Browser wars redux: Top 5 duke it out

With major new versions released this year, Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari vie for the crown

For browser fans, this is the best of times. The five most popular Web browsers -- Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome and Opera -- have released significant new versions this year.

Although Internet Explorer retains the lion's share of browser use, its competitors are gradually gaining favor. It's been a very long time since the browser market has been this unsettled and open to competition.

The good news for users is that every one of these top five browsers is exceedingly feature-rich, increasingly fast and easier than ever to use. The bad news is that it's become very hard to decide which to use.

That's why we decided to put the newest versions of the top browsers through their paces. Although Safari is available for Windows, and Opera and a beta version of Chrome are available for the Mac, we focused on the most popular configurations: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Opera for Windows, and Safari and Firefox for the Mac.

We delved deep into their features, considered their speed and ease of use, and recommended what type of user each browser is most suited for. Finally, we chose overall winners for the Mac and Windows platforms.

What we've concluded has nothing to do with market share, and everything to do with which are the flat-out best, and why. So check out our reviews and recommendations, and let us know whether you agree.

Firefox 3.5 (Windows)

Of all the browsers, Firefox offers the best balance among speed, features, usability and extensibility. Because of this, it has been slowly eating away at the substantial lead enjoyed by Internet Explorer on Windows. Like Opera, Firefox is available for Windows, the Mac and Linux, so it is ideal for people or companies who use multiple platforms.

In my experience, Firefox doesn't feel as fast as Chrome or Opera, although it seems speedier than Internet Explorer. In Computerworld tests using the SunSpider benchmark suite, Firefox fell in the middle of the pack for JavaScript rendering.

Firefox may no longer be the browser to always introduce new features first (Safari, for example, introduced private browsing), but when it does include them, they always seem to be well thought-out and nicely implemented.

What may be the browser's greatest strength, though, is not its feature set as much as its massive ecosystem of free add-ons -- thousands of them, in every category imaginable. That, even more than the browser itself, is what sets it apart from its competitors.

Browser features

As with Internet Explorer, Firefox has all the features you want in a modern browser. There's anti-phishing, a pop-up killer, very good cookie handling, private browsing (a.k.a. "porn mode," which allows you to surf the Internet without leaving behind any trace of the sites that you have visited), excellent tab handling and more.

Firefox doesn't have much of a built-in RSS reader; its Live Bookmarks feature for handling RSS feeds is not particularly usable. However, add-ons solve the problem -- look for the excellent RSS reader called Sage.

What's most impressive about Firefox's features is not so much as what is there -- it offers fairly standard fare for browsers these days -- as the depth of those features and how they can be customized. Here's just one example: When clearing your browsing history and traces, you get control over which elements you want to clear, including your browsing and search history, form and search history, cookies, cache, site preferences and logons. And you can clear them based on time: all of them, those you've visited today, or those you've visited in the last four hours, two hours or one hour.

Similarly, dig deeply enough and you'll find out that Firefox lets you block images from being loaded on specific sites to speed up Web browsing. You can also turn off JavaScript and Java on specific Web sites.

The anti-phishing filter, like that in Internet Explorer 8, protects not only against phishing attacks but also warns you away from sites known to attack your PC. There's also a built-in spell checker.

Firefox also offers multimedia support (by supporting the HTML 5 audio and video elements) that lets you watch video and listen to music directly in a Web page without having to launch any plug-ins. The video is displayed by Firefox itself, and includes audio and video controls. You can also download the video and audio and save it on your PC. There's a catch, though: The Web page has to use HTML 5, and few do right now. So it may or may not become important in the future.

Interface and extras

Firefox's interface is about as simple as it gets: address bar, search box and menu across the top, browser area below. The look and feel is both good and bad -- good because of its familiarity, bad because the browser is beginning to look dated. Mozilla is making plans for a redesign, but its possible solution is running into some controversy.

Mozilla has said that upcoming versions of Firefox will do away with the menus, and instead use buttons as a way to access menus and features. Initially, Firefox had said it was planning on using a "ribbon" interface, which many people interpreted to mean the ribbon like the one used in Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010. Ribbon detractors were not pleased, and Mozilla quickly clarified that it was not planning to copy the ribbon interface.

In version 3.5, you get all the usual tab handling features, including the ability to undo tabs you've already closed. Particularly nice is the ability to see a list of closed tabs or windows and then choose which to open. (Select History --> Recently Closed Tabs or History --> Recently Closed Windows.) This works only for the current browsing session; the history does not carry over from session to session.

You can also tear off a tab and launch it into a separate window, or drag a tab from one browser window into another to combine them. One nice touch is that when you drag a tab to reposition it among other tabs, a thumbnail of the tab displays as you move it.

As with Internet Explorer and Chrome, the address bar, which Mozilla calls the Awesome Bar, does double-duty as a place to type URLs and a way to search the Web along with your history and bookmarks.

The bottom line

When it comes to balancing performance, features and extras, Firefox beats all other browsers, particularly because of the vast number of add-ons available for it. More than anything, that's what sets it apart. If you're the kind of person who like to fiddle and tweak your browser, and add extra capabilities, Firefox simply can't be beat.

