Which Web Browser Is Right for You?
There are dozens of excellent web browsers available; even narrowing it down to the Big Five with the highest market share still leaves a lot of choices. Some people prefer Microsoft’s Internet Explorer that comes with Windows, others prefer Mozilla Firefox based on the old Netscape Navigator. Google’s Chrome browser has risen quickly in the ranks since its release in 2008. Apple’s Safari web browser is best known on Mac OS and Apple’s mobile devices, but is available for Windows as well. The least well known of the Big Five, and the only one not based in the western United States is Opera.
Internet Explorer, created in 1995, has ruled as the most dominant web browser since 1999 largely due to being bundled with the Windows operating system. Older versions of Internet Explorer have been heavily criticized for not following technical standards and for having numerous security vulnerabilities. The most recent versions of the browser have greatly reduced the bloat while making security and standard compliance a priority.
Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), the latest version, has a very minimalist user interface that leaves more screen space dedicated to viewing the web page itself. Recent innovations by Microsoft have led to IE9 having a improved performance with content heavy websites and videos. This is the browser of choice for users who value simplicity and ease of use as well as wanting web sites to “just work”. It is the worst choice for users that value complete control over their browser; IE9 offers very little customization compared to its competitors. Although security has improved significantly, IE9’s tight integration with Windows still poses security risks. Internet Explorer is only available for Windows, limiting the choices of Mac and Linux users. Internet Explorer 8 is the last version to be supported for Windows XP.
Firefox has been a perennial favorite among power users since its release in 2004 when Internet Explorer 6 was the dominant browser in spite of innumerable security and standards issues. Originally popular for its speed and performance, Firefox began to branch out with browser extensions starting in 2006. There are an estimated six to ten thousand extensions available for Firefox as of 2012. Beginning in 2011, Mozilla has recently changed how Firefox handles versions and quickly jumped from version 4 to version 10 in just ten months.
Although Firefox has lost its significant performance and page load speed edge, it’s still a very strong contender. Firefox still excels at loading certain types of content but it really shines due to its extensions. Firefox is highly recommended for users that want control over their entire browsing experience and users that require features that go above and beyond what a browser can normally be expected to have. Extensions are plentiful, powerful and easy to use. Firefox has become a poor choice for users with older or slower machines due to its increased resource usage compared to other browsers. The recent change in versioning has also created problems with some extensions crashing.
At less than four years old, Chrome is the youngest of the Big Five and has gained market share at an astonishing rate partially due to being developed and backed by the Internet giant, Google. When Chrome was launched, it had a very innovative and minimalist interface that has significantly influenced all of the other major browsers since its release. Further challenging traditional software development, Chrome did away with traditional software versions and instead uses an automated update system to perform rolling releases of both major and minor software updates. Version numbers are still used internally and Chrome is on version 16 as of February, 2012. Another innovative feature is that each individual tab is scene as a different program by the operating system; if one tab crashes or needs to be closed, none of the others are affected.
Chrome is a great alternative to Firefox. Due to its minimalist design, it has the speed and performance of Firefox’s younger days while still maintaining an extension ecosystem competitive with Firefox’s. More than 500 extensions were available when Chrome launched and that number exceeded 3,000 by 2010. The extensions offer largely the same features as Firefox’s, but there are fewer reports of browser updates causing issues with the extensions. Chrome is also much more efficient on slower or older systems than some of the other browsers in spite of its sandboxing system using more resources in order to improve stability. Like Internet Explorer, Chrome is also an excellent choice for users that want a simple browser that “just works.” However, Chrome lacks the extreme customization abilities of Firefox or Opera and the unique interface may be confusing at first to some users.
Safari is the default browser that ships with all Apple products, including Mac OS X. This copies Internet Explorer’s method of gaining large amounts of market share through distribution with an operating system, but Safari has proven itself to be a powerful contender nonetheless. Based on the same Webkit engine that powers Chrome, Safari has many of the same performance advantages. Safari has also used the popularity of Apple’s iPod and iPhone mobile devices to sneak onto Windows PCs when users install iTunes or other Apple software.
Safari is a great transition to Windows for Mac users and, as of version 5, has several unique features that may interest some users. Safari also takes advantage of hardware acceleration, which improves speed and performance. The Windows version of Safari has taken criticism as being relatively unstable and resource hungry compared to other browsers but has become more competitive in recent years. Safari is not available for Linux.
The Opera web browser, developed in Norway, is nearly as old as Internet Explorer and has undergone many changes over the years. With a long history of innovation, Opera was the first browser to offer many features that are now common such as tabs and mouse gestures. Opera is also unique in that its the only browser to offer a suite of other functionality out of the box, such as an RSS feeder, bit torrent client and IMAP/POP mail client without the need for extensions. Opera has also been at the forefront of standards compliance and pushing the expectations of what a web browser can do to new levels.
Opera, currently version 12, is an excellent choice for users that want a lot of features without needing to hunt for extensions. Although Opera has an extension library, it is nowhere near as extensive as Firefox or Chrome. The built in mail client has also been lauded as one of the best free IMAP/POP clients available. Opera Unite turns the concept of a browser on its head by offering features such as a web server, streaming media server or instant messenging as part of the browser. This browser has the broadest range of features available and is extremely customizable in spite of being closed source software. Opera’s downsides include higher memory usage than other browsers when only a few tabs are open but this begins to level out with more than a half dozen tabs in use. Even though Opera boasts one of the best standards compliance ratings of any browser, some sites still won’t work in Opera simply because they’re coded specifically for the other major browsers due to their more significant market share. Opera is available for Mac, Linux and Windows and has taken strides in recent years to gives users a very smooth transition when going between different operating systems.
There are many other browsers available, including several based off of some of the Big Five. All of them have strengths and weaknesses that may make one browser ideal for one person but a horrible choice for another person. Fortunately, all of the major browsers are free to download and use. Perhaps the best part of having so many choices is that you don’t need to choose just one. You can install all of the browsers available for your operating system and use whichever browser is best suited for a specific task or even use multiple browsers at once. Next time someone asks you which browser you use, there’s no reason you can’t say “All of them.”