The era when Google Chrome was head and shoulders above the competition has ended. Today’s popular browsers compete on a level playing field. Internet Explorer 11 — the oft overlooked Microsoft standby — has blossomed into a lean and fast browser for Widows 8. Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome continue to ramp up their version numbers, and Safari tenaciously scuttles along as the under-appreciated byproduct of Apple’s quest for global domination. Gone are the days when choosing a browser for all your Internet perusing needs was a no brainer. Today, with all the competition, choosing the right browser has become a something of a tough decision. Fortunately, you can’t really go wrong with any of the popular browsers anymore, but there are a few things here and there that give each its own competitive edge over the others.
Installation, updates, and compatibility
Installation across the five browsers is inherently the same. Users can download them from their respective websites if they aren’t built into your operating system already (i.e. Safari comes preinstalled on Mac OS X and IE 11 on Windows 8), and each will typically download in under 30 seconds depending on your Internet connection. Unfortunately, Internet Explorer will force you to fully reboot your machine, likely due to the increased hardware acceleration and several updated features. The rest of our lineup doesn’t require a reboot, only a quick browser closure.
Below is a list of browser compatibility.
Google Chrome: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux
Mozilla Firefox : Windows, Mac OS X , and Linux
Internet Explorer (32 and 64-bit): Windows
Safari: Mac OS X
Opera: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux
When it comes to updates, Opera, Firefox, and Chrome have the advantage. They install silently, quickly, and transparently download updates in the background and automatically apply the new software when you relaunch the programs. What’s more, the third-party browsers update most frequently, every few weeks, so any major problems are likely to be fixed quicker than with IE and Safari. Users can also manually install updates on Firefox if they would like to have greater control over the browser or prefer to use an older version for whatever reason. Keep in mind that turning off automatic updates is more likely to put your computer at risk, though, since each browser is continuously adding security fixes and other key stability updates.
Design and ease of use
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the current trend in browser design is for the browser to disappear entirely. IE, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome all attempt to be as minimal as possible, offering next to no actual text and small, monochromatic buttons that discretely blend with the aesthetic design of operating systems like Windows 8 and Mac OS X. Overall, all five browsers appear to achieve their goals fairly well. Below we compare and contrast browser design.
Google Chrome offers a lean address bar configuration, stripping everything down into a simple tab layout and address bar configuration that also doubles as a search bar Google calls the “Omnibox.” Like most browsers, the window can get incredibly cramped with 15+ tabs open, but it still does a fantastic job of delivering content whether you have the browser fully expanded or slightly minimized for the sake of space. Adjacent to the omnibox is Chrome’s simple standard navigational features (i.e. back, forward, refresh, home) by default, but you can easily slim down the window by customizing the toolbar and deleting any buttons you deem invaluable. Chrome’s single-click bookmarking method, done by simply clicking the star located on the right side of the address bar, also makes bookmarking your favorite webpages a breeze and hassle-free experience.
Related: Our favorite Google Chrome themes
Mozilla Firefox features a similar, yet useful layout when compared to its competitors, placing the tab bar above the address bar. Despite reaching version 33 of the software (it skipped versions 18 and 11 through 16, apparently), it still slightly feels like the bulky predecessors of the software, refusing to unite the address and search bars in a single unified field like all of its peers. However, this is more of an aesthetic issue than a functional one — you can search within the address bar or the accompanying search bar to its right. The browser offers the same kind of single-click bookmarking that Chrome does — all you have to do is click the star located in the address field — but there isn’t much else that separates it from the rest of the pack. Instead of sporting a gear or similar icon button for its settings, Firefox opts for an orange “Firefox” button in the upper-left corner in Windows version of the browser, taking up a tiny bit of space that could otherwise be used by the tab bar.
