Firefox is an alternative browser to Internet Explorer and other web browsers.

Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Firefox Basics

The easiest way to learn about Firefox is to go ahead and download it (it's free). You can find it at the official site: http://www.getfirefox.com. There you'll find the latest version of Firefox: Firefox 3.5. If you're hesitant to install and learn to use a new program, rest assured that Firefox looks and acts very similar to Internet Explorer and most other Web browsers. There's even a feature for IE users that lists the expressions with which you're familiar and tells you the corresponding Firefox names for those functions.

At the top of the screen, you'll find the Awesome Bar (a space for typing in Web addresses), a small search panel and a row of buttons -- the typical tools for common Web-surfing activities. Forward, back, home, reload and stop can all be found in this basic setup. These buttons, like just about everything else in Firefox, are fully customizable. You can rearrange them, get rid of some of them or add new ones.

The Awesome Bar isn't just a place to type in Web site URLs. It's linked to your browsing library. If you visit a site like HowStuffWorks.com regularly, Firefox's Awesome Bar will learn and anticipate your browsing habits. As soon as you begin typing "how," the browser will pull up a list of sites you've visited that it thinks you want. You can just pick from the list in the drop-down menu and the browser will take you there directly. The Awesome Bar doesn't just track URLs, either. It also picks terms found in the sites you visit. So if you're looking for a site with a particular name, just start typing the name in the Awesome Bar, and there's a good chance that Firefox can help you track the site down.

Now, if Firefox is so similar to Internet Explorer, why bother switching? There are quite a few reasons, but the most important for many users is security.

There is much debate over the security of Web browsers, stemming mainly from Internet Explorer's vulnerability as a common target for hackers and virus writers. Microsoft regularly releases patches and updates to fix security holes in Internet Explorer that might allow someone to install malicious software or steal information from a computer. Early on, Firefox was considered safer than IE, but every program has its flaws. In fact, just five hours after Firefox 3 was released, a vulnerability was discovered in the browser's code [source: Gohring]. Internet Explorer is sitll a bigger target for hackers because more people use it, but as Firefox becomes more popular among Web browsers, that may change. See the Firefox Security section on the next page to learn more.

Now let's take a closer look at Firefox's features and see how they can be expanded.