Which of the big five Web Browsers is the Best? (Review)

Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Opera, or Apple Safari: Which of the most popular Web browsers is really the best?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

With Firefox 8's early arrival, and new major updates to three of the other major Web browsers, Chrome 15; Opera 11.5, and Safari 5.1.1 it's high time to take another look at our current generation of Internet Web browsers and see what's what. Only Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) 9 hasn't seen a significant improvement in the last few months.

Why did I choose these browsers? The answer is simple. These are the most popular Web browsers out there. While Internet Explorer has dropped below 50% of the total Web browser market, it's still the most popular Web browser. In most of the world, IE is followed by Mozilla Firefox, although in some places, such as much of Latin America, number three, Google's Chrome, has already moved up to second place. After that Apple's Safari, which owns the mobile Web browser market, comes in number four, and Opera hangs out to the fifth spot.

As time has gone on, Web browsers have been improving. For example, it wasn't that long ago that Microsoft's Internet Explorer was a major security problem in and of itself. True, the pre-historic IE 6 is still an infamous security hole, but only a fool would run it. Today, IE 9 is probably as secure as Google Chrome and they don't come any safer. But, in all honesty, all the 2011 Web browsers are far more secure than their predecessors.

Instead, what I look for in a Web browser today is JavaScript speed. But even here it should be kept in mind that all of the current generation of Web browsers are far faster than they were just in March 2011. The one exception to this is the 64-bit version of IE 9. 64-bit IE 9 is, in a word, "dreadful".

That said, JavaScript speed is important. Web 2.0 sites, which include most of today's popular sites, rely on JavaScript to render their increasingly complex pages. If you're running multiple tabs at once, you'll appreciate every bit of speed a browser's JavaScript rendering engine can give you.

You need mote than just speed though. You also need to look at what features come with a browser and what additional features its software developers can bring to it. Chrome and Firefox, for example, have large independent software vendor (ISV) ecosystems, while Opera includes more features in its basic browser than do the others.

So, which really is the best? Well, let's start with performance and then look at each browser in turn.

Page 2: [Twice around the track, Web browser performance.] »

Twice around the track, Web browser performance.

For my performance tests, I used a Gateway PC with 2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and has 6GBs of RAM and an Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 3100 for graphics. This system runs Windows 7 SP1. It's hooked to the Internet via a Netgear Gigabit Ethernet switch, which, in turn, is hooked up to a 60Mbps (Megabit per second) cable Internet connection.

Kraken November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

Kraken November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

For my first benchmark, I used Mozilla's Kraken 1.1 benchmark. In Kraken, which like most Web browser benchmarks measures JavaScript performance, lower scores are better. The winner here, and it wasn't even close, was Chrome 15. Firefox came in a distant second, followed a long way back by Opera, Safari and IE.

V8 Web Browser Test

V8 November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

In Google's JavaScript V8 Benchmark Suite, where higher scores are better, Chrome left the others eating its dust. Firefox, once more, came in second but it wasn't close to being competitive. Opera took third, Safari was fourth, and IE was in last place.

Sunspider November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

Sunspider November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

On the oldest JavaScript test, SunSpider 0.9.1, where lower results are better, IE finally won one. In this round, Firefox took second, with Opera edging just ahead of Chrome and Safari.

PeaceKeeper November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

PeaceKeeper November 2011 Web Browser Benchmarks

The beta Peacekeeper Web browser test suite looks not only at JavaScript performance but at HTML5 compatibility, video codec support and other Web browser features as well. With Peacekeeper, higher is better and this time Opera edged ahead of Chrome. Safari, Firefox and, finally, IE came well behind Opera and Chrome.

These results pretty much agreed with Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' overview of Web browsers, he found that IE 9 32-bit topped one test, and Chrome 15 topped the other three.

I've used all these browsers, with the exception of IE 9, which is Windows 7 and Vista specific, on Mint Linux, Mac OS X Lion, and Windows XP and 7. In my hand-on experience, Chrome not only tends to win, or at least be competitive on the benchmarks, Chrome simply feels faster. Therefore, if speed was your only consideration, I'd heartily recommend Chrome. But, there are other factors to consider.

Basic compatibility with older HTML standards, as measured by the Acid3 test isn't an issue anymore. All the browsers, for the first time in my experience, scored 100.

It's another story though when it comes to HTML5. On the HTML5 compatibility test, where higher is better and 450 is perfect. Chrome 15 took first place with a score of 343. It was followed by the new Firefox with 314, Safari at 293, Opera with 286, and IE at the bottom of the pack with 141.

While HTML5 still isn't a finalized standard, HTML5 compatibility is becoming increasingly important. If I were an IE user, I'd be getting worried about how Microsoft talks up HTML5 compatibility but can't deliver the goods.

The performance numbers out of the way, let's take a closer look at each browser.

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Web Browser Reviews

Chrome 15

Chrome 15

Chrome 15 New Tab System

I like Chrome 15 for more than its sheer speed. I like it because of its clean design, its sandboxed security system, and its Chrome Web Store and the ISVs behind it.

