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 As a result, Firefox never gets outdated, though new builds end up feeling more like micro-updates rather than major revisions.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.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em
For years, Opera’s development team championed strict web standards through their own rendering engine called Presto. Maintaining a relevant rendering engine is a massive undertaking, so for version 15, Opera Software made the decision to swap out Presto for Google’s Blink engine, which is a fork of Webkit and the same one driving Chrome. It’s a significant change and one that allows the Norwegian browser maker’s small team to narrow their focus on Opera’s complementary features and security.
A new rendering engine is just one of the many changes in Opera 15, not all of them positive. Bookmarks have vanished (Opera Software plans to return them in a future release), and the integrated M2 email and news client played a disappearing act just like Presto. In their place is an overhauled UI that more closely resembles Chrome, along with a combined address and search bar.
Opera’s Speed Dial feature lists thumbnails of saved web pages on new tab windows, and new to Opera 15 is the ability to group and search entries. Also new are Stash and Discover entries in new tab windows. When you click the heart icon in the address bar, Stash will take a snapshot of the website, while Discover lists news clips from around the web.
Finally, Opera 15 introduces an Off-Road mode that adopts server-side compression technology found in Opera Mobile.
By making the transition to Blink, Opera 15 becomes the beneficiary of security protocols included in the Chromium project, such as running tabs in separate processes and sandboxing. Opera also adopts a rapid release schedule for more frequent security updates, both as it pertains to Blink as well as parts of the browser not related to Chromium (everything but the engine).
Opera 15 retains the ability to open a private-browsing window, which you can run alongside a non-private session. The feature is more easily accessible in Opera’s main drop-down menu. Opera 15 also supports Do Not Track requests, though the feature is turned off by default.
The Blink rendering engine gives Opera an instant speed boost that puts the browser nearly on par with Chrome. In our benchmark tests, Chrome 29 still edged out Opera 15 in most tests, though Opera was faster in Microsoft’s Lawn Mark 2013 test. Furthermore, neither browser ever left the other one in the dust. That’s an impressive testament to Opera’s upgraded code, since Chrome ended up being the fastest of the bunch.
Opera 15 does away with traditional bookmarks, but you can “Stash” websites with screenshot previews that appear on the Start page and new tab windows.
All hail the new king
Chrome recently celebrated its fifth birthday, and though it required a few coats of polish to really shine, most users today couldn’t or wouldn’t want to fathom a world without Google’s quick and nimble browser. To wit, Chrome did what no other browser could do—it dethroned Internet Explorer in market share, at least according to StatCounter’s data. NetMarketShare still has IE in the lead, but the mere fact that Chrome is even in the discussion is a remarkable achievement for such a young browser.
Google decided early on that a rapid release schedule made the most sense, so like Firefox, individual updates typically lack hordes of killer features to make you pump your fist in excitement. Over time, however, the experience gradually changes. In Chrome 29, Google added an immersive mode that hides the toolbar and shelf in full-screen mode until you hover over the top. There’s also a “Reset browser settings” to restore Chrome to its original state. If you’re in love with Windows 8’s touch-friendly interface, you’ll also adore running Chrome in Windows 8 Mode, which replaces IE as the default browser in the process.
Chrome 29 came with more than two dozen security patches, an unusually large amount. Part of the reason is because Google routinely rewards external security researchers with financial bounties for discovering bugs. Combined with Chrome’s automatic updates and sandbox approach to browsing, you’re about as protected as you can get outside of a virtual machine.
Up until version 23, one of the few criticisms you could make about Chrome was that it didn’t have a Do Not Track feature like IE and Firefox. Google took its sweet time adding DNT code to Chrome, but it’s there, only you have to hunt down the setting and manually turn it on just like in Firefox. Even when you do, the effectiveness of DNT hinges on whether websites honor your request or essentially tell you to go fly a kite.
For browsing on the sly, Chrome’s Incognito mode erases the past more efficiently than Stephen King’s Langoliers.
Even Michael Jordan didn’t win every game he played in, and though it wasn’t a clean sweep for Chrome either, Google’s browser had the best score in more benchmarks than any of the other four contenders in this roundup. And unlike in our browser cage fight from two years ago, Chrome now boasts hardware acceleration.
