Browser Blowout 2010

Of all the software on your PC, the Web browser may be the most important tool you use each day--but you may not give it much thought. The difference between a merely good browser and a great one, however, can be vast. The best browsers are those that stay out of your way: When you're in the right browser, you feel as though you're alone with your favorite site. The browser loads pages quickly, without crashing, and it can deftly handle any Web page you visit without prompting you to do anything extra.

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Some of the best browser features aren't even the work of the major browser developers. Instead, independent programmers have taken to the Web in droves, creating amazingly useful add-ons that you can download and install for free. But not all browsers support all the same extensions, and some barely support them in general. As a result, add-on support has become a major differentiator between browsers. When judging the five top browsers, we looked at the types of add-ons each one allows, the selection of available add-ons, and how easy it is to find, install, and remove add-ons.

Internet Explorer 8

IE 8 permits you to install assorted browser toolbars--including those search toolbars that you either love or loathe. IE 8 also includes Web Slices and Accelerators. Web Slices are add-ons that allow you to keep tabs on tidbits of information from around the Web without your having to visit the sites. For example, the eBay Web Slice allows you to track the status of auctions, while the USA Today Entertainment Web Slice lets you quickly view the top showbiz stories. These usually live in your IE favorites bar, and open with a click.

Accelerators, on the other hand, are shortcuts for tasks that you perform in your browser. For instance, if you highlight a block of text, a blue icon appears next to it. If you click on that, you get a menu that lets you translate the selected text, search for the selected text, look it up on a map (if it's an address), and so forth. You can see the entire library of IE 8 add-ons at Microsoft's aptly named Add-ons Gallery.

Firefox 3.6

Firefox first championed browser extensions several years ago, and though other browsers have played catch-up since then, Firefox retains the add-on crown. Mozilla has a library of thousands upon thousands of add-ons and extensions for your perusal, ranging from security add-ons to social networking tools to stuff for Web nerds, and just about everything in between. By going to Tools, Add-ons in Firefox, you can view and enable or disable installed extensions, themes, and plug-ins, and browse through recommended add-ons.

The one shortcoming of Firefox is that updating extensions can be more obtrusive than I'd prefer. I'd like to see Mozilla make updating extensions something that happens in the background.

Chrome 5

Chrome rolled out extension support late last year, and Google's extension library already has a healthy selection of add-on goodies that can take the form of toolbar icons, notifiers, weather updates, and more. Extension updates happen more seamlessly in Chrome than in Firefox, and the extensions are better integrated into the browser. That said, Chrome can't quite match the breadth and selection of add-ons that are available for Firefox.

Safari 5

Safari is a little late to the extension party; extension support is new to version 5, and as of this writing extensions are few and far between. At least one blog out there posts about Safari extensions, though, and Apple is planning to launch an extensions gallery in the near future--it may be up and running by the time you read this.

Opera 10.6

Opera takes a completely different approach with its widgets. Much like the desktop widgets in Windows 7 or on Mac OS X's Dashboard, these are mini-applications that can provide quick updates on news, weather, sports scores, or what have you. One thing to note is that Opera Widgets aren't add-ons in the classic sense--they don't run within the browser itself. Instead, they're separate, stand-alone applications that run alongside your other software. This means that they stay open even when you close Opera, which can be useful, but they do little to extend the functionality of the browser.

BEST EXTENSIONS: Firefox

Though there's a lot to like about the add-on support in other browsers, Firefox still takes the prize in this comparison, mainly because its extension support and extension library are already mature and well established.

Speed

Browser developers are making a big fuss over page-loading speed right now--after all, everyone likes to be the fastest.

BROWSER Average load time,live sites (seconds) Average load time,local network (seconds) SunSpider JavaScriptbenchmark (milliseconds) Internet Explorer 8 1.91 0.37 3903.2 Firefox 3.6 1.92 0.47 902.5 Chrome 5 1.75 0.46 301.1 Safari 5 1.89 1.33 597.7 Opera 10.53 2.19 0.57 575.4 CHART NOTE: Lower times are better.

Though we saw some very slight speed differences in our page-loading tests--see the chart here for a summary--our findings indicate that most browser speed claims are overblown. (For more, see "Does Speed Still Matter?")

JavaScript Performance

According to the SunSpider browser benchmark, Google Chrome has the best JavaScript performance, as it completed the tests in 301.1 milliseconds on average. Opera and Safari followed in second and third, completing the benchmark in 575.4 and 597.7 milliseconds, respectively. Firefox came in fourth at 902.5 milliseconds. Internet Explorer brought up the rear, finishing the test in 3903.2 milliseconds (no, that isn't a typo; IE 8 really did lag that far behind).

As we were wrapping up this review, Opera Software released version 10.6 of the Opera browser. It came out too late to be included in our live-site testing, but I did have a chance to run it through the SunSpider Benchmark. Although Opera claims that the new release offers a 50 percent increase in performance over version 10.50, it finished about even with Opera 10.53 in the SunSpider tests.

Since JavaScript is becoming so prominent in Web apps and even on regular Websites, it's a good metric to test. SunSpider is a useful way to gauge JavaScript handling, too. It isn't, however, a great indicator of overall browser speed, as plenty of other aspects contribute to browser performance.

