How To Secure Your Web Browser

Did you know that most viruses sneak onto your computer through your Web browser? Here’s how you can secure your Internet surfing experience.

First, some basic safety tips. You’ll want to look through these before you proceed.

Then, take a look at your Web browser(s) with the following advice in mind.

Related Article: Eight Tips For Safer Web Browser Searching by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

How To Clear Your Web Browser’s Cache

How To Activate Your Web Browser’s Privacy Controls

Do you have questions about securing your Web browser? Ask in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.


Cyber Attacks Spell Trouble For Consumers

padlock-phoneDo you know what to do if your account is swept up in a cyber attack? In the last year many popular sites, including LinkedIn, Twitter, and Evernote, have been attacked and consumer information stolen. What can you do to protect yourself?

As I said in my tech column in this month’s The Northwest Herald:

Cybercriminals attack big companies for the big prize: user account information. With email addresses and passwords in hand, they go on an account-cracking spree across the Internet, hoping that some of the users in their massive heist are using the same weak passwords on multiple sites. Itʼs likely some of your accounts have already been swept up in data breaches like this.

There are a number of things you can do to reduce the possibility of being hacked. Here are my recommendations plus related Tech Tips articles to help you with each step.

If your account has been hacked, you need to reset it. Here is information on account security and resetting hijacked accounts for some of the major sites:

And here is information on the recent breaches I mentioned:

For the latest news on data breaches (something a little more reliable than mass media articles), try these IT security sites.

Do you have questions about cyber attacks and hijacked accounts? Ask in the comments!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

How To Learn Windows Phone 8

lumia-822I recently had the opportunity to test the Nokia Lumia 822 smart phone from Verizon. From my review in The Northwest Herald:

 At 5-by-2.7-by-0.44 inches, the Nokia Lumia 822 is a streamlined yet speedy device. The 4.3-inch, 800×480 WVGA AMOLED display may not be the fanciest, but it boasts sharp colors and good readability even in a brightly lit room. The Lumia 822 uses the 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, and it supports MicroSD cards as well as NFC.

I was particularly interested to find out how consumers are supposed to learn this brand-new version of Windows. Good news, everyone: there’s a convenient Help & Tips section in the menu, which is only a left-swipe away from the home screen. From here you’ll find simple instructions plus videos and other helpful links. Some quality time spent browsing here will save you frustration down the road. You may also find yourself making frequent use of the Back button, as the menus aren’t always intuitive.

In addition to the Help & Tips section on your phone, Microsoft has online resources to help you learn how to use Windows Phone 8. Here are a few to get you started, including Rooms and Groups which I mentioned in my review.

Whatever kind of phone you choose, let me remind you to enable your security settings. Passcode lock, remote data erasure, and Find My Phone are all included with your phone, but you need to set them. Microsoft has a nice primer on how to secure your phone: Microsoft: Tips to help keep my phone secure

Have you tried Windows Phone 8? What do you think? Share in the comments!


Readers Ask: Sending DOCX Files To Macs, Troubleshooting Slow Web Sites, Choosing New Computer Hardware

computer-booksI’ve been talking with Fr. Jack Sweeley about whether he should move to Windows 7, Windows 8, or a Mac. After our initial discussion, he had some followup questions, which I am posting with his permission:

Thank you so much, Triona. This is very helpful. However, I have a few questions.

1. As I stated, I have several books written and others in process as well a hundreds of commentaries all written with Word using VISTA. Will I be able to open and edit these on a Mac?

2. From time-to-time I have sent documents I have written to someone who at that time had a Mac and they told me they could not open what I sent written in WORD on a PC. Is this still the case?

3. Contrarily, will I be able to open documents sent to me in WORD using a Windows PC on a Mac?

4. RE Macs: Could you give me comparisons between hard drive space on a Mac v. PC (is a gig a gig on both), for processing speeds what are the terms used and are they the same for a Mac and a PC, what are the terms used for memory and are they the same for a Mac and a PC?

5. What amount of HD space, processing speed, and memory do I need to do what I described in my original letter? I am impatient and go crazy having to wait for Websites to load especially when I have 8-10 sites open at the same time.

