Why Securing Your Passwords with LastPass is a Good Idea

Passwords. We love them and we hate them at the same time. Yet, it’s one of the easiest and most popular authentication method used by third-party services and even by the computer you are using right now (your computer does require a password to log on, right?). It’s a very simple system in that you supply to the authenticator a secret that only the two of you know combined with a username or email address of some kind. Once the authenticator validates your secret, you’re in the system. We all know this. It’s no secret that a password should be a closely guarded secret because once another person gets a hold of it, he/she can now impersonate you and the authenticator usually will not know any better. If that person knows the secret, then he/she should be authorized otherwise why else would they have the secret in the first place?! OK, this much you should already know by now. If not, I wrote an article that should help you understand more on this topic.

The Problem

ConfusedThe problem nowadays is not the password system itself (although multi-factor authentication is a lot stronger) but the fact that many users need to create so many passwords for the dozens and dozens of sites and services they use online. Again, you’ve probably heard this all before but it bears repeating here. When a user is forced to create a password for so many services, they tend to reuse the same password over and over again. Come on, don’t act like you’ve never done this before. You may not have done it recently but I’m sure you can think of the time where you were so frustrated with having to deal with so many passwords that you just used the same one again and again. The main reason why this is so is due to our memory system. It’s really hard to come up with an ultra long and random combination of letters, numbers and symbols and be forced to remember it. It’s not that users don’t want to create good passwords. It’s just that they can’t remember them all! Therefore, what many people tend to do is create a known and comfortable password that they can remember and reuse them. The problem here folks is that the password created is usually very weak in nature and can be easily cracked! By reusing that same password for five or ten different services, you risk the chance of putting all those services in jeopardy as soon as the password is stolen.

What is LastPass?

LightbulbLastPass is what you call a password manager. In other words, it helps you manage all of your passwords! The promise of LastPass is that it will be the last password you will ever need to remember. How it works is simple (although the actual technical details are not).  As with many other password managers out there, LastPass creates a database and within it resides all of your passwords. In order to unlock that database and use those passwords, you’ll need to unlock it with a password. This password is what is called the master password and is the only one you have to remember. Once you unlock the database, everything within it is accessible. As you can already figure out, the passwords within the database is not important in a way that you don’t have to actually remember them because you don’t actually type in those passwords yourself. Therefore, you can create passwords that are 50 characters in length with lower case, uppercase alphabets, numbers, symbols and special characters for each site you use if you so wish to.

How it Works

Whenever you visit a site that requires a password, LastPass will automatically help you fill them in as long as you are logged in to your LastPass account. It doesn’t matter if you have 15 different sites all with different passwords and whatnot. LastPass will fill them in for you as long as you have saved the account information for that site within your LastPass database. All of this is great but how does LastPass protect you as the user from password theft or keeping them from prying eyes? Simple. It’s called encryption. Your password database is actually stored at LastPass headquarters. However, all data is encrypted with your master password before it is sent from your local PC. This fact is very important to remember. Nothing gets sent to LastPass in clear form. Therefore, LastPass only stores your data in an encrypted form. Even the LastPass staff have no way of viewing your database. Well, technically they could but I’m sure the encrypted gibberish they see wouldn’t be of any use.

Just recently, LastPass discovered an anomaly in their traffic and decided best that all users should change their master password. It’s not sure as of now whether or not they were hacked or not but LastPass is stating that if you have a very strong master password, you are safe. Even if the hackers got a hold of your password database from LastPass servers, the data would be useless because it is encrypted with your master password, which they don’t have. Therefore, it is important that when you are creating your LastPass account for the first time, you need to create a very strong master password as the security of your database relies completely on it! I want to apologize but I need to rant a bit. There are many users out there that don’t believe in LastPass and the security of their system. Many have doubts as to whether or not LastPass is really that secure and if our passwords are really encrypted when sent to LastPass headquarters. Let me get something off my chest right now. It’s OK to completely doubt something. You just don’t have to use it personally. The problem I have is when a person have no proof whatsoever and start spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) throughout the Internet. I use LastPass and accept the risks. As with everything we do in life, there is always, and I mean always a risk factor involved. Being a security guy, I understand that being paranoid is a given for people like us. However, some people take it just too far. As the saying goes, there really is no completely secure computer in this world unless you pull the power plug from it, lock it up in a chest and let it sink to the bottom of the ocean. It would be secured but it wouldn’t be of any use to anyone. I mean why even go outside your house when there is a risk that you could get run over by a car or get robbed? Of course, I’m being sarcastic but some people just need to understand that everything has a risk factor involved. LastPass has been praised by many and although that doesn’t necessarily make it any better than the next software or service, I would definitely use it over the others.

Why Use it?

PasswordsLastPass not only helps you to start creating different passwords for each of your different sites but it also helps you by allowing you to create super strong passwords as you never have to remember them again. LastPass can be considered as the middleman. Another big advantage of using LastPass is due to its huge assortment of supported platforms. LastPass is supported basically on the Windows, Mac and Linux operating system platforms. As for browser compatibility, LastPass will work on Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera and Chrome. You’re never left out in the dark. Want to use it on the go from your mobile phone? They got that covered too although you’ll have to pay. In my opinion, it’s really hard to see why not to use something like LastPass. Information theft goes on every day and you really don’t want to be a part of that statistic. If you pay your bills online or do a lot of online shopping at various websites, it’s imperative that you lock down your account so that no one but you can get access to it. In many cases, a person only have to authenticate to the system with two key pieces of information. That is your username or email and your password. Usernames are very easy to come by for a thief. Services like Facebook and Twitter allows users to post all sorts of information for the world to see. It’s not hard to extract a person’s email. For example, if I knew your email address to be abcd@email.com and knew you like to shop at Amazon, I can happily view all sorts of information out of your Facebook profile to put together random passwords that you might use. It’s very likely that you used the same email address to sign up for Facebook as you did with Amazon. With LastPass, the attacker will have a lot harder time trying crack your password if it is 15 characters in length comprising of random  uppercase, lowercase, numbers and symbols. Trust me, LastPass is something you’ll definitely want to get into the habit of using. In fact, once you start using it, you’ll hardly even know it’s there. I promise you that much.

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Are You a Victim of Fake Antivirus Software?

Shame on me. It has taken me this long to write an article on one of the most plaguing issues concerning user’s desktops all over the world these past couple of years. This problem I am sure you have seen before and have experienced it even once or twice during your own Internet browsing sessions. I present to you, rogue antivirus applications a.k.a. scareware! I actually got the motivation to write this article thanks to Ed Bott over at ZDNet. He wrote an article today detailing the differences between Internet Explorer 9 and Google’s Chrome browser in how they handle these type of malware scenarios. It’s an excellent piece of article and I hope that everyone gets a chance to read up on just how rogue antivirus applications get installed in the first place. The purpose of me writing this article is to help spread the word around in hopes that more people learn about this crazy scam and how not to fall victim.

You can read Ed Bott’s article on rogue antivirus malware from here.

Now, if you haven’t seen or read about how rogue antivirus malware works, the concept is fairly simple to understand. The malware creator basically gets you to download and install their executable file. Once done so, what gets installed is a fake antivirus looking software which “claims” that your computer is badly infected with viruses, worms, trojans and the likes. However, it couldn’t be any more true. What’s the end goal? Money of course! The malware creator hopes that the user will fall victim and pay them a sum of money in hopes to “remove” those viruses from their system. So now you see why these types of attacks are labeled scareware. These rogue antivirus software scares the user into thinking that their system is badly infected with malware and that the only way to remove them is to admit defeat and pay up.  In many cases, once these rogue antivirus malware gets installed, it does a number of things to your system other than just showing you that your computer is in bad shape. In many instances, these symptoms can include but not limited to slow and unresponsive systems, unable to launch applications, constant barrage of popups and website redirection. To put in simpler terms, your system is unable to perform as expected of it. This is actually a technique to irritate the user into surrendering funds in hopes to have their systems return to normal.

