What is a browser?

A browser (or Web browser) is an app for your computer, tablet, or smartphone that lets you look at and interact with websites. The browser “calls” the server on which a website is hosted, and then renders that site for you in an intelligible way. Note that a browser is different than a search engine.

What are the most common browsers?

Worldwide, the three most widely-used browsers are Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and Microsoft Edge. Most operating systems come with one of them already installed: Android with Chrome, iOS and macOS with Safari, and Windows with Edge. Together, those three account for the vast majority of all Web browsing, but there are other notable browsers, such as Brave, Firefox, and Opera.

You can use any of the above browsers on any major mobile and desktop operating system, except for Safari, which only works on iOS and macOS.

What do browsers do, and how do they work?

Broadly speaking, browsers have two main functions: fetching webpages from Web servers, and presenting webpages on your screen as a visual and interactive experience.

When you type or paste a URL into a browser’s address bar, or click on a link, the browser contacts the Web server (a computer where a website lives) identified in the URL, and asks it to send back the page’s contents. That process is called a request. The browser may then need to make additional requests, possibly to other servers, to fetch other parts of the page, like images and videos.

A webpage comes back from the server as a chunk of plain text, marked up with special characters in a system called HTML. HTML specifies how the page should be laid out, what it should look like, what should happen when you click on parts of it, and so on. Upon receiving HTML back from a Web server, the browser interprets it to display the page on your screen, in a process called rendering. It lays out text and images, and responds to your scrolling and clicking.

Is a browser the same as a search engine?

They aren’t the same thing. A search engine is a website like any other. The confusion arises because browsers let you enter either a URL or a search query into the address bar. When you put something in the address bar, the browser figures out whether it’s a URL or a search query. If it’s a URL, the browser goes to that webpage directly, and if it’s a search query, the browser sends you to a search engine’s site with that query already filled in. Browsers let you choose which search engine you want to use for queries from the address bar.

Another point of confusion is that several companies that make browsers also offer search engines. The most obvious example is Google, which has Chrome (the browser) and Google Search (the search engine, often referred to as just “Google”). Microsoft has Edge (a browser) and Bing (a search engine). Brave likewise has Brave (a browser) and Brave Search (a privacy-protective search engine).

You can use any search engine in any browser. Not only can you go to any search engine by typing its URL in your browser (such as google.com), but you can change your browser’s settings to use your preferred search engine for queries from the address bar.

Why are browsers important?

It’s practically impossible to avoid using a browser. The Web is only part of the Internet, but a large portion of what you do on the Internet is done through a browser. Much of your most sensitive information—financial data, messages with friends and family—flows through a browser, especially on desktop devices. This makes it crucial for browsers to protect your security and privacy.

This is a difficult task, because the technology within browsers—and within the websites they access—is extremely complex. More complexity means more ways for security and privacy to be compromised. For example, some fingerprinting techniques result from browser features that were designed to allow websites to offer richer experiences, like 3D graphics.

Browsers and privacy

Privacy is a major differentiating factor among browsers. There’s a wide variety of ways in which your privacy can be put at risk on the Web, and there’s a similarly wide variety of ways in which browsers can protect you. Some browsers, like Brave, do a much better job than others, offering stronger protective measures and turning more of them on by default.

Browsers and performance

Another differentiating factor among browsers is performance. Rendering a website is a complex operation, and some browsers do it faster than others, and at less cost to battery life. Another aspect of performance is bandwidth usage, which can be especially important if you’re on a mobile data connection. Brave’s built-in ad blocking can save a lot of bandwidth by avoiding downloading ads.

Browsers, built-in features, and extensions

Each browser will have different built-in (or “native”) features, and those features can be a reason to choose one browser over another. For example, Brave and Chrome offer built-in language translation of websites via Brave Translate or Google Translate, respectively.

Even if a particular browser doesn’t have a feature you want, you may be able to add it, using an extension. Extensions are mini-apps that customize a browser’s behavior. Some browsers are less customizable than others: another differentiating factor. Although they can be very useful, extensions can slow down your browser, and can put your privacy at risk.

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