Picking a web browser isn’t like selecting an operating system or smartphone ecosystem. Unlike choosing MacOS, Windows, or Chrome OS, where your choices are mutually exclusive, switching between browsers isn’t quite so jarring. You can download any one of the current major browsers in the time it takes you to finish reading this paragraph. But which is the fastest? Which is the safest and most private?
To help you decide, we’ve broken down the best browsers on the market today and boiled them down to their bare bones. Even if some of them could do with being rebuilt from the ground up, these options are your best chance at a great online experience.
The best web browsers at a glance
- The best web browser: Google Chrome
- The best Chrome alternative: Mozilla Firefox
- The most innovative browser: Opera
- The web browser with the most potential: Microsoft Edge
Chrome is ubiquitous — and for good reason. With a robust feature set, full Google Account integration, a thriving extension ecosystem, and a reliable suite of mobile apps, it’s easy to see why Chrome is the gold standard for web browsers. Chrome even blocks some ads that don’t conform to accepted industry standards.
Chrome also boasts some of the best mobile integration available. With a mobile app available on every major platform, it’s easy to keep your data in sync, making browsing between multiple devices a breeze. Sign into your Google account on one device, and all your Chrome bookmarks, saved data, and preferences come right along. Even which extensions are active stays in sync across devices. It’s a standard feature you can find on other platforms, but Chrome’s integration is second to none.
Google released Chrome 69 to celebrate the browser’s 10th birthday with a significant visual redesign and some nice new features. The user interface was rounded and smoothed out, losing all of its previous sharper edges and harsh angles for a gentler and more attractive aesthetic. Tabs are easier to identify thanks to more visible favicons, making it perfect for anyone who typically keeps open a large number of tabs. Note that as of Chrome 71, you can no longer go back to the old interface.
In addition, Chrome’s password manager now automatically generates and recommends strong passwords when a user creates a new account on a web page. The search bar, or Omnibox, provides “rich results” comprised of useful answers to questions when they’re typed in, calculator results, sporting event scores, and more. Finally, favorites are more accessible, and they’re manageable on the New Tab page. Other more recent updates include a dark mode, better New Tab customization, and tab hover cards.
What’s the bottom line? Chrome is fast, free, light, and even better-looking. With a thriving extension ecosystem, it’s as fully featured or as pared down as you want it to be. Everything is right where it should be, privacy and security controls are laid out in plain English, and the browser just gets out of your way. If you’re not sure which browser you should be using, you should be using Chrome.
Firefox comes in a close second — a very close second. Mozilla has been taking real strides in making its browser a truly modern way to surf from site to site, thanks to efforts like its upgrade to Firefox Quantum and the virtual reality-focused alternative, Firefox Reality. It wasn’t too long ago that Mozilla rebuilt the familiar old standby browser’s interface, offering a cleaner, more modern take on what a web browser should be, and even introduced a password-free browsing experience.
The changes weren’t just skin deep, though. There’s some impressive engineering going on behind the scenes. Firefox Quantum is designed to leverage multicore processors in ways that its competitors just aren’t doing. It’s not going to make a huge difference in your day-to-day browsing, but the Mozilla Corporation hopes it’s going to give it an edge moving forward. By engineering for the future now, Firefox Quantum is in a better position to take advantage of quicker and quicker processors as they come out year after year.
More recent updates include better privacy protections with anti-tracker support, improved password syncing across devices, and integrated breach alerts.
Beneath those changes, it’s still the same Firefox we all know and love. It’s a capable browser, with a deep catalog of extensions and user interface customization. The new Firefox Mobile app also received the Quantum treatment, so it’s quicker and more streamlined than ever before. Grab the mobile Firefox app and you’ll be able to share bookmarks between devices, but you’ll have to sign up for a separate Firefox account. Unfortunately, managing settings across platforms isn’t as seamless as it is in Chrome.
Even with a few major overhauls, Firefox is a comfortable, familiar standby. There’s a bit of a fringe benefit, too. Because it’s been around longer than Chrome, some older web apps — the likes of which you might encounter at your university or workplace — work better on Firefox than they do on Chrome. For that reason, it never hurts to keep it around. And the most recent version, Firefox 68, does an even better job than ever of keeping you safe from sites that wan to track your activities as you surf the web.
As a primary browser, Firefox is more privacy-centric than Chrome and is comparably fast, but its feature set isn’t quite as expansive elsewhere.
