Browser bible: How to choose the right software for Web surfing

Everyone needs a Web browser, but with so many different ones available, deciding which one is best for you can be hard. Are you looking for something blazing fast? Or is strong security your top priority? Or do you need lots and lots of add-ons?

We examined the latest versions of six widely used desktop and laptop browsers–Chrome 17, Firefox 10, Internet Explorer 9, Opera 11.61, RockMelt 0.9, and Safari 5.1.2–paying special attention to such variables as speed, safety, extra features, and extensions.

Among the PC browser contenders, Google’s Chrome version 17 narrowly captured the crown as the top performer overall in our tests, thanks to speedy Java­Script rendering and page load times, excellent security tools, and a respectable array of add-ons and features. Mozilla’s Firefox 10 finished a close second, processing HTML 5 graphics faster than any other browser and sporting a huge library of add-ons to make browsing easier and more fun.

RockMelt 0.9, the browser built on Google’s Chromium framework that comes integrated with Facebook, was the surprise third-place finisher. We had expected the browser’s Facebook integration and social-reading sidebar to slow its performance; but in our hands-on testing, RockMelt worked faster than most of its rivals, and it permits you to share links and chat with friends on Facebook without having to go directly to the social network.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 earned a rather low score for its features: It doesn’t offer themes for your browser, and you can’t sync favourites unless you use Windows Live Mesh. Nevertheless, it offers more security options than most competing browsers, and it processed HTML 5 code quickly.

Opera 11.61 distinguished itself from its rivals with blazing page-load speeds and a great mobile browser, but it came up short in HTML 5 processing.

Safari 5.1.2 didn’t perform especially well on any of our benchmarks; its only noteworthy redeeming quality, particularly for Windows users, is the solid security it provides.
While reading our assessments, bear in mind that every browser behaves differently depending on the hardware setup, the Internet connection, and the modifications you make to your browser (with add-ons, the amount of space allotted for cache, and the like).


Google Chrome 17

Overall Best

• Lets you close slow or frozen pages without restarting the browser
• Sandboxed design helps prevent malware infections
• No integrated RSS reader
• Plain design

Chrome wins our top spot thanks to its ease of use, numerous extensions and add-ons, and superb performance. It may not be perfect for everyone, but Chrome is a well-rounded browser that should meet most people’s needs.

Chrome’s minimalist design isn’t eye-catching, but its lean toolbar leaves more room for viewing Web pages. And what Chrome lacks in flashiness, it certainly makes up for in performance. Google’s browser really shone in our JavaScript test, far outdistancing its competitors. Many popular websites–including Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube–use JavaScript because it makes those sites more immediately responsive, and JavaScript-heavy pages behave better in Chrome. The browser also performed admirably in our speed test, fully loading an image-heavy page in just under 4 seconds. This lighting-fast speed comes from a feature new to Chrome 17 (released in early February) that lets the browser start loading the URL you type in the address bar be­­fore you press.

To complement its im­­pressive performance, Goo­gle’s browser has some worthy features that others lack. For starters, Chrome runs tabs as separate processes–so if one of them crashes, the entire browser doesn’t go down with it. If your online wanderings take you to a foreign-language website, Chrome will recognize the language and offer to translate it for you in a matter of seconds. The translations, powered by Google Translate, aren’t exceptionally accurate, but they can at least give you a basic idea of what the page is about. Chrome is also one of the most secure browsers on this list, because it is sandboxed: The plug-ins that Chrome uses access information only within the browser itself and can’t read information from other areas on your computer. Sandboxing prevents malware that uses plug-in exploits from spreading via Chrome through your PC.

Owners of smartphones or tablets running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) will appreciate the ability to sync their Chrome bookmarks and Web history to those mobile devices.

You can customize Chrome with Web apps, themes, and extensions to suit your preferences. Chrome’s built-in Web store simplifies searching for and installing browser add-ons. The add-ons range from simple (an Evernote plug-in, for example), to complex (such as full versions of Angry Birds and Bastion). And unlike with Firefox, you don’t need to restart your browser every time you install a new extension or app.

On the downside, Chrome lacks an integrated RSS reader, which means that you’ll have to come up with your own approach to handling multiple RSS feeds if you subscribe to more than one.