Among other new features, the latest Chrome features a redesign of its "new" page. Now, at the bottom of this page, you can jump to either your Chrome Apps or a page with your most often visited sites. Besides giving you easier navigation between online apps and your favorite Web sites, you can also organize apps by dragging and dropping them into new sections. You do this by dragging a program to the bottom of the page until a new apps section appears. You can then name the section to something useful by double-clicking on its label. For example, you can make one called "Office" to place Google Docs and Gmail in.

As Google continues to integrate more and more of its services, such as Google+, into one whole, it becomes clearer and clearer that Google wants Chrome to not just be a Web browser, but your universal interface to everything you might want to do. This works hand-in-glove with Google's Linux-based operating system with a Chrome Web browser interface, Chrome OS, and even PCs that use nothing but Chrome OS such as Samsung's ChromeBook.

Even if you don't like the idea of an all-Google, all the time, computing world, Chrome itself if an exceptional browser. Download Chrome and see for yourself .

Firefox 8

Firefox 8 Setup Screen

Firefox 8 Setup Screen

Firefox 8 is better than Firefox 7, which I had found to be disappointing. Its performance, I'm sorry to say hasn't gotten any better though. It is, however, even in the brief time I've had it, noticeably more stable.

That last part is important. I have to say I'd gotten to the point where I was going to give up using Firefox on any kind of regular basis. Firefox 6 and 7 just kept locking up over and over again. I'd loved Firefox from its very first days, but the way it was breaking every time I looked at it in recent months had gotten me to the point where I was going to toss in the trash. Firefox 8 seems to have fixed whatever it was that kept it crashing on a regular basis on both my Linux and Windows systems. Thank God.

This latest version also gives users more control over its add-on programs. Firefox, even now, has more extensions and add-ons than any other browser. Unfortunately, many of them weren't that good. Now, you must specifically opt-in before an add-on can be installed to Firefox. Better still, when you start Firefox for the first time, you're presented with a list of the add-ons you already have. Firefox automatically disables any that in the past you didn't explicitly give permission to run. You can also choose to disable extensions and add-on programs that you're no longer using. Both features are really handy.

So, if you're still a Firefox user, run, do not walk, to the Firefox ftp site and get the latest version. There may be better choices, but if you're a Firefox fan, Firefox 8 is the version you want.

Internet Explorer 9

Microsoft is offering gifts if you'll switch to IE 9.

Microsoft is offering gifts if you switch to IE 9.

I've never been a fan of the IE family, but IE 9 is easily the best of the bunch. It's a pity that Microsoft won't let XP users have it. If you're running XP, IE 8 is still the best choice Microsoft will give you.

If you can get it, what IE 9 gives you is reasonably good performance, far better security than any of its predecessors, and a cleaner interface. It's easily the best browser Microsoft has ever produced.

That said, even on Windows 7, IE 9 doesn't compare that well with the other Web browsers. It's telling that Windows SuperSite's Paul Thurrott, TWiT's Leo Laporte and ZDNet's own ace Microsoft reporter Mary Jo Foley all use Chrome on Windows 7. If even Windows experts aren't using IE, you might want to think about making another choice as well.

Opera 11.5

Opera's app. store sadly lacks engaging programs

Opera's app. store sadly lacks engaging programs.

Opera wants to be more than just a Web browser. It includes its own mail client, and file, message, and music-sharing service, and a built-in BitTorrent client. On top of that it includes Speed Dial, a page that lets you access live Web pages and widgets. That sounds good, but like many similar schemes I've seen over the years, in practice it doesn't work that well.

Opera also, like most of the other Web browsers, includes automatic bookmarks, passwords, and settings synchronization via its Opera Link cloud. It sounds great, but it didn't work that well for me. It would take minutes before it would successfully sync between systems. Chrome, Firefox, and Safari all do a better job at this.

Taken all-in-all, I have to say I see why Opera's always been an also-run in Web browsers. Simply put, you can do better.

Safari 5.1

Safari in full-screen mode.

Safari in full-screen mode.

Safari is very pretty, especially on Mac OS X Lion. The Top Sites' new-tab page view of your most-visited sites and Cover Flow history are lovely, but once you get past its pretty looks you're left with a pretty ordinary Web browser.

The one feature it has, that the others don't have, which I think is noteworthy is "Safari Reader." In this mode, Safari removes all the images, ads, and other junk and just leaves you with the text. There are extensions that give you this power to clean up Web pages in other browsers, but Safari has it baked in. , If, like me, you want the text and nothing but the text on some pages, it's a really attractive feature.

Now in the mobile world, Safari is the best Web browser around. But, on PCs, well, you can just do better. The one possible extension is on Mac OS X Lion systems. There, where Safari can be displayed in full screen and you get swiping, pinching, and tapping gestures support, Safari is a worthwhile choice.

The Final Choice

There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to Web browsers. I know Opera fans who will never leave Opera and some people who are remain convinced that IE or Firefox will always be the best browser. All that said, if you're open to a new browser, or you just want the best of the best, Chrome is the clear winner.

Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself and you'll see what I mean.

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