Fake AV

As you can see in the above picture, a rogue antivirus software looks very similar to their real counterparts and that’s the main goal. The malware creator definitely don’t want to spook the user by giving them something they are unfamiliar with as doing so will entail a higher percentage of failed “customers”. What you see above is just one of the many different looks of these so called rogue software. The more creative and talented a malware author is, the more authentic the fake antivirus can be made to look. In fact, many of these rogue software can cater to specific users depending on their operating systems and browsers. It definitely would tip the user off if they were using a Windows Vista or Windows 7 operating system but the rogue software installed looks as if it belonged to the Windows XP family of operating systems.

Alright, so if you have been following all along, one question you might have is how in the world do the malware creators get users to install their rogue antivirus software in the first place? Once again, it’s very simple. Rogue antivirus software relies on deception and that is the same method used to trick the users into installing their application. I’ll try to explain it here as simple as possible so everyone can understand:

  1. In many instances, a legitimate website is poisoned with an URL redirection. This website in most cases would still be listed in popular search engines such as Google. However, from a users viewpoint, there is nothing that would suggest the website has been hacked just from looking at the search results alone as you’ll see later on.
  2. As soon as the user clicks on the hacked website, the redirection would occur. A popup message window would appear stating that the users computer is infected and that a security scan is needed. What the user sees next is a website with all kinds of fancy animations that once again, closely resembles a legitimate looking antivirus software. Remember, what you see are animations and that your computer is not actually being scanned!
  3. The bogus animations would indicate that the computer is compromised and that further action is needed. The user would then click on a button in which he or she thinks would help them disinfect their computer. The executable is then downloaded to the users computer or worst, automatically run upon download completion. In the latter case, the users computer is then infected with the rogue antivirus malware.
  4. Once the executable has been downloaded, the user would then have to manually run it. Once done so, the computer is then infected.

 

Please watch this recording captured by Ed Bott to see this process in real-time:

I’ll also go through each of these steps in detail to get a better picture of what is happening.

To learn more about social engineering, I suggest you read my earlier article on email phishing scams. Social engineering and deception is a scary method used by malicious hackers to get innocent users to do what they want them to do. Although it is scary, it’s also fascinating to see how and why it works.

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Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Cloud Player

With so much hype surrounding online storage these past couple of years, a normal person wouldn’t really expect Amazon to jump into this service. Amazon is mainly known as one of the biggest online suppliers in the world but we do live in a strange time and place so it’s not uncommon for big companies to branch out and look into other venues for extra revenue. Amazon is already a globally recognized name so why not expand on their business in hopes that user will choose them over other less known competitors? A service you don’t provide today is a service provided by a competitor and with that comes a loss of money to be earned. Anyways, Amazon already jumped into the online storage game a few years ago with their S3 web service. However, that service wasn’t really meant for the general consumers but more for developers and other companies looking to offload their data to the web. If I’m not mistaken, the popular online synching service Dropbox uses Amazon’s S3 cloud service to store user’s data. Jump forward to the present and Amazon has finally released their version of online storage for the masses. This service is called Cloud Drive.

What is Cloud Drive?

Cloud Drive

Cloud Drive is essentially just a basic online storage location for your music, documents and photos. Think of it as just having your own personal online hard drive that is being hosted online by Amazon. As long as Amazon is up and running, you’ll be able to access your data anywhere and from any computer as long as you are able to go online. As for now, there’s really nothing that special about it as say compared to Dropbox. However, to be fair to Amazon, Cloud Drive is not meant to be a synching service in the first place. Therefore, what makes a user want to use Cloud Drive over other similar services? Well for one, Amazon is giving every user 5 free GBs of online storage with Cloud Drive! 5GB is a lot when compared to just 2GB offered via Dropbox (although you can easily expand on that by referring new users and whatnot). But remember though, Cloud Drive is not a synching service. Where Dropbox can be considered dynamic, Cloud Drive seems more static in nature. If anything, Cloud Drive can be compared to Microsoft’s Skydrive, although the latter offers an insane 25GB of free storage. Need even more than that? How about ADrive’s 50GB?! Clearly, Cloud Drive isn’t going to win anytime soon for the amount of free storage it gives to its users but 5GB is still plenty generous. For seconds, if you’re a big fan of music and purchase your MP3’s via Amazon’s MP3 Store, you’ll be glad to know that once you sign up for Cloud Drive, Amazon will safely store a copy of your newly purchased digital music and store it there all without incurring on your normal limit! Also, once your music is stored in Cloud Drive, you can then play them anywhere via Cloud Player, which I’ll talk about in the second half. If 5GB of online storage space is too little, Amazon will gladly offer more if you are willing to pay a price of course. Their pricing scheme is basically $1 per gigabyte of online storage with a maximum of up to 1000GB.

Storage Plan Rates

As a promotional offer, Amazon is willing to upgrade your storage limit from 5GB to 20GB for free for the first year as long as you purchase an music album from their MP3 Store. At the end of that year, if you want to keep that 20GB of storage space, you’ll then need to pay up. If not, then you’ll be reverted back to the basic 5GB plan.

How to Use Cloud Drive

Alright so let’s now see how we can begin using Cloud Drive from Amazon. From Cloud Drive’s main webpage, simply click on the Get Started button to well, get started! As soon as I was signed in, I was presented with the main interface of Cloud Drive! That was it! If this process wasn’t simple enough, I really don’t know what could qualify for that!

Main Window

The management interface for Cloud Drive is very simplistic. At the very top you have a big yellow Upload Files button which will prompt you to consent to Amazon’s terms of use before being able to upload files.

As always, storing your personal data by using a third-party service is exactly that: You Are Using a Third-Party Service! Your data is at the mercy of the provider and just like with pretty much everything else these days, Sh** Happens! Although Amazon is a reputable company which promises a very good up-time, that doesn’t mean one day an employee can’t just accidentally push a button and erase your data. If you have top secret documents you don’t want anyone else to see, then it’s very simple: Don’t Upload It! Do not expect a right to privacy just because you think you are somehow a “special case” and that you are entitled to it. You’re not. Simple as that. With that being said however, Amazon is still required to take due diligence in protecting user’s data so rest assure that your data is somewhat protected to a certain degree. Just remember that once a file has been uploaded, in almost all cases, the service provider now becomes the co-owner of that data! No matter how much protection is being touted, that much cannot be changed. I’m sure that’s not exactly the right way of putting things into perspective but I’m sure you get what I’m trying to point out.

Below that is a couple of links which allows you to view your uploaded files, your Amazon Mp3 purchases and files in your trash bin. Beneath that is your main area to categorize and view your data. Currently, you only have four default folders labeled Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. I don’t believe you can at the time create a custom parent folder here. However, you are allowed to create sub-folders beneath these four default folders. Finally at the very bottom, you have a simple percentage bar view of your used storage along with the ability to purchase additional storage.

Navigation Links

So how easy is it to upload files? Let’s find out right now. As soon as you select the yellow Upload Files button, you’ll be presented with a mini-window asking you which folder/sub-folder you want to place the uploaded file to. After selecting the destination, hit the big yellow “Select files to upload” button to browse for your data on your local computer. You can select multiple files to upload by holding down the Ctrl key and selecting your files. As mentioned here, each individual file is limited to 2GB in size. This should suffice for almost every casual home user.

