Apple's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer will fight it out to be the program you use most on your PC. We look at their pros and cons to help you decide.
Internet Explorer 8: a work in progress
Safari 3.1 is a finished product and Firefox 3.0 is nearly so, but IE 8 remains under development. Beta 1 has a number of bugs (as any early version of a complicated program would), and its test performance is very likely to change. The first beta release isn't suitable for day-to-day use; and as for the next iteration, Microsoft will say only that Beta 2 will emerge sometime this year.
Still, Beta 1 provides a glimpse of what's to come, especially with respect to certain brand-new features such as Activities and WebSlices.
The Activities feature works on any web page: When you select text, a small green arrow appears. Clicking it opens a drop-down menu with options for translating the text, looking it up on a map (if it's an address), or finding a definition. You can choose which web services to use for each activity when you install IE 8, in much the same way as you're prompted to choose a default search provider for IE 7. Right-clicking selected text or a page will link you to activities as well.
WebSlices are somewhat like specialised mini-RSS feeds. You can add one to your Favorites bar to link to a particular eBay auction or to a friend's Facebook profile, and the WebSlice will update with the latest available information, just as an RSS feed would.
Unlike Activities, the WebSlices feature requires site designers to add specific code defining what information will display in a WebSlice. As yet, the WebSlices feature is IE-only, but Microsoft says that it has released the programming code for both Activities and WebSlices for use in other browsers.
For standards, IE 8 is getting there
IE 7 doesn't pass the Acid2 test, but Beta 1 of IE 8 does. Although Microsoft says that it's working to make the browser more standards-compliant, it still has some work to do before final release: Beta 1 scores only 18 out of 100 on the Acid3 test.
When we checked Beta 1's memory usage on the four test sites, we discovered that the browser couldn't correctly display the Netvibes site, and also that it runs two processes on XP.
Those results show that you shouldn't put much emphasis on performance tests for an early beta; nevertheless, the browser used 114MB at start and 118MB after an hour. Likewise, its 10.2 second run-through on the SunSpider test stacks up poorly against the results for Firefox 3.0 and for Safari 3.1, although it greatly improves on IE 7's treelike time of 50 seconds.
One of the smartest improvements in IE 8 is also one of the simplest. For any site you visit, IE will gray out all but the domain name in the address bar. This antiphishing measure makes it easy to uncover the common scammers' technique of trying to disguise the real domain in a URL that may start with something like 'www.paypal.com' and list the actual domain at the end of a string of nonsensical characters made to look like site input.
Microsoft says that it is also working to improve IE 7's phishing filter; and IE 8 continues to support EV certificates, as IE 7 does.
NEXT PAGE: Our expert opinion on which browser is best/em>