Browser wars, 2011
Which browser is best for security, speed, and compliance with web standards?
It wasn't that long ago that things were as dull as used dishwater when it came to Web browsers. Then, along came Firefox and suddenly it wasn't just an Internet Explorer world anymore. Today, in 2011, Google's Chrome Web browser, not to mention Apple's Safari and Opera Software's Opera, are all good choices for your Web browser.
In particular, over the last few months, Chrome, Firefox and IE have all come out with great new versions. Today, you have a richer choice of top-quality Web browsers than ever before for your Linux PC, Mac, or Windows PC. So, how do you decide which browser is best for you? Well, I bravely installed the whole lot of the latest generation of Web browsers and this is what I found.
Things in common
The new browsers differ from their predecessors in more ways than just performance. They all (with the exception of Safari) have adopted slicker, cleaner interfaces. I see this as both a good news and bad news situation: While I like the cleaner look, with only one menu bar at the top of the display, I don't see that this design choice, which Google pioneered with Chrome, is really a better choice than the earlier interface style. Indeed, while technically savvy users won't have any trouble with any of these interfaces, I think many people might find these front ends a little off-putting.
All of the new browsers are much more secure than their predecessors. Chrome, which runs all Web page processes in a virtual sandbox is the best of the lot. Safari and IE, even now, suffer from persistent security attacks and problems. If security is your first concern, Safari and IE still are not up to the mark set by Chrome and, to a lesser extent, by Firefox.
How the Web browsers were tested
I ran all the browsers through their paces on both Windows 7 SP1 and Windows XP SP3. For XP and Windows 7, I used a Gateway SX2802-07 desktop. This PC uses a 2.6GHZ Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 processor and has 6GBs of RAM and a 640GB hard drive. Except for IE 9, which runs only on Windows 7, and Safari, which only runs on Mac OS and Windows, I also ran the others on Mint 10 Linux on a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB drive. For the Mac, I used a 2010 15" Mac Book Pro with an Intel 2.66GHz Core i7 processors, 4GBs of RAM, and Snow Leopard.
For testing purposes, I used my Windows 7 box, since it was the only one that all the Web browsers would run on. Yes, that's right. IE 9 will not run on XP. It requires either Windows 7 or Vista. And, oh by the way, looking ahead, IE 10, which is due out in 2012, won't run on Vista either.
To see what the browsers could do I used a wide variety of publicly available tests. If you want to know exactly how a given Web browser will run on your PC, you can test it for yourself. All these tests are simple to do and require almost no technical knowledge.
At one time, almost no Web browsers could come close to passing this test. Today, even the least-standard Web browser, Internet Explorer, scores well with a 95. The best browsers, Chrome, Opera, and Safari, all take perfect marks. Firefox also does well, scoring a 97.
The HTML5 test does exactly what its name says it does. It checks to see how compliant the Web browser is with the HTML 5 Web page standard. Take these results with a grain of salt though. HTML5 is still a standard in the making.
When it comes to HTML 5, no browser is close to perfect. Ironically, IE, for all of Microsoft's HTML 5 claims, is actually, as Mozilla "evangelist" Paul Rouget claimed, not even a modern Web browser at all. Of all the browsers, IE came in a distant, dead last with a score of 130 out of 400.
Mind you, if you're using HTML 5 compliance as your benchmark, Firefox (with a score of 255) still comes in behind Chrome (at 288). The others, Opera at 234 and Safari at 228, do reasonably well. Still, none even comes close to a perfect 500.
In the Kraken test, the lower scores are best. Since this benchmark is designed by Firefox's parent, it probably won't surprise you to know that Firefox comes in first. Chrome is a close second. Then, there's a big gap and Opera takes a distant third, then Internet Explorer, and Safari limps along in last place.
In Peacekeeper, higher scores are better. Chrome really shows well on this test, easily outdistancing second place Opera. IE takes third, Safari comes in fourth, with Firefox finishing in last place.
Once more the low score is the winning score on this benchmark. The browser makers know that Sunspider is the benchmark that people quote all the time so they're always tinkering with their browsers to score better on it. Thus, even a minor update can often make a website look a good deal faster if you just use Sunspider as your one guide to browser speed.