Also a venerable browser and popular alternative, Opera shares much of Chrome’s DNA. Both browsers are built on Google’s Chromium engine, and as a result, they have a very similar user experience. Both feature a hybrid URL/search bar, and both are relatively light and fast.
The differences appear when you start to look at Opera’s built-in features. Where Chrome relies on an extension ecosystem to provide functionality users might want, Opera has a few more features baked right into the browser itself. It also introduced a predictive website preload ability, and an Instant Search feature isolates search results in their own window while the current page fades into the background — letting users more easily focus on the research task at hand.
As of Opera 55, you can also install the Chrome extension from the Chrome web store, meaning that not only can you run the same extensions as if you were using Chrome, but discovering and installing extensions is just as easy as on Google’s popular browser. If Chrome’s wide variety of extensions are important to you, then Opera becomes an intriguing alternative. With Opera 56, the browser was furthered refined, meaning that Opera might just be one of the best browsers for quickly navigating web pages.
Opera also features a built-in “Stash” for saving pages to read later. There’s no need to sign up for a Pocket or Evernote account to save a page for later reading. Similarly, Opera features a speed-dial menu that puts all your most frequently visited pages in one place. Chrome also does this but only on a blank new tab. Finally, Opera has a built-in unlimited VPN service, making it a more secure option.
But the biggest changes came with Opera 60 and Reborn 3, a complete revamp of the browser’s design that brought a new borderless design, Web 3 support, and a Crypto Wallet allowing users to prepare for blockchain-based sites. If you’re looking for a feature-packed browser that offers some serious privacy and security, then Opera is a great choice.
You can see that we’re well into hair-splitting territory, which is why it’s important to remember that your choice of browser is, more than any other service or app you use on a daily basis, entirely dependent on your personal preferences — what feels most right for you. Opera has a unique look and feel, and it combines some of the best features of Firefox and Chrome.
Microsoft created its own new browser for Windows 10, dubbed Edge, that used its own browsing engine and was updated along with the operating system. That project was arguably a failure, as Edge failed to gain market share even though it was built into Windows 10 and set as the default browser.
In response, Microsoft is rewriting Edge as a Chromium browser, taking Google’s lead and making something all its own. The new version is currently in beta, and while it bears a passing resemblance to the old Edge it’s a completely different browser inside.
There’s really not much to say about the new Edge at this point. You can give one of the beta versions a try if you like, and the browser works well enough for simple browsing. There’s the ability to sync some — but not all — settings across platforms, use a limited selection of Chrome extensions, and customize the browser in some limited ways.
So, why are we focusing on the new version when it’s so limited? First, because let’s face it — there’s no reason to invest in a browser that’s being abandoned by its developer. Second, the new Edge has something the old one never did — it runs an all platforms, including MacOS, meaning that it’s a more feasible replacement for other browsers that haven’t been tied to Microsoft’s OS.
If you’re looking for something a bit more experimental than Chrome or Firefox, just fire up the Edge Chromium beta and see what it can do. You might be surprised — or not. And Edge is now decoupled from Windows 10, meaning it’s being updated more regularly.
The new Chromium version of Edge is set to launch on January 15, 2020.
While the preceding browsers will meet most users’ needs, other alternatives exist for anyone who’s looking for something different.
If you run Apple platforms exclusively, then you might want to consider Safari if it’s not already your default choice. Safari might not be the fastest Mac browser around, with Chrome being significantly quicker, but it’s fast enough that you won’t feel too slowed down. And it’s the most integrated into MacOS, meaning you’re going to feel more at home and you’ll likely get better battery life thanks to some Mac-specific optimizations.
Safari also focuses a great deal on privacy and security. If you want to minimize how you’re being tracked and whether Big Brother is looking over your shoulder, then Safari is a good choice. If you also use an iPhone and/or an iPad, then using Safari on your Mac will make for the most seamless transition between platforms.
Vivaldi is truly unique. No two Vivaldi users will have the same setup. When you run it for the first time, you’re guided through a setup process that lays out your browser in a way that makes sense for you. You get to choose where your tabs and address bar go, and you get to choose if you want browser tabs displayed at the top of the page or in a separate side panel. This is a browser built from the ground up to deliver a unique user experience, and for the most part, it succeeds. Vivaldi 2.0 enhanced the customization features and made them easier to access. We certainly enjoyed Vivaldi when we gave it a go.
This browser excels at customization, and you can choose from a variety of tasteful themes that don’t feel dated or out of place on a modern PC, in addition to the aforementioned UI choices. It also has some stand-out privacy-enhancing features, like a recent team-up with DuckDuckGo, to make the non-tracking search tool the default option when in privacy mode. Finally, the latest version added more powerful tab management, enhancements like Web Panels that make for smarter browsing, and (as mentioned) even more powerful customization options.