6. I know a little about the landscape of PCs and once I know what parameters I am looking for I can find one. However, I have never even looked at a Mac to say nothing about being able to compare them. So, could you cite different kinds of Macs–with their price ranges for what I need–and the pros and cons of each.

Let’s look at Fr. Jack’s needs and see how we can help him.

Opening Word For Windows .DOC and .DOCX Files On Macs

wordmacYes, you can open Word documents, both .doc and .docx, on a Mac. Apple’s word processor Pages (paid; via App Store) can open both but saves in its own proprietary .pages format. NeoOffice (donationware, can also open both .doc and .docx but again, it saves in its own .odt format. You can spring for Microsoft Office for Mac (paid; via Microsoft), which is the most expensive option but can handle Word .doc and .docx files without conversion.

The person to whom you sent the Word file may not have had a recent Mac word processing program, or did not have Microsoft’s free .docx converter installed. You can either make sure all Word files are saved as .doc and not .docx (.docx is default from Word 2007 onwards), or make sure the recipient can convert .docx. Don’t go looking online for free converters, use the genuine ones from Microsoft to avoid viruses.

For the most part, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files can be used interchangably between PCs and Macs. The main exception is if you have code in Visual Basic (VBA) or custom macros not supported by the Mac. Everyday documents work fine, and on the rare occasions they don’t, the one-time installation of a converter tool usually fixes the problem.

Now, if you have print-ready files, a Word document just is not a proper layout tool. Better to save final drafts to PDF which will keep the pagination you want. Professionals do document layout with industry standard tools like Adobe InDesign and Quark.

When it comes to file types and permanent storage – as in, stuff you want to keep longer than the software program that created it – I am a fan of good old RTF, or rich text format. It’s a universal file type that allows formatting like bold and italic but can still be opened by nearly every word processor past, present, and likely future.

Choosing A New PC Or Mac

question-computerA gig is a gig is a gig – 1,024 megabytes, sometimes rounded off as 1,000MB. So yes, hard drive sizes are consistent across Mac and PC hardware. Processing speeds are harder to compare. You can go digging across the Internet for all sorts of bench tests, but you’re better off comparing PCs to PCs and Apples to, well, Apples.

Typically a sub-$500 PC is not going to be worth the cost. In my experience they fail more quickly and catastrophically than more expensive models. A midline PC, in the $700-1,000 range, offers better and faster hardware. Laptops will be more expensive than desktops, and bear in mind that if you choose Windows 8, you’re going to want a screen with touchy-swipey capability for the best experience. That is, assuming you can find one; it’s not available for every model.

Macs may cost more, but in my experience they also make up for the price difference by outlasting their PC counterparts in the long run.

Troubleshooting Slow Web Sites

slowWaiting for web sites to load may be a function of your network connection and not your computer. Or, if your computer is gummed up with adware and malware, you’ll notice the drag particularly when using the Internet. For optimum speed you need to use a modern operating system – Windows 8, Mac, or Windows 7 as long as Microsoft deigns to support it – because you need to use a modern browser.

Your web browser is your window to the Internet. That means it’s also a vulnerable point. If your software is out of date, your connection will seem slow or you’ll be unable to load pages or images. The older the browser, the slower the connection, until you finally throw your hands in the air and buy a new computer. This is another reason it’s good to keep your software up to date, it’ll stave off that new computer moment as long as possible.

If you don’t know which browser you use, you’re probably using the default for your system. Common browsers as of this writing are as follows, but this information changes rapidly. Your best bet is to use the “check for updates” feature of the program to find the current version for your computer.

Windows 7 and 8


Note: there is no current Internet Explorer for Mac. If you’re still using the old versions, switch now!

Choosing A Mac Model

choose-appleThe easiest way to see the available Macs is to pop over to the Apple store: They have a clickable list in the Mac section which shows the Mac model options.

In my experience, you are almost always better off opting for an iMac or a Macbook Pro than trying to cut corners with a Mac Mini. For one thing, you have to factor in the cost of the screen, and for another the Mini really doesn’t have the oomph for what most people want. You don’t have to go nuts on one of those bigger, expensive tower Macs. Those are usually purchased by designers and video experts who need the extra processing power and expandability.