Upload Window

After selecting your files, Cloud Drive will begin to immediately upload them to the cloud. There will be a little indicator at the top to let you know the progress of the upload but if you want more details, click on the See Upload Details link. Once the upload completes, you should then see the files by heading over to the appropriate folder destination you chose earlier to store those files.

Uploading

Once you are in the folder with your files uploaded, there only a couple of basic actions you can perform on them. These includes downloading it, deleting it, moving and copying it to another folder destination, and renaming the item selected. That’s pretty much it. You can also opt to create a new sub-folder under the parent folder. However, there is no drag-and-drop interface here. If you need to move 10 files to another sub-folder, you’ll need to first place a check-mark next the individual files (to indicate it as selected), click on the More Actions button, select Move or Copy Items option link and then finally selecting the appropriate destination folder from the pop-up window. Maybe in the future Amazon will give users the option for a drag-and-drop interface.

Management

Managing the various types of files you upload to Cloud Drive is pretty much the same ordeal every time. Remember, Cloud Drive is a simple online backup service. You’re not going to have an option to create various photo galleries with your photos or trim and cut that video you have uploaded.

You can get more information about Amazon’s Cloud Drive service by vising their help and FAQ pages.

Amazon Cloud Player

Cloud Player

Another online service launched with Cloud Drive is Amazon’s Cloud Player. Think of it as your own personal online music player. The purpose of this service is to allow users to be able to play back their music collection on basically any computer connected online via a browser. You can either upload your music via Cloud Drive or in Cloud Player’s interface. However, the latter requires you to use Amazon’s Adobe Air application. If you want to forgo the app installation, you’ll need to upload all of your music via Cloud Drive’s interface instead. Currently, the service is lacking seriously in the supported formats department. You are only able to upload unprotected Mp3s and AAC files. However, this shouldn’t be a very big problem for most users as MP3 is pretty much the standard format for digital music anyways. Hardcore audiophiles might balk at this limitation so their only hope is for Amazon to add in other format support and features in the future for Cloud Player. These two services have just recently launched at the time of this writing so give it some time to grow as Amazon I’m sure will continue to listen to user feedback and improve the services.

The interface for Cloud Player is pretty much the same as Cloud Drive in that it is simplistic and that you really can’t get lost in it. Your main task is to upload and categorize your  music library collection. The navigation is not hard to figure out. You have assorted links to help you sort your music collection by Songs, Albums, Artists, and Genres. You are able to create a playlist so that’s good news indeed. Don’t even think about being able to tag your music here. I’m hoping that feature will be available in a future update. The actual music player is as simple as it gets. You have your standard buttons of last track, play, next track, volume control, shuffle all and repeat all.

Player Controls

With such a minimalistic interface, finding your way around your music collection is pretty easy due to the different sort views. I usually find the music I want to listen to by album view so I was really glad Cloud Player displayed cover arts as shown here. Clicking on any of the album will allow you to view all the songs within that album. Or you could simply start playing the entire album by clicking on the little play button.

Album View

As far as song management goes, you’re once again limited on what you’re able to do: add to playlist, download and deletion. One small problem I see is being able to download your songs to your computer. As you can already guess, this might have some legal issues. Unless Amazon has some prevention in place, what’s stopping someone from sharing his/her Amazon account log-in information with another individual and having that second individual download songs which they don’t own themselves onto their own computer? Since Cloud Player only accepts DRM-free songs, that second individual now has a complete copy of the song they have downloaded and can now do with it however they see fit since there is not restriction in place.

You can get more information on Amazon’s Cloud Player service by visiting their help and FAQ pages.

In the End…

Amazon’s consumer entry into the cloud storage game is mediocre at best when compared to other participants such as Microsoft’s Skydrive and Dropbox. However, if you are looking for a no frills online storage location to help store your important documents and files, Amazon’s Cloud Drive can serve its purpose there. It’s amazingly easy to get set up and started. In fact, the only requirement is that you have an Amazon account! Although I have been spoiled by the likes of Dropbox, I can definitely recommend Cloud Drive to many other users I know. As an online storage service, you need to think of it as another way to safe keep your files. I wrote numerous articles in the past about how anyone can never again have to worry about losing another document if they just incorporate some type of data backup plan. Well, Cloud Drive is another type of backup plan. It’s up to you, the user, whether to use it or not. My immediate future hopes for Cloud Drive is not that complicated. A better upload system would definitely help a lot. Like Dropbox, a stand-alone utility or application to allow users to upload files to their Cloud Drive account directly from their desktop is a major benefit. Better yet, incorporate some type of auto-upload mechanism so that every file that gets placed inside a specific folder on our desktop would get uploaded to a specific folder on Cloud Drive automatically and vice-versa for file deletions.

Amazon’s Cloud Player, although the concept is nothing new, definitely have its uses and benefits. Users and music lovers alike I’m sure want to be able to play their music collection no matter where they are and Cloud Player helps at achieving that. Although the interface doesn’t have a lot going on with it, the main point is being able to easily find your music and being able to play them from any computer and smart phone.

Many users are speculating that both of these recently launched online services from Amazon is a sign of bigger things to come from the giant online retailer. Are they coming out with their own tablet? Smart phone? Whatever the case may be, I’m a big fan of Amazon as I do a lot (and I mean a whole damn lot) of shopping from there so it’s good to see them offering other services to their user fan base.

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Blogger Introduces Mobile Templates!

A couple of months ago, I was literally pulling my hair out trying to mobilize Anotherwindowsblog. It wasn’t absolutely required but it was nonetheless very cool to do so. If you manage a website or blog of your own, you would want your readers to be comfortable reading your material no matter which platform they may be on. With so many users on their smart phones, it makes sense to optimize a site so that it looks its best when viewed on such a smaller viewing area. Luckily, Blogger in Draft (a version of Blogger that allows users to try out cool new features before it hits mainstream) allows every user to easily mobilize their blog with just a click of a button! This way, whenever a reader stumble upon your blog while on their mobile phone, they would instead be treated to a mobilized version of your blog automatically!

First, log in to your Blogger account via Blogger in Draft. If you’re not familiar with Blogger in Draft, you should be in for a surprise. Here, Blogger allows you to enable new features within the Blogger platform before it becomes mainstream. Of course, there’s no guarantee that every feature you see here will make it to the final stages but the whole point is for you to be able to test out the new features and most importantly, give feedback back to the Blogger team and let them know what you think.

Once you’re logged in, head over to Settings and then to the Email & Mobile tab. Here, all you need to do in order to enable mobile templates is, well, enable it! Simply click on the Yes… radio button. Before you save the setting though, you can easily preview how your blog’s mobile version will look like.

Settings

Preview

As of right now, there really isn’t any customization you can apply to your mobile templates but I’m sure hardcore bloggers right now are working on it and before long, we should be able to customize it to some degree. How your mobile template looks will depend on the current template used. I personally think it looks pretty good. Here are some screenshots of the blog when viewed on my iPhone:

Phone 1Phone 2

I did notice that when browsing my older posts on the homepage, the main icons would be missing. Not sure if this is an isolated issue or not.

Phone 3

If you are looking for a easy way to mobilize your Blogger blog, you’ve got to try out this new feature. One click of a button is all that’s needed! No need to modify your HTML coding and whatnot. There’s not much to customize at the moment but that should change soon once people get to play around with this feature a bit.