Mozilla Firefox 10

Most Versatile

• Superb HTML 5 performance
• Thousands of available add-ons

• Slow page loads
• Too many add-ons can bog down the browser

Mozilla’s browser has been around for nearly a decade, but it’s still quite spry. In the six versions following its dramatic version 4.0 redesign in March 2011, Firefox has undergone a few chiefly cosmetic changes. The bulky toolbar is gone, replaced by a row of tabs on the top of the window, and the bookmark bar is hidden by default. You can change the default settings via the options, of course, but the simplified interface works well, especially on smaller displays where space is at a premium.

Firefox’s biggest advantage over its rivals is its vast library of add-ons, which you can use to customize your Web browsing and make Firefox infinitely more useful. Not surprisingly, the more add-ons you install, the slower Firefox will be to start up and run. And some add-ons can turn Firefox into a memory hog, slowing down even the beefiest system.

Firefox led the pack in our HTML 5 tests, and it finished third in handling JavaScript, easily outperforming Opera, Internet Explorer 9, and Safari. On our test machine, Firefox was the second-slowest browser at loading Web pages, taking 9.67 seconds (on average) to fully load an image-heavy page; the fastest browsers, Chrome and Opera, took only 3.79 seconds (on average) to load the same Web page.

Firefox is a relatively full-featured browser. You can save frequently used Web services–such as Pandora and Gmail–as App tabs, which are permanent tabs that Firefox saves in the browser. Think of them as bookmarks in tab form. If you’re a power user who leaves tons of tabs open constantly, Firefox will allow you to collect the tabs into manageable groups, a handy feature for keeping your entertainment tabs separate from your work ones, for instance. If you use Firefox at home and at work, Firefox Sync will sync your history, bookmarks, and preferences across computers, and will even sync with the Firefox Mobile app on Android. Firefox has a pop-up filter and supports private browsing. The browser’s malware protection will warn you if you happen to encounter a fraudulent website, and its updater ensures that your plug-ins have the latest security patches. Firefox will work with any security software that you have installed on your computer, using the software to scan downloads for malware.

Facebook RockMelt 0.9

• Makes communicating with Facebook friends easy
• Automatic syncing among computers
• Pages and JavaScript features load quite briskly

• Facebook sign-in required to get the most out of this browser
• Extensions and add-ons are relatively scarce

RockMelt was built on Google’s Chromium browser framework, so it looks and acts a lot like Chrome; nevertheless, it’s designed to appeal to social-media fanatics. You have to sign in through Facebook to use most of its features, and RockMelt collects data on your browsing habits, though the developers say they won’t share that data with any third parties–including Google and Facebook. And the Facebook sign-in process enables RockMelt to sync settings and bookmarks automatically through your Facebook account among computers and other devices running RockMelt’s iOS app (no RockMelt app is available for Android yet).

What fans love about RockMelt will undoubtedly drive some people crazy. A thin strip located on the right side of the browser window displays your Facebook friends’ icons, and indicates their availability to chat. By clicking a friend’s icon, you can chat in the browser window without having to switch back and forth between Facebook and your other tabs. On the left side of the browser window, you can choose “apps” for different websites that notify you of newly posted content. If the information at the edges of the browser window becomes distracting, however, you can silence the visual noise by clicking the bell icon in the top-right corner.

RockMelt has some other potential drawbacks. The browser will add any link that you click in the left-hand bar (such as a link from RockMelt’s CNN app) to your Facebook timeline unless you turn the behavior off in the browser’s preferences. Also, many extensions that work in Chrome don’t function in Rock­Melt. RockMelt’s CEO, Eric Vishria, says that the company is working with developers of good Chrome apps to produce RockMelt-compatible versions of the apps. He says that today there are about 200 extensions for RockMelt.

The fledgling browser outperformed Chrome at processing HTML 5, finishing third behind Firefox and IE 9. It took second place in our JavaScript benchmark, only slightly behind the winning Chrome; and it was again the runner-up in loading our static, image-heavy page, with a very good time of 4.15 seconds, less than half a second behind Chrome and Opera, which tied for first place.

Internet Explorer 9

Best Security

• Fast HTML 5 processing
• Good security features

• No themes or automated bookmark syncing
• Managing tabs can be difficult

Internet Explorer has long lagged behind other browsers in features and ease of use. But the ninth version of Microsoft’s browser offers a few functions that are at least as good as what the competition offers.

Especially noteworthy are some great new privacy features, including the ability to block sites from cataloguing your browsing habits. IE 9 permits you to block sites individually or to rely on a Microsoft-assembled list of sites that have a history of tracking visitors after they leave the page.

