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Depending on how secure your computer already is, you may or may not want to switch to Firefox as an internet browser.

Every day it seems I hear of some new exploit or vulnerability in Internet Explorer. Several of my friends have suggested I switch from IE to this other browser they claim is more secure: Firefox. Will I be safer if I switch?

Maybe. It really depends on how secure you are to begin with.

But before you switch it's worth understanding what you are and are not getting and what you'll still need to do.

I actually run Firefox. It's a fine internet browser, and works very well on 99% of the web sites I visit. Like many of the IE alternatives, it actually does a better job of implementing the various HTML standards than IE does. Unlike IE, it's in active development, which means that features are being added, and bugs are being fixed on a regular basis.

Firefox works well.

If you do switch, you'll still need Internet Explorer at times. Not surprisingly, several Microsoft sites, including Windows Update, require Internet Explorer to work. In addition, many sites are "optimized for Internet Explorer" often whether they know it or not, and they take advantage of IE-specific quirks, extensions, and features not supported in other browsers. The result is that some sites just won't look the same in browsers other than IE.

But what about all those exploits?

In my opinion, IE is an "ok" piece of software; it's better than some and worse than others in terms of overall quality and security. Certainly the news would have you believe that it's a total disaster and security nightmare, but I disagree with that strenuously. I believe IE (and in general Microsoft) is a victim of its own success.

All software has bugs. Period. It's a fact. IE has bugs, Firefox has bugs, and some of those bugs are certainly security related.

Pretend you're a hacker. You want to cause some trouble, and gain a little notoriety - do you look for exploits in the product that 85% of people use (that's Internet Explorer, by the way, though market share is falling), or the one that perhaps 10% of people use (Firefox, who's market share is growing)? Obviously you want the bigger bang for your hacking buck, and you'll target the bigger crowd - the crowd using IE. Couple that with a strong anti-Microsoft sentiment in the hacking community, and you can see that the number of times IE gets exploited actually says more about the number of people trying and nothing about the relative quality of IE versus alternatives like Firefox.

Regardless of their relative merits, IE will be hacked more often simply because it's a bigger target. And as I said, I believe the same is true for Microsoft software in general.

Should you switch? Well, as I said earlier, it depends on how secure you already are. If you're doing the right things already:

  • you run up to date anti-virus and anti-spyware software with regularly updated databases
  • you have auto-updates enabled, or you regularly visit Windows Update
  • you're behind some kind of firewall
  • you general visit only "safe" websites
  • you don't download things you don't trust or open email attachments you don't recognize

you're probably just fine with IE. The fact is, you should be doing all those things even if you're running an IE alternative.

However, if you want a little more protection and if you want to make yourself a little less of a target, then by all means, Firefox is a great alternative.

Yes, I have all those things, and I run Firefox. Why? Mostly to become familiar with it enough to write articles such as this. I also happen to like tabbed browsing (also available for IE via some add-on products), and appreciate some of the add-ons that are available for Firefox. However my wife, who is probably a more typical computer user, has been using IE for years without a single incident. Not one.

So absolutely, use Firefox if you like. But you don't have to, and if you do, you shouldn't let it lull you into a false sense of security either.

Article C2268 - January 23, 2005 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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22 Comments
Horst
February 8, 2005 12:22 AM

since I switched to Firefox I can't use explorer any more. I start explorer, the explorer window opens but then I get the message "cannot find server". what is the problem? Firefox is working fine. Im running windows XP.
Regards,
Horst

Eli Coten
August 4, 2005 1:58 AM

I don't know when this aticle was written, but it seems that nowadays, Windows 2000 users and XP SP1 users are much more vulnerable to spyware/malware attacks. Those versions of internet explorer are much more vulnerable and it is worth noting (especially for Win2000 users) that firefox is going to be much safer and faster (full improvement not fully notice unless tweaked). Obviously XP SP1 users should upgrade to SP2.

I have never heard of any problems where you can get spyware by visited a maliciously programmed website using firefox.

As for what the above article says about popularity - perhaps there is some truth in it, recently there was a virus targetting firefox, but Mozilla are several steps ahead of the game. The issue which the virus gets at has been fixed since version 1.0.2 (current version at time of virus was 1.0.4).

Sorry if this sounds a little long, but I thought the artice sounded a little outdated.