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A Look at the Opera 11 Browser

A long time ago, long, long, long time ago, everyone was pretty much using Internet Explorer to surf the web. During that period, consumer computer systems weren’t really what you would call “fast” but that was OK because it was the norm. Sorta. Like many other geeks out there, I was (actually, I still am) a hardcore freeware hunter and collector. Yes, I didn’t know any better at that time and so I had installed many viruses and whatnot but point is, I had a passion for using freewares to spice up my Pentium II computer. It was at that time that I stumbled across an alternative browser to Internet Explorer called Opera. It was labeled as one of the speediest browsers at that time and best of all, it was (you got it) free! Consider me sold. No need for any more sales pitch. Using Opera at that time made me first realize how important competition really is. Not only do the consumers benefit from it, but the entire technology world as well since competition drives innovation (usually). Sadly, once Firefox came around though, Opera was replaced and I never looked back. Although I read news about Opera here and there on the web, I never really paid much attention till now with the release of version 11. Since I recently tried to switch from Firefox to Chrome, I thought why not give Opera another chance? Hey, it’s still free to use so why not?!

You can download Opera 11 from here.

I don’t know about you but when I initially landed on that home page for the download, I was shocked at how good looking Opera 11 was. A good first impression indeed!

Homepage

Install

Opera 11 weighs in at around 7.1MB and the installation is pretty much a breeze. However, you might want to head into the Options menu before proceeding to see what default options Opera has enabled. As we can see here, by default, Opera will install for all user accounts on your computer and most importantly, automatically set itself to be the default browser on your system. Not sure if I like that but it can be forgiven since switching back to Firefox or whatever browser you were using is a relatively easy task.

Install Options

Visuals

A quick glance at Opera 11 and you can definitely tell that it went for the same “cleanliness” look that made Google Chrome such a joy for so many users to use. Your browser tabs are placed at the top of the address bar and for some weird reason, just that change alone seems to make a very big difference in visuals. A lone Opera menu button sitting at the top left corner allows you access to the browser’s configuration menus and whatnot. This is similar to what I can accomplish with Chrome and Firefox albeit I had to install an add-on to accomplish the same thing. You’ll also notice some icons on the status bar at the bottom (talked about later) along with a view button but other than that, Opera 11 can be considered clutter free.

Browser

If the default look of Opera 11 doesn’t please your eyes, than feel free to download the many different skins offered by the Opera community.

Speed

In my honest opinion, the speed category when it comes to modern browsers these days is moot. Back then, when Opera or Firefox claimed it was the fastest browser on the web, they meant it. Internet Explorer was no competition in that regards. With the modern browsers we have today, it feels as if every browser is fast. I’m sure if you actually used a stop watch and measured the seconds (or milliseconds) it took for two browsers to load the same page there would be a difference. However, that difference is most likely so minimal that it wouldn’t impact a users browsing experience. With that being said, yes, Opera 11 is fast just as Firefox, IE and Chrome is as well. If you want hard data on this category, please look elsewhere.

Features

Alright so Opera 11 is a browser but what can it do to separate it apart from the rest of the competition? Although there are many thousands and thousands of Opera users out there, Opera still doesn’t represent a significant portion in the overall market share when compared with other popular browsers.

It’s unfortunate how things work now days. If you’re not already a big name company, it’s really hard to to attract users to switch using whatever product they are using at the moment to join your cause. No matter how many more features you bake into your product that your competition doesn’t have, it still doesn’t matter. Brand name recognition is huge today. A very simple example of this is when comparing the iPod music player. There are dozens of other MP3 music players out there that have much more capabilities (not talking about the iPod touch) but yet doesn’t sell well because users have already put the Apple name synonymous with music. If you ask a person off the street who doesn’t really know about technology that much if they would rather use a browser made from Google or one from a company called Opera, chances are good that they will pick the one from Google because they already know about that company. Whose Opera? Obviously it doesn’t always work like this but you get the point.

With modern browsers, a lot has to focus on tabs and how you interact with them. Opera 11 comes with a cool feature that allows you to easily group a bunch of similar tabs together under one tab. This is useful for users who have many tabs open during a browsing session as it can help you become more organized, not to mention saving screen room. All you need to do is drag a tab directly onto another tab and they are now grouped/stacked together. Anytime you need to find or switch over to a tab within that group, simply hover your mouse over that one tab and Opera will show you a nice window in which you can preview all the tabs in that groups along with making a switch to another. This works very similar to the Aero-peek feature of Windows 7. As you can see below, I have three websites stacked together.

Tab Stack

Another very useful feature concerning tabs is tab pinning. I’m sure there were many times when you were working with a dozen or so tabs within a browsing session and you accidentally closed a tab you didn’t intend to. Sure, it’s really easy to recover that tab as many browsers allow you to do just that with a couple of clicks but wouldn’t it be nice if you never actually have to worry about it from the start? By pinning a tab, Opera will not allow you to close that tab until you have unpinned it. This prevents accidental tab closure. To pin a tab, simply right click on one and select Pin Tab from the context menu. Two things will immediately happen. First, the tab will automatically move to the beginning (far left) of your tabs. Second, the tab will now transform itself into a mini icon with the picture of the site’s favicon as the main source of tab identification. You can move this mini tab wherever you wish to within your tab arrangement. To actually be able to close the tab/site, you need to once again right click on the tab and select the Pin Tab option (to unpin it).

Pin Tabs

If you didn’t pin a site and have accidentally closed a tab, simply click on the recycle bin icon near the top right corner of Opera and you’ll be able to recover that or any other recently closed tabs.

Tab Recovery

The last thing about tabs is the ability to easily place them wherever most comfortable for you. You can choose the top, left, right or bottom of Opera to dock your tabs. Another feature is being able to enable thumbnails for your tabs right in your tab dock. Rather than what you are most normally used to, enabling thumbnails allows you to instantly see a preview of the tab right in the tab area. Simply right click on your tab dock area, select Customize and then Enable Thumbnails in Tabs to enable this feature.

Tab Top
Tab Right

Opera 11 also features Panels, a quick sidebar which allows access to many things with a click of a button. To access panels, look at the bottom of your screen where you should by default see a couple of icons. Click on the first one from the left and immediately a tiny column will appear with different icons. Here, you can view your Downloads folder, History, bookmarks and a host of many other things by clicking on the corresponding icon. The results would be a panel (you can resize the panel horizontally if you wish) showing you the results. Click on the icon again and the panel disappears from view. Quite handy. Think of it as a quick launch dock. You can install other Panels as well which will enable other cool things you can do in that area. The point is, Panels give you a quick way to access the information you need. I like it a lot.

Panels

Similar to widgets that can be downloaded and installed onto your Windows 7 desktop, Opera gives users the ability to do the same. Opera has their own widgets library that you can install to integrate with your desktop. By installing these widgets (for example, a web radio player or a calendar of some sort), you can open and use them even if Opera 11 isn’t up and running, sort of. When you run these widgets, which can be found on your Start Menu once installed, Opera will be silently running in the background to support the widget. This is similar to manually created Prism apps in Firefox. I’m not really a fan of widgets in general though. I would have preferred if the widgets were more integrated with the Opera browser than as a stand-alone sort of app in its own window. It would be cool if Opera widgets integrated with Panels to give users quick access to them. You can find a host of widgets for download from Opera’s Widget website.