1. Install the Omnibox Timer extension to set reminders in the Omnibar while you’re at your PC. Once installed, activate a timer by typing TM in the Omnibar and then something like, “15 stand up and take a break” to be reminded in 15 minutes to move around. (Protip: Sitting for long stretches is bad for your health.)
2. Google isn’t your only search option in Chrome. Type Amazon in the Omnibar followed by the Tab key and then type in your search query. You’ll see the option to bring up search when you start typing in websites you’ve previously visited. Alternately, type the name of a site followed by a colon and then your search query (e.g., MaximumPC: Intel).
3. Fancy yourself a code junkie? Right-click a website and select “Inspect element” to spy a site’s code.
1) If you’re not digging Internet Explorer in Windows 8’s Modern UI, you can swap it out for Chrome. Once you do, it always runs that way, even if you launch Chrome from the desktop.
2) There’s no need for a dedicated search bar in Chrome. The Omnibar (or address bar) also functions as a search bar.
3) Type chrome://flags in the Omnibar to bring up a wealth of experimental features to play around with. As always, be careful flipping switches willy-nilly, lest Chrome start acting in unexpected ways.
4) Signing into Chrome allows you to sync your settings and data from one PC to another. Just sign into the same account when you get home to bring up your work PC’s Chrome session.
Click the next page to read about Safari and Internet Explorer.
Apple abandoned it, and so should you
The last time Apple updated its Safari browser for Windows desktops was in May 2012, and that was just a minor housekeeping patch. Apple left Windows users behind when it introduced Safari 6 for Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, and while the Cupertino outfit hasn’t explicitly stated Safari will never make a return to Microsoft’s OS, there’s little reason to believe it will. Safari was never able to carve out a significant share of the browser market anyhow, though both NetMarketShare and StatCounter agree that there are more web surfers on Safari than Opera, so leaving Windows users behind might not have been the best long-term decision.
Though Apple has turned a blind eye to Windows users, the latest version of Safari is still available to download. Prior to abandonment, Safari’s Reading List feature alone was reason to consider the browser. What it does is let you save web pages you don’t have time to read and return to them later, online or offline. Think of it as a temporary bookmarks feature that self-destructs once you’ve brought up a saved page.
Safari Reader is another element of the browser we liked. It strips web pages to the bare essentials, removing most ads and preventing pop-ups.
Safari blocks third-party cookies by default, a feature that’s found in the browser’s Privacy panel. It also contains an option to remove all website data with a couple of mouse clicks. In the same panel is an option to limit website access to location services. Some websites use information about your location to enable certain features and services, but if you’d rather keep that information private, you can disable it altogether or be prompted when a website requests your whereabouts.
Click the Reader button in the address bar to de-clutter noisy websites and side-step pop-up ads.
An old browser reborn and bred for Windows 8
It wouldn’t make sense for Microsoft to rebuild Windows without also revamping the parts that integrate with it, and so what we have in Internet Explorer 11 is a vastly different browser compared to previous releases. Yes, it will probably be available for Windows 7 by the time you read this, but it’s really intended to complement the vision Microsoft set out for Windows 8, which includes a heavy dose of touch interaction and interoperability across a range of Windows devices and screen sizes.
While the version we’re testing is a Preview release, it’s very close to what the final build will be like, unlike an early beta, which could be missing key features and/or suffer from stability issues.
When firing it up from the Start screen, IE11 looks and feels like a brand-new browser rather than an upgrade of an existing one. That’s not really surprising since the same could be said of Windows 8 compared to previous versions. The first thing you’ll notice is that Microsoft moved the address bar to the bottom of the browser. It hides out of view to give you a full-screen browsing experience, though you can bring it back up with a right-click or swipe up from the bottom. If you have a touchscreen, you’ll also use swiping gestures to navigate forward and backward.
Outside of touch controls, the feature we’re most excited about is side-by-side browsing. While Windows 8 insists on running applications in full-screen mode, the side-by-side feature in IE11 allows you to view multiple websites at the same time, and you can resize the width of each one. This is handy for comparison shopping, among other uses.