Internet Explorer Technically, IE 11 is the most minimal Internet device of the four, with less “chrome” than Chrome. IE 11 features a single bar that simultaneously functions as the browser’s address and search bar. The space at the top places your open tabs to the right of the address-search bar, making it somewhat more cluttered than some of our other picks given the amount of space the search field takes up, but it typically isn’t worrisome unless you’re really stacking up a high volume of tabs. Other notable design features include the single-click bookmarking star now widely adopted by almost all other prominent browsers.
Safari The browser that has traditionally attracted criticism is now a serious competitor to the likes of Google and Firefox. The newest version of Apple’s innate software is fairly minimalistic in design, but retains enough familiarity for old users of the browser to feel at home. Like its peers, Safari offers the address-search bar hybrid. Updates to Safari 8 include a share icon embedded to the right of the search field. The sharing feature serves as a way to bookmark pages, post to social networks, and share via native Apple platforms (iMessage, Mail). The updated Safari is worth a shot for any OS X users. Mac users running the most recent operating system can even launch the browser in full-screen mode, essentially expanding the window and for the ultimate viewing experience.
Opera embraces Google’s chromium search engine while retaining signature features that distinguish the browser from the rest. Opera has a single hybrid address-search bar like Chrome, but the alternative browser also sports Opera’s signature features, stash and speed dial. Speed dial allows for easy bookmarking and functions like “the most visited page” on Safari. Stash is similar to Pocket, allowing you to quickly store pages for future browsing. The bottom line, it’s a clean design with innovative features that holds its own against the rest of the competition.
Benchmark Tests Compared
Most of the browsers are compatible with Web standards and handle speed with relative ease. A casual user probably won’t notice a difference in the Web page rendering speed between browsers. All five browsers are much faster and leaner than the browsers of a few years ago and become even more so with each new build. Below are our benchmark results for the five browsers, bold text indicates the winner for each category.
|Chrome 35||100||195.1 ms||1366.7 ms||25863||508/555|
|Internet Explorer 11||100||95.6 ms||2171.2 ms||14775||372/555|
|Mozilla Firefox 30||100||178.4 ms||1254.0 ms||24207||471/555|
|Safari 8||100||294.2 ms||3384.0 ms||10616||425/555|
|Opera 22||100||194.8 ms||1423.4 ms||25882||504/555|
Features are what truly separate one browser from the next given that speed and compatibility are no longer really an issue. That being said, each browser does have its own slate of differentiating features, from expansive app stores and add-ons to various extensions and tools, that makes it shine in its own light.
Chrome differentiates itself through its constant updates, but also through its extensive Web Apps Store, which offers apps that blur the line between Web and local apps in some unique ways. Much of this philosophy comes from Chrome OS, Google’s desktop operating system based on the Chrome browser. Still, we like the idea and Chrome remains the most integrated software for accessing anything Google related (i.e. Gmail, Google Drive). If Web apps and seamless dashboard features are important to you, check out what Google has to offer.
Like Chrome, Firefox is on a six-week update schedule, and sports a strong catalog of extensions. Developers will have to retool many of these to support Firefox 33, but some user refuse to leave Firefox solely because it offers unique extensions that have become essential to their browsing experience. Most other browsers support add-ons, but Firefox may have a lead in mindshare here (for now). The built-in PDF viewer is incredibly handy, as is the browser’s support for Macbook Retina displays and grouped tabs, and Firefox remains the most customizable in terms of interface and display out of the five on our list.
Currently, Firefox only offers a mobile version of its browser for Android devices.
Safari may not have the admirable extension catalog to rival its peers, but it does have offer a good deal of extensions and utilities for productivity and organization. Unlike Firefox and Chrome, though, the third-party extensions are rather bland and aren’t as integrated into the software as they probably could be. The bulk of them also lack the “fun” factor found on other browsers, but hopefully Apple will take a cue from the current market and work more accessible and entertaining extensions into the Safari Extensions Gallery. Other awesome built-in extras include the ad-free Safari Reader, which lets you view solely text without all the unnecessary clutter, and comprehensive iCloud integration for syncing pages across all your devices.
