Browser Battle 2011: Who Is the New King of the Web?

Alan Fackler

The last time Maximum PC played host to a knock-down, drag-out dogfight for the browser crown , it was predominantly a two way scuffle featuring Mozilla’s spunky Firefox browser, then in version 2.0, versus Microsoft’s revitalized Internet Explorer, which had just been updated to IE7. We ultimately declared Firefox the winner, but that was four years ago, which, in computer years, is an eternity. Boy how things have changed since then, and at the same time, stayed the same.

For starters, Internet Explorer still claims the largest share of the browser market. This has been the case for more than a decade now. Firefox, meanwhile, has maintained its rank as the world’s second most used browser and remains a fan favorite among enthusiasts.

But there’s also now a third contender vying for browser dominance. We’re of course talking about Google Chrome, which didn’t even exist four years ago. That’s OK, because Chrome has had little difficulty making up for lost time. Now in version 10, Chrome’s expanded feature set and growing popularity have earned it the right to go up against IE9 and Firefox 4. These are the latest and greatest among the “Big 3” browser makers, and what’s at stake is not just bragging rights, but piles of advertising dollars and control over emerging web standards.

Our goal is to figure out which of these three is the best vehicle for navigating cyberspace. We’ll be paying particular attention to new features, security, privacy, and of course performance. We’ll even throw in a few power user tips for each one. And for those of you who roll with Opera and Safari, don’t worry, we’ll cover the latest versions of those, too. In the words of Michael Buffer, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Google Chrome 10

Sleek, fast, and one version short of awesome

It’s hard to imagine now, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt initially wanted no part of the “bruising browser wars,” or so he told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page did, however, and they hired a few Firefox developers to build a concept version of Chrome. Schmidt was instantly convinced Chrome could be a game changer, and less than three years after its introduction, Chrome’s browser market share sits in double-digits. Chrome follows an aggressive release schedule and the version we’re looking at here is Chrome 10 (final).

What’s New?

Google didn’t invent the web browser, but it did popularize the concept of a minimalistic interface. Chrome 10 retains this bare-bones approach and takes it a step further by eliminating the Page button. Now the Wrench icon sits by itself to the right of the Omnibar.

Other changes are just as subtle. The Options menu now opens in a tab and includes an awesome search function. Type password, for example, and you’re presented with a bunch of related options and privacy settings, which would normally appear on separate pages. Also new to Chrome 10, you can synchronize passwords, not just other items, between various computers.

Security

Chrome has always been big on security, and version 10 includes dozens of patches. It also updates automatically and disables outdated plugins so you’re never rocking a compromised build, so long as you restart Chrome when prompted.

Google expanded Chrome’s sandboxing feature to wrap around the browser’s integrated Adobe Flash Player plugin. This is important because Flash seems to be attracting more attention from hackers lately. It took a collaborative effort from Adobe and Google to put Flash in a sandbox, adding an additional layer of protection by isolating it from the OS.

Privacy

If you steer clear of thunderstorms because it’s too risky with your tinfoil hat, then you’re probably worried Chrome is just another vehicle for Google to track your every move. The disclaimer that Chrome “only communicates with Google services where absolutely necessary to deliver features and functionality” probably doesn’t help, but Google points out that you can disable features that require this.

We also applaud Chrome’s Incognito private browsing mode which, unlike Firefox, can be run in a separate browser window simultaneously with a regular browser window.

Performance

In addition to popularizing the concept of a minimalistic browser UI, the other thing Chrome is known for is speed. Chrome 10 kicked it up a notch with its retooled CrankShaft JavaScript engine and ran circles around the other browsers in the majority of our JavaScript-specific benchmarks. It reminded us of that scene where Superman circles the Earth to reverse its rotation.

Unfortunately, Chrome 10 lacks GPU-assisted acceleration, at least by default. Even when enabled—which entails mucking with secret commands – Chrome struggles to process 3D content at the same clip as FF4 and IE9. (See our comparative benchmarks chart on page 48).

Power User Tips

1. Turn on GPU acceleration by typing about:flags in the Omnibar. Enable GPU Accelerated Computing and GPU Accelerated Canvas 2D.

2. To make a favicon-only bookmarks bar, simply delete the text in the Name field when saving a bookmark. If you do this, Chrome will just show the favicon, and you’ll earn 200 geek cred points.