Widgets

One of the coolest features in my opinion of Opera 11 is the Opera Turbo feature. In a nutshell, enabling Opera Turbo allows Opera to load websites faster when you are on a slow network. How is this possible? Simple. By using compression of course! Let’s say for example you log in to a free (and most likely very busy) hotspot at the airport. You notice that because there are so many other users also logging on to the network, your pages load very slowly. In this scenario, enabling Opera Turbo can help you out because it compresses images to lower bandwidth usage. Also, enabling Opera Turbo mode can serve as a decent Java flash blocker as the element is automatically disabled when loading a website under Opera Turbo mode. You can in turn manually re-enable each Java element by clicking in the appropriate area (symbolized by a “play” button). Awesome! The downside to compression obviously is that the images will not look as sharp than if compression hadn’t been enabled but I’m sure you can live with that for faster page loads.

Here is a simple comparison. You can clearly tell which picture has the Opera Turbo compression feature turned on:

DisabledEnabled

Here, you can see what happens when I enable Opera Turbo when browsing to Yahoo. Notice how the flash adverts have been disabled from loading.

Yahoo Before
Yahoo After

To really see how Opera Turbo has helped you, hover your mouse button over the icon at the bottom of the status bar (which also shows you the current compression level). Opera Turbo will tell you how much MB of data it has helped you save altogether in that session.

Compression

Opera Unite is a service offered by Opera to allow you to share your data along with interact with other users in the Opera community via applications. For example, you can play games with other users along with collaborating on certain projects. There is a application to share your entire music library along with an application to host your own website via a web server right inside Opera! The only requirement is that you sign-up for the service. After that, you can begin using the applications.

Unite

Opera offers their own synchronization service called Opera Link. Signing up for the service is free and once you have done so, Opera will then sync your browser’s data to their online servers. When you use Opera on another computer and sign-in to your Opera Link account, the data will be merged/synced to provide a more seamless browsing experience no matter which computer you use. This is very similar to the Xmarks service except it’s only designed for Opera browsers. Sadly, Xmarks isn’t officially available for Opera.

Link

Misc..

Opera 11 features a pretty slick content blocking mechanism right inside the browser. This helps you manually target advertisements or other distracting elements when on a website. Using it is very simple. When on a site that has content you wish to blast away, right-click on an empty area and select Block Content from the menu. You can now simply click on the unwanted elements be it an annoying picture or advertisement banner and it will be blocked. Any other elements loaded by the same server path will consequently be blocked automatically as well (default behavior). Hold Shift while clicking to block individual content.

Blocked

If the above is to tedious work for your liking, then you’ll want to use an automatic ad blocking mechanism. As usual, the awesome Adblock Plus addon for Firefox doesn’t work for any other browser but Mozilla type based so we’ll have to look elsewhere for Opera as well. Luckily, there is a Adblock list maintained by Fanboy that should help prevent most unwanted advertisements from loading. It’s not perfect but it sure does a very nice job. All you need to do is download the list (urlfilter.ini) and copy it to the correct Opera directory. If that isn’t enough, combine that with the Adsweep addon and be set. If an advertisement still manages to invade a website, manually block it by using the method mentioned above.

Filter

Mouse Gestures is a nice feature to have in any browser and Opera 11’s got it without you having to install anything. By holding your mouse’s button and moving the mouse in a certain direction, you could perform various actions within the browser. For example, holding the right mouse button while moving the mouse left causes you to traverse to the previous page. There are many other gestures you can perform so memorize them to save you a bunch of time.

Gestures

A modern browser isn’t complete now a days without some sort of private browsing mode. In Opera 11, simply right click in your tab area, select New Private Tab and off you go.

Private

Did you know Opera 11 allows Voice Control? Yups. That’s pretty sweet if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

Speed Dial is another similar feature seen in other browsers. When opening a new tab, you’re presented with a grid of your favorite websites, which you can access with a single click. You can configure how big or small the grids are which in turn alters how much grid boxes can be seen. Also, you can configure the background image on the Speed Dial page to your liking as well. The Opera community has a few selection of Speed Dial backgrounds for you to download. Simply right-click on the image (or any other image you have in mind loaded within Opera) and select Use Image as Speed Dial Background. Another awesome site to grab backgrounds is from Interfacelift.

Speed Dial

In the End…

I’m very impressed with Opera. It’s been a while since I’ve last tried the browser but it wasn’t like it left a bad taste in my mouth. At that time, something better just came along, I made the switch and haven’t looked back since. The browser world has matured a lot within the last couple of years and so it’s good to see what Opera has been up to all this time. After using Opera for a good day or two, I can definitely say that I like this a lot more than Google Chrome. I definitely would love to see more addon support for Opera in the coming years. As of right now, Opera only lists 256 addon’s for Opera 11. Of course this shouldn’t be shocking as Opera doesn’t have as large an audience such as Firefox or Internet Explorer so hopefully, it will get better with time. By default though, Opera is still a joy to use. I can definitely see the Opera Turbo mode taking off in future browsers because it’s so useful, especially for users who are always on the road and connecting to slow hotspots. The Panels feature I can see myself using all the time. Being able to quickly get to the information I need is very important and Panels allows me to do just that. And it’s customizable! If a advertisement sneaks its way past your defenses, simply zap them away with the built-in content blocking mechanism in Opera.

It’s my hopes that Opera will gain more users as time goes by. The browser war has mainly been dominated by talks of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome but Opera deserves to be mentioned as well. But again, that’s hard to do if your user-base is not so big. In terms of quality, I think Opera surpasses Chrome. I mean at the end of the day, a browser is just that. A browser. It renders HTML so that it displays the page how the developer intended it to look on your screen. It’s the extra features and services that makes a browser special from one another. Oh right, can’t forget usability as well!

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My Experience in Switching from Firefox to Chrome

Like many users out there, I’ve been a long time Firefox fan. It is fast, secured, and most important of all, very customizable. However, very recently I have noticed that my Firefox browser crashes a lot. And I mean a lot! After digging around, it didn’t take me long to find out that the crashes were due to a certain related process called plugin-container.exe. As it turns out, this feature of Firefox is suppose to help isolate Adobe Flash, Quicktime and/or Microsoft Siliverlight plugins to provide for a “uninterrupted” browsing experience. However, many users found out that this simply wasn’t the case. I took this opportunity to switch over to Google Chrome as my main browser of choice and so far, the experience has been fantastic.

If you are also experiencing Firefox crashes out of nowhere, plugin-container.exe is a high candidate to blame for it. While it is suppose to give users a more uninterruptible browsing session, it’s simply not the case. Browsing to a site would sometimes completely crash my Firefox session and I would have to restore it. I could load all of my tabs back but if the crash took place while I was downloading a file, I would have to restart all over! This quickly became a nightmare.

A simple solution I have read is to simply disable the plugin-container.exe process. Right now, if you browse to any flash enabled site such as Youtube.com and then look in your Task Manager’s Processes tab, you would find the resulting “plugin-container.exe” process. To deactivate this feature of Firefox, type in “about:config” without the quotes in the URL of Firefox and accept the warning. In the Filter field, type in “dom.ipc”. Simply disable all the items by double-clicking on them one by one until the value under the Value column is set to false like so. I can’t guarantee that this will completely eliminate the crashes but everything looks good from my time testing it. My testing pretty much consisted of just browsing the web like how I usually do while waiting to see if the crashes would reoccur. So far, it hasn’t. Your experience may vary.
Pluginexe

I couldn’t have picked a better time to make the switch. Just the other day, Google updated the Chrome browser and launched the Chrome Web Store, which I’ll talk about later. Google also has been making headlines (when haven’t they?) with plans to launch their Chrome OS for netbooks. Although the OS has been moved back till 2011, many tech journalists have at least gotten a sneak peak at it. Anyways, the point is that I couldn’t have picked a better time to see what the Chrome browser has to offer than now.