Safari’s mobile version comes preinstalled on iOS devices.
IE11 sports heavy integration and optimization for Windows 7 and 8. Many functions, like turning tabs into new windows, are much easier with Microsoft’s new browser. It retains some of the unique features introduced in IE10, like individual tab previewing from the task bar and a new feature called site pinning, which lets you ‘pin’ a website to the Windows 8 task bar like you would a normal application. However, unlike an ordinary taskbar shortcut, pinned websites can offer customized “right click” menus. For example, pinning the Facebook toolbar will let you right click and auto browse to different sections of the Facebook site like News, Messages, Events and Friends. In addition, when you open a pinned site, the IE11 browser customizes itself to resemble the site you’re viewing. Currently, this only means the icon in the upper-left corner will change along with the colors for the back and forward buttons, but we like the idea.
IE’s mobile version comes preinstalled on Windows devices.
Creating a browser that can compete with the browser giants is an an uphill battle for Opera. Though, the decision to embed Chromium has proven to pay dividends for the Scandinavian company. Opera’s add-ons library utilizes Chrome’s major apps, including mail and pocket. Thankfully, Opera doesn’t attempt to beat Google at its own game. Sure, the extensive Web-app store offers a variety of mostly-free apps, but Opera’s extensions are centered around the browser’s signature tool, Speed Dial — a touchscreen-optimized homepage. Each extension can be tacked to Opera’s Speed Dial homepage. The simplicity of having your Gmail account stored next to a dependable news aggregatior on your homepage is hard to pass up.
Security and Privacy
The most valuable tool for secure browsing is user discretion. Sure, every browser has encountered security broaches in the past. And Internet Explorer and Chrome’s reputation for protecting users’ security and privacy credentials is spotty at best. Chrome, Safari, and Firefox rely on Google’s Safe Browsing API to detect potentially dangerous sites. Thanks to constant updates, Mozilla, Chrome and Opera all make constant security updates. But Chrome takes security a bit further by also scanning for potentially harmful downloads. There’s also encryption ad-ons currently in the works at Google. All browsers offer a privacy session option. Private sessions prevent the storage of history, temporary Internet files, and cookies. For example, Internet Explorer 11 features a security measure called Tracking Protection. Only Internet Explorer goes so far as to to block trackers completely from communicating with your browser. What’s more, according to a 2013 NSS study, only Internet Explorer blocks trackers used on more than 90 percent of potentially hazardous sites.
According to the latest numbers from StatCounter, Chrome was the top browser for October 2014, garnering more than 45 percent of the global browser market share and steadily solidifying its spot as top dog. IE and Firefox continue to be popular, holding roughly 20 and 18 percent, respectively, but seem to be leveling out as the IE hype tapers off. Safari and Opera round off the top five, fixed at around 10 percent and 1 percent, respectively. On the mobile side, Chrome wins out but Opera’s touch-screen optimized browser holds an impressive mobile browser market share (12%). Another recent study shows different results, with Internet Explorer holding a firm grasp on the top spot.
Which browser is best?
Good question. For now, Chrome is the best browser on the market. Google’s proprietary browser boasts the largest and most useful selection of apps and extensions, along with a frequent update schedule. Other browsers, however, are upping their game. Opera and Firefox now offer a similar update frequency and IE 11 out-performs Chrome on Sunspider’s benchmark standards. The bottom line is this, we’re in an era where the most minimal and modular browser reigns supreme. Chrome remains the most nimble and most app-ready browsing experience. IE, Firefox, and Opera have narrowed their lead significantly, each offering new features to better accommodate the needs of some users.
Update November 25, 2014 by Joe Donovan: Updated article to reflect the most recent versions of each browser as well as an instructional video. Staff Writer Brandon Widder contributed to this article.
This article was originally published on March 31, 2013.