Internet Basics: What is a plug-in?

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Your computer is a powerful tool and can do a lot by itself. Sometimes it needs a little help and you’re offered something called a plug-in. This article tells you what they are and whether you need them.

What are they?

A plug-in is a (sometimes essential) piece of software code that enables an application or program to do something it couldn’t by itself. One of the more common plug-ins is Adobe Flash Player. Without Flash Player you won’t, for example, be able to view BBC News bulletins embedded into web pages.

Other plug-ins are available for different things. There are plug-ins for social media networking, foreign language alphabets and many other things. One plug-in allows for the display of Microsoft Office 2007 documents within the browser.

Numerous other plug-ins exist. Email programs will use the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) plug-ins for security. Media players might need a plug-in to play a specific type of media. Microsoft Office has plug-ins available for certain specific specialist applications.

Do you really need it?

So if your computer offers you a plug-in, or ‘add-on’ as they’re often called, it can be a very good idea to install it (by following the instructions on the screen) if it’s something you’re going to use. It’s not always necessary, though. Every individual plug-in takes up a little space, so consider whether it’s going to help.

And as mentioned above, some scammers will try to make their malware look like a legitimate one. Make sure your security software is up to date at all times and your computer will alert you if there’s anything suspicious in what you’re about to install.