Leo
August 4, 2005 1:19 PM

Actually the article was written in January 2005 (note the post date at the bottom of the article). And for what it's worth, I still stand by what I wrote then today, August of 2005.

The one article I *did* revise significantly is this one: http://ask-leo.com/how_do_i_keep_my_computer_safe_on_the_internet.html which is browser-independant, but addresses most of the real problems that people blame on the IE, or Windows, or whatever got hacked into most recently.

I *have* heard of Firefox hacks ... but they don't make big news, simply because it's such a small percentage of affected users, and the sense I get is that Firefox is a little quicker to distribute patches and fixes than MS is.

Tyler
February 18, 2006 6:37 PM

On the Firefox v IE issue, im a FF user myself, but FF does have more security holes than IE, just less dangerous ones. IEs security holes are more the "hijack the browser" typer holes where as FF is more the "annoying popup" typer holes. Well thats what i have been lead to believe anyway.

Phillip Forde
March 21, 2007 4:50 PM

Thanks for that Leo. It has helped me a great deal At this point in time I think I will stick to IE. I have never had any problems so far, so we'll see what happens.

Phil.

Lou Gascon
January 26, 2008 7:15 AM

Hi Leo & Folk
Yes that entry is a teeny bit dated by almost 3 years and things have moved on...
I switched to FF at the time and was very pleased with it, but my box slowed down big last year, and whilst looking round for the reason, I found that FF was taking up 1/3rd of my C: drive 18Gb - yes one third, thus 6GB of my OS drive...!
FF are getting out of their pants with updates, addons, upgrades and the like...
I thought IE7 was heavy weight, but FF - well...!!
I recently switched to using 'slimbrowser', which including its Groups menu is serving me very well indeed. It open fast and surfs fast - the only problem was in setting up the search facilities to suit me, but I cracked that in no time. I'm loving it...
Oh! and last night they even offered me a free ftp client...!
can't be bad eh?
Leo, I think you should try it and report back to some of these guys...
you might be surprised...?
Lou

Doug Woodall
January 26, 2008 9:57 AM

I agree with Tyler. Its all about the odds. Attacks against FireFox are less because its less used.

Terry Hollett
January 26, 2008 1:12 PM

My choice of browsers at first was 'Internet Explorer', then 'Opera' version 3 or something. It had this big 'hunking ad' that you had to pay a registration fee to get rid of. I tried a few independent ones that didn't impress me including one called 'Firebird' which I think was the original name for the 'Firefox' browser, correct me if I am wrong.

Anyway I eventually settled on 'Mozilla suite'. An open source version of 'Netscape', that included a browser, email client, newsreader and a HTML editor. I used it up till the 'Mozilla Foundation' decided to give it up and concentrate on developing 'Firefox'. It was taken over and renamed 'Seamonkey', apparently the original name of the project.

I then went back to 'Opera', which is still my browser of choice. No offence to 'Opera', but I also believe its the most secure because its at the bottom of the popoularity list.

I origianlly gave up 'IE' because of issues concerning 'Super-hidden' and 'Super protected' 'INDEX.DAT files, which are "supposed to be cache files", but they are better hidden and protected than the 'core operating system' files. Also evey time I have to clean a hijacking out of someone's computer there is only one browser involved.

But to be fair to Microsoft, I think that if you don't pay attention to your security, it don't matter which browser you have. I have; OUTPOST FIREWALL, AVIRA ANTIVIR PERSONAL EDITION, WINPATROL, SPYBOT, ADAWARE, ASQUARED TROJAN SCANNER, AVG ROOTKIT SCANNER and I always keep an eye on whats going on in the background with HIJACKTHIS, an older utility called END IT ALL and the built in TASK MANGER.

www.geocities.com/terryhollett2003/

duane moen
January 26, 2008 1:42 PM

I use 4 browsers but I don't think all of them are different. AOL Desktop uses a browser that I am not sure of it's origin. The symbol it uses makes me think it is Netscape. If this is the case what will happen when Netscape is no longer supported? AOL also has a browser called AOL browser that I use because it compresses and thus speeds up loading on a dial-up connection. It's basically text only for that reason. I use Firefox also but it and IE7 and Desktop are really slow on a dial-up. The thing that is inconvenient is that the favorites between Firefox and the IE browsers aren't synchronized so you have to put in your favorites twice and organize them separately. I could live with any one of them.

