Web browsers review and compare

Our browser showdown reveals performance winners.
 
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01 .Introduction

iStock_web-browsers

The top 5 web browsers go head-to-head

We tested five leading web browsers for speed, safety and versatility. Our results turned the popularity scale on its head, revealing that browsers with the smallest share of the market outperform their more popular cousins.

Web browsers are arguably the most used programs on personal computers today - for communication, shopping, fact finding and online entertainment. They have changed the way we see and interact with the world, putting access to almost any information literally at our fingertips.

The web has evolved from simple pages to an interactive multimedia-rich experience. The better your browser, the quicker and easier you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Standard browser features now include:
  • Tabbed browsing
  • RSS (Really Simple Syndication) information feeds
  • Customisation with widgets, plug-ins, add-ons and other extensions designed to enhance your browsing experience. Of course, that means keeping your browser and any associated plug-in or add-on programs up to date. 

A good web browser will provide background security measures against the many tricks and traps used by malware makers, including spam, spyware, objectionable material and ID theft.

Speed and compatibility are basic but important features. Although the speed of your computer, internet connection and the site you’re browsing all play a part in determining your overall browsing speed, you’ll still notice a difference due to the speed of the browser itself. In fact, our testing shows considerable difference in how fast the popular web browsers run, and how accurately they process the major languages of the web, such as HTML and JavaScript.

Web browsers are free to download and some are cross-platform, so you can use several, switching between them for different browsing tasks. Otherwise, you can try them all and then settle on your favourites. 

Whichever you use it’s important to configure the settings of each one carefully, especially in the area of privacy and security.

For more information on Internet, see Networking and internet.

Products we tested

  • Apple Safari
  • Google Chrome
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 
  • Mozilla Firefox
  • Opera
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google-chrome

Chrome

  • Google’s open source browser, released in late 2008. Chrome’s emphasis is on speed, simplicity and style, using layout themes and an uncluttered look.
  • Like Safari, Chrome uses the open source WebKit rendering engine originally developed as KHTML under Linux and later adopted by Apple. It borrows ideas from other open source projects and even from Firefox in a bid to bring the best features together in one browser. As of early December 2009 it also comes in beta versions for Linux and Mac.
  • Google has also opened Chrome to developers to create third-party extensions.
  • A notable feature is its stability – each tab works independently, so if one crashes, the others don’t go down with it. Another is the Omnibox – Chrome’s address bar that doubles as a search box. It also has an “incognito” mode for private browsing.
  • Chrome still doesn’t have a print preview feature.

firefoxFirefox

  • Ranks a distant second behind IE for market share.
  • Offers a high level of customisability due to third-party support for its extensible architecture, which lets you install add-on programs to give the browser extra capabilities. This helps keep Firefox relatively lean, but allows individual users to add specific features that they like.  
  • Firefox’s developer, Mozilla, claims more than 6000 free add-ons are available to choose from. Popular Firefox extensions include ad blockers, appearance enhancers, toolbars, video downloaders, social networking tools and security enhancers.
  • You can search for Firefox add-ons using the menu on the Firefox home page (www.firefox.com) or via Add-ons in the Tools menu. Many Firefox extensions also work in the SeaMonkey and Flock web browsers, which are also developed by Mozilla. Firefox 3.5 also includes a private browsing mode.
  • Mozilla claims Firefox 3.5 is more than twice as fast as Firefox 3, and 10 times as fast as Firefox 2, but our testing shows it still lags behind Chrome, Safari and Opera.

operaOpera

  • More of an internet suite than just a browser (particularly the latest version).
  • Gives you tools to do a wide range of tasks besides browsing. This includes: email, managing contacts, chatting on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) clients, downloading files via BitTorrent, and reading Web feeds.
  • Has its own widgets – small web applications that start from within Opera - and historically a trailblazer, leading the way with features that are now common on modern browsers including tabbed browsing, speed dial (web page previews for navigation) and mobile browsing.
  • Widely cross-platform - it even has versions for the Nintendo DS and Wii games consoles. Two unique features are mouse gestures and voice control. The latest version, 10.10, was released after we had finished testing, but is notable as it has several major improvements. These include Opera Unite, a platform for developers to include programs within the browser such as a web server, file and photo sharing, chat room hosting, and even media streaming.

safariSafari

  • Apple’s own browser is available for Mac OS X and for Windows, powered by the speedy WebKit engine and with mobile versions for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
  • Safari incorporates the look and feel of Mac OS X with the Cover Flow feature that lets you flip through pages of your browsing history and bookmarks and also includes tabbed browsing, page previews and private browsing.

internet-explorerInternet Explorer

  • With the Microsoft behemoth behind it, Internet Explorer is probably the baseline for web browsing.
  • Its massive market share means web developers have to take compatibility with IE into account when creating any website. Microsoft’s Mac version was discontinued several years ago, so IE is now made only for Windows. Like Chrome, the latest version of IE runs each tab as a separate process to boost stability and security and also features a secure mode for “private browsing”.

