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Battle of the browsers 2014: which is the best web browser for Windows?

Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari

Microsoft has gone from having around a 90 percent web browser market share to 55 percent or less, depending on whose statistics you read. The problem was that Internet Explorer stagnated and made little progress for years. Firefox and Opera were alternatives that some people used, but even those progressed slowly. The browser market was lifeless until Google Chrome woke everyone up with not only the speediest browser around, but also an equally breakneck development cycle.

See also: What's the best alternative web browser to IE, Chrome and Firefox?

Chrome led the way with performance and support for the latest web standards and other browsers have been trying to catch up ever since with development teams working to produce new versions as fast as they can. Internet Explorer is up to 11, Firefox is now at version 26, Opera is up to 18, and Safari has given up. Of course, it isn’t all about speed and if you are a die-hard Internet Explorer user you should look at the features offered by other browsers because they can do things that aren’t possible in IE.

All the browsers were tested in Windows 8.1, reviewed, and several benchmarks were used to determine their performance, such as BMark, Octane 2, Peacekeeper, SunSpider and others. They highlight some significant differences between the browsers and some browsers have improved over the past year or two, while others haven’t. Who has gained and who has lost? Let’s take a look.

Best web browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer 11

Microsoft’s web browser situation is a mess. One problem is that there are still a significant number of people running Windows XP. The most recent version of Internet Explorer available for XP is IE8 and that is an awful browser that doesn’t support modern web standards and is terribly slow. If you are running XP you should not use IE8 under any circumstances. There aren’t that many Vista users, but those that still have it are limited to IE9 and that’s a dated browser that is not recommended. It is only Windows 7 and 8 users that can install and run the latest version of Internet Explorer. In contrast, Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera work on any version of Windows.

Internet Explorer has a compatibility view and this enables it access websites that are incompatible and don’t display correctly. It loads a web page as if it were an older version of IE. Is this an admission that IE doesn’t work properly? None of the other browsers need a compatibility mode and they work fine without it. Another problem for Internet Explorer is that it is a target for toolbars and extensions that bloat the browser and make it slow. You have to be wary of these when installing freeware software. Although the other browsers have extensions, they don’t suffer from the same problems.

It is difficult to make sense of Internet Explorer’s performance benchmarks. In many tests IE lags behind other browsers (Safari excepted), sometimes by a wide margin. Yet if you go to the IE Test Drive it blows away all competitors with its incredible performance. Take those Test Drive results with a large pinch of salt. Microsoft has written them in such a way as to let Internet Explorer run at full speed while limiting the performance of other browsers. When the code is tweaked to allow Chrome to run at full speed, it runs just as fast.

Microsoft has clearly improved Internet Explorer enormously over recent years and the difference between IE8 on XP and IE11 on Windows 7/8 is huge. It still has some catching up to do. While the test Drive demos look good, JavaScript performance isn’t so hot. Overall it was rated as fourth fastest, but it beat Firefox on some tests.

Internet Explorer’s interface is clean and simple, providing you avoid toolbars. The Favorites button opens a panel on the right, but this can be docked on the left. It also shows RSS feeds and your browsing history. It has Do Not Track and tracking protection features, which is good. It has SmartScreen which warns you about unsafe websites, and settings that are easily configured.

Internet Explorer 11
IE11 does well on graphical demos, but elsewhere performance is ordinary

Best web browsers: Opera 18

Opera is nearly 20 years old, yet in all that time it has struggled to build a market share percentage that couldn’t be counted on your thumbs. The company has tried everything to make the browser more appealing and at one time it was the most feature-packed browser available. The problem is that few people cared. Opera has tried filling toolbars and panels with buttons and functions, it has tried creating widgets that run in the desktop outside of the browser, and peer-to-peer networking with sharing built in. Nothing has worked. This is partly because other browsers offered more speed or more add-ons or both.

With Opera 18, a lot of the clutter has been stripped out and features that were packed into previous versions and it now has a wonderfully clean and simple user interface. This has a single blue bar at the top, with an Opera button in the top left corner and a minimum of buttons either side of the address box. The design is similar to Firefox.

It seems that Opera has taken a leaf out of Chrome’s book and simply gone for speed, web standards and simplicity. Actually, it has done more than copied Chrome, it is Chrome. This version of Opera is based on the Chromium open source browser project, which is the also the basis for Google Chrome. This is the obvious explanation for the near identical performance figures in benchmarks. Opera is a tad slower than Chrome in some tests, but slightly faster in others. The difference between Opera and Chrome is so slight you won’t notice it. So what you have here is Chrome with a different interface and set of menus. This means that it is definitely worth considering and some people may prefer it.

There are hundreds of extensions for Opera and the range and quality is excellent. Features found in other browsers can usually be found in Opera. There is an interesting Off-Road mode and this compresses internet traffic to reduce the bandwidth used and to speed up browsing on slow connections. It could be useful to people with laptops perhaps using their phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot to get online. A Synchronise facility enables browsing data like bookmarks and other information to be synced across computers and devices. At the right of the address box is a heart and clicking it adds the current web page to the Stash. This is a place where pages can be stored and read later when you have more time. Speed Dial displays favourite websites making them quick and easy to access.

Opera 18 is perfect for people that want Chrome’s performance, but don’t want a Google account.

Opera 18 browser
Add pages to Opera’s Stash and read them later. You can zoom in and out

Next page: Safari 5 and Chrome 31

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