Margherita
January 27, 2008 11:08 PM

Hi

I'm using Firefox as an alternative browser on Windows XP at work and I must say that I am very happy with it. Even our website developer uses it and some of our suppliers and everyone is happy with it. Our website was also designed with features that only becomes visible on FF, but IE doesn't support it, like scrolling images in the address bar.

The only problem I'm faced with now is that I've tried to install it on my Acer laptop with Windows Vista Business as the OS and Norton Anti Virus from Symantec, but now it doesn't work. Some people believe that it is the anti virus software, but try and delete that, you can't and then I have a suspicion that it might also be the firewall which is causing the program not to run.

Also cannot to our network with the laptop, but I suppose this is a totally different issue altogether.

Thanks for a great site :-)

Michael Georgiou
June 4, 2008 6:29 AM

Firefox is dreadful, it puts viruses onto my computer and makes it crash, my anti virus protection never works so do not use firefox!!!

mat
July 12, 2008 10:26 AM

I installed FF3.0 but my IE7 crawling. FF3.0 enjoys a smooth drive. Then uninstalled it. IE7 comes back to life.

agnes
September 4, 2008 3:20 PM

what do you think about Google's Chrome...is Firefox as fast? IE is sooooo slow.

Adam Dally
March 1, 2009 11:30 AM

Firefox doesn't put viruses on your computer, and it doesn't come with any. If you got a virus because of it you either downloaded Firefox from a site other than mozilla or more likely than not you already had a virus on your computer and it had no visible effects until Firefox was installed.

Also a good work around for IE is a awesome little add-on called "IE Tab", it allows you to switch a page over to IE with just a click, even staying inside the same tab.

Plus, if you have Firefox, it's almost a must to have like the very best, #1 addon, installed - "Adblock Plus".

Bunny Rodwell
February 16, 2010 12:55 PM

I only ever use firefox...it is very safe and I like the fact that the add ons include web of trust and many other safety alternatives. It is the best browser.

Garrett
April 2, 2010 3:02 AM

well, im thinking aobut downloading firefox on my laptop that has WIndows 7 on it. My only concern is VIRUSES. I donwloaded Firefox on my desktop and it runs perfectly fine but i dont really care if my desktop gets viruses or not, but thts not the case with my laptop. Im VERY cautios about not getting any viruses on my laptop. Should i get Firefox on my laptop or not? If so, then PLZ give me a safe link to the download OR tell me where i should download it at. Thx in advanced.

The official site: firefox.com.
Leo
02-Apr-2010

Nate T
July 31, 2011 5:44 AM

Very good article. Covers all the pros and cons from a subjective point of view. I just use internet explorer because while it is more susceptiple to attacks, it is also much more widely supported. If you have a problem with it there is almost a guarantee that you can google it and someone else will have had the same problem while with open source software its a bit more work trying to find related issues. Additionally if are already implememtning proper security steps you shouldn't have any issues in the first place with IE.

Johnny
January 1, 2012 9:15 PM

I disagree with Leo.

Leo has stated on another article, that you CANNOT import XP image viewer to use in Windows 7. Therefore, you have to use something like Irfanview.

I have successfully imported the required dll file + reg files needed to make it run. It DOES run XP image viewer in Windows 7, because I am using it right now.

I said that, because Leo is wrong on some of his assumptions. Leo generally has good advice, but he is not perfect.

That said, let's get back to the web browser issue. Should you use Firefox, or Internet Explorer?

I leave that up to you, but let me tell you some things I tried before I do. I opened anywhere from 4 to 20 tabs on my machine with Internet Explorer 8. And Internet Explorer would crash, then crash on recovering the tabs.

YES Internet Explorer works! And it works with more than one tab. But barely.... I have had 1,611 tabs open in Firefox & the only thing that stopped me from opening more, was running low on memory.

That isn't to say that Firefox NEVER crashes, for it has, once in a while. But you can open far more websites in Firefox before you do have a crash, than IE. Also, FF remains much more responsive with more tabs open, & is just a faster seeming browser. Period.

If you corrupt your IE installation, you have no recourse but to attempt a repair installation. And it malware has sufficiently hosed your IE program, you may not even be able to do that properly.

FF can be completely installed & reinstalled. No problems. FF also does not suffer from active-X, which is a component that IE uses that allows drive by downloading & installing (a major cause of malware on machines).