We’re only scratching the surface here. Microsoft lifted the limit of open tabs from 10 to 100 per window, which appear as scrollable tiles just above the address bar. Non-active tabs are suspended so they don’t drag down your PC’s performance or adversely affect battery life. Microsoft also implemented hardware-accelerated 3D web graphics through WebGL, plug-in-free HTML5 video support, and the ability to pin websites as live tiles on the Start screen—phew!
By default, IE11 turns on Enhanced Protected Mode (EPM), which only allows compatible add-ons like toolbars, browser helper objects (BHOs), and extensions to load. Furthermore, EPM shoves untrusted web content into a restricted environment sort of like a sandbox.
Instead of letting WebGL content run wild, it’s put through a pre-screening stage in IE11. It also runs on top of DirectX, so if malicious content bombards the GPU and takes it out, it will reset rather than crash the entire system.
InPrivate browsing mode is still available in IE11, though it’s not obvious when surfing from the Start screen. You can use the keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+Shift+P) or bring up the Tabs menu and press the Tab tools button on the right-hand side.
1. To add a website as a live tile, click the Star icon (Favorites) and then the Pin icon.
2. You can pin the address bar permanently to the bottom of the screen by bringing up the Charms menu (swipe or press Windows Key+C) and selecting Settings > Options. Under the Appearance heading, flip the dial to On.
3. Sites not showing up correctly? Fire up IE11 in Desktop and press Alt. Select Tools > Compatibility View settings.
1) Side-by-side allows you to view multiple pages in separate, resizable Windows.
2) It’s not the least bit obvious, but those three dots designate the Tab tools option. Click or tap to initiate an InPrivate browsing session.
3) You’re no longer limited to just 10 open tabs. In IE11, you can have as many as 100 per window. Equally cool is the preview view of each one, which you can scroll through.
4) Microsoft relocated the address bar to the bottom of the browser where it’s better optimized for touch. Just swipe up from the bottom (or right-click your mouse) to make it appear.
Click the next page to see what our overall pick for best web browser is!
With all due respect to diehard Firefox fans, the spunky browser is no longer our favorite vehicle for surfing the web. That distinction now belongs to Chrome, the sleekest and fastest browser available. Our primary gripe with Chrome in our last browser roundup two years ago was that it didn’t support hardware acceleration without mucking around with secret code. That’s long been addressed and our only lingering concern is that Google may cater to advertisers a bit too much, hence it being the last of the major browsers to implement Do Not Track technology, which still isn’t turned on by default.
We also have to give props to Microsoft for its work with Internet Explorer 11. If you’re rocking a touchscreen in Windows 8/8.1, you may prefer to use IE11 over Chrome simply because it’s better suited for touch navigation. It’s also fast, though we’re calling shenanigans on Microsoft’s own tech demos, which seem to heavily favor its own browser over the competition, even though others also boast GPU acceleration. Still, it’s the best version of IE yet, and we especially like the side-by-side browsing feature when launching the browser from the Start screen.
Where does that leave the others? Firefox is still a great browser with a rich catalog of extensions, and Opera is one to keep an eye on now that it shares DNA with Chrome. That leaves Safari as the odd man out, a decision Apple ultimately made for the masses by discontinuing support for Windows.
Note: This article was originally featured in the December 2013 issue of the magazine.
|Firefox 23||Chrome 29||Internet Explorer 11||Opera 15||Safari 5|
|SunSpider 1.0.1 (ms)||179.8||194.4||159.1||205.8||244.7|
|Google Octane v1||14,227||15,075||9,965||14,919||3,188|
|NonTroppo Table Rendering (ms)||527||338||589||383||190|
|GUIMark 3 (fps)||62.56||61.66||59.98||59.85||60.68|
|Mozilla Kraken 1.1 (ms)||1,994.9||1,727.5||3,182.5||1,749.5||12,493.7|
|Microsoft Beta Fish IE Demo (fps)||60||60||60||60||60|
|Microsoft Penguin Mark Demo||168||185||9,479||66||WNR|
|Microsoft Lawn Mark 2013 (sec)||488.35||543.05||11.17||514.31||WNR|
Best scores are bolded. Our test bed is an Intel Core i7 930, Asus P6X58D Premium, 12GB Corsair DDR3/1866 RAM, Radeon HD 7970, OCZ Vertex 3 240GB SSD, and Windows 8.1 64-bit.