Browser Display and deselect "Show Pictures" and anything else you'd like to turn off.
4) Both Opera and iCab are geared to be much faster than IE5 or Netscape 4, so you might want to try out their demo versions to see if they are better suited to your needs. You can also turn off graphics and other elements in either browser.
5) There are also text-only browsers, such as Lynx. One caveat is that many web sites are not aware of text-only browsers, and may be difficult or impossible to navigate with one. This is not your fault, but just means that the developers of the site did not provide any text-only way to view their site. (This also means that the site would not be viewable or accessible by the visually impaired, for example. However, this is more an issue for web developers rather than the average viewer.)
Q.I'm using AOL to surf, but someone told me it's not the best way to see the Web. What do they mean? I have the latest version of AOL!
The AOL browser is rather limited compared to "full" browsers, since it operates within the AOL software. This means that less system resources are available to it. For more information about AOL, consult the Help areas within AOL.
One tip for AOL users: In order to view some images correctly, turn off the default setting: "Use compressed images".
Q. Is there anything else I should be aware of?
There is a growing tendency, on the part of some Web site developers, to ignore the limitations of older browsers. If you have a version 3.x or older version of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, chances are that many pages you surf will "break". You may become increasingly unable to access some sites that would have been of use or interest to you.
The Web is already the source for limitless amounts of information. Let's work together to make that information simultaneously more attractive and easier to obtain.
Janis Joseph owns AtarTec, an Israel-based design shop that specializes in websites and corporate identity for mid-sized businesses and organizations. She also writes the "WWW 4U" column, on web design issues, for the Jerusalem Post.