If you spend hours in front a computer--whether at the office or at home--chances are a good chunk of that is Web-surfing time. Web browsers are such ubiquitous tools that people take them for granted. You shouldn't. They can use substantial amounts of computer resources, and their temporary files can hog huge amounts of disk space. Plus, there are those occasional browser security issues that require patches and updates.
Microsoft Internet Explorer is the most common Web browser for the simple reason that it's included with Windows. But substitutes for IE are becoming more and more popular because of their advanced features and their relative--albeit not absolute--freedom from security problems. Dozens of different browsers exist, but two--the free, open-source Mozilla and the $29 Opera (free with ad banners)--are probably the most widely used alternatives to Internet Explorer.
Read on to see how to manage temporary files and cookies in these Big Three browsers, and, as well, take a look at some other choices and add-ons that can improve your surfing experience.
1. Keep your browser updated.
For safe and fast browsing, make sure you have the latest security patches and updates. Because it's the default Windows-based browser, IE is the most targeted, and Microsoft issues security patches regularly. If you use IE on a Windows XP machine but don't have automatic updates enabled, go to Start, Windows Update and follow the directions. If you're a Mozilla or Opera user, check the maker's home page regularly.
2. Sweep away temporary files.
All browsers create temporary files that speed up your Web surfing by caching components (illustrations, banners, and so on) of Web pages you access so they don't have to be downloaded at each visit. Over time, those files can eat up lots of space. In IE, click the Tools menu and choose Internet Options. In the 'Temporary Internet files' section, click the Delete Files button. (The screens below show, from top to bottom, IE, Mozilla, and Opera.)
In Mozilla, select Edit, Preferences. Click the plus sign next to Advanced in the left-hand panel, choose Cache, and click the Clear Cache button. Note the option for setting the cache size.
In Opera, choose Tools, Preferences. In the left-hand panel under the Network section, click History and cache, and click the Empty now button. Opera not only lets you set the maximum size of the cache, it also lets you specify what types of data you want cached. In addition, you can choose to automatically empty the cache every time you exit Opera by checking the Empty on exit box.
3. Control cookies.
Let's get this straight: Cookies--the small pieces of data left on your PC by many of the Web sites you go to--often serve a positive purpose, identifying you on subsequent visits. If you frequently make purchases from the same site (Amazon.com, for instance), cookies allow content customized to your buying preferences. But cookies can also be used for more nefarious purposes, such as tracking and reporting your Web surfing habits. Although blocking all cookies sounds like one way to go, some Web sites don't display correctly if cookies are blocked.
So you'll want to selectively keep and delete cookies. Alas, IE's cookie control abilities are rudimentary: It doesn't allow you to selectively block incoming cookies, only to keep or delete all cookies. If you want to delete them all, select Tools, Internet Options. In the 'Temporary Internet files' section, click the Delete Cookies button.
If you'd prefer to keep some, click Settings instead and note the current location of the 'Temporary Internet files folder' on the following screen. Cancel those dialog boxes and navigate to the temporary files location in Windows Explorer--you may need to be able to view hidden folders and files to find the correct folder. Once there, click the Internet Address tab to sort the files. Cookies appear as text documents with names in the format "Cookie:username@sitename". Feel free to delete any from sites you don't recognize.
Both Mozilla and Opera offer much more sophisticated cookie control--so sophisticated, in fact, that covering them in detail would take all the space in this column. Copious assistance is available in both browsers' Help sections. Here's how to get started:
In Mozilla, select Edit, Preferences. Click the plus sign next to Privacy & Security in the left panel, and choose Cookies. By default, the level of privacy you've set controls cookies. Mozilla also has a Cookie Manager that lets you analyze cookies and keep or delete them (see screens above).
In Opera (see screens below), choose Tools, Preferences. In the Network section in the left-hand panel, click Privacy. From there you can set Opera to accept or reject all normal or third-party cookies (ones not served by the site you're visiting). Selecting Tools, Cookies launches Opera's cookie manager, which lets you delete individual cookies, block cookies from specific servers, and even edit the data inside a given cookie.