That said, today, IE 9 is the Sunspider winner. Opera comes in as a close second, with Firefox in third, Chrome in fourth, and Safari in fifth. Keep in mind though that even Safari today is far faster, by Sunspider's lights, than last year's fastest browser.
V8 Benchmark Suite
Three guesses who wins the benchmark from Google. Yes, you're right, it's Chrome by a mile. Firefox takes a distant second, Opera comes in third and way, way in the back it's Safari and IE.
So, according to the numbers the winner is... none of the above. The only vendor neutral performance test, Peacekeeper, has Chrome taking first, but you can pick and choose your benchmark to make almost any browser look good.
What the performance benchmarks did reveal though was that all of 2011's Web browsers are far, far faster than previous versions. There's really no comparison. If you're still running the same browser you were a year ago, update it, now.
Microsoft recently announced that it would release IE 10 in spring 2012. In the meantime, Google keeps pushing Chrome along at an ever faster rate. By the time IE 10 shows up, I imagine Chrome 12 will be out.
I've liked Chrome since it first appeared in 2008. Today, I still love it.
If it were speed alone, it would be a close race, but while Chrome 10's pure speed is impressive, it's not the whole story.
Chrome now places its setting in its own tab. This makes it both easier to get at them and to work with them. It didn't sound like much of an improvement to me, but after a few hours of tinkering with Chrome 10, I actually found it quite useful. If you're not sure where the right setting is, Chrome's built-in search mechanism can quickly find it for you.
The new Chrome also gives you the power to sync Web browser bookmarks and passwords between all your PCs using Chrome no matter whether you're running Chrome on Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows. You can get this feature in Xmarks, which is still, to the best of my knowledge, the only browser extension that lets you share bookmarks and passwords across Web browsers, and I love seeing this functionality built into Chrome.
Chrome, which has always scored well in security, has extended its sandbox security style to its built-in Adobe Flash Player. What this means is that even if something tries to use Flash to put malware on your computer, the misbehaving program is stuck inside a virtual sandbox where it can't get to the rest of your PC.
The only thing that some people will object to is that Chrome 10 no longer supports H.264 video. I don't see this as a huge problem because, like it or lump it, the default video standard for the Web is Adobe Flash. While Web video standards are a big deal, Google not supporting H.264 in this version of Chrome isn't a big deal.
Firefox 4, like Chrome and Opera, will run on pretty much any desktop operating system. What Firefox has that the others don't have is a gigantic family of browser extensions.
If there's anything you want to do with a browser, but it's not built-in, there's almost certainly a way to do it with a Firefox extension. I found that most of the extensions I use every day with Firefox, such as the newest versions of the LastPass password manager; XMarks; and the Google toolbar work just fine with Firefox 4.
Not all add-ons will work so smoothly though. There have been many changes in how Firefox handles extensions. I know some extensions will fail until they've been updated. I was also annoyed to find that I had to close and restart Firefox to get most extensions to work.
The net result is that Firefox feels faster and more stable than it has in years. It also worked well with every Web page I threw at it (except for those miserable IE 6-only Web pages).
There are a lot of features to like in Firefox 4. A very short list of the ones I like includes:
Firefox Sync. If it could work across browsers, it might replace my current bookmark and password favorites: Xmarks and LastPass. If you don't change browsers though, Firefox Sync might be all you need.
Tab grouping. Just like the name says, tab grouping enables you to group tabs together. It's perfect for keeping tab 'families,' like say one group for "social networking" and another for work.
Turn Web pages into pinned "applications". All you need to do to turn Web pages into pinned "applications" is right click on a tab and the page will always be available when you start your browser -- at least until you change your mind. This is ideal for pages such as Gmail that you know you'll be opening over and over again.
My only problem with Firefox is that it's too little, too late. Chrome is faster and just as feature packed. That said, Mozilla, Firefox's parent company, intends on pushing out new versions of Firefox almost as fast as Chrome does. If it can keep up the pace and keep improving performance and adding features, Firefox may continue to make a three browser race of it along with Chrome and IE.