When configuring a Mac using the Apple Store tool, get the fastest processor and best graphics you can for the model you want. You can always add more memory or a larger hard drive later, but with an iMac or Macbook you’re stuck with whatever processor and graphics card it has. You can go Macbook Air instead of Macbook Pro but remember you’re sacrificing processor speed for a lightweight form factor.

Apple Store has a nice comparison tool to help you make the choice.

Finding Discounts On Macs

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention you can look for discounts on warrantied refurbished Macs on Apple’s site. You can also find discounts at Mac retailers like Mac Mall and OWC. A good time to buy is right after Apple announces new hardware; you can get a discount on older models that still have solid tech specs. (Insider’s tip: Apple usually has events in the spring and fall; the next one will be in March 2013.) If you’re an educator or student, be sure to check out Apple’s education discount. Many colleges and universities have deals through the campus computer store.

Ask Your Computer Questions On Tech Tips!

Do you have a computer problem? Leave a comment and let the Tech Tips community help. Your question could appear in a future Tech Tips article!

Image courtesy of (1) ddpavumba (2) Danilo Rizzuti (3) Idea go (4) Stuart Miles /

Ten Ways To Tell If Your Computer Is Infected With A Virus

Ever get that sinking feeling that something’s wrong with your computer? Here are ten ways to tell if your computer is infected with a virus.

Run a virus scan
A bit obvious, isn’t it? While you’re at it, make sure your antivirus program has been updated recently. If you haven’t bought a new version in a few years, now’s the time.

Run a second virus scan with a different program
Antivirus programs sometimes come up with different results. It’s a good idea to scan with a second program to pick up anything the first one left behind. However, you shouldn’t try to run two antivirus programs concurrently; they’ll conflict with each other. I like free programs Malwarebytes for PC and Sophos Antivirus for Mac.

Watch your computer’s behavior
Is it slower than usual, crashing, having a hard time redrawing the screen? These can all be signs that viruses are running in the background.

Monitor active programs
If a virus is running in the background, it may show up in the list of active programs. You can then click on it and End Task (Windows) or Force Quit (Mac). Bear in mind, though, most viruses will restart on reboot, and some will even regenerate on the spot no matter how many times you quit them.

  • Windows XP
    Ctrl-Alt-Delete, then click Task Manager
  • Windows Vista/7
    or right-click the taskbar and click Start Task Manager
  • Mac OS X
    Option-Cmd-Escape (the Force Quit menu)
    or open a Terminal window and type ps -aef

Check your Web browser extensions
Browser extensions provide additional functionality on the Web. Some are terrific tools while others are sneaky little devils that serve you ads, slurp your data, and otherwise spy on you. Here’s how you can check your browser extensions.

Check your Sent folder
If your email is spewing spam, it may show up in your Sent Items folder. Viruses often commandeer email accounts to send spam.

Check your Facebook and Twitter
If there are all sorts of weird links on your Facebook wall that you didn’t post, your account may have been hijacked. And if that’s the case, it may have happened through a virus infection on your computer.

Start in Safe Mode
If your computer is so confused it won’t work properly, you can boot into Safe Mode which may allow you to diagnose the problem.

  • Windows XP, Vista, 7
    Hold down F8 at reboot (before the Windows logo)
  • Mac OS X
    Hold down Shift at reboot

Ask the Internet
Fortunately we don’t have to compute in a vacuum. If you think you’re infected with a particular virus, do a Web search on it. You’ll often find removal instructions and links to tools (just make sure those tools are legit and not themselves viruses in disguise).

Inspect your other computers
If one is infected, it’s likely the others are, too. You need to keep all your computers secure, even if they’re old or you don’t use them often.

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8 Things You Need To Know About Windows 8

The rumor mill says Windows 8 is scheduled to be released in October 2012. Here are eight things you need to know before it comes out.

Windows 8 Comes In 4 Flavors
The two versions of Windows 8 for consumers will be Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. There is also Windows RT (Windows on ARM) aka Windows that runs on a tablet. The fourth edition of Windows 8, Windows Enterprise, is for large companies rather than consumers.

PC Magazine has a nifty comparison of what’s in the three consumer editions. You can check out the Windows 8 feature list and Windows 8 Consumer Preview on Microsoft’s site.

