Anyone who may have thought the death of Netscape would signal the end of the browser wars, boy were they mistaken. In fact, it could be argued that it was at that point it all began. It didn't take long for Mozilla's Firefox to emerge from Netscape Navigator's ashes, and over time, Firefox would win over enthusiasts with a potent combination of speed, security, and an unprecedented level of customization.
But what started as a two-man battle is quickly growing into all-out warfare. Prepare to be overwhelmed by an onslaught of new browser releases in the coming months as Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, Opera Software, and Google all vie to provide your vehicle for navigating the web. Each one brings something new to the table, whether it be blazing fast performance or a unique feature-set. Don't worry if you haven't been paying attention - we jump in the trenches with whole lot of them and get to know each one on a personal basis.
(story edit: moved Chrome to non-beta section, and corrected relationship of Apple to webkit)
Internet Explorer 7
Feeling the pressure from Mozilla's popular Firefox browser, Microsoft ended a five year hiatus after burying Netscape in the ground and finally jumped back into the browser game with a long overdue update. The IE team went back to the drawing board and totally reworked the browser's rendering engine, also adding tabbed browsing and add-ons to the mix, and then finished it off with a facelift.
Just how popular has Firefox become? Enough so that when Mozilla announced it would be releasing Firefox 3, power users lined up to download the new version, promptly setting a Guinness World Record for most number of software downloads in 24 hours. And rightly so. Better memory management, improved security, an aptly named AwesomeBar, and several other improvements made the best browser on the market even better.
Diehard Opera fans might take exception to referring to Opera as an alternative browser, and with the release of 9.6, they have a point. Several speed enhancements made the already fast browser even snappier, but our favorite feature is the new magazine-style RSS feeds.
Apple's DNA is evident in its Safari browser right from the get-go. Hardly surprising given that it began life on the Mac OS X operating system in early 2003. In the summer of 2007, Safari shed its Mac-only shackles and surfed over to Windows with claims of performing up to twice as fast as the competition. Soon to be old news, Apple is gearing up to replace Safari 3 with a significantly faster fourth version.
Google surprised everyone when its Chrome browser showed up on the web unannounced, and while there's clearly much work to be done, it's hard not to get excited over better tab management. Chrome treats each tab as its own process, so if there's a bug in a website's code that causes a crash, you only lose a single tab and not the entire browser. Bodacious!
Firefox 3.1 Beta 2
Internet Explorer 8 Beta
There's a good chance Microsoft will release IE8 later this month and some wonder whether or not the web will promptly be broken. That's because Microsoft is putting a much greater focus on becoming web standards-compliant. The downside? All those sites specifically coded for IE, including Microsoft.com, fall under IE's incompatibility list. D'oh!
Opera 10 Alpha
The only browser of the bunch to be in a pre-beta state, we include it here because it's one of the first browsers to fully comply with the Acid3 test with a 100 percent pass rate (Safari 4 being the other). If the new build can live up to its promise of a 30 percent performance boost, Opera may finally find its way onto more mainstream machines.
Safari 4 Beta
IE7 (Trident V and JScript 5.7)
Microsoft has been using the closed-source Trident framework dating all the way back to IE4 (Trident I). Since that time, Trident has been tweaked for each new version of Internet Explorer, receiving significant changes starting with IE7 (Trident V). A greater focus was put on standards compliance, and at long last, IE finally brought support for transparent PNG images. Trident's main advantage is IE's marketshare, so even though other rendering engines are far more compliant with web standards, the overwhelming majority of users are surfing the net with Trident. Anyone else suddenly craving some gum?
IE8 (Trident 4.0 and JScript 5.8)
Another IE release means another version of Microsoft's core layout engine. Now in version 4.0, the latest Trident iteration finally manages to pass the Acid2 test, but still scores low on the updated Acid3 test. But even more concerning for Microsoft is that this newest version just might 'break the web'. There has been so much tweaking under the hood that thousands of popular websites (2,400 and climbing) that formerly ran fine on IE no longer render correctly with IE8. Even Microsoft.com appears on MS's Compatibility View list, which is a list of websites known to render improperly on IE8 and are automatically rendered in IE7 compatibility mode. But what about the rest? A 'Compatibility View' button promptly 'fixes' borked sites that haven't been identified as such.