Did you know?

WorldWideWeb was the name of the first web browser, created by by British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in 1991. It was developed on and for the NeXTSTEP platform and later renamed Nexus to avoid confusion with the World Wide Web. Netscape Navigator hit the market three years later and quickly became the world’s most popular browser, accounting for 90% of all web use at its peak.

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Price ($)Overall scorePerformance (%)Ease of use (%)Memory usage (MB)Memory usage - 10 tabs open (MB) (B)Download managerPassword managerSpelling checkPrivacy modeAuto-updaterTabbed browsingPop-up blockingAd filteringAnti-phishing toolsFull-text history searchSupports third-party add-onsWindows XPWindows VistaWindows 7LinuxMac OS XiPhone OSWindows MobileWindows CESymbianWebsiteGood PointsBad PointsBrand
                               
3.0.195.33Free90889236350Google Chrome
10.01Free867710027228Opera
3.5.5Free81739235170Mozilla Firefox
4.03Free80877055416Apple Safari
8Free42256725317Microsoft Internet Explorer
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How we test

The overall score comprises 60% for performance and 40% for ease of use.

Ease of use includes installing and configuring the software; navigating web pages, searching and changing browser settings, as well as the ease of clearing private information such as cache, cookies, histories of browsing, download, data from forms and searches, passwords and so on; plus changing the look and feel of the browser (via themes or skins).

Performance is calculated from two benchmarking packages that test each browser for speed and compliance with web standards. Our tester also evaluates how efficiently each browser uses memory.

  • Speed is based on the Peacekeeper (service.futuremark.com/peacekeeper) benchmark that measures browser performance by testing a range of browser rendering features, including JavaScript. A higher Peacekeeper score means faster and smoother web browsing.
  • Compliance is important to ensure web pages display correctly. The Acid3 (www.webstandards.org/acid3) test is used to see how a browser complies with current web standards.
  • Memory is a test of each browser’s memory usage by first launching the browser and recording the amount of RAM used by default, then loading 10 different pre-selected websites each in a seperate tab to simulate a heavier load. Heavier memory usage can impact low-memory systems, such as netbooks and some laptops. This result doesn’t contribute to the overall score.
Speed is important. Slow browsing will turn the worldwide web into the worldwide wait. All the browsers tested claim to render at lightning speed, but our testing shows Google Chrome and Apple Safari are neck and neck but streets ahead of the competition. 

Expandability is one reason browsers gain loyal users. The ability to personalise the look and feel of your browser and add extra abilities via themes or skins, add-ons and plug-ins can make it more attractive and easier to use and a lot more functional. Note, however, that loading up any browser with add-ons will likely slow it down, so exercise restraint and use only the ones you really want.

Shortcuts built into the browser can add up to big time savings over the course of a web surfing session. One of the simplest is Tabs, which let you open multiple sites in one browser window, reducing time and window clutter. Likewise for easily accessible thumbnails of websites you visit frequently, such as Opera’s Speed Dial, Safari’s Top Sites and Chrome’s Thumbnails. Both Opera and Chrome have a timesaving paste-and-go feature option which helps navigate quickly to new links with a single click. Some browsers, including Chrome, Firefox and Opera, also give you the option to automatically open previously opened web pages when the browser launches.

Security is vital because browsers are some of the most used PC programs, and are big targets for malware makers. Most browsers have built-in security features ranging from ad blocking to anti-phishing but it’s important to check the security settings of each browser you use.
Some browsers have a privacy mode that clears your tracks from the PC you use, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re browsing anonymously. Without specially configured tools, browsing still leaves tracks on the internet. It’s important to still exercise caution when browsing and to keep your browser up to date. Updates often include patches that fix security vulnerabilities.

Top tip

For information on the web browser you’re using, along with hints, tips and tests, go to the whatbrowser site.

Dictionary

  • HTTP HyperText Transfer Protocol, the language used to format and display web pages.
  • IP address The identification number for a computer or device on a TCP/IP network.
  • JavaScript An object-oriented scripting language often used to add interactivity to web pages. 
  • Plug-ins help your browser perform specific functions like viewing special graphic formats or playing multimedia files. Plug-ins are slightly different from extensions, which modify or add to existing functionality.
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