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

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Although the browser is now up to version 8, Internet Explorer 6 and 7 are still in widespread use, and many Web sites are built for older versions of the browser. (According to Net Applications, there are still more IE6 users than any other version.) To get around problems caused when you try to browse such sites with IE8, IE8 includes a feature called Compatibility View, which automatically changes the way the browser handles the site and displays it properly in Internet Explorer 8.

Internet Explorer 8 also includes two features designed to deliver information and services from Web pages directly into the browser, without you having to go out and visit those pages -- Accelerators and Web Slices. The more useful of these features, Accelerators, is something like a mini-mashup that delivers information from another Web site, such as map information, directly to your current browser page.

So, for example, when you are on a Web page that has a street address on it, you can highlight the address, and then choose one of the map accelerators -- from, say, Google Maps or Microsoft Live Search -- and you will see a map of the address displayed in either a flyaway pop-up or another tab, depending on how the specific accelerator works. You can interact with the map on the pop-up in the same way as you would if you were on the provider's site.

Web Slices deliver changing information from another site into your browser -- for example, the progress of an eBay auction. They live in your address bar. Click them, and you'll see a portion of the other Web page -- the "slice" -- with the information that has changed.

As useful as Accelerators and Web Slices are, there is a significant problem with them -- there simply aren't very many available, aside from some written by Microsoft itself. So as useful as they are in theory, in practice they're not of much use.

That brings up what is probably Internet Explorer 8's biggest shortcoming -- compared to Firefox, which can be tricked out and pumped up by thousands of add-ons, there are very few add-ons written for IE.

Interface and extras

Internet Explorer 8's interface is simple and straightforward, although because there are no apparent menus, it can take some getting used to. The Page, Safety and Tools icons on the top right of the screen allow you to customize how the browser works, and icons give you access to the RSS reader and to Favorites. For those who miss menus, you can display them by pressing the Alt button.

Tab handling is excellent. A small but noteworthy feature is that, when you open a tab from an existing page -- for example, by clicking a link on it and opening that link in a new tab -- the new tab opens just to the right of the originating one, and both tabs are given the same color. This groups and color-codes related tabs for easy perusal. You can also easily move and rearrange tabs, reopen closed tabs and so on.

The address bar does double-duty as a place to type URLs and a place to search the Web, as well as previously visited Web sites, Favorites and RSS feeds. And the search box to the right of the Address Bar is nifty as well -- when you choose a search engine, that search engine can customize the results displayed there. When you search The New York Times from the search box, for example, you'll see full headlines matching your search results, as well as pictures.

The bottom line

Internet Explorer 8 includes some very useful and innovative features such as Accelerators, a straightforward interface, solid security, good tab handling and some very nice extras. That's all to the good. But because there are so few add-ons written for it, you can't do much to extend the browser's capabilities. If you're looking to expand your browser's power, you'll do better with Firefox.

-- Preston Gralla

Opera 10 (Windows)

With all the publicity surrounding Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer, Opera has become the browser that time forgot. Its share of the browser market has been bumping along at about 2%, according to research firm Net Applications, with no apparent sign of changing.

That low market share, though, has nothing to do with the browser's capabilities, which are substantial and in some ways superior to other browsers. Opera has a host of advanced features you won't find elsewhere, and is fast to boot. Version 10 managed to add several new features, while further increasing the speed of this already speedy browser.

Opera runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and a wide variety of mobile devices.

Browser features

Opera is a do-it-all browser that has just about any function you can name. It includes a pop-up blocker, tabbed browsing, a good bookmark manager, a download manager, a cookie manager ... name a popular feature and you can be pretty sure that Opera has it.

The usual features are just the beginning, though. Dig down a bit and you'll find some exceptionally useful tools that other browsers would do well to emulate.

Those who use browsers on more than one computer or more than one platform, for example, will welcome Opera Link -- a way to synchronize your bookmarks, history list and more among all of your computers.

Opera's Speed Dial is similar to Safari's Top Sites feature, but is more configurable. Whenever you open a new tab, you'll see a list of your most-visited sites displayed as thumbnails. You can have between 4 and 24 of the thumbnails displayed, and you can also add and remove sites on the list.

In addition, unlike competing browsers, Opera includes a robust e-mail client that supports IMAP as well as POP3, and has a spam filter and a way to create rules for handling incoming mail.

People who essentially live in their browsers will want to try out Opera's Notes feature which, as the name implies, lets you jot down notes. You'll be able to create multiple folders to organize them, and you can also search through your notes. There's e-mail integration as well, so that you can send any note via Opera's built-in e-mail client or an e-mail client of your choosing.

Bloggers and Facebook fans will appreciate Opera's inline spell checker. And if you've ever been frustrated by a slow connection -- for example, at a Wi-Fi hot spot in a café -- you'll want to try out Opera's Turbo Mode, which the company says compresses Web pages by as much as 80% as a way to speed up browsing. I found that at a slow hot spot, browsing was indeed improved; but that improvement came at a price, because the images on Web pages were noticeably degraded due to the compression.

Opera is notable not just for the breadth of its features, but for each individual feature's depth as well. For example, its download manager lets you pause and resume downloads, and gives important information about each download, including its speed and progress. Dig into almost any feature and you'll find similar depth.

Given all that, it's surprising that Opera lacks one feature that Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer all have: private browsing. It's a surprising oversight. If this feature is important to you, you'll have to find it in another browser.