Firefox 3 (Gecko 1.9.0 and SpiderMonkey)
Netscape may have died an untimely death at the hands of Microsoft, but its soul lives on. We're talking about the open-source Gecko rendering engine, which started life at Netscape in 1997 and has been used with every version of Firefox. Gecko's main advantage is that it was built specifically to support open internet standards, but is also adept at rendering most web pages built for IE. The cross-platform engine also boasts support for a wide range of operating systems.
Firefox 3.1 (Gecko 1.9.1 and TraceMonkey)
This latest version of Firefox upgrades the Gecko engine from 1.9.0 to 1.9.1, bringing with it a few key changes that bely the incremental naming scheme. As expected, compliance with web standards is improved, but the update also ushers in support for border images, a private browsing mode, and enhancements to the AwesomeBar.
Opera 9.6 (Presto 2.1.1 and Futhark)
The second youngest of all the major rendering engines, Opera 9.6 continues to use the closed-source Presto platform first released in November 2002. Because it's not freely distributed, Opera is the only desktop browser to use the Presto engine, although it can also be found on a number of licensed third-party apps and devices, most notably the Nintendo DS and DSi, Wii Internet Channel, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX and above, and Adobe CS2 and above.
Opera 10 (Presto 2.2 and Futhark)
The next version of Opera sees an upgrade from Presto 2.1.1 to 2.2, and with it a claimed 30 percent performance boost on the web over the previous version. But it gets even better. Presto has always done exceptionally well with web standards, and the Presto 2.2 engine is one of the first ever to score a perfect 100/100 on the unforgiving Acid3 test (Apple claims it beat Opera to the punch, but we're content to call it a tie).
Chrome 1.0 (WebKit and V8)
The future looks bright for WebKit, the open-source rendering engined used by Google's Chrome browser. The WebKit platform has already found a home on Google's mobille platform Android, Palm webOS, and Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch. There's even been talk of both Microsoft and Mozilla switching to WebKit in future versions of IE and Firefox, respectively. While not as standards compliant as Presto, the WebKit framework is considered fast and highly versatile.
Many PC users never even heard of Safari until 2007, even though the browser had been in existence since 2003. That's because up until just two years ago, Safari was only available on the Mac, and only people with cooties own Macs. A series of security threats and vulnerabilities immediately following Safari's Windows debut meant PC users were at a high risk of getting cooties too.
Safari 4 (WebKit and Nitro)
Internet Explorer 8
Unlike the jump from IE6 to IE7, there isn't too much terribly different about IE8's UI compared to the previous version. Microsoft seems content to stick with the browser's redesigned layout, even if end users don't feel the same way. A new Favorites bar finds its way onto IE8, as does a new Safety menu option, and the Read Mail button now shows up on the toolbar by default. The rest of the layout remains virtually unchanged, including Microsoft's decision to move the Home, Refresh, and Stop buttons to the opposite side of the Back and Forward buttons.
It didn't take long for Microsoft to emulate Mozilla's recently introduced AwesomeBar. Microsoft calls it the Smart Location Bar in IE8, and as you type in URLs, IE8 sifts through your bookmarks and recently visited sites to try and guess your destination. But unlike Firefox, IE8 groups your search results, searches through RSS feeds, and lets you delete entries to prevent them from showing up in the future. Advantage: IE8.
Has Maximum PC gone toxic? No! Those green tabs are part of IE8's new tab grouping feature called Groups. Opening new tabs from within an existing one places them all next to each other in a color-coded group. You can then ungroup individual tabs, close out an entire group, or move tabs from one group to another.
Also notice that only newegg.com appears in black in the address bar, while the rest of the URL is grayed out. This is by design and intended to make it easier to identify what domain you're visiting. This also serves to help end users from being fleeced by spoof sites.
Like Microsoft, Mozilla made only subtle changes to its latest browser's layout, none of which are evident at a glance. But after a little digging, we did manage to uncover some differences in the UI. One such change is that when you now drag a tab, a semi-transparent thumbnail appears under the cursor. Should you drop the tab anywhere other than the tab bar, the page will instantaneously appear in a new browser window without having to reload. Pretty groovy, eh?
Firefox's awesome AwesomeBar gets even more, er, awesome in 3.1. The core functionality remains the same, only now you can customize the search results using different tags. If you start a search with ^, Firefox will only look through your history. Other tags include * (bookmarks), + (tagged pages), @ (URLS), and # (page titles only). Awesome!