IE 9 works only with Windows 7 and Vista. That's it. XP users? You're out of luck. There's no IE 9 for XP. Mind you, by NetMarketShare's count, the majority of Windows users are still running XP, 55%, to 23% running Windows 7 and 11% with Vista, but there's still no IE 9 for you.
Of course, Microsoft also doesn't support IE 9 on Mac OS X or Linux either. The reason, of course, is that Microsoft wants to sell you Windows 7, even if you don't need or want it.
Windows fans tell me that no one would ever run the 64-bit version of IE. Funny, the IE 9 download process still insists that that 64-bit Windows users install the inferior 64-bit version and, those folks, rather naturally, assume that they should run the 64-bit browser. You shouldn't. No one should. Instead, just run IE normally and don't search down IE-64 instead. When you install the 64-bit version you also get the 32-bit one.
When I asked Microsoft why they even bothered to ship IE-64 bits, never mind insisting that it be downloaded, they never got back to me.
On the other hand, IE 9 is much more secure than any previous version of IE, but that doesn't mean it's as secure as its rivals. For example, these days attacking Web-plugins, such as Adobe Flash, is every hacker's favorite new trick. IE 9 doesn't alert you if you're not running the latest plug-in, which Firefox does with its Plug-In Checker or automatically update them ala Chrome with its built-in PDF and Flash software.
IE 9's Tracking Protection feature lets you set your browser so advertisers can't track you as you wander the Web. There's still a hole in it though so if you have two sets of rules with a conflict over whether you should or shouldn't be tracked, it will default to letting you be tracked. So, sure, IE 9 is safer than earlier versions of IE, but if it's security you're after, Chrome and Firefox appear to be the better choices.
So, if you want a great Web browser for your Windows machine, or any other system, I recommend Chrome 10. Firefox 4 is also worth considering. But, IE 9? The best I can say is that if you absolutely insist on running a Microsoft browser, and you're not running XP and you're sure you're running the 32-bit version then yes, it's an acceptable choice.
I try to like Opera, but it's never worked that well for me. The biggest new feature in Opera 11 is extension support, something everyone else has been supporting for years.
There are some features I like. For example, I rather like being able to stack tabs rather than having a never-ending line of tabs across the top of my display.
The basic interface combines the now popular stripped down look, with the red Menu button on the top left window border. I also like that the new address bar, ala Firefox 4, shows a site's security information. To use this feature, you drag and drop tabs on each other. To get to them you then hover with your mouse cursor over the stack's base tab.
Opera also includes its own mail client -- once a common feature but increasingly rare -- and it's been improved considerably. In addition, it includes its own BitTorrent client. If you like the idea of a do-it-all, all-in-one Internet program, Opera deserves your attention.
Is it worth trying? Sure? It can be quite fast, and maybe the features will appeal to you. To me, it's an interesting, but in the end, not particularly engaging Web browser. Your usage may vary.
Of all the 'new' browsers, Safari has changed the least. Safari looks, works, and feels the same as it ever did. The one stand-out new feature is the "Safari Reader" mode, which strips out non-essential elements of a page (including pictures and video) so all you get is the text and nothing but the text. Maybe that doesn't work for you, but it does work for me.
Much of what's "new" in Safari 5.04 is bug fixes. For example, on Mac OS X Snow Leopard I would see the screen saver come on while watching a video in Safari. Not good. Now that bug appears to be dead.
Safari is also reasonably fast, but it's not especially secure. I guess the best way I could sum up Safari is its the Web browser for people who want an old-fashioned looking Web browser but with today's performance. That's not for me, but it may be exactly what you're looking for.
The right browser for you
So, which browser should you get? Well, for me, it's Chrome, with Firefox in second, on pretty much any operating system. But, really this is a personal decision. Hopefully, I've given you a little guidance. Check them all out -- they're free after all -- you'll find the one that's right for you.
I will make one firm recommendation. If you're still running Windows XP, and I know most of you are, move away from IE. IE 8 is a dead-end. You'll never get IE 9, and any of the other Web browsers are far faster and, with the exception of Safari, likely to be a good deal more secure.