Browser faceoff: IE vs Firefox vs Opera vs Safari

Browser faceoff: IE vs Firefox vs Opera vs Safari

Summary: Web 2.0, with its complex sites and rich Ajax applications, is an increasingly demanding platform for a browser. In this review feature, we look at how the leading browsers measure up.

TOPICS: Browser

Web 2.0, with its complex sites and rich Ajax applications, is an increasingly demanding platform for a browser. In this review feature, we look at how the leading browsers measure up.

When Tim Berners-Lee presented his employer CERN with the first browser, World Wide Web, to facilitate information flow between the different departments in the European nuclear research centre in Geneva, he little suspected that it would cause a revolution in the information age. Today, the browser is probably the most widely used computer application.

However, the tasks performed by a web browser have changed significantly. As well as displaying text and images, the modern browser needs to accommodate technologies such as JavaScript, DOM and XML in Ajax-based programs. Even if you're not familiar with Ajax, you'll probably have used it via Google Maps, Google Mail or AjaxWrite; sites such as Flickr and also make intense use of this technology. Ajax has even taken root in the business environment: for example, 24SevenOffice is an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution that runs in a web browser. The advantage of this Web 2.0 technology is platform independence: you don't need a specific operating system or processor to run Ajax applications — just a compatible browser.

Web 2.0 applications and sites place the focus firmly on browser performance. Anyone who still believes that the speed of your DSL connection is the only potential bottleneck is gravely mistaken. Key parts of Ajax applications run locally, which means that — all other things being equal — the speed of the browser will be crucial in determining the user experience. For Ajax-based business applications, the browser becomes even more important because data will be accessed from within-firewall servers rather than the internet. Companies deploying such solutions will be able to improve employee productivity by paying attention to browser performance.

Test setup

To test the performance of browsers when handling Web 2.0 technologies, we used the iBench 5.0 test suite and SunSpider, a Javascript benchmark.

iBench evaluates browser performance by measuring how fast HTML, XML and JavaScript is handled. The web pages are held on a local web server. SunSpider, which (unlike iBench) is available online, concentrates solely on JavaScript performance. Tests are grouped into nine categories, including 3D, bit operations, cryptography and string processing; there are several tests within each group. The benchmark runs each test multiple times and calculates an error range.

Obviously the speed of the hardware platform is a crucial variable. In our browser tests under Windows Vista and Mac OS 10.5.2 Leopard, we used the following components:

Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X38T-DQ6
Memory 4x 1GB Aeneon Xtune DDR3-1333
Processor Intel Core 2 Extreme Q9650 (3.6GHz)
Hard disk Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 750GB ST3750640AS
Graphics card ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT
Windows Vista SP1: HTML, XML, JavaScript (iBench 5.0)

The seven browsers we tested load HTML and XML/CSS pages under Windows Vista at a variety of speeds. According to iBench 5.0, Safari 3.1 is the fastest browser and Opera 9.27 the slowest; the latter takes over twice as long as any other browser to load HTML pages. However, the beta version of Opera 9.5 performs significantly better, and is on a par with the middle-ranking browsers.

In the iBench 5.0 JavaScript tests, Safari 3.1 is again the fastest browser, while Microsoft's browsers bring up the rear in JavaScript/HTML DOM tests. The JavaScript tests also expose greater performance differences among the browsers than the HTML/XML tests: in the JavaScript tests, the slowest browser is about 10 times slower than the fastest.

The various beta versions show significant performance improvements in some tests. For example, Firefox 2.0.13 completed the JavaScript/HTML DOM test in 3.1 seconds, while the Firefox 3 Beta 5 took only 0.65 seconds. The two Opera browsers show a similar pattern: Opera 9.27 was slowest in the JavaScript test (2.54s), while Opera 9.5 Beta 4758 delivered the second best result (0.36s).

It should be noted that iBench 5.0's reported values for the Safari browser are underestimates of the actual timings, which we checked manually. The reason is the measuring methodology in iBench 5.0, which uses the 'onload' event to signal that a page has been loaded: most browsers load the page, decode images and run stylesheets and scripts before firing 'onload'. Safari does not do this. There's no doubt that Apple's browser is fast, but it's not as far ahead of its competitors as iBench 5.0 suggests — as our next test shows.

Timings in seconds: shorter bars are better.

Topic: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Browser Faceoff

    Interesting article. Although a Linux (maybe Ubuntu) comparison with the Firefoxes would have been nice also.
    I currently use FF2 but plan to switch to FF3 when released (critical bug free that is..).
  • Firefox shows a clear lead ahead of Opera?

    Clearly Opera needs to get it's act together (at the time of the launch of Opera 9, and pretty much until Safari 3.1 came along, it was simply the fastest and most memory efficient browser around), but if you don't take the beta's into consideration, and Firefox appears to have at least a month left before it comes out of beta, Firefox doesn't show a lead ahead of Opera at all. In both the SunSpider and iBench tests, Opera consistently outperforms Firefox for JavaScript, although both iBench tests say Firefox is slightly faster in terms of loading (not my experience, especially on Windows).

    Does anyone know of some extensions to Safari that emulate Opera's Trash Can (restore closed tabs), Speed Dial (9 little mini-windows inside any new blank tab) and Sidebar (like a toolbar, but rather than across the top or bottom it's along the side, and you can access bookmarks, notes, downloads/uploads, and even full websites optionally formatted for the small width in the Sidebar)? Obviously has Firefox has these (probably with modifications that make them even better, except for the Sidebar, I doubt anyone would steal Opera's patented reformatting algorithm used to fit pages into the Sidebar), but as I've said, on my machine at least, Opera is faster than both Firefox and Camino. Safari does appear to be faster though, so I am seriously considering switching.
  • Performance is only one aspect.

