How to Use Plug-Ins with Your Internet Browser

By John R. Levine, Margaret Levine Young

Web pages with text and pictures are old hat. Now pages on the internet must have pictures that sing and dance or calendars that let you create events or games such as chess that play against you. Every month, new types of information appear on the web, and browsers have to keep up.

You can extend your browser’s capabilities with plug-ins — add-on programs that glue themselves to the browser and add even more features. Internet Explorer can also extend itself by using ActiveX controls, which are another (less secure) type of add-on program.

What are you to do when your browser encounters new kinds of information on a web page? Get the plug-in program that handles that kind of information and glue it to the browser program. Star Trek fans can think of plug-ins as parasitic life forms that attach themselves to your browser and enhance its intelligence.

When you restart your browser, maybe because it updated itself, it may display messages about add-ons that are installed or that need to be updated. You can display a list of your plug-ins at any time:

  • Firefox: Click the Menu button and choose Add-ons to see a page about all kinds of add-ons and extensions. Click the Plugins tab to see a list of which ones are installed. You can click the More link for more information and click the Disable button if you don’t want to keep the plug-in.

  • IE: Choose Tools→Internet Options, click the Programs tab, and click Manage Add-ons. To disable a plug-in, select it and click the Disable button at the bottom of the Manage Add-ons dialog box.

  • Chrome: Type “about:plugins” in the address box and press Enter. If you don’t like the look of a plug-in, click Disable to turn it off.

  • Safari: Click the Settings icon or choose Safari→Preferences and then select Extensions.

Four essential plug-ins

Here are four useful plug-ins you may want to add to your browser:

  • Flash Player: Plays both audio and video files in addition to other types of animations. Using Flash, you can view videos on YouTube. Flash can also play streaming sound and video files while you download them. Our favorite site with streaming audio is the National Public Radio website, where you can hear recent NPR radio stories. Another favorite is the BBC, with news in 43 languages (really) and other BBC programs 24 hours a day.

    For a combination of political and technical reasons, Flash is not available on tablets or most smartphones, but many sites have apps to get you your streaming stuff anyway.

  • QuickTime: Plays videos in a number of formats. (Mac users already have it.)

  • Java: All sorts of extensions are written in Java, from browser based animations games to remote control consoles. Java isn’t available on tablets or smartphones, either, for similar reasons to Flash.

  • Adobe Reader: Displays PDF (Portable Document Format) files formatted exactly the way the author intended. Lots of useful PDF files are out there, including many U.S. tax forms.

How to use plug-ins

After you download a plug-in from the web, run it (double-click its icon or filename) to install it. Depending on what the plug-in does, you follow different steps to try it out — usually, you find a file that the plug-in can play and watch (or listen) as the plug-in plays it.

After you install the plug-in, you don’t have to do anything to run it. It fires up automatically whenever you view a web page containing information that requires the plug-in.

Plug-ins, particularly Flash and Adobe Reader, are subject to security problems, and they may not be automatically updated by Windows Update or Apple’s Software Update. Drop by the Flash and Adobe Reader websites from time to time to see whether they have new versions.