3. Get a geeky breakdown of Chrome’s resource management by typing about:memory into the Omnibar, which even shows how much memory other open browsers are using.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9

Look who decided to show up to the modern-day browser scene!

Internet Explorer’s tight integration with Windows played a big role in Microsoft’s ability to bury its one-time nemesis, Netscape Navigator. IE’s market share skyrocketed, and then innovation came to a screeching halt. More than five years passed between the release of IE6 and IE7, and there have only been two major revisions since then.

But now, there's Internet Explorer 9.

What’s New?

Out of the box, IE9 affords more real estate for browsing than either Chrome or Firefox, and that’s because Microsoft whittled the UI down to the bare essentials. Everything’s been consolidated to a single row, with tabs appearing to the right of the dual-purpose URL/search bar.

IE9 integrates well with Windows 7, and specifically Aero Snap. To view web pages side-by-side, you simply drag two tabs to opposite ends of the screen and they’ll snap in place next to each other. You can also pin sites to the Taskbar simply by dragging them there.

There’s a new Download Manager (finally!) that lets you pause downloads, an Add-on Performance Advisor that audits add-ons and tells you how much they’re bogging down your browser, and if you right-click anywhere in the main window, you can navigate directly to an address copied to your clipboard.

Security

One of the biggest concerns with Internet Explorer has always been Microsoft’s ActiveX technology, which hackers like to use as a gateway to install malicious software on your PC. Microsoft introduced Per-Site ActiveX controls in IE8, prompting users when a site tries to run ActiveX. Microsoft has taken it a step further in IE9 with ActiveX Filtering, which allows users to turn off ActiveX controls for the entire web and enable them only for trusted sites.

IE9 includes an improved Smart Screen filter that checks websites for malicious code, and the Download Manager performs several security checks before downloading files. There’s also a cross-site scripting (XSS) filter that helps prevent compromised websites from recording your login information.

Privacy

By now you’re undoubtedly familiar with IE’s InPrivate Browsing mode, or porn mode. The feature remains in IE9.

Private browsing was last year’s big ticket item. This year it’s tracking protection. IE9 offers surfers a new opt-in mechanism that blocks elements of websites from tracking your online behavior. This is accomplished by subscribing to Tracking Protection Lists (TPLs), which you have to seek out on your own and enable. It’s sort of like a cross between a Do Not Call list and a lite version of AdBlock, in that some ads end up being blocked, depending on which list(s) you subscribe to.

Performance

Despite the drastic new look to IE9, the biggest changes are all behind the scenes. Microsoft rewrote the layout engine from the ground up for rich, interactive sites, and the new Chakra JavaScript engine is several times faster than in previous versions of IE. Hardware accelerated graphics also play a big role in IE9, which is revealed in several tech demos on IE9’s website.

Is IE9 fast? The answer is yes, and this is the first version of IE that doesn’t feel as though it’s being dragged down by unnecessary cruft. And while it’s still not as snappy as Chrome, IE9 has the edge in processing GPU-accelerated content, at least temporarily.

Power User Tips

1. To always open IE9 in full-screen mode, open up your system registry (Start > Regedit) and navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Main. Change the Fullscreen value to Yes.

2. To run InPrivate Mode automatically, create a desktop shortcut and type the following in the path box: “C:\Program Files\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe” –private

3. Don’t like the placement of the Stop and Refresh buttons? Right-click and select “Show Stop and Refresh before Address bar.”

Next Page: Mozilla Firefox 4, and Opera 11!

Mozilla Firefox 4

Still the best option for power users

Firefox is an open-source alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary browser, and like Russell. Crowe in Gladiator , Firefox has been winning the crowd ever since it stepped into the ring. Mozilla had just released its first Release Candidate of Firefox 4 when we put this story together, so that’s what we used for testing. The final version should be out by the time you read this.

What’s New?

Mozilla completely overhauled the user interface in Firefox 4 with the intention of making it sleeker and easier to use. It’s the biggest aesthetic update since Firefox first came out, and a welcome one if you appreciate less clutter. All the menu items are neatly tucked away and accessible via a single Firefox button in the upper left corner.

New features abound, like the ability to sync your browser settings across multiple devices, multitouch support in Windows 7, and a new tabbed interface drawing inevitable comparisons to Chrome. The Add-On Manager now opens in a tab, too.