Given the buzz that surrounds Google, we'd venture to guess you've already played around with Chrome. And if you're like us, you retired the minimalistic browser after the geek factor wore off. When we say 'minimalistic,' we're not referring to Chrome's feature-set, but the sparse UI, even more so than either IE7 or IE8. All the navigation tabs -- Back, Forward, Refresh, and Home -- sit to the left of the Address bar. Almost all other controls lay buried beneath a pair of icons to the right. It's the perfect layout for neat freaks and anyone whose mantra is 'less is more.'
Google still has some work to do with how Chrome handles an over-abundance of tabs. Once the tab bar is filled up, Chrome will squish new tabs to make them fit instead of creating a new row or making the overflow accessible via a pull-down menu. After awhile, tabs become so small that even the favicon is no longer visible, creating a fun game of 'find the hidden tab.'
Andrew Orlowski of The Register referred to Chrome as Google's "Trojan Horse for bundling Google's Gears onto your PC." Regardless of whether or not that was the intention, integrating Gears into Chrome comes in handy even if you decide not to use Chrome as your primary browser. What this does is create application shortcuts for websites that open in standalone windows, and not in a traditional browser window. Creating a Gmail shortcut, for example, gives you quick access to check your mail without opening up a browser.
Opera fans who attended the browser's Ninth Act will feel right at home in Act Ten. That's because the entire layout remains exactly the same, at least at this early stage (remember Opera 10 is still in Alpha). Navigation buttons appear comfortably to the left of the Address bar, with a Tab bar sitting above.
Out of the box, no other browser sports the same level of customization as Opera. Several toolbars and panels are at your disposal, and little nuances like the little camera icon in the lower right-hand corner add to Opera's appeal. By clicking on the camera, you can choose to disable all images, which could come in handy if your internet is on the fritz or you still roll with dial-up (*shudder*).
There's also a fit-to-width button, which squishes an entire page into your browser's frame to eliminate horizontal scrolling. This can come in particularly handy not only on smaller displays, but when some inconsiderate cretin posts an obsecenely long link in a forum thread (you know who you are) breaking the tables. Likewise, Opera's integrated zoom lets you shrink or expand web pages from 30 to 1000 percent the original size.
Put Safari 4 side by side with its predecessor and you'd think the two were completey different browsers. And they really are. Safari 4 sheds its Max OS X digs for a brand new look that appears far less out of place on a Windows desktop. Gone are the bubbly vertical and horizontal scroll bars, now replaced with the clunky looking bars familiar to any longtime Windows user.
Safari 4 also simplifies its navitation layout. The Refresh button has been integrated into the Address bar, and the Menu bar has been completely removed. Those options now appear in a pair of buttons in the upper right corner. The UI is very similar to Google's Chrome browser, just not quite as slimmed down. Tabs extend to the top, just like in Chrome, affording end-users a little more real-estate for those sexy full-page hardware spreads. Safari 4 makes better use of the Bookmarks toolbar, allowing you to not only add individual bookmarks, but category folders as well. A pull-down menu gives you quick access to any of your favorites contained inside.
We really dig the Top Sites feature, which shows the most often visited sites arranged in rows of thumbnails whenever you open the browser. Alternately, a button in the left-hand corner brings them within view if you've changed your homepage or navigated away.
iTunes users will feel right at home navigating through bookmarks and website history via Safari 4's Cover Flow interface. Safari displays a thumbnail preview as you scroll through your favorites and recently visited websites. Whether or not it adds to your browsing experience is up for debate, but it sure looks slick.
Start typing in a URL and Safari will try to guess where it is you're wanting to go based on your bookmarks and previously visited sites. Yes, this is the same as Firefox's AwesomeBar, only here it's called Smart Address and Smart Search. And yes, it's just as snazzy in Safari as it is in Firefox.
Microsoft not only set out to improve standards support with IE8, but because so much of the web has been coded with previous versions of IE in mind, Microsoft also had to focus on backwards compatibility. No easy task, IE8 does finally pass the Acid2 test, which is a test designed by The Web Standards Project (WaSP) to expose any flaws in how a browser renders properly coded webpages, but scores only a 20 out of a possible 100 on the newer, and much more stringent, Acid3 test.
