Whether you are at home, work, or school, odds are you spend a lot of time staring at your Web browser. So why does it look—and run—like everyone else’s? This collection of our favorite browser secrets and extensions can make your browser safer and more efficient than ever—and help you figure out what’s wrong when things don’t work as you expect.
Unless stated otherwise, our tips are for all of the four major browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari.
Editor's note: For an in-depth comparison of the latest versions of six browsers for PCs--Opera and RockMelt as well as the four covered by our tips here--see "Which Browser Should You Use?"; for our appraisals of five popular mobile browsers for the Android operating system—Chrome for Android Beta, Dolphin Browser HD, Firefox for Android, Opera Mini, and Opera Mobile—see “The Best Browsers for Your Android Phone.”
Use These Essential Tips and Extensions
1. Automatically update your Web browser. The easiest way to keep it stable and secure is to set it to update automatically so that you’re always using the latest version. Fortunately, each major browser, by default, updates automatically. Safari receives updates from Apple Software Update (installed by default with Safari, or other Apple software), Internet Explorer gets updates from Windows’ built-in Windows Update feature, and Firefox and Chrome both check for new updates whenever you launch the browser.
If you think auto-updating has been disabled, here’s how to reenable it:
For Internet Explorer, go to Control Panel, Windows Update, Change settings, and set the drop-down menu to Install updates automatically. This setting will make most Windows updates install automatically, too.
In Safari, find the Apple Software Update tool on your PC, either by pressing the Windows key and typing in Apple Software Update or by going to C:/Program Files (x86)/Apple Software Update and opening SoftwareUpdate. Inside the tool, click the Edit menu, choose Preferences, and set the update frequency to either Daily or Weekly. Apple Software Update doesn’t download updates without you approving each one, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally updating something that you don’t want to.
In Firefox, click the Firefox menu; choose Options, click the Advanced tab at the top, click the Update tab, and make sure the boxes under ‘Automatically check for updates to:’ are checked.
With Chrome, you can’t disable auto-update without monkeying around with command-line options or your Windows Registry. However, if Chrome finds a new update during a browsing session, it will show a little arrow next to the wrench icon at the top-right of the window. Just click the wrench and choose Update Google Chrome to install.
2. Disable tracking cookies. Cookies are great, especially if you don’t want to type in a password every 30 seconds. Few people, however, like the kind of cookie that follows you from one website to another to report to advertisers on what you’re looking at. But you can block those “third-party” cookies without getting rid of the useful kind.
For Internet Explorer, go to Control Panel, Internet Options, click the Privacy tab, and either choose a preset on the slider that blocks third-party cookies, or click Advanced, check Override automatic cookie handling, and check Block under ‘Third-party cookies’.
In Safari, go to Edit, Preferences, Privacy, and set ‘Block cookies’ to From third parties and advertisers.
In Firefox, go to Firefox, Options, Privacy, and select Use custom settings for history from the drop-down menu. Uncheck Accept third-party cookies.
With Chrome, go to Options, Under the Hood, Content Settings, and check Block third-party cookies from being set.
3. Save your form data with Lazarus. (Browsers: Safari, Chrome, Firefox) Did your browser crash just when you were about to send a lengthy, painstakingly composed message? Never again. Grab Lazarus, and it will automatically save whatever you had been typing before the crash.
4. Stay safe with Web of Trust. Not sure whether a link is safe? Web of Trust can help. Just install the WOT extension into your browser of choice, and you’ll see a little circle pop up next to every link on the page you’re viewing. The circle’s color—a traffic-light red, orange, or green—represents an aggregated safety rating from millions of other Web of Trust users for trustworthiness, vendor reliability, privacy, and child safety.
5. Sync your bookmarks. It’s 2012—and you shouldn’t have to manually wrangle your collection of bookmarks on each PC you work on. Fortunately, several different bookmark-syncing tools are available, depending on which browsers you use. For Chrome, you can just log in with your Google account in Options, Personal Stuff and sync your bookmarks, history, extensions, and more from PC to PC. Safari can likewise sync through iCloud to Safari for Mac or PC, as well as whatever iOS devices you use with your iCloud account.
If you’re not 100 percent committed to your Apple/Google/Microsoft services, however, you’ll be better served by Xmarks, a free cross-platform browser add-on that will sync your bookmarks with a simple browser extension. If you’re willing to shell out $12 a year, you can sign up for the Premium service to sync to iOS, Android, and BlackBerry browsers as well. Xmarks has versions for Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari.
6. Stay incognito and clear your history. Web browsers generally make note of pretty much every page you visit, which usually is really useful. But each major browser has a private browsing mode that won’t log whatever you’re doing. Internet Explorer 9 calls its mode InPrivate Browsing (Ctrl-Shift-P), while Chrome’s name is Incognito Mode (Ctrl-Shift-N). Firefox has a Private Browsing mode (Ctrl-Shift-P), and Safari does, too (go to the Edit menu and choose Private Browsing...).
If you forget to use the private browsing mode when you meant to, you will have to clear your browser’s history (and possibly your URL autocomplete or form autofill logs, as well). You can do that with Ctrl-Shift-Delete in Internet Explorer and Firefox, but for Chrome you must go to Options, Under the Hood, Privacy, Clear browsing data; and for Safari, click the History menu and choose Clear history.
7. Easily zoom in and out. Web pages aren’t always as easy to read as they should be. But you can zoom in or out of any Web page by holding down Ctrl and rolling the scrollwheel up or down to zoom in and out as you like. Alternatively, keyboard warriors can use the Ctrl+ and Ctrl- keys to zoom in and out incrementally.
Lock Down Your Browser
8. Quarantine your at-risk apps with Sandboxie. You can add an extra layer of defense to your PC by setting up a sandboxing application, which lets programs and processes run in an isolated virtual environment. Programs running within the sandbox have limited access to your files and system, and they can make no permanent changes, thus protecting you from malware that your antivirus utilities miss when you’re shopping online or browsing unsecured websites. Sandboxie ($40 shareware) is a utility that allows you to open your Web browser, email client, and any other program inside customizable sandboxes. Detailed setup instructions are at the link.
9. Get a password-management app. Adding “1” to the end of a password that happens to be your spouse’s first name isn’t fooling anyone. Even if you’re using really complicated (and hard-to-remember) passwords for important sites, odds are good that you have them written down in an unencrypted text document somewhere on your PC, or saved in your browser—which anyone who gets access to your PC can view in plain text just by going to your browser’s privacy settings. You need a password management app like LastPass; Basic is free, Premium is $12 per year) or 1Password.
Various password managers offer different features, but the basic function is the same: Remember one secure password for your password manager, and the tool can generate assorted hack-resistant passwords for all your oft-used websites and services. That way, you don’t risk using the same password for all your email, social networking, and online banking accounts, but you don’t have to remember two dozen different passwords that are each 20 characters long. What’s more, most password managers include portable apps that you can keep on a USB drive, and mobile apps to ensure that you can access all your important sites from your tablet or smartphone (although this may cost extra). Read “Password Management: Idiot-Proof Tips” for the specifics.
Next: Stay on Top of Your Social Networks, Troubleshoot Browser Issues, and more.