Windows 8 Looks Different
As in, different from Windows 7 AND different from Windows XP. The new Metro interface is designed for touchscreens and tablets. Think lots of icons and no Start menu.

This is going to irritate people. Many small businesses and consumers have delayed implementing Windows 7 because of the changes in look-and-feel. To ask them to go through it again, one version of Windows later? My predicition is that people who never went to Win7 will go to Win8 when they buy new hardware, but people already on Win7 won’t want to re-embark on another upgrade.

Way to alienate your already-decreasing audience, Microsoft.

Windows 8 Has No Start Menu
See above. You would think after 17 years of training us to use the Start menu, Microsoft would want to keep it around. But no, it’s more important to compete with Apple’s iPad interface than to make computers easy to use.

Microsoft would argue the new interface does exactly that: makes Windows easier to use. Tell it to all the irate people whose daily workflow will now involve slamming their heads against the new Metro interface.

You can reconfigure Windows 8 to make it look more like the Windows we’re used to. But, in my experience, that doesn’t work well nor last long. You can configure Windows 7 to look like Windows XP too, but nobody ever does. You end up with a Douglas Adams-esque computer that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike every other computer on the planet. Not good when yours crashes and you have to use a different one.

Windows 8 Will Not Include DVD Playback
Starting with Windows 8, Windows Media Player will no longer support DVD playback.

In reality, your PC manufacturer will probably provide a way for you to play DVDs. Then again maybe they won’t, if your manufacturer decides, as Microsoft did, that you should get your entertainment digitally (perhaps they have a financial interest in doing so?).

If you expect to pop a DVD into your computer and play it, you may find yourself having to find a third-party solution. If I were you I’d download VLC Player now.

Windows Media Center Will Cost You Extra
Oh, but if removing DVD playback isn’t enough for you, anybody who wants the video-rich features of Windows Media Center will have to buy it separately.

Most people will not realize this. All they’ll know is that their old version of Windows had features that their new version of Windows doesn’t. They won’t realize that their old computer had Media Center pre-installed. They won’t know what Media Center is.

Reinstalling Windows 8 Is Easier
Microsoft has made it easier to reinstall Windows 8 using procedures called “refreshing” and “resetting”. A refresh preserves your user data and reinstalls your operating system, while a reset reinstalls by out everything including user data.

I’m of two minds about this. Yes, it’s good to make it easier for users to get out of Windows hell – crashes, viruses – by reinstalling their OS. But the fact that Windows requires reinstalling so often that they’ve made it a feature? That’s almost laughably pathetic.

Legacy Apps Will Run In A Legacy Interface
A legacy app is a program designed for an older version of an operating system. When Windows 8 comes out, every Windows program not specifically designed for it will be considered legacy. This means that the special touchy-feeling interface of Windows 8 isn’t much good until people start releasing Windows 8-specific software. And when that happens, the way you’re used to doing things in your old programs will likely change.

You Can Upgrade To Windows 8 For $14.99
Another one from the rumor mill. According to this article, Microsoft will offer inexpensive Windows 8 upgrades to anyone who buys a Windows 7 PC after June 2, 2012. That’s not a bad deal, especially if you’re still on Windows XP. And you need to upgrade if you’re on Windows XP. It can’t be secured and is an open invitation to viruses and all manner of Internet threats.

What do you think? Will you go for Windows 8 right away, or are you holding off for a while? Share in the comments!

Five Essentials Every Computer Needs

Whether you use your computer at home or work, some essentials are universal. Here are resources for your PC or Mac that can help you out of a crisis.

Related article: Five Essentials Every Computer Needs (The Northwest Herald)


Alternate Web Browser

Easy Backups

Microsoft Office Files

PDF Creation

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Even Offline Computers Are Vulnerable To Viruses

Is it possible to have a truly offline computer? As I described in my recent column in the Northwest Herald, the short answer is no. Even if you don’t need the Internet, your computer does. You can still be infected by viruses even if you’re not online. In fact, your computer will turn into a silent hotbed of virus activity just waiting for the opportunity to infect others. The older the computer, the worse the problem.

The article isn’t available online, so I’ll give you the gist of it:

Pretend you have a Windows 2000 computer that never goes on the Internet. Using it is like traveling through time, ten years into the past. There are plenty of old friends installed: Microsoft Office 2000, Acrobat 5, Internet Explorer 6, programs that were standards at the time but have long since been replaced with newer versions.