Microsoft also embedded its Application Reputation app in IE 9 to scan downloads and to warn you if a downloaded file is dangerous. And the browser offers built-in cross-site scripting protection, which scans websites for certain types of malicious code, and stops such scripts before they can damage your computer.

IE 9 finished second in our HTML 5 benchmark test–and as more websites move toward that graphics-friendly Web standard, Microsoft’s browser will look even better. It didn’t do as well on our other performance tests, however, finishing last in processing JavaScript, and also taking the most time to complete our static-page load tests (with an average time of 11.21 seconds).

The general appearance of Internet Explorer 9 is much improved over earlier versions. At long last you can move tabs between different browser windows, and the settings and favourites tabs are easier to find. IE 9 still doesn’t have a native feature for syncing bookmarks, but you can import and export favourites as usual. With no themes and no in-browser spelling-check feature, IE 9 isn’t the most festive or work-friendly browser available, but at least you can install an extension that provides the in-browser spelling check.

Opera 11.61

• Pages load very quickly
• Unique browsing experience with widgets

• Not HTML 5–friendly
• Fewer security options than other browsers offer

For Internet users who prize speed above everything else, Opera Software’s Opera should be the browser of choice. The user interface looks like a more polished version of Internet Explorer 9: The tabs rest at the top of the browser window, with the bookmarks and other buttons tucked away inside a pop-out menu. The interface takes some getting used to, and it isn’t as customizable as, for example, Firefox’s is.

Opera tied with Chrome as the fastest browser in our page-load test; it loaded a static, image-heavy page in 3.79 seconds. Opera also handled our JavaScript tests reasonably well, earning the fourth-best score. But it struggled in our HTML 5 tests, finishing behind all of its rivals except Safari. One HTML 5 site that I visited ended up crashing the browser. The second time I visited the site, the page did load–but several elements were broken. Ironically, Opera Software was the browser maker that originally proposed HTML 5 as an Internet technology.

Opera makes a few extensions and add-ons available to users, in the form of widgets–light applications that you can download from Opera’s Web store and run on your desktop as separate programs. Opera doesn’t have to be open in order for the widgets to work, but they won’t start up unless you have Opera installed on your computer. Widgets range from simple games to RSS feeds, and Opera’s staff reviews all widgets that users can download from Opera’s store to ensure that they’re safe.

Another neat tool is Opera Turbo. It uses Opera’s servers to compress Web pages to only a few bytes, enabling people with slow connections to browse the Internet more easily. This feature is also convenient for people whose broadband service imposes monthly caps on their bandwidth usage, though it will automatically disable itself if you happen to be on a faster connection.

Opera supports private browsing, and it will warn you when you attempt to visit a website that it suspects is fraudulent. Opera also lets you control which cookies you accept from Web pages, though the process for making your preferences known is messy and may be too complicated for many users to bother with. In comparison to the other Web browsers in this roundup, Opera is the most lacking in security options.

Apple Safari 5.1.2


• Solid security network
• Mobile syncing is a cinch if you use an iOS device

• Plods through pages built with HTML 5 and JavaScript

Safari is an adequate and fairly intuitive browser, but you can do better, especially if you use a Windows machine. Safari didn’t score well on any of our speed benchmarks; and though its security has always been top-notch, organizing Safari can be troublesome, especially if you’re not already using iCloud, Apple’s cloud-storage service replacement for MobileMe.

Safari does have solid security features, and Apple has long been a proponent of default pop-up blocking, which dramatically improves any browsing experience. Also, similarly to most other browsers these days, Safari lets you open a private browsing window so that you can block all cookies and essentially search the Web unseen with the click of a button; just go to Settings and se­­lect Private Browsing. Since Apple’s browser comes preloaded on all Macs and iOS products, syncing browser settings can be quite easy with iCloud if you have an iPhone. And with Apple’s new Lion OS, the latest version of Safari has a number of of new security tools and more options for reading on the Web. Another safety measure: Apple recently integrated browser sandboxing into versions of Safari on Lion, so websites bearing malicious code never have access to your computer system.

Still, Safari was the poorest browser in our HTML 5 testing, and it came in next-to-last in our JavaScript test. Safari loaded our static, graphics-heavy page in 4.61 seconds, for fourth place after Chrome, Opera, and RockMelt.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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