-- Preston Gralla

Google Chrome 3 (Windows)

If you're the kind of person who favors minimalist art, svelte-looking Scandinavian furniture and speed for the sake of it, then Google Chrome may well be for you. It's a stripped-down browser with one main reason for being: speed. If you're a "just-the-fact's-ma'am" type who wants to browse the Web at warp speed, this is the one to get.

On the other hand, if you like features such as a built-in RSS reader or add-ons to extend the browser's capabilities, this won't be the app for you. Chrome may already be on version 3.0, but its interface has the look and feel of a very early browser that is still a work in progress.

Browser features

Even before the release of version 3.0 in September, Chrome was fast, and the new version ups the ante even more. Computerworld tests of five Windows browsers found that "Chrome renders JavaScript more than nine times faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), is over five times faster than Opera Software's Opera 10, two-and-a-half times faster than Firefox 3.5 and 30% faster than Safari 4.0."

That being said, there is more to Chrome than raw speed. There's a useful if not overly powerful bookmarks manager, a pop-up blocker and "Incognito mode," which is another term for private browsing.

Chrome also has a nerd-friendly Task Manager, similar to Windows' Task Manager, that provides detailed information about Chrome's current status on your PC, including each separate process being used by Chrome, memory use and CPU use. It also shows which processes are accessing the Internet, along with access speed. You can even use it to free up RAM or your CPU by killing any processes you don't want running.

Apart from that, though, don't look for many features, because you won't find them. Unlike Firefox, there is no eco-system for add-ons. It doesn't have the type of nifty features such as Web Slices that Internet Explorer sports. And it doesn't come close to the massive feature set you'll find in Opera.

Interface and extras

Chrome follows the same design principle as does the Google home page: Less is more. There's an address bar, which Google calls the Omnibox, and two icons on the right for customizing Chrome -- and that's it.

The Omnibox does double-duty as a search box and address bar. On the plus side is its simplicity: You don't need to remember to type search terms in a separate search box. Type in a search term and your default search engine does a search. That's it.

The Omnibox's default search engine is (surprise!) Google. There are ways to search via other search engines from the Omnibox, but it takes a little bit of work -- more work than it does in competing browsers when you want to use something other than the default search engine. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this is intentional or not.

The page that appears when you launch a new tab is useful; it shows thumbnails of pages you've visited most recently, as well as a list of tabs you've recently closed. You can change the layout of the page, and you can display the sites as a list or as thumbnails. But the page isn't as customizable as Opera's new tab page.

Chrome shines when it comes to tab handling. You can "tear off" tabs into their own browser instances, and combine several browser instances into one, with each instance becoming its own tab. You can also easily close tabs in groups, re-open closed tabs and duplicate tabs. There's also support for the use of themes so you can "skin" the way that Chrome looks.

One of Chrome's less well known features may be its more important from Google's point of view: what Google calls application windows. An application window is a Chrome mode designed for Web-based applications such as Gmail. When you're in a Web-based application using Chrome, you can create a desktop shortcut that will launch the application in a browser window with no browser controls, so that it looks like a desktop application.

Clearly, this feature is built for a world in which many applications are cloud-based -- like Google's. I've found the feature somewhat confusing, because different Web-based applications behave differently in it. Sometimes new documents open up in a new application window, and sometimes in a normal Chrome window, complete with the normal browser interface. It still needs work.

I have also experienced some compatibility issues with Chrome. In the blog I write for Computerworld (powered by Drupal), Chrome cannot handle all of the features required for writing the blog. When a pop-up appears for inserting a link, the pop-up doesn't display all of the features needed to insert the link. Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera all work with the system with no problems.

The bottom line

If you care more than anything about speed, Google Chrome is for you. In addition, because it's so fast and lightweight, those who have slow laptops that have trouble handling other browsers will find it useful. But if a rich feature set is more up your alley, you'll want any of the competing browsers instead.

-- Preston Gralla

Internet Explorer 8 (Windows)

Like Microsoft itself, Internet Explorer endures constant criticism, yet it remains the world's dominant browser. According to Net Applications, in September 2009, all versions of IE had 66% share of the market, versus 24% for Firefox, 4% for Safari, 3% for Chrome, and 2% for Opera.

IE8 is a mixed bag of a browser. It's slower than the competition, yet its host of innovative features will make up for its slowness with many users. In the past, Internet Explorer lagged behind the competition when it came to browser features -- for example, Microsoft doggedly refused for years to add tabbed browsing. But those times are long gone, because Internet Explorer 8 is packed with features.

Browser features

If you were to put together a checklist of the most important features a modern browser requires, you'd find that IE8 has just about all of them covered. Its tab-handling capabilities are exemplary, it includes private browsing, it has an excellent anti-phishing tool and pop-up blocker, and its search box is as good and as customizable as any browser's. Its built-in RSS reader is by far the best of any browser.

Its security and privacy tools are excellent as well, including protection against cross-site scripting attacks. Its anti-phishing tool not only protects against phishing attacks, but warns you when you're about to visit a site known to harbor malware. The browser's InPrivate Filtering can prevent Web sites from sharing information about your browsing habits without your knowledge.

IE's cookie-handling capabilities are especially noteworthy. In the past, browsers took an all-or-nothing approach to cookie deletion -- keep them all or kill them all. But IE8 lets you delete cookies and temporary Internet files from all sites except those that you have on your Favorites list.

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