Everyone needs a Web browser, but with so much choice, deciding which one is best for you can be hard. It's tempting to stick with Internet Explorer if you've always used it, but you'd be missing out on better performance and a myriad of add-ons if you don't look further afield.
We put the latest versions of six popular browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Safari and RockMelt) through their paces, paying special attention to such variables as speed, safety, extra features, and extensions.
RockMelt 0.9, the browser built on Google’s Chromium framework that comes integrated with Facebook, was the surprise third-place finisher. We expected the browser’s Facebook integration and social-reading sidebar to slow its performance but in our hands-on testing, RockMelt worked faster than most of its rivals. Plus, it permits you to share links and chat with friends on Facebook without having to go directly to the social network.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 earned a rather low score for its features: it doesn’t offer themes for your browser and you can’t synch favourites unless you use Windows Live Mesh. Nevertheless, it offers more security options than most competing browsers, and it processed HTML 5 code quickly.
Opera 11.61 distinguished itself from its rivals with blazing page-load speeds and a great mobile browser, but it came up short in HTML 5 processing. Safari 5.1.2 didn’t perform especially well on any of our benchmarks; its only noteworthy redeeming quality, particularly for Windows users, is the solid security it provides.
While reading our assessments, bear in mind that every browser behaves differently depending on the hardware setup, the speed of the internet connection and the modifications you make to your browser (with add-ons, the amount of space allotted for cache and other settings).
Google Chrome 17
Download from: Google
- Lets you close slow or frozen pages without restarting the browser
- Sandboxed design helps prevent malware infections
- No integrated RSS reader
- Plain design
Google Chrome wins our top spot thanks to its ease of use, numerous extensions and add-ons, and superb performance. It may not be perfect for everyone, but Chrome is a well-rounded browser that should meet most people’s needs.
Chrome also performed admirably in our speed test, fully loading an image-heavy page in just under four seconds. This lightning-fast speed comes from a brilliant feature new to Chrome 17 that lets the browser start loading the URL you type in the address bar before you press the Enter key.
To complement its impressive performance, Google’s browser has some worthy features that others lack. For starters, Chrome runs tabs as separate processes. If one of them crashes, the entire browser doesn’t go down with it - you can keep browsing. If your online wanderings take you to a foreign-language website, Chrome will recognise the language and offer to translate it for you in a matter of seconds. The translations, powered by Google Translate, aren’t particularly accurate, but they can at least give you a basic idea of what the page is about.
Chrome is also one of the most secure browsers on this list, because it is sandboxed: The plug-ins that Chrome uses access information only within the browser itself and can’t read information from other areas on your computer. Sandboxing prevents malware that uses plug-in exploits from spreading via Chrome through your PC.
Owners of smartphones or tablets running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) will appreciate the ability to synch their Chrome bookmarks and Web history to those mobile devices. You can customise Chrome with Web apps, themes, and extensions to suit your preferences.
Chrome’s built-in Web store simplifies searching for and installing browser add-ons. The add-ons range from simple (an Evernote plug-in, for example), to complex (such as full games such as Angry Birds and Bastion). And unlike Firefox, you don’t need to restart your browser every time you install a new extension or app.
On the downside, Chrome lacks an integrated RSS reader, which means that you’ll have to sort out your own approach to handling multiple RSS feeds if you subscribe to more than one.
Next page: Firefox 10 and RockMelt 0.9
Mozilla Firefox 10
Download from: Mozilla
- Superb HTML 5 performance
- Thousands of available add-ons
- Slow page loads
- Too many add-ons can bog down the browser
Mozilla’s browser has been around for nearly a decade, but it’s still quite spry. In the six versions following its dramatic version 4.0 redesign in March 2011, Firefox has undergone a few chiefly cosmetic changes. The bulky toolbar is gone, replaced by a row of tabs on the top of the window, and the bookmark bar is hidden by default. You can change the default settings via the options, of course, but the simplified interface works well, especially on smaller displays where space is at a premium.
Firefox’s biggest advantage over its rivals is its vast library of add-ons, which you can use to customise your Web browsing and make Firefox infinitely more useful. Not surprisingly, the more add-ons you install, the slower Firefox will be to start up and run. And some add-ons can turn Firefox into a memory hog, slowing down even the beefiest system.
Firefox is a relatively full-featured browser. You can save frequently used Web services such as Pandora and Gmail as App tabs, which are permanent tabs that Firefox saves in the browser. Think of them as bookmarks in tab form. If you’re a power user who leaves tons of tabs open constantly, Firefox will allow you to collect the tabs into manageable groups, a handy feature for keeping your entertainment tabs separate from your work ones, for instance.
If you use Firefox at home and at work, Firefox Sync will synch your history, bookmarks, and preferences across computers, and will even synch with the Firefox Mobile app on Android. Firefox has a pop-up filter and supports private browsing. The browser’s malware protection will warn you if you happen to encounter a fraudulent website, and its updater ensures that your plug-ins have the latest security patches. Firefox will work with any security software that you have installed on your computer, using the software to scan downloads for malware.