    It looks like the new Firefox is going to be a real winner, and I'll be looking forward to the final release which will probably become my preferred browser for web development, however I won't be dropping Opera as my primary browser for general use any time soon.
    I've tracked various browsers for their vulnerabilities for a few years now, and Opera consistently comes out at the head of the pack in terms of security.
  • To Me Opera is best

    God only knows how you found such a stat against Opera. I am on Windows XP( b'coz i do not have enough money to upgrade my hardware with the change of OS.) Topic must be better if you choose Ubuntu also. In my experience on XP Opera 9.27 or Opera 9.50 Beta 2 (I tried portable) is better and more user friendly as it offers lots of features in-built. Opera has only one drawback - problem with some websites. Mozilla Firefox is good no doubt. Safari is fast but no add ons/widgets and no phishing filter, I stay away of it, though Safari is installed on my PC. IE is slow and I just hate to use it. Even to open a ".mht" file it takes a long time. To me Opera is best. Its fastest and safest too. Secunia finds no unpatched security hole on Opera. Users migrating from IE must like Mozilla Firefox, but when you like something better ,Opera rocks then ...
  • Why use such outdated test build of 9.5?

    Why was Beta 1 used when Beta 2 was already out. at April 24

    Significant improvements have taken place after the release of Beta 2 for the Windows platform. Opera became faster after compiling with Profile-Guided Optimizations: . This build was released May 9th.

    Looking at the dates makes me wonder why such old test builds of 9.5 were used; especially disregarding the PGO optimised builds from after May 9.

    By using outdated test builds it is clear that Opera is put in a disadvantaged position.

    Could anybody of the test team comment on the decisions that lead to using outdated test builds?
  • WHo cares about safari

    As long as safari for windows is so extremly bugged and Apple does not care the slightest, the browser is useless.

    What does not make it better, is it's ugly look and lack of add-ons compared to Firefox.

    Not even many osx users use safari.
  • What

    I'm sure the guy who wrote this article is a Mac/Apple lover .. .Safari is the best browser...whatever!!!!
  • Extensions

    Nobody likes to consider the fact that this was a BARE Firefox install, which very few people actually use in the real world. Average users have at least a handful of extensions installed, and every one of these impacts the performance. Some way more than others.

    I've had Firefox installed for years now, and with just a minor amount of what I consider necessary extensions to make Firefox worth using make it slower and more of a memory hog than Opera. It's why Opera is still my default browser. And I'm not even using the beta Opera right now. When Opera 9.5 comes out, Firefox 3 with extensions will be blown totally out of the water. Just as its always been.
  • Fair to consider Safari

    Not sure where you've got the idea that not many Mac users run Safari. That's not my experience at all.... It's not fair to give all the credit to Apple though-I use it on Macs but have also been running the same code base (KHTML/WebKit) for years as Konqueror on KDE. I always found it to be the fastest. It'd have been interesting to see the stats for the current Konq release too...
  • Browser faceoff

    Why does nobody test Konqueror (KHTML)? It would be great to see Konqueror also in action.
  • Safari already has that ability..

    All you need to do is History > reopen windows from last session
  • Trash Can

    Firefox' Ctrl+Shift+T == Opera's Ctrl+Z
  • Where's IE6?

    As horrid as it is, it is still the most popular browser on the planet. It should really be in the line up.
  • Interesting

    IE6 is so broken and out of date at this stage that it really wouldn't make sense to test its performance, no one's going to switch back to it because it loads pages faster than IE7(of course it almost certainly doesn't) and no one really cares how much it differs from its successor. IE 6 simply doesn't matter, users will gradually be forced to upgrade away from IE6 if they want to continue using ebay and paypal, this is wonderful news for everyone.

    I'm amazed to see the kind of performance and memory management improvements that have been made in FF3, though i've experienced them myself since switching to the first betas some time ago it is hard to be objective. All those who snub Firefox purely because it's a popular browser, who come up with all manner of idiotic technical justifications for continuing to use microsoft's product, will have to think seriously about the imminent release of FF3, there is no doubt that this will be the best engineered desktop browser around.
  • Opera vs FX vs IE vs Safari

    My tests of speed fresh browsers (no old builds):
  • doh

    I guess it must have been becasue Windows is the only platform that supports all the browsers in the test set.

    Not that hard too work out really...
  • Browser faceoff: IE vs Firefox vs Opera vs Safari

    Firefox is clearly the best browser and it is why it is gaining so rapidly users throughout the world.
  • clearly...

    now lift your eye patch and stop being so one eyed about everything in the world
  • Silly Argument

    Mac OS X was included in the results, and it does not support all of the tested browsers. Additionally, it is possible to run some of them on Linux using Wine, which would've provided some interesting comparisons (sometimes Windows programs run on Linux perform better than they do on Windows). However, it is possible the benchmarking software doesn't run natively on Linux, which would make the process problematic.
  • Opera version number is for Mac

    Opera is not outdated here. As far as I concerned, this build number stands for beta 2 on Safari (it should, because Windows builds for 9.5 started from b9500, and Linux is still under 2000). Testing betas is more reasonable, than to use weeklies. Maybe only FF3 RC1 is missed here.