By comparison, IE7's Acid2 results look like a bad acid trip gone even badder (to pass the test, a browser must properly render a smiley face graphic), and scores a miserable 12 out of 100 on the Acid3 exam. In this respect, IE8 signifies a huge improvement over IE7 in standards compliance, but it still lags behind every other major browser on the market.
Putting IE8's struggles with Acid3 aside, Microsoft made enough changes under the hood to essentially 'break the web.' In other words, existing websites developed with legacy IE behavior in mind might have trouble rendering properly on a more standards-compliant browser. To combat this, Microsoft built a Compatibility View feature into IE8. For popular websites Microsoft has already identified as being coded for previous versions of IE (including Microsoft.com), Compatibility View kicks in without any user intervention. For all other sites, the end-user can click the Compatibility View button located on the toolbar to manually force IE8 to emulate IE7. While this may seem like a kludge, the alternative was to let the web fend for itself, a sticky proposition given IE's dominant market share.
One of Firefox's claims to fame is that it has always been much more standards compliant than Internet Explorer. HTML, XML, XHTML, SVG 1.1, CSS, ECMAScript, DOM, PNG images with transparency, and several other web standards have been implemented in Firefox, and support has gotten even better in version 3.1. The latest build scores 93/100 on the Acid3 test, putting it far ahead of IE8, but still trailing Opera and now Safari as well.
Perhaps deserving of more buzz than its getting is Firefox 3.1's support for the CSS @font-face rule. With this ability, web developers have the option of specifying web fonts that must be downloaded for their website to appear as they intended. To prevent any delays from occurring, Firefox will first render the web page using available fonts, and then update the display as soon as the missing fonts are downloaded.
One of the first browsers to support Cascading Style Sheets, the Opera browser has since added a plethora of open and published standards to its repertoire. Opera was also the first Windows browser to pass the Acid2 test, and if that weren't enough, Opera was one of the first to score a perfect 100 on the Acid3 test (a case could be made that Safari 4 beat Opera to the punch, but we're content to call it a draw).
Like Firefox 3.1, Opera 10 adds web font support. The latest version also boasts improved HTML5 support and a host of other developer-friendly additions, which so far appears to be the major focus of Opera 10.
In theory, Google's Chrome browser should have an advantage right out of the gate. Google says that within 20-30 minutes of each new browser build, it can be tested on tens of thousands of different web pages because of Google's massive web crawling infrastructure. In reality, Chrome really is a fairly standards compliant browser, scoring a 79/100 on Acid3 test, enough to come out on top of IE7 and Firefox 3.
Given that Apple
gave birth to the WebKit rendering engine
forked KTHML (from the Konqueror browser) for Webkit, it would make sense the company knows best how to rev it up. Not only in terms of speed, but also in following the rules of the road. So it shouldn't be too surprising to see Safari 4 surf through the Acid3 test with a perfect 100/100, whereas Google's WebKit-based Chrome trails behind.
Like Firefox 3.1, Safari 4 implements support for HTML 5 media tags. This paves the way for web developers to offer audio and video content right inside the browser without requiring plugins.
As the most targeted browser on the planet, the onus falls on Microsoft to ensure IE doesn't leave millions of users as sitting ducks. IE7 ushered in a defensive mindset that hadn't been attributed to previous versions, and for the first time, browsing on IE felt secure. Active X controls no longer ran by default, users are protected from an attack called cross-domain scripting, and a new phishing fliter warns users who are about to visit a malicious website attempting to harvest personal information.
In IE8, even more safety guards are put in place. Phishing and malware protection has been revamped with a new SmartScreen Filter. When visiting a known phishing site, not only does the Address bar turn red, but the entire browser window as well. To click through to the questionable site anyway, users must first click on 'More information' before the option to 'Disregard and continue appears.' Even then, the Address bar remains red for as long as you stay on the unsafe site.
In addition to anti-phishing measures, the SmartScreen filter hones in on sites and servers known to distribute malware. Should you attempt to download from one of these locations, a dialog box appears letting you know you may be in for more than you bargained for.