Speed

Fans of the Chrome browser will indeed claim that it is the fastest browser right now out of all the competition. After some time with it, I have to agree. Mind you, Firefox is also a speed demon in its own right. Internet Explorer has also made great strides in this department as well. However with Chrome, everything just feels more fluid and natural. Its pretty hard to describe the experience until you have tried it out for yourself. Videos load very quickly and playback is very smooth. In Firefox, some of my videos would stutter for a bit whenever I launch new websites. That’s why I had to use the IE Tab add-on in Firefox to launch my streaming videos in an Internet Explorer tab/process to prevent the hiccups. So far with Chrome, this really isn’t an issue but time will tell. Also, after using Firefox for a while, it begins to lag. Chrome also does not exhibit this problem as far as I can tell.

As for stability issues, Chrome did manage to crash for no apparent reason whatsoever only once. I was in my Downloads tab trying to clear my download history when the browser went belly up for no reason. This also scares me because Chrome behaves different than other browsers. If you look in your Tasks Manager, you should see a lot of Chrome.exe processes. This is due to Chrome wanting to isolate each and every tab and plugin to their own container. Sort of like sand-boxing. The idea is that if one plugin or process acts up, the rest of the other processes wouldn’t be affected. This can be compared with the idea of Firefox’s plugin-container.exe process mentioned earlier. However, if that is the case, why did my entire browser still crashed and had to be restarted if my Downloads tab was in a “separated” process? Shouldn’t the rest of my browsing session ignore the crash and function as normal?

Chrome Processes

The latest version of Chrome have even more support for hardware acceleration than in the past. It’s one of those things that got me very excited when testing the Internet Explorer 9 beta. As the Internet moves forward, hardware acceleration should play a big part in that progression. Hardware acceleration can provide for a much more interactive experience as developers can create websites with much more freedom and creativity without having to worry about hardware. A good place to test the hardware acceleration feature within Chrome 8 is oddly, from Microsoft’s Test Drive site. There are a good number of tests you can initiate to test out Chrome 8’s performance. I’m not sure if the tests are geared specifically towards IE9 or not but many, if not all, of the tests loaded under Chrome 8 with no problems. Obviously, I don’t know what’s going under the hood so I wouldn’t know if the site’s coding has a performance impact due to me not using Internet Explorer.

Test

Basics

Most modern browsers are alike in a lot of ways. Having a private browsing mode, being able to easily clear your cookies and history data, hundreds of extension plugins, etc etc.
DeleteOne of the main disappointments when using Chrome is how it saves my browsing history. As of right now, I have no idea how to disable this feature. In Firefox, this isn’t an issue at all. The only work-around that I know of is to having to manually clear out the saved data by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Del while in Chrome and then deleting the data I don’t want saved. However, this doesn’t address the issue that I don’t want my history saved in the first place! This is a particularly irritating feature due to how the URL address bar works. By default, the URL address bar returns results of what you typed in it by going through your bookmarks, prediction results, and browsing history. This makes it a pain for me to use the URL address bar to search because I only and only want results for my bookmarks, NOTHING ELSE. Firefox allowed me to do this with no problems whatsoever. In Chrome, I instead get a whole list of items that I don’t want to see in the results pane. As far as bookmark searching goes, I still have yet to find a browser that can efficiently search my bookmarks besides Firefox. Similar to a issue in the IE9 beta, text I type in the address bar returns mixed results for my bookmarks. Also, why do I only see such a short number of items in the results list? With Firefox, I could simply scroll through all the search results to find the bookmark I want to use. There has to be a tweak to this….there just has to.

Chrome Results

Firefox Results

Chrome’s Incognito mode is similar to Firefox’s Private Browsing Mode in that it helps to protect your privacy by not saving the session’s browsing history and cookie files. The best part about using this mode is that you can allow which extensions you have installed to also work inside Incognito mode. A lot of users recommend using Incognito mode if you don’t want your browsing history saved. True, but inside Incognito mode, cookies won’t also be saved and that’s a hassle to work with.

Incognito

If you always want Google Chrome to start in Incognito mode, there is a simply trick to enable just that. Simply find the Google Chrome’s executable icon within your Start menu, right click on it and select Properties from the menu. In the Target field, navigate to the end of the text and right after chrome.exe, type in “-incognito” with out the quotes like this:
Incognito Mode

As a modern browser, you would expect Chrome to at least allow you to easily set images as your desktop background. However, right-clicking on an image gives you no option to do just that. Luckily though, there is an extension that will give you back this option when right-clicking on an image. It’s just sad this has to happen.

ImageImage 2

Another quirk I have similar with the IE9 Beta has to do with the download status information bar. Currently, there is no way for me to see what my current download speed is. I do however get to see the time left until the download completes. Not even hovering my mouse over the download will allow me to see that information. The only way to actually see my download speed for any particular download is to navigate to the Downloads area by either clicking Ctl+J (which for some reason doesn’t work for me) or by clicking on the wrench icon and selecting Downloads.

Download 1
Download 2

Chrome Web Store

One of the newest features of the Chrome 8 browser is the recently launched Chrome Web Store. If you have any idea of what Prism is for Firefox, then you’ll have no trouble with web apps. However, web apps have much, much, much more capability. At it’s core, web apps is simply a website but packaged as an app. This blurs the line between a website and an application (think iPhone). With web apps though, developers can do so much more than simply point you to the original homepage (which oddly some web apps in the Chrome store does). Web apps is really cool if done correctly by the developers and two apps really stand out from what I have seen. The New York Times and National Public Radio apps are two that closely demonstrates what the power of web apps can bring to a browser. If you are using Chrome at the moment, I highly urge you to try out these two apps.

NYT App
NPR App

There are many more things to download in the web store such as themes to dress up your Chrome browser as well as games. The web store is the main focus for Google’s Chrome OS because users are not allowed to install their own programs. Due to the immense popularity of apps (you can thank the iPhone for that), it is only a matter of time before other browsers create their own app store as well.

Extensions

I have to admit that when I first tried out Chrome, which was a long while back, I was fairly disappointed with the extensions category. Looking at it now, the extension store certainly has blossomed. There are a lot of useful extensions. Of course, a browser isn’t complete without a pop-up blocker. Luckily for Chrome users, there’s Adblock. While not as good as AdBlock Plus for Firefox, it still does a pretty darn good job. One major element missing is the ability to block video advertisements other than on Youtube. I’m hoping the extension will continue to evolve as time goes by. Oh and did I mention there’s no need to restart the browser for every extension or theme install?! Sweet!

Extensions

If you want to see what is currently running within Chrome, simply press Shift+Esc on your keyboard. Google Chrome’s Task Manager should appear detailing everything running within your Chrome’s browsing session. Basically, every item you see here should have its own chrome.exe process within Windows Task Manager as well.

Chrome Task Manager

In the End…

I’m still in the learning process when it comes to Google Chrome. Therefore, I’ll probably find a fix or two for some of the complaints I have for the browser. But all in all, I have to say that it’s been a fantastic experience so far. The two biggest issues I have at the moment is the inconsistent bookmark search results along with the saving of history data. The latter is big enough of a deal that users are actually staying away from the browser until a *fix* appears. I can’t really blame them because users now realize that data is what is most important. If the user doesn’t feel safe enough to be able to control what goes on with that data, then you’ll most likely lose a customer at worst. It’s not that big of a deal for me as I really don’t have anything to hide but it just irritates me to no end that I cannot eliminate those data from appearing in my URL search results. It feels as if Chrome got some things right but for every right, there is also a wrong. I have no idea why Google would cut out some of the most basic features in a browser. Please don’t be like Microsoft and change things for no apparent reason at all. You’re just confusing and angering a lot of your users. And trust me, in this day and age, you don’t want to do that.

