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The landscape is evolving and you can either change with it or be left behind. This is the position browser makers find themselves in as cloud computing and touch interfaces take center stage, as Windows 8 with its vastly overhauled UI continues to wiggle into more homes and businesses around the world, and as web developers push increasing amounts of rich content at site visitors.
Assuming all browsers handle online content reasonably well, you might be asking yourself why your choice of browser matters, since they’re all free to use. Don’t sell yourself short—you and every other computer user with an Internet connection matters to browser makers. More than just having an effect on your personal online experience, the browser you select is essentially a vote in favor of which company wields the most control over emerging and evolving web standards, which itself directly impacts how you see and experience the web.
Secondly, there are advertising dollars at stake. The majority of Mozilla’s funding for Firefox comes from Google, which pays the open source browser maker an obscene amount of cash (around $300 million annually) to have its search engine the default option.
There’s a lot at stake, and on the following pages, we’ll weigh in on each browser’s strengths and weaknesses. When evaluating a browser, we look for standout features, security protocols, privacy options, and raw speed. The stage is set, but which will emerge the victor: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or Opera?
Fast and nimble, but no longer the pack leader
In the little more than two years that elapsed since our last major browser brouhaha, Mozilla has taken Firefox from version 4 all the way to version 23, which itself is likely to be a version or two behind by the time you read this. That’s because Mozilla adopted a rapid release schedule that sees a new build around every 6 weeks. Mozilla felt pressured to keep up with fast evolving web standards like HTML5 and decided it was best to push out new features as quickly as possible. As a result, Firefox never gets outdated, though new builds end up feeling more like micro-updates rather than major revisions.
If we focus solely on Firefox 23, there’s not a lot that’s new compared to the previous release. Mozilla removed some of the shine from the logo, added a button to the toolbar to share websites with participating social networks like Facebook, and beefed up security. Over the course of the last several releases, however, Firefox added a built-in PDF reader, gained a social API, added support for Retina displays on Mac OS X 10.7 and up, and made a few other tweaks. Somewhere along the line, Mozilla finally managed to plug the infamous memory leak issue that plagued earlier versions.
Mozilla diligently patches security holes in each new release. In Firefox 23, Mozilla shored up its browser’s defenses by injecting a mixed-content blocking mechanism. When a secure HTTPS page loads non-secure, unencrypted content over HTTP (known as mixed content), you’re susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks. Mozilla’s mixed-content blocker doesn’t let non-secure, active content through by default, thereby providing a layer of protection against these attacks. Cool, right?
One feature we hoped Firefox would have added by now is turning on the Do Not Track (DNT) setting by default. Much to the chagrin of advertisers who serve up tracking cookies, Mozilla has long planned to do this, but it keeps getting delayed for one reason or another. Still, it’s there as an option, and so is the infamous private-browsing, which lets you surf the web without leaving any trace of your whereabouts once you close the browser.
1. Since it’s not enabled by default, manually turn on Firefox’s Do Not Track feature by clicking on the Firefox menu and navigating to Options > Options > Privacy. Select the radio button that reads, “Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked.”
3. Need more real estate? Click Firefox > Options > Toolbar layout and check “Use Small Icons.”
1) New to Firefox 23, you can now share websites on Facebook by clicking a button in the toolbar. Other social sites plan to integrate this function, too.
2) To poke your head underneath the hood, type about:config in the URL bar and explore the underlying parts. Be careful though, changing settings can bork your browser.
3) Other than the optional sidebar, Firefox 23 is virtually identical in appearance to Firefox 4 from two years ago. Now that Windows 8 is here, we suspect Mozilla will tweak the UI for touch navigation.
4) Whoops, did you accidentally close a tab? Bring it right back by pressing Ctrl+Shift+T. If you want even more control over tabs, hunt down the Tab Mix Plus add-on.
Click the next page to read about Opera and Chrome.