One of the most talked about features in IE8 is the new InPrivate browsing mode, or more candidly referred to on the web as 'porn mode.' InPrivate browsing leaves no traces of your browsing session behind, such as cookies, cached files, browser history, or other incriminating evidence. This isn't just helpful for hiding your tracks when looking up Katie Morgan's latest acting role, but is also useful for gift shopping during the holidays or birthdays. Other possible uses include looking up banking information on a shared computer, researching health issues, and anything else you want kept private.
With its continued rise in popularity, Mozilla no longer has the luxury of resting on its laurels when it comes to Firefox's security. Building a secure browser has always been at the forefront of Mozilla's goals anyhow, only now Firefox has grown into a worthwhile target for hackers.
As an incremental upgrade, much of the same core security components in Firefox 3.0 find their way into 3.1. Phishing attempts are still thwarted with a less than subtle warning, and clicking a website's favicon brings up a security report. Clicking the 'More Information' button reveals whether or not the site is storing cookies on your PC, if you've saved any passwords for the site, and how many times you've visited that web page in the past.
Sites like Playboy.com, MacLife.com, and DetroitLions.com should all see an increase in hits once the next generation of browsers roll out, because nearly all of them include some form of privacy browsing to cover your tracks. In Firefox 3.1, you can initiate Private Browsing mode from the Tools menu. Only the files you choose to download and bookmarks you create are saved, everything else vanishes as if the session never took place. Kind of like the Detroit Lions' 2009 season.
Because of its low market share, Opera doesn't often find itself the center of security attacks. Nevertheless, the Opera team has generally been lightening quick to plug up security holes and vulnerabilities.
There hasn't been a whole lot said about the security in Opera 10, but one change forthcoming is that widgets no longer have network access turned on by default. In theory, this new security model should should help prevent hackers from exploiting errors in widgets.
Neither Opera 9.6 or the new Alpha build offer a true privacy browsing mode, though that could change as development continues on Opera 10. For the time being, users can cover their tracks by clicking on 'Delete Private Data' in the Tools menu. The downside is that all data will be released, not just the cache from the current browsing session, making it an all or nothing affair.
Google's Chromium team approached security from the standpoint that no matter what you do, eventually your browser will be compromised. That would normally spell doom for an otherwise healthy system, but in Chrome, running processes in a permissions-based sandbox keeps malware isolated from the OS. In this multi-process architecture, each tab is a treated as a separate process, none of which are given rights to write files to the hard drive or pluck information from sensitive areas. An added benefit to this approach is that if poorly written web code causes a crash, it only affects the individual tab it was loaded in, not the entire browser.
(Image Credit: Google)
The downside to Chrome's sandboxing approach is that it depends on Windows for its security, making it susceptible to vulnerabilities in the OS. In addition, legacy file systems, like FAT32, don't support security descriptors, preventing some USB keys and other devices from being protected by the sandbox.
Maybe you're a Miley Cyrus fan but don't want the whole world to know it, or at the very least, your immediate family. With Chrome's incognito option, you can surf wherever you want on the web in a new browser window that runs in read-only mode. Once you close the window, all traces of your activity are wiped out.
If Apple added (or plans to add) any underlying security enhancements to Safari 4, it isn't saying what they are. The same security and privacy features present on version 3.2 are also present on version 4, only now they're being more actively marketed (note that none of Safari 4's security features are listed as 'new').
While there doesn't appear to be much new in version 4, Safari already boasts some modern security measures, including phishing protection, pop-up blocking, antivirus integration, and a Private Browsing mode. There's also a 'Reset Safari' option to erase all traces of your browsing with a single mouse click.
Here again is another browser without an official extension architecture. And unlike Opera, which boasts several extensible features out of the box, mouse gestures and other features power users have come to rely on aren't built into the browser.
The situation is even worse for Windows users. Sites like PimpMySafari.com offer several user-created plug-ins for Safari on Mac OS X, but no such luck for the rest of us who own and operate a real PC. Not unless you can get excited about Real Player, Adobe Reader, and a small handful of other ho-hum plug-ins.
Our Real World Impression
Running web benchmarks only tell a part of the story. So many variables are involved that it's impossible to come up with a completely reliable performance yardstick. Will your web browsing experience really be improved threefold (or more) on Safari 4 than IE7?
In our testing, the answer is no. However, we did notice a difference among browsers, just not as pronounced as the benchmarks indicate. Safari 4 and, to our surprise, Internet Explorer 8 felt the snappiest, though neither version of Firefox ever felt slow by comparison.