You might think you could continue to use this computer in isolation, maybe for basic word processing. It doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t connect to anything, right?

But, let’s pretend your printer dies. No point in word processing if you can’t print. The new printer says that it’s not really Windows 2000 compatible, but you might be able to find some software on the Internet. You try to log on but poor Internet Explorer 6 can’t handle a modern web site. And, behind the scenes, a virus just snuck through holes in IE6 to infect your computer.

Unaware of the virus, you decide to use your Windows 7 laptop to download the printer software to a USB flash drive. Another virus hitches a ride from the laptop to the desktop, a virus that can’t run under Windows 7 but is more than happy to infect Windows 2000. The Windows 2000 computer is now a hotbed of virus activity, and the only symptom is that it’s increasingly slower.

Other viruses join the party, and pretty soon that Windows 2000 computer is spewing all sorts of junk that infects your Windows 7 laptop, your smartphone, your iPad… then your email and Facebook accounts get hijacked and suddenly your bank is calling about missing funds.

I’ve received a few responses from folks with older computers, disagreeing with my opinion. Most of the responses included the observation: “I’ve been running this version of Windows for umpteen years and I’ve never had a virus.” If I may add… that you know of.

In fairness to these folks, yes, I do know people who use Windows 98 or Windows 2000 without the world grinding to an earth-shattering halt. Most of them are retirees or others who don’t use their computers often. In such cases we try to keep the computer functional for as long as we can. But there are others who – in my opinion – are doing absolutely lunatic things with ancient computers. Like trying to run a business with them: payroll, marketing, the works. And that gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies because there are SO many ways it can go disastrously wrong for both you and your business.

Most viruses and malware show absolutely no signs of their presence. It doesn’t matter if a Win98 or Win2000 computer has antivirus installed or not, because any antivirus capable of running under those versions of Windows is incapable of detecting new threats. It’s like taking a police officer from 1912, dropping him into 2012, and expecting him to cope with modern problems for which he has no frame of reference.

Friends, I’m saying these things to help, not to hinder. I think one reason many people are reluctant to change is because it truly is difficult to get used to a computer with a different interface. Like when we moved from DOS to Windows 95, or Windows XP to Windows Vista and 7. A new interface puts us on edge, even old salts like me. It’s annoying to spend half your morning trying to figure out how you used to do something, but that’s technology, and the only thing you can do is adapt.

You may find it easier if you keep in mind that computers haven’t really changed all that much since the 1980s. Saving a file, typing a document, finding a contact’s address, these things are still the same. It’s the look-and-feel of the computer that has changed, plus the ability to access more information faster. Even the Internet is pretty close to what it was when I started using it twenty years ago. Today I’m using RSS feeds and Facebook chat instead of Usenet news and UNIX talk, but the fundamentals remain.

What do you think? Is there life to be had in old computers, or are the security risks too great?


CNet’s Nmap Debacle: When Good Software Comes Bundled With Junk

There’s a big debacle going on in the tech world. It seems that CNet aka, purveyors of downloadable software, took a very popular geek tool called Nmap and wrapped their version of the free installer with the installer for some junky browser toolbar. Two of my favorite tech sites, The Register and Sophos Naked Security, have good descriptions of the situation.

The author of Nmap is a well-known Net.denizen named Fyodor, who is justifiably steamed. His response:

“The problem is that users often just click through installer screens, trusting that gave them the real installer and knowing that the Nmap project wouldn’t put malicious code in our installer. Then the next time the user opens their browser, they find that their computer is hosed with crappy toolbars, Bing searches, Microsoft as their home page, and whatever other shenanigans the software performs! The worst thing is that users will think we (Nmap Project) did this to them!”

He has an excellent point. I can tell you that any customer I’ve ever worked with would be irate indeed to have their computer messed up by a stupid junky toolbar they never wanted. But what should you, as a consumer, do about good software that comes bundled with junk?

Go to the original download source
Don’t rely on aggregate sites like CNet for your software. Instead, go directly to the web site of the program’s developers. You’ll often find a more recent version there, as well as better support options. This also eliminates the problem of poisoned search engine results when searching for programs (links that look legit but lead to virus-laden sites).