Interface and extras

Opera manages to stuff all these features into a straightforward interface. The menus are organized well, and so it's easy to find features with a little bit of digging. Opera is a bit more cluttered-looking than competing browsers, but that's because it has so many more features.

This browser really shines when it comes to tab handling. When there's new information available on one of your pages, a small blue dot appears on the upper right of the tab, alerting you that there's been a change. You can easily re-open closed tabs by pressing Ctrl-Z. Opera also sports resizable thumbnails that show the content of your tabs, so you can see at a glance what content is in each tab.

There are other nice extras as well, such as the ability to navigate the Web using mouse gestures. And the Rewind button is a clever little feature that lets you jump back to the beginning of a tab's browsing session.

I did find one compatibility issue with Opera: It was unable to work with the Web-based version of Google Talk. Other than that, I had no problems browsing the Web with it.

Opera also has a variety of plug-ins, although not nearly as many as are available for Firefox.

The bottom line

Who should use Opera? If you want the most feature-packed browser, and don't care about a bit of clutter, it's certainly worth a try.

-- Preston Gralla

Firefox 3.5 (Mac)

Although most of Firefox's major updates and improvements were introduced with last year's version 3.0 update, version 3.5 for Macintosh, released in June, offers enough improvements to warrant the download.

Browser features

One of Firefox 3.5's key enhancements is, of course, performance. The latest version uses the Gecko 1.9.1 engine for HTML rendering and the TraceMonkey engine for faster JavaScript rendering. For everyday use, this translates to noticeably faster rendering of Web pages compared to earlier versions.

However, if absolute speed is really important to you, Google's Chrome (still in beta on the Mac) or Apple's Safari are the browsers to get. According to tests I ran using Futuremark's online benchmarking application Peacekeeper, Chrome and Safari bested Firefox every time -- sometimes by a lot, sometimes by a little.

Firefox 3.5 embraces open Web standards, offering HTML 5 support -- that is, the ability to view multimedia based on commonly used standards such as JavaScript, CSS and HTML instead of using proprietary plug-ins like Adobe's Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight. Currently, the HTML 5 standard is still in its infancy, and there is a war of wills between Apple and the Mozilla group concerning the use of codecs.

Format squabbles aside, the ability to natively stream content from the Web without the use of proprietary plug-ins is a win for everyone. No doubt the Mozilla group will ensure that Firefox adheres to the Web's constantly evolving standards.

Another benefit of HTML 5 is support for offline resource caching, which allows downloading Web content for offline access. Firefox now supports this, too.

Firefox for Macintosh has also learned some tricks that have been available on other browsers for some time. As of version 3.5, it offers gesture support using Apple's laptop trackpad, similar to that offered by Safari. Web sites can be scrolled through using two fingers, Web pages can be navigated back and forward with a three-finger swipe, and Web content can be zoomed out and in using the pinch and reverse-pinch gestures.

In addition, Firefox now supports private browsing. I found that private browsing worked as advertised; once turned on, Web sites leave no apparent bits of evidence that they were visited on your computer. Using Firefox's Privacy Preferences, it's possible to set Private browsing as a permanent mode.

Another new Firefox feature is location-aware browsing. For example, if you type the word "pizza" in Firefox's Google search field, you'll get listings, map results and phone numbers of pizza restaurants near your location. These services have been available on mobile handsets like the iPhone for some time, and now that it's in Firefox, searching for local areas of interest should be that much easier.

Interface and extras

Firefox's default interface features an oversized back button, along with the usual retinue of navigation icons: forward, reload, stop, home, address bar (with site identity and drop-down history) and a search bar (featuring a drop-down search engine selection). Below that is the bookmark bar, and below that, browser tabs. Throughout, there are splashes of color in the display of site icons and the search/address bar fields.

Although I'm more of a Safari fan, the default Firefox look is straightforward and laid out well enough for most people. It's certainly an improvement over earlier versions, and if you don't like it, you can download a wide variety of themes that change the look.

Where Firefox truly shines is in its customizability, which can't be matched by any other browser. Add-ons are still Firefox's strength, with over 6,000 available for download.

For example, Walter Coots, a Web developer I've worked with in the past on site designs, noted that Firefox offers a wide variety of add-ons for Web workers. "I have one add-on that allows me to switch which version of Flash I have installed," he said. "The debug (developer) version of Flash player also has support for outputting errors, and there's an add-on in Firefox that allows me to see that in the sidebar."

The bottom line

The latest Firefox for Mac offers plenty of compelling new features and improvements, and the attention to detail shows. There's a reason this browser is grabbing so much attention. If you're still using Safari, it might be time to see what this fast-growing open-source upstart is like, especially if you like customization.

-- Michael DeAgonia

Safari 4 (Mac)

Safari 4 for Macintosh offers quick and reliable browsing framed within a minimal interface, with rendering speeds that rival any modern browser on the Mac platform.

Safari's integration with the technologies inherent to Mac OS X and Apple hardware -- like the gesture support for multitouch trackpads -- means that Safari users can expect to enjoy a very Mac-like experience. On a PC running Windows, Safari feels like just another polished browser; on the other hand, on a Mac, the combined package makes it my top pick.

Browser features

Based on the open source WebKit browser engine, Apple's Safari has for years included features such as a built-in Google search field, private browsing, iTunes-esque bookmark management, auto-fill for Web forms, a consistent pop-up blocker, a built-in RSS feed reader and Snapback (the ability to return to the starting point while browsing nested Web pages or search results).

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