UNTIL RECENTLY, SURFING THE INTERNET MEANT TYPING in cryptic commands and wading through screens of monotonous text. The advent of the World Wide Web means the Net is no longer quite so frustrating and incomprehensible. With navigation as easy as pointing and clicking your mouse, you’ll find the Web’s individual electronic pages are filled with text, graphics, and even snazzy videos and sound files for downloading. Imagine taking a guided tour of the White House, searching a directory of 800 numbers, or checking your stock portfolio, all using the Web’s visual and intuitive navigation system. That’s how simple the Web is–just click on whatever interests you and you’re immediately transported to places all over the world, no computerese required.
There are two main ways to get onto the Web. The quickest and least confusing method is to go through one of the commerical online services. America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy all offer easy access to the Web: All you need to do is download an extra piece of software. The other way of accessing the Web is through a local Internet access provider (more on this to follow).
Regardless of which direction you take to get there, the lens through which you view this online wonderland is a piece of software called a browser. Choosing one that fits your needs is crucial to the success of your online experience. All browsers come with some sort of “hotlist” feature that allows you to save your favorite locations in a personalized menu. Some let you see pages incrementally as they flow into your computer; others make you wait until an entire page is loaded before you can view it (which can be frustrating in especially graphics-heavy sites). Bear in mind, however, that regardless of how good your browser is, a speedy modem–either 14.4Kbps or 28.8Kbps–is equally important.
Both America Online and Prodigy have Web browsers built fight into their interface software–you can’t beat either service if your main objective is to get up and running in the shortest possible time. The problem is, you’re stuck with the browsers these companies have preordained (a notable exception to this is CompuServe, as we’ll discuss in the individual reviews).
The alternative is to get a special connection to the Internet (usually called a SLIP or PPP connection) from a local or national Internet access provider. This type of arrangement provides greater control by letting you use whatever browser you want but involves a more complicated setup, as you need to install software (called a TCP/IP stack, available from your service provider, or for free on the Net) that lets your computer speak the Internet’s native tongue.
The variety of browsers flooding the market leaves only one problem: Which one is best suited to you and your business? Browsers come in a multitude of configurations. Many are available free of charge on the Internet; others come bundled with commercial software that can cost up to $100 or more. Some only allow you to browse the Web; others let you send e-mail and read newsgroups. Some browsers work only with a single Internet access provider; others will work with almost any.
We took a look at eight leading browsers–from standalone models to the proprietary ones used by the major online services–to help you sort through the confusion, find the browser you need, and get down to the business of exploring the Web.