With that being said though, Chrome is still a enjoyable browser to use. The recently added app store should be huge in the coming years and no doubt it will set the trend for other browsers as well so look out for that. Hardware acceleration should also be another big game changer in the coming years as far as the browser world goes. Couple that with HTML5, we should be seeing a whole new breed of websites that are much more content and media friendly. Developers have free reign to pretty much do whatever they want to so that should be exciting to watch in the years to come. No doubt, other browsers will also follow suit and have all of these features as well and so it’ll most likely come back down to which browsers can pump out the most useful features to stand apart from the rest and of course, user preferences.

Love or hate Google Chrome? I would like to hear your experiences with it, good or bad.

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A Look at Internet Explorer 9 Beta

The Internet Explorer 9 Beta has finally been released to the public yesterday (9/15/10) and judging by many, the reactions have mainly all been positive. Internet Explorer has mainly been touted as the most used browser in the world but I can’t help but wonder how much of a lead it still has on the ever growing Mozilla Firefox browser. Don’t quote me on this but I believe the percentage lead for Internet Explorer over other browsers, mainly Firefox, have dwindled each year. In my opinion, Internet Explorer can still maintain a lead over the competition is due to corporations and giant companies not supporting other third party browsers such as Firefox and Chrome. Many in-house applications are developed to work only on the Internet Explorer platform and so it makes sense for companies to continue using the browser. But outside of corporations, Firefox is the browser of choice for many, many users. Can Internet Explorer 9 lure back consumers with their new and sleek interface along with impressive browsing speeds?

This is not an in-depth review of the Internet Explorer 9 Beta. I’m only reporting on things I have seen and used along with adding my insights on what I have read from other more in-depth talks of this software from other online articles. Feel free to correct me.
You can download the Internet Explorer 9 Beta from here.

– The Internet Explorer 9 Beta is not avaialble for Windows XP. It is only supported on Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7. This will most likely not change as well once the final version is released.

– Please remember that this is a beta version! Therefore, there are still bugs and fixes that needs to be ironed out. One of your main job as a beta tester is to give feedback back to the Microsoft team. You do not want to deploy or use this beta on your production machines.

– To uninstall the beta, head over to Programs and Features in Control Panel. Click the View Installed Updates link, find the Windows Internet Explorer 9 update and uninstall it by right-clicking on it and selecting Uninstall.

Uninstall

The Looks

One of the biggest design overhaul is the look of Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft finally understands that it’s all about the web and not the browser. Therefore, it pretty much stripped away all but the most used elements of the browser to give the users a sleek and clean look. This is important because as Google’s Chrome browser demonstrated, it’s important to give users as much viewing room as possible but yet still being able to make core functions available without much hassle. I’m glad Internet Explorer 9 (here henceforth known as IE9) follows this trend as well.

Here you can compare the header of IE9 vs. IE8. Notice the minimal interface of the former:

Top

IE8 Top

– You’ll immediately spot out a couple of differences. First is the large “Back” and slightly smaller “Forward” page buttons.

– Gone is the website title/header section. Many websites incorporate a welcome message or a slogan of some sort in this area. Here, you’ll also notice the removal of any icons or branding that indicates you are using Internet Explorer.

– Next, you’ll notice that the search bar is gone because you can now type in your search terms right inside the URL box. Microsoft calls this the OneBox. The default search engine, obviously, is Bing since this is a Microsoft product. This can be easily changed to whatever search provider you use with a couple of clicks. You can add more search providers by installing an add-on of your choice as provided here. You can configure your search providers by using the Manage Add-on’s window from the Tool’s drop down menu.

Manage Addon

– The Favorite’s Bar is now disabled by default. The Favorite’s Bar was a useful location to place your most used bookmarks along with accessing your favorite RSS feeds by utilizing a feature called Live Bookmarks.

– A big change is the placement of tabs within IE9. Rather than putting tabs on top of the browser (Chrome) or beneath the URL address bar (Firefox), IE9 chose to place your tabs to the right of the URL bar. This placement gives you the most viewing area for your web pages as it doesn’t take up another row of screen estate. Here you can see the comparision of tab placements between all three browsers:

IE9 Tab

Firefox Tab

Chrome Tab

– Missing in action also is the command bar. This bar consists of a bunch of icons (such as the print and RSS). Here in IE9, this bar is removed and in place of it is just three simple unobtrusive icons instead. This includes the Home button, your Favorites button, and the Tools button which consists of the majority of options you can set.

– Another major missing component is the status bar. This is the bar that’s usually located at the bottom of your browser. Once again, by removing this element, IE9 tries to provide you with the most screen estate to view your websites, the part that matters the most to you.

If at anytime you want to bring back the Favorites, Status, and/or Command Bar , simply right-click on the Favorites icon (the star) and click on the appropriate option to bring these elements back into play.

The Speed

Let me get this out of the way: Internet Explorer 9 is fast. Why? Because it utilizes our hardware (mainly our graphics hardware) to render web pages. This is a huge improvement to making the browser faster than performing what some would call as “software tweaks” instead. This makes a lot of sense because computer now a days are relatively fast, even if you aren’t spending thousands and thousands of dollars for it. By utilizing the hardware, we are getting more bang for our bucks because let’s face it, not everyone here plays video games (which is one of the main utilizations of graphical hardware). So, by letting IE9 utilize the power of our graphical hardware, I’m sure you’ll already realize the benefits without anyone having to explain it. Future version of Chrome and Firefox will also take advantage of hardware utilization for rendering web pages.

Don’t believe what I’m saying? Well, you can take Internet Explorer 9 for a “Test Drive” and see how well it does. You are able to perform a series of test which will show you exactly what a hardware accelerated browser can do for you. Head over to the Test Drive wesite and under the Performance category, you’ll be able to perform a series of tests that aims to utilize your graphical hardware for testing and demonstration purposes. It’s a pretty cool test and I highly advise all people to try it out unless you are a uber gamer and know exactly what your video hardware is capable of. Here are a couple of tests that I performed in IE9 and Firefox to showcase the differences:

IE9 FishFirefox Fish

IE9 Flying
Firefox Flying

I’m sure I don’t have to explain the results for you to know just what the heck happened. My Firefox got torn to shreds when performing the IE9 performance tests. I actually had to omit some tests because it was moving so slow in Firefox. This no doubt proves that hardware-accelerated browsers kick major butt when it comes to rendering web pages.

IE9 is also HTML5 ready. HTML5 is the next generation of the HTML language and with it, browsers will no longer have to rely on third party plugin’s to render video and drag and drop features. Once again, you can test out some new HTML5 elements by heading over to the IE9 Test Drive site.

Misc. Features

Website As Apps

One of the most talked about feture of IE9 for some strange reason is the ability to create your own website apps. Basically, you get to pin a website to your taskbar (Windows 7 only) by simply dragging the website’s favicon to your taskbar. That icon on your taskbar will take on the appearance of the site’s favicon rather than a boring Internet Explorer icon. But that’s just the beginning. Sites you pin open up in their own browser window and as a separate process. If you have used Chrome’s Application Shortcuts or Firefox’s Prism plugin, you should be right at home, although there are obviously some differences. Pinned sites allows for more interaction and you can view these new features via the Test Drive website under the Browser Demo category. A pinned website also allows for the website developer to create their own links in the Jumplist. For example, rather than having to navigate the site to get to specific sections, the website creator could create a link pointing to that location in the Jumplist so the user can instantly go to it using the pinned app icon on their taskbar. One cool, although not really useful, feature is the color of the Back and Forward buttons when you open a pinned website. The color of these buttons will change to the dominate color of the favicon as seen below for the CNN website:

Colored Buttons

The topic of website apps is definitely a big one. As with Firefox Prism, many users will view this as completely useless and a waste of time. Ed Bott has dedicated an entire blog article specific to this feature alone.