BEST JAVASCRIPT HANDLING: Chrome

Google's browser surpassed its four major competitors by a fair margin on this particular test.

Page-Loading Tests

Though Chrome was the fastest of the group in our page-loading tests, the speed differences among the browsers were negligible.

Internet Explorer 8 put up a respectable showing overall and was the fastest browser in five of our tests, but Chrome's average page-load time of 1.75 seconds was the speediest of the five browsers we looked at. Safari 5 came in second overall at 1.89 seconds.

In many instances page-loading speeds were close. For example, in our ebay.com test, four of the five browsers loaded the page within eight- or nine-tenths of a second; only Opera took over 1 second to load the page, and even then, at 1.09 seconds, its page-load time wasn't horrible.

That said, Opera was the slowest browser in three of our eight live-site tests. In two of those three tests (pcworld.com and en.wikipedia.org), Opera lagged significantly behind the rest of the pack, loading pages over a full second slower than the next-slowest browser. In real time, a second isn't that big of a difference, but in terms of percentage, it's significant. On the other hand, in our internal-network tests, Opera came out ahead in two of the three tests we performed. We weren't quite able to explain why this difference exists--our live-site page-loading tests put up repeatable results, by and large--but it's possible that other browsers handle network latency better than Opera does.

In real-life use, browser speed claims are probably overstated. Though your results will vary depending on your PC, its operating system, and which sites you visit, among other factors, you likely won't notice the difference between browsers in regular Web surfing unless you perform tests similar to the ones we did. Ultimately, any browser you select will be fast enough.

BEST PAGE LOADING: Chrome

In this speed test, Chrome enjoyed only a slight lead over the other four browsers we examined.

Which Browser Should You Choose?

All five of the browsers we looked at are free, so it never hurts to try a different one. But jumping from browser to browser has one hidden cost: your time. It can take a while to set up a browser to look and behave just the way you like it. So with that in mind, if we had to pick only one browser, Chrome would be our top recommendation. We like Chrome for its clean and friendly interface, good performance, and strong security. It covers all the basics for most users, and offers plenty of customization for power users.

Does Speed Still Matter?

If performance is most important to you, it really doesn't matter much which browser you use.

As our testing shows, any current browser is fast enough for anyone's purposes, despite what browser vendors' marketing departments may say. In our testing, we saw that even though there was a striking difference in JavaScript handling (the one aspect of browser performance that most browser vendors seem to be touting above all others), in actual page-loading tests the differences we found were minuscule. Unless you run two browsers side by side on identical PCs, you won't really notice if one loads a page in 1.5 seconds and the other loads it in 2.5 seconds.

And in reality, other factors, such as your PC's hardware, its operating system, and its connection speed, will likely affect your browsing speed more than your Web browser will.

Now that speed has essentially become a baseline standard, you should put more weight on the other aspects of a browser: interface, stability, security, ease of use, and add-ons. The good news, of course, is that all of the major browsers are free to download and try. If you don't like one, you can always switch to another until you find the browser that works best for you.

How We Test Browser Performance

We took a hybrid approach in our testing, which we conducted on a MicroExpress KHL9070 laptop running Windows 7 Home Premium.

First, we ran the SunSpider benchmark to get a read on how each browser handles JavaScript, the programming language at the heart of modern Web apps.

Additionally, we pitted the browsers against a suite of eight live Web pages: PCWorld.com, PCWorld's YouTube channel, PCWorld's Twitter feed page, the English Wikipedia homepage, eBay, Amazon, the New York Times homepage, and Yahoo. We connected to the PCWorld office network via ethernet for our testing.

We also tested the browsers on a subset of Web pages saved to an Apple MacBook running Apache Web server software, into which we plugged our test PC directly.

In both cases we loaded up each of the browsers on the test PC, ran our speed tests in one browser at a time, and restarted the computer between tests. In the page-loading tests, we cleared the caches before each test run.

One last note: Web browser performance can vary greatly depending on your PC's hardware, the operating system, the specific browser version you're running, and the sites you visit. That one browser performs well on one PC or on the particular sites we tested is no guarantee that it will perform well on every system or on every site.

HTML5: The Future of the Web

As any Web designer will tell you, getting a site to look right and work properly in all the major browsers can be very tricky. Doing so usually means settling for workarounds and compromises that can detract from the user experience. Fortunately, some upcoming Web technologies could help change that: The new HTML5 and CSS3 promise to give designers more flexibility so that they don't have to resort to hacks and tricks.

Plenty of areas within HTML5 still need to be hammered out--the specification won't get finalized for another 12 years or so. One of those areas is which format to use for Web video. Apple is backing the H.264 standard, but that's guaranteed to be royalty-free for Web use only through 2016. Other browser vendors, such as Mozilla, back Ogg Theora video since it's open source, but some parties have raised concerns about its quality.

Meanwhile, Google recently announced WebM, another possible contender in the Web video format wars. And Microsoft, true to form, has said that it will allow for support for all three formats in its upcoming Internet Explorer 9.

That said, HTML5 is already sneaking into some Websites. Most of the current Web browsers have some HTML5 support, and both Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4 will improve HTML5 compatibility.

If you want to play around with HTML5 demos, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have you covered. And for more on the topic, see "Geek 101: HTML5, CSS3, and You" and "Your Browser in Five Years."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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