I have noted carefully that a ton of patches for Windows, is fixing some vulnerability that exists because of IE, or is patching a component that IE uses.

I have had far fewer malware infections on machines that deploy FF than IE.

Sure, all software has bugs, but IE just seems to be a bug.

Use whatever you want, but the idea of using a web browser that crashes with less than 20 tabs, & also a browser that automatically installs malware because of active-x controls doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

Andrea
January 6, 2012 10:52 AM

Leo,
You make it sound as though using Internet Explorer solves all compatibility problems. Or most of them. It does not.

I have been to many websites that do NOT work in any iteration of Internet Explorer. Even facebook sometimes displays incorrectly in Internet Explorer 9 under Windows 7.

Do you know what works? Firefox!

And for those 0.000001% of websites that do not work with any browser but IE because Microsoft paid them to only "support" IE & block all other internet browsers from connecting, well there is IETab that works great!

You can use Firefox & still surf IE based sites. Isn't this great?

Amen!

AskLeo Newsletter reader
May 4, 2012 5:42 PM

FireFox or IE? I went to FF early on because of the IE problems. IE problems are their own, Refusing to follow Web standards for one. Example: World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Found here: http://www.w3.org/standards/

Firefox has so many addons/extensions that provide free tools to make Web browsing/use comfortable to me. Free Dictionary, Lazarus (saves forms input like this one) Yada yada....

Currently battling my Credit Card Company as suddenly my access via FF was going astray. No access, Bad password error messages. Finally made voice contact with CC company tech support. They insisted I 'TRY' IE. Careful to NOT say it was needed. I have 3 desktops and 3 laptops. Two of the desktops and one laptop are WIN7 home premium and all three dual boot to different flavors of Ubuntu. NONE get access with FF! Even in Private Browsing mode. Yet when I loaded up one with IE. (It lays dormant/not used on all) I was eventually able to gain access to change my Credit Card password! Shutting down and later trying to access with FF. Denied. Even with IE! Multiple times. They, Tech support, would not even issue a trouble report??? How does a company track problems, issues, employee handling processes etc. if not keeping records? An Internet search |CC Company Firefox problems| offers a history of issues with Firefox. But no resolutions. Hmmmmm Looks like it is time to 'fire' my CC company.

It seems large Corporations are intimidating Firefox users to swing to IE. Not good.

John
June 9, 2012 10:58 PM

My $0.02. As of 6/12/2012
_____

Speed -> FF13 is nearly 2X faster than GC19, Opera 12, IE9, & Safari 5.1 on HTML5 + Hardware acceleration on IE HTML5 fishbowl test
_____

Security -> Malware calls dropped 99% on most PC's switched to FF over IE. Most residual malware gets installed manually now (toolbars/trial programs, etc.) instead of automatically via active-X.
_____

Stability -> Opened 1,611 tabs in FF with no crash before. IE8 crashed on fewer than 20 tabs, then crashed on recovery. IE9 is much more stable, but doubt it could handle 1,611 tabs.
_____

Customizability -> FF is far ahead of other browsers.
_____

Firefox has many other benefits, such as it can be 100% removed & re-installed. IE cannot. GC/Opera/other browsers can. And if you have a malware/rootkit infection that ruins certain system files, it may be nearly impossible to "repair" IE back to a working state. Without things such as a re-install of Windows.
_____

It's mid 2012, & FF13 is nearly 2X faster than all other major browsers.
Combine that with AdBlock+ & your surfing is even faster.

U can use 2X slower browsers if u want, but I'm using FF!

James
August 27, 2012 7:23 PM

Nate, I hate to tell you, but surfing the web with IE is like auto-play flash drive infections were for Windows XP.

NOT GOOD for the web.

Auto infection? YES! If your using IE. And McAfee researchers identified ways to hijack IE browsing protections put in place to get around active-x kill bits to cause it to LOAD OLD CONTROLS and run it anyway on specially crafted XML pages.

NOT GOOD!

Besides, if IE crashes hard enough, it is a pain to fix or repair it.

Firefox is at LEAST 2x faster than IE, & you can easily backup ALL of your settings for Firefox including your saved bookmarks & passwords if you need to, & import them later.

Can IE do this? It cannot.

I am not trying to badmouth IE, but active-x is never a good idea, even disabled. It should have never been invented in the first place, for malware to re-enable.

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