Look at the window before you click
In the Nmap case, the installer for the Babylon browser bar makes it look like you have to install it before you can install Nmap. When installing software, look very carefully for obscure checkboxes and buttons. Most of these installers stealthily install their junk by either making the opt-out checkbox hard to find, or by making the junk look like a necessary part of the install.

In the Nmap case, if you click Accept you’re only accepting the junk because this is the wrapper; you haven’t even gotten to the real installer yet. As Fyodor said, most people will click this then wonder why their Web browser isn’t working. Then they’ll have to find somebody who knows how to remove this kind of junk, because you have to remove ALL of it or it will continue to mess up your computer.

Make your voice heard
If you spot software that is bundled with junk, let the manufacturer know how disgusted you are. Keep your friends and colleagues informed by sending them a link to this article and letting them know about the menace of stealthy junk software.

You should not ever have to install a piece of junk to install the program you want – and if the program you want won’t let you do it any other way, find a different program. Shame on you, CNet. And kudos to developers like Fyodor who actually care about the end users.

(Photo of awesome Tron “I Fight For The Users” shirt from ThinkGeek. And no, I’m not getting any affiliate rewards for telling you that. I just like both the shirt and the store.)


Internet Explorer 9 And Firefox 4

On the heels of Microsoft’s release of Internet Explorer 9 comes Mozilla’s release of Firefox 4. What do the new versions of these popular Web browsers mean for you?

Internet Explorer 9 marks a turning point for Windows users. Because IE9 doesn’t run on Windows XP, we are now divided into Windows 7 and Vista “haves” and Windows XP “have-nots”. This is important because, as Web sites evolve to take advantage of new browser capabilities, WinXP users will find themselves left behind. I wrote before about how this affects your plans for upgrading to Windows 7, and I’ve got more advice below. But first, let’s take a look at the new versions of IE9 and Firefox 4.

IE9 sports a new look-and-feel, plus many new features. Most important from my perspective is increased security. InPrivate mode (available since IE8, and now improved) blocks third-party sites from seeing what you are doing elsewhere. Tracking Protection allows you to prevent sites from tracking your Web history in order to advertise to you, similar to a “Do Not Call” list.

Speed is also improved with IE9. When you open sites in different tabs IE9 runs them as separate processes, meaning if a site crashes one tab it doesn’t take your whole browser down. One new feature which may confuse you at first is the One Box, which combines the address box and the search box into one field. On the whole I think this will make things simpler because people are often unsure which one to use (especially if they are also innundated with toolbars that have search boxes). All in all, IE9 is a welcome upgrade that will likely spawn similar features in other Web browsers.

And, of course, one of its biggest competitors is Mozilla’s Firefox. Firefox 4 also has a new interface, following the latest trend in browsers to minimize their own clutter and maximize space for Web sites. Menus are hidden, accessed through the Firefox button at the top, but you can re-enable them if you want them the way they were in previous versions. One aspect of the interface I particularly like is Panorama, a feature that allows you to group tabs and switch between them easily. This is great for people who tend to have a lot of sites open at the same time.

Like IE9, Firefox 4 has added Do Not Track and Private Browsing capabilities, and includes improvements in speed, performance, and stability. It also isolates tabs within their own processes to prevent crashes. Access to add-ons has been streamlined. Users of multiple computers (especially those with both PCs and Macs) will like Firefox Sync which synchronizes your bookmarks, passwords, history, and open tabs, although you have to set up a Firefox Sync account to make it work.

Both browsers support HTML 5, and this is where we get into our “haves” and “have-nots.” HTML 5 is a new version of the code that drives the majority of Web sites and will quickly become the new standard. The good news is that, unlike IE9, Firefox 4 runs on Windows XP. Although that gives XP users some breathing room, it doesn’t change the fact that you can’t install IE9. Web browsing aside, installing the latest version of IE is important for your computer’s security because, even if you’re not using IE, viruses can still take advantage of its vulnerabilities to infect your computer. For that reason all Windows XP users should be on Internet Explorer 8, the latest version available to them.

The bottom line is that both IE9 and Firefox 4 look like excellent improvements to your Web browsing experience. Give them a try and let me know what you think!

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