Security

As you might expect, Firefox 4 is the most secure version of Firefox yet. It’s also the least glamorous topic because many of the safeguards that keep the bad guys away work silently in the background. One of the biggest new security safeguards is a new feature called HTTP Strict Transport Security. This is supposed to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks that hijack regular HTTP connections and make them appear as HTTPS, like when logging into a banking institution using an untrustworthy network (think of a public Wi-Fi hotspot). Support in Firefox is only half of the equation; HSTS also requires websites to play ball.

Privacy

Firefox’s Private Browsing mode is left largely unchanged in Firefox 4, which means you can’t run an incognito session and a regular session simultaneously like you can in Chrome, even if you have multiple browser windows open. Firefox does, however, restore your regular session when you’re finished, um, looking up anniversary gifts (that is why you use Private Browsing, right?).

There’s a new Do Not Track feature receiving tons of hype. When enabled (found under Options > Advanced), Firefox sends a header to websites telling them you don’t want to be followed. It’s a neat idea, but still relies on the honor system; a website can choose to blatantly ignore your request.

Performance

Midway through Firefox 4’s development, Mozilla injected the browser with its JägerMonkey JavaScript engine, a wise move considering that earlier betas of the next-generation browser felt sluggish and were getting slammed in the enthusiast community. In its current form, Firefox 4 runs and feels much faster than its predecessor, though it still isn’t as nimble as Chrome in JavaScript heavy tasks. But unlike Chrome, Firefox boasts hardware acceleration, tapping into your GPU to boost performance when rendering graphics heavy tasks. Chrome will address this in version 11, but for the time being, the advantage belongs to Firefox (and IE9).

Power User Tips

1. To quickly view pages you’ve recently visited, right-click the left and/or right arrow(s).

2. Is your favorite Firefox 3.6 add-on blocked in FF4? Type about:config in the address bar. Right-click and select New > Boolean, and enter extensions.checkCompatibility.4.0. Select False for the value.

3. Miss the menu bar? Bring it back by pressing Alt > View > Toolbars > Menu Bar.

Opera 11

The Opera browser finally sings with add-ons

One of the great innovators in the browser space, Norwegian software maker Opera Software has been in the browser business for 14 years, either inventing or popularizing forward-thinking concepts that we take for granted today, like tabbed browsing. This time around, Opera 11, which we’re reviewing in final form, plays catch-up to the other browsers in this roundup.

What’s New?

Given Opera Software’s long history of blazing a trail in browser development, it’s a bit ironic that Opera is one of the last browsers to adopt extensions, which are finally included here in the latest build. At the time of this writing, there were just 446 add-ons to choose from, though that’s 446 more than were available for Opera 10. We also find it interesting that Opera is just now getting around to adding predictive text queries, known as search suggestions. Opera 11 also introduces tab stacking, allowing you to plop tabs on top of each other in manageable groups, as well as visual mouse gestures—a handy cheat sheet appears when you hold the right mouse button.

Security

Opera 11 makes intelligent use of the address field to give users a quick rundown of a website’s security. When visiting a site, most of the URL is grayed out or hidden, save for the main domain. In addition, security badges are color-coded, with yellow for secure, green for trusted, blue for Opera’s Turbo mode, and gray for the rest. Clicking these badges reveals a site’s encryption level and whether or not it has a clean security record.

Privacy

The option to open a private browsing session is buried deeper than in the other browsers here (Menu > Tabs and Windows > New Private Window), but once you find it, you’ll also see an option to open a private tab. And when installing extensions, two privacy checkboxes let you choose whether or not to allow them to interact with secure pages and/or private tabs.

Performance

Hardware acceleration isn’t being introduced until version 11.5, so already Opera’s a bit behind the performance curve compared to some of the competition. But what version 11 lacks in GPU-assisted rendering, it makes up for in JavaScript performance and overall pep. Subjectively, browsing just feels fast, and objectively Opera 11’s benchmark scores were competitive. Sadly, performance in some cases comes at the cost of compatibility, such as the inability to use Google’s Instant Search for search queries or Instant Scrolling for images.

Next Page: Safari 5, the performance benchmarks, and we declare a winner!

