Serving as a window to your online world, the web browser has become one of — if not — the most important pieces of computer software used on a daily basis.
Not only are browsers used to access websites for information and e-commerce, but for many, it’s a conduit to entertainment (such as streaming videos or online games), communication (including web mail sites) and social networking with friends (be it Facebook, MySpace and Twitter).
At this point in time, there are five major browsers to choose from: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome and the self-titled browser from Opera. All of them are free to use, they work with most operating systems and enjoy frequent updates to fix problems or add new features.
Deciding which one to go with, however, boils down to personal preference — or in some cases, laziness, if the web browser was already installed on your PC and you don’t care to change it.
If you’re reading this article then you already have a browser, but those curious as to what the “other guys” are offering should read on for a brief look at each of the big players in this space, and consider our pros and cons for each after spending a week with all five.
Internet Explorer 8 (microsoft.com/ie8)
Launched in 1995, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) web browser successfully battled against the almighty Netscape graphical browser — and it didn’t hurt IE shipped with every version of the Windows operating system — and has maintained its commanding market share over the years.
Available in 25 languages, the newest version, 8, is much faster than past IE browsers, and includes some handy tools that speed up your surfing. This includes: a “Favorites” bar for one-click access to your most visited web sites; “accelerators,” which help you search for something quickly via a pull-down menu; and the ability to highlight a word or phrase and immediately look up its definition, translate it, email it, map it, and so on.
While it still has a ways to go, it’s also more secure than past versions of IE, which have been plagued with security vulnerabilities.
Pros: Most websites and plugs-ins work well with IE. Faster speeds and handy time-saving tools. Compatibility View helps see older websites easier. Available in multiple languages. Built into Windows.
Cons: Security holes still found. Market share leader means more susceptible to attacks. Some crashing.
Mozilla Firefox 3.5 (mozilla.com/firefox)
Since its fall 2004 release, Mozilla’s Firefox has grown to become a serious contender to IE, and second place overall in the browser wars.
The latest release of this lean and fast browser has added a few new bells and whistles, including “Tear Off Tabs” (a feature that, like Apple’s Safari, lets you drag and drop tabs into a separate browser window), a private browsing option that destroys any history left by the surfer (catching up to Microsoft and Google’s browsers) and an interesting addition called “location-aware browsing,” where a website can prompt for your location to help serve you better (such as recommending a pizza restaurant in your neighborhood if you’re craving a slice).
As with past versions, Firefox is easy to develop for and has an active development community that creates plug-ins and “extensions” for the browser — often letting Firefox users do neat things inside the browser not found in competing software (check out a few at addons.mozilla.org).
Pros: Newest version is roughly 3x faster than Firefox 3.0. Tabbed browsing works well. Convenient features, including location-aware browsing. Vibrant and passionate development community.
Cons: Some bugs and security issues that requires “patching.”
Opera 10 (opera.com)
Fast and secure are the two priorities for Opera Software, the company that launched its first commercial open-source web browser in 1996.
This lean download — a mere 5.36MB in size for the Windows version (five times smaller than Microsoft’s IE8) — does indeed run fast and smoothly, and supports multiple operating systems (and mobile phones). Integrated malware protection and strong encryption help protect the surfer from the ills of the Internet.
Popular features include tabbed browsing (the first major browser to offer this feature in late 2001), integrated spell checker, “speed dial” access to your favorite websites, page zooming and mouse gestures (example: hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse to the right to go back a web page).
Also embedded in Opera 10 is a new technology called Opera Unite, that turns your web browser into a web server so you can do neat things like share files with friends via the browser window.
Pros: Lean and fast. Secure. Mouse gestures and other extra features in Opera (including Opera Unite) are handy additions.
Cons: Doesn’t fare as well on heavy multimedia sites. Not as much plug-in support than IE and Firefox.
Apple Safari 4 (apple.com/safari)
Released as a free upgrade to the Mac OS X operating system in 2003, many Apple computer users have embraced the elegant-looking Safari as their browser of choice, and have since won over many Windows users, too. Plus, its install base on 40+ million iPhones and iPod touch devices has helped with its success.
While its claim as “the world’s fastest browser” isn’t substantiated on every website we tested it on (IE8 and Opera, for example, beat it out on certain sites), Apple’s Safari is a speedy web browser with smooth and reliable performance; it crashed the least out of the five browsers in our testing (not even once).
While other browsers offer a similar feature, we like Safari’s Top Sites, that shows you a graphical thumbnail of the websites you visit frequently. Attractive “Cover Flow”-like horizontal image gliding with bookmarked and tabbed thumbnails, resembles the iTunes feature and helps make website viewing a more visual experience.
Pros: Good looking. Fast. Reliable. Minimalist design.
Cons: Close button on left side. Not much mouse functionality (e.g. middle button). No status bar. Not all plug-ins supported.
Google Chrome (chrome.google.com)
The newest player in the highly competitive browser space is Google, which launched a public beta version of its Windows browser in September of 2008.
This lean and fast open-source browser fuses a minimalist design with many features to make your web surfing experience an easier one. For example, leveraging its experience as the world’s biggest search engine, you can type a query right in the address bar (for both search results and relevant web pages) and includes auto-complete options.
Along with “stealth” privacy options for anonymous browsing, Google Chrome offers handy keyboard shortcuts to speed up surfing, one-click bookmarks (the little star) and quick tabbed browsing with thumbnail previews of most-visited sites.
In July 2009, Google announced it would create a Google Chrome operating system, based on the browser, designed for netbooks. This direct aim at Microsoft will be available in late 2010.
Pros: Clean and fast. Some nice features like shortcuts. Available in 50 languages.
Cons: Lack of add-ons; not all websites/plug-ins are supported. No support for Macs.
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