One of the most unusual browsers around is Brave — or, perhaps, its Brave’s business model that’s the strangest. Brave blocks all ads on all web pages by default, which makes it arguably the fastest browser around. Ads are a huge portion of how many web sites make money. Block ads and suddenly the most important web financial tool is eliminated. That’s where the Brave Rewards program will come in. Users will receive “Basic Attention Tokens,” or BATs, when they view alternative ads that Brave places in the browsing stream. The users can pass along a portion of their tokens to publishers. In the future, Brave hopes that publishers will jump on board and offer premium content in exchange for BATs.
What’s in it for users? Simply put, if you’re not waiting for ads to download along with web site content, then your web experience is going to seem much faster. And, Brave performs no user tracking, making it a private browser as well.
The Tor Browser is a version of Firefox that serves one very specific purpose. It provides a simple entry point for Tor (The Onion Router), which is software combined with an open network aimed at making you invisible by routing your traffic through a number of anonymous servers. While it’s not absolutely foolproof, it’s very difficult for someone to identify you when you’re properly configured and using something like the Tor Browser to surf the web. Especially if combined with a VPN.
There are a number of legitimate uses of the Tor Browser and the Tor network, such as people who live in countries with repressive governments, as well as journalists and activists. The dark web is also one of the destinations for people using Tor, and that includes a number of nefarious and illegal sites. In any event, if you want to remain completely anonymous while you’re on the web, then the Tor Browser and network are for you.
All right, so you’ve seen our recommendations — but if you still want to know more, check out our test results below.
You’ll notice we dropped both Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari web browser from our comparison. Microsoft’s aging browser has had some improvements over the years, but it’s no longer the default browser on Windows 10, and it doesn’t offer much beyond the bare minimum. It only exists today because some companies need it for legacy applications. While Apple’s Safari web browser is still used by many Mac users, it’s no longer updated on Windows, and so we’ve removed it from the main list too.
Most browsers are compatible with web standards and handle performance with relative ease. A casual user probably won’t notice a difference in the rendering speed between today’s modern browsers, as all six browsers are much faster and leaner than those of a few years ago.
We ran the following benchmarks on a desktop with an Intel Core i7-4770K processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. All browsers were clean installs of the most current production versions as of early 2019 and all were run at their default settings.
We switched to the latest Jetstream 2 benchmark — which focuses on modern web applications — and Edge has retained it’s number one ranking. Although there’s a twist: The old Edge version wouldn’t complete the test, and so the winner is the Chromium version. Opera is in second place and Chrome is close behind, with Firefox coming in last place with a significantly lower score.
Mozilla’s Kraken benchmark has Firefox in a strong first-place finish with Edge Chromium coming in second and Chrome in third. Opera comes in third and the old Edge finishes in dead-last.
Interestingly, Chrome and Edge Chromium fell way behind in the HTML5 compliance test. Opera comes in first and Firefox in second.
Finally, we also tested how much RAM each browser uses, both with no tabs open and then with 10 tabs open accessing the same popular sites. We made sure that each browser had no extensions running, and we let each browser settle in before looking at its memory use. For the test with 10 tabs open, we averaged memory use when all of the tabs were first opened and then five minutes later, to account for any variability.
It’s not a scientific test, but it should be sound enough to give an idea of which browsers are the most and least efficient in terms of taking up your RAM. We found Opera to use the least RAM both when first opened and Firefox used the least with all 10 tabs loaded. Chrome was much less efficient with multiple tabs opened while Edge Chromium was a solid performer in both instances.
Security and privacy
The most valuable tool for secure browsing is user discretion, especially when you consider that every web browser has encountered security breaches in the past. In particular, Internet Explorer and Chrome’s reputation for protecting users’ security and privacy credentials is spotty at best.
Chrome, Safari, Vivaldi, Opera, and Firefox all rely on Google’s Safe Browsing API to detect potentially dangerous sites. Thanks to constant updates, Mozilla, Chrome, and Opera all make constant security improvements.
All browsers offer a private session option, too. Private sessions prevent the storage of history, temporary internet files, and cookies. Browser support for Do Not Track remains spotty.
Mozilla has made some strides to try and differentiate itself from the others with a real focus on privacy in recent years. It even debuted a Facebook Container in 2018 to make it harder for the social network to harvest a user’s information.
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