Safari 5

One of the fastest browsers around (in 2010)

It’s easy to tell that Apple developed the Safari browser, which looks like it was plucked straight from Mac OS X. That’s because it was. Safari started off as a Mac-only browser in 2003 before making the jump to Windows in 2007. Safari 5, the last major update, came out in June 2010.

What’s New?

If you abhor flipping through multipage articles, you’ll instantly fall in love with Safari Reader. This handy tool automatically detects when you’re on an article page and presents a Reader icon in the address bar. Clicking it brings up the entire article in a scrollable eBook-like reader in the foreground stripped of extra elements, like ads and buttons. It’s an awesome way to digest longer write-ups.

Safari 5 supports extensions, which are divided into 16 categories. There’s also a hidden extension builder accessible by enabling the Develop menu in the menu bar (Settings > Preferences > Advanced) if you want to try your hand at making your own add-ons.

Security

On the Mac OS X platform, Safari tags downloads with certain vitals, like when a file was downloaded and where it came from. That same information isn’t available in Windows, though Safari’s other safeguards extend across both platforms. Safari blocks tracking cookies by default, as well as pop-up ads, and it also includes a cross-site scripting (XSS) auditor that sniffs out and filters malicious scripts.

Privacy

Steve Jobs once famously said, “Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,” but it turns out they can also use Safari, which includes a private browsing mode like all the other browsers in this roundup. And like the others, Apple pitches less obscene uses for private browsing, like checking your email at a library (yeah, sure).

Safari 5 boasts built-in parental controls for parents of kids who aren’t computer savvy enough to figure out how to circumvent them, but this is another option native to Mac OS X and not available in Windows. If you do own a Mac, you can set up a list of approved websites and view activity logs, all within the browser.

Performance

Six months ago we’d be singing a different tune, but compared to the current crop of browsers, Safari 5 is a step behind. The Nitro JavaScript engine is in need of another tune-up, and while hardware acceleration is present, it didn’t pay off in benchmarks. And what’s with not being able to search in the URL bar? Boo!

Browser Performance

Chrome 10 Firefox 4
Internet Explorer 9
Safari 5
Opera 11
Futuremark Peacekeeper
10,963*
5,143
7,230 5,563 10,966*
SunSpider (ms)
231.2
226 195.1* 303.1 227.9
Google V8
9,743* 4,693 3,006 2,995 4,362
Celtic Kane JSBenchmark
856*
610 499 518 635
NonTroppo Table Rendering (ms)
227
538 777 136* 304
GUIMark HTML5 (fps)
7.4 21.6 20.1 5.5 34.6*
Mozilla Dromaeo JavaScript (runs per second)
715.5 *
491 591.3 290.4 470.5
Acid3
100 97 95 100 100
Microsoft Preschool Demo (Sec)
15.5
13.2 3.9* WNR WNR
Microsoft Maze Solver Demo (sec)
189 104 14 118 8.8*
Microsoft Psychadelic Demo (rpm)
74
3,016† 10,120 38 46†

Best scores have an asterisk. Our test bed was a Intel Core i7 930, Asus P6X58D Premium, 6GB Corsair DDR3/1333 RAM, a Radeon HD 5850, a Kingston 64GB SSDNow, and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. †Did not play sound.

And the Winner is…

If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that the browser market is in great shape. Firefox still gets our nod as the best of the best, but it’s not a runaway victory. If Chrome came with hardware acceleration enabled by default—and it will in version 11—then we might have had to give the nod to Google. Chrome is fast, it’s polished, and its extensions library is fleshed out. But so is Firefox 4, which has the added benefit of tapping into your GPU without the need to muck around with advanced code.

While enthusiasts debate the merits of Chrome versus Firefox, the biggest surprise is Internet Explorer 9. For the first time in a long time, a case can also be made for IE as the best browser of the bunch. We’re not willing to go that far with it, but there’s no doubt IE9 is a potential game changer for Microsoft, and not a moment too soon. IE’s market share lead continues to shrink as users seek out faster, sleeker browsers, and IE9 is both of those, plus a whole lot more. If IE9 represents the direction Microsoft is headed, Chrome and Firefox could be in trouble.

Alternative browser users don’t have it quite as good. Safari is a generation behind, and while we’re fans of Opera, the latest release is more about catching up to the competition than blazing a new trail, as has been Opera’s MO. Still, it’s another solid option among many.

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