Download from: RockMelt
- Makes communicating with Facebook friends easy
- Automatic synching between computers
- Facebook sign-in required to get the most out of this browser
- Extensions and add-ons are relatively scarce
RockMelt was built on the Chromium browser framework, so it looks and acts a lot like Chrome; nevertheless, it’s designed to appeal to social-media fanatics. You have to sign in through Facebook to use most of its features, and RockMelt collects data on your browsing habits, though the developers say they won’t share that data with any third parties, including Google and Facebook.
The Facebook sign-in process enables RockMelt to synch settings and bookmarks automatically through your Facebook account among computers and other devices running RockMelt’s iOS app (no RockMelt app is available for Android yet).
What fans love about RockMelt will undoubtedly drive others crazy. A thin strip located on the right side of the browser window displays your Facebook friends’ icons, and indicates their availability to chat. By clicking a friend’s icon, you can chat in the browser window without having to switch back and forth between Facebook and your other tabs. On the left side of the browser window, you can choose 'apps' for different websites that notify you of newly posted content. If the information at the edges of the browser window becomes distracting, you can silence the visual noise by clicking the bell icon in the top-right corner.
RockMelt has some other potential drawbacks. The browser will add any link that you click in the left-hand bar (such as a link from RockMelt’s CNN app) to your Facebook timeline unless you turn the behaviour off in the browser’s preferences. Also, many extensions that work in Chrome don’t function in RockMelt. The company is working with developers of good Chrome apps to produce RockMelt-compatible versions. Currently there are about 200 extensions.
Next page: Internet Explorer 9 and Opera 11.61
Internet Explorer 9
Download from: Microsoft
- Fast HTML 5 processing
- Good security features
- No themes or automated bookmark synching
- Managing tabs can be difficult
Internet Explorer (IE) has long lagged behind other browsers in features and ease of use. But the ninth version of Microsoft’s browser offers a few functions that are at least as good as what the competition offers.
Especially noteworthy are some great new privacy features, including the ability to block sites from cataloguing your browsing habits. IE9 permits you to block sites individually or to rely on a Microsoft-assembled list of sites that have a history of tracking visitors after they leave the page.
Microsoft also embedded its Application Reputation app in IE9 to scan downloads and to warn you if a downloaded file is dangerous. And the browser offers built-in cross-site scripting protection, which scans websites for certain types of malicious code, and stops such scripts before they can damage your computer.
The general appearance of IE9 is much improved over earlier versions. At long last you can move tabs between different browser windows, and the settings and favourites tabs are easier to find. There's still no native feature for synching bookmarks, but you can import and export favourites as usual. With no themes and no in-browser spelling-check feature, Internet Explorer 9 isn’t the most fun nor work-friendly browser available, but at least you can install an extension that provides the spelling check.
Download from: Opera
- Pages load very quickly
- Unique browsing experience with widgets
- Not HTML 5–friendly
- Fewer security options than other browsers offer
For Internet users who prize speed above everything else, Opera Software’s Opera should be the browser of choice. The user interface looks like a more polished version of Internet Explorer 9: The tabs rest at the top of the browser window, with the bookmarks and other buttons tucked away inside a pop-out menu. The interface takes some getting used to, and it isn’t as customisable as Firefox’s.
Opera makes a few extensions and add-ons available to users in the form of widgets. These are tiny applications that you can download from Opera’s Web store and run on your desktop as separate programs. Opera doesn’t have to be open in order for the widgets to work, but they won’t start up unless you have Opera installed. Widgets range from simple games to RSS feeds, and Opera’s staff reviews all widgets that users can download from Opera’s store to ensure that they’re safe.
Another neat tool is Opera Turbo. It uses Opera’s servers to compress Web pages to only a few bytes, enabling people with slow connections to browse the Internet more easily. This feature is also convenient for people whose broadband service imposes monthly caps on their bandwidth usage, though it will automatically disable itself if you happen to be on a faster connection.
Opera supports private browsing, and it will warn you when you attempt to visit a website that it suspects is fraudulent. Opera also lets you control which cookies you accept from Web pages, though the process for making your preferences known is messy and may be too complicated for many users to bother with. In comparison to the other Web browsers in this roundup, Opera is the most lacking in security options.
Next page: Safari 5.1.2
Apple Safari 5.1.2
Download from: Apple
- Solid security network
- Mobile syncing is easy if you use an iOS device
Safari is an adequate and fairly intuitive browser but you can do better, especially if your computer runs Windows. Safari didn’t score well on any of our speed benchmarks and though its security has always been top-notch, organising Safari can be troublesome, especially if you’re not already using iCloud, Apple’s cloud-storage service replacement for MobileMe.
Safari at least has solid security features and Apple has long been a proponent of default pop-up blocking, which dramatically improves any browsing experience. Similar to most other browsers these days, Safari lets you open a private browsing window so that you can block all cookies and essentially search the Web unseen with the click of a button; just go to Settings and select Private Browsing.
Since Apple’s browser comes preloaded on all Macs and iOS products, synching browser settings can be quite easy with iCloud if you have an iPhone. With Apple’s new Lion OS, the latest version of Safari has a number of new security tools and more options for reading on the Web. Another safety measure is browser sandboxing, so websites bearing malicious code never have access to your computer system. Unfortunately, this is a feature of Safari on Mac OS X Lion, not the Windows version.