Download Section
The Downloads area of IE9 also received a makeover. Whenever you download a file within IE9, the Download window does not automatically pop out to invade your screen space. Rather, you get a notification as the bottom of the browser:

Download Notification

Here is the revamped Download manager:

Download Manager

Once your download completes, you’ll get another notification, although you could turn it off if you so wish.

Tabs
Whenever you create a new tab, you’ll be presented with a view of your most popular sites. This allows you to quickly view which sites have been visited the most and if need be, you can quickly navigate back to it with a single click. However, you cannot interact with this view. You cannot pin your own “popular sites” to it. Whatever sites gets pinned there is determined completely by IE9. If you chose to remove a site from this list, the next most popular site will replace it.

Popular Sites

You can also tear away a tab you have currently open and either dock it to the left/right side of your screen or have it in its own window. You can easily just as well drag that tab and merge it back with all the other opened tabs in your main browser session. Here, you can see that I have ripped the CNN website from the main tab location and I can now interact with it:

Rip Tab

IE9 Pro’s and Con’s

Very Fast. There’s no mistake about it. IE9 is definitely a very fast browser. Start up is fast and snappy as well as browsing the many different websites I visit on a daily basis. Obviously your experiences may vary depending on your connection but for the most part, it’s safe to say that this is the fastest Internet Explorer ever. Internet Explorer has mainly been behind when it came to the speed category but with IE9, Microsoft has put itself right back in the competition. However, do realize that once other competing browsers incorporate hardware acceleration as well, the playing field will most likely once again become even or at least to the point that the differences will be minimal. Even now, many users will not likely notice the speed difference between the different browsers which therefore makes this category obsolete.

Website Apps. Website apps can be a sensitive topic for many. However, users have to realize that as more and more services are available to us on the Internet, the more uses we will have for dedicated apps. I don’t personally use website apps in IE9 but I do applaud Microsoft for taking a step in this direction. If website creators follow through and actually create unique Jumplinks (another neat but rarely used feature in Windows) for their custom website app in IE9, there could be a chance that more people will jump on the website app bandwagon.

Sleek Look. Many Chrome users will instantly tell you that one of the most beloved features is the minimal look of the browser. As the Internet moves forward, Microsoft have to realize that you must give control back to the user. Cluttering your brower’s interface is a sure way to scare away users. Rather, give us, the users, the option to customize the browser to our liking. By default, IE9 is stripped down to a bare minimum and many users will believe that this is a strong step forward. Getting rid of that Internet Explorer icon is also a brave move but one that should also garner applause.

Lack of Add-On’s. As always, one of the main drawback of Internet Explorer is the lack of add-on’s. I really don’t understand what’s so difficult here. One of the main attraction of Firefox is the huge assortment of add-on’s to create a truly unique browser that works well for the user. I would never have believed it in the past if someone told me that one add-on could move thousands and thousands of users away from Internet Explorer and onto another platform. Well, that has happen and that add-on is called AdBlock Plus. Using IE9 basically reminds me of how the web really looks like and let me tell you, it’s ugly. Flashy advertisements are plastered everywhere. With Firefox + ABP, it completely changes the game. Right now, I still find it hard to believe that no similar alternative add-on has been created for IE. If there is one, it’s installed on the computer as a completely separate program and service and that’s not what users want. I have tried using Hostman + the MVPS Host File but it’s not a viable solution. In my opinion, no matter how fancy Microsoft makes IE9 or any other future versions of IE, they will hardly be able to persuade users to come back if they do not do something about their add-on game. Would you buy a smart phone today if there were little apps for it?

Inconsistent Favorites Search. In Firefox, whenever you type in a term in the address bar, it will return a list of bookmarks you have as long as the term you was searching for is included somewhere in the bookmark. The term could either be in the bookmark name itself or in the actual URL. In IE9, I find the search behavior very weird and disappointing because it doesn’t work like that. In fact, I’m not even sure how it works as many times it doesn’t want to return any bookmark results even though clearly my search term is included in the bookmark! For example, I have a bookmark called “Teriyaki Marinated Chicken Recipe – Allrecipes.com”. The actual URL is “http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Teriyaki-Marinated-Chicken/Detail.aspx”. In IE9, if I search for the term “teriyaki”, the bookmark would show in the list. However, if I use the terms “Chicken” or “Recipe”, nothing would show up! This irritates me to no end because I’m sure you would understand my frustration as well if you have a big bookmark library yourself. In Firefox, typing in the word “recipe” alone would automatically return all 7 bookmarks in my library that I have bookmarked for that particular site. In IE9, not one site would show up using the same term.

Crippled Website Apps. Even if you love the idea of creating applets for your favorite websites, there is one very big disadvantage for doing so and that is those pinned websites do not operate with your current add-on’s. Yups, you read right. For example, if downloaded a add-on that helped with spell checking, you can’t use that same add-on when you open Facebook, which you have pinned to your taskbar. This is a pretty big deal-breaker and I’m hoping they will fix this sometime in the future. However, as pointed out in Ed Bott’s IE9 Beta Review, Microsoft said that this behavior is by design. Not good at all. Add-on is support is already so weak overall and by omitting the use of them in pinned websites, users will view the feature as even more over rated and useless.

Missing Download Speed. Is it just me or am I not seeing the actual download speed for my downloads?! In the download manager, I don’t get any indication of my current download speed for a given download. All I see is the percent downloaded so far and the estimated time until download completion. The only way I’m able to view the download speed is if I hover my mouse over the area. It’s ridiculous! Download speed is very important to me and I have no clue as to why they would omit that piece of information!

Download Speed

In the End…

Judging by the IE9 Beta, Microsoft did a decent job of following other competitors by making a browser that’s for the people. But I just can’t help but get the feeling that even though IE9 (assuming not much major changes are going to be made between the Beta to the final release) is snappy and sports a new minimal look, it’s just a little too late. One of the biggest disadvantage in the users eyes are the add-on’s and while some may argue that it’s a silly complaint, it can’t be helped. When users use Firefox, they are spoiled by the hundreds and thousands of different add-on’s to customize the browser just to their liking. To be completely honest, the lack of an advertisement blocker add-on is the sole reason why I am not adopting IE9 as my default browser. With that being said though, I am willing to use it for a month or so just to see if I can get use to seeing all the advertisements. I’m guessing the final release of IE9 won’t be that much different from the Beta version and so I’m not really hoping for anything too crazy at this point to change my viewpoint.
I’m not really bias towards Internet Explorer, it’s just that there honestly isn’t a good reason for me to switch back. All Microsoft doing is following the pack. Sure, it can tout it as the fastest browser on earth but when you have competitor browsers just milliseconds away, there really isn’t anything to brag about. Sure, you can tout yourself as the safest browser in the competition but smart users will know that all browsers, not just IE, have vulnerabilities no matter how secure you make it to be. All browsers are *safe* to a certain degree. Sure, you can tout yourself as being the first of browsers to be fully HTML5 compliant and take advantage of hardware-acceleration but what happens when other browsers do the same? What about the website app creation feature? What happens when other browsers incorporate the same feature as well but with add-on support? By then, Internet Explorer will be left right back at the start line.

(**sigh**…I wrote this entire article in IE9 Beta but somehow, it’s not letting me publish the article in Blogger. I have to log back in to Firefox just to publish this post. So ironic.)

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