If you’re a casual web user, you may not have given too much thought to your choice of web browser. Maybe you just use Internet Explorer because it came with your Windows PC — or Safari if you’re on a Mac — or maybe you’re using Firefox because someone told you Internet Explorer was “bad” and Firefox was better.
Really, though, with our online social networks becoming ever more important and our day-to-day lives becoming increasingly linked to the internet, it’s well worth taking a little bit of time to try out the various browsers and decide which one is best for you. Like musical tastes and ice cream flavours, what appeals to one person may be exactly what drives another one away. The only way to figure out which browser fits best with your own style of browsing is to try them out: give each one a few days to become familiar and then go with whichever one feels the most natural for you. And it never hurts to have a few different browsers installed on your system in case a web page won’t load right or you run into problems with your first choice.
Here I’ll outline some of the pros and cons of the five leading browsers out there right now: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera. These are just my own impressions over years of juggling the different programs; to really know which one is best for you, you need to try them for yourself.
Internet Explorer is both the most-used browser on the market and also the most reviled. It became dominant not because it was superior or revolutionary, but because it has shipped free on Windows machines since 1995.
As Firefox began to rise in popularity, it became more and more apparent how inferior, clunky and insecure IE had become. Especially with the growth of personal and financial information being entered and stored online, using a buggy browser full of security holes is never a good idea.
Over the years, Microsoft has tried with mixed success to address the security flaws in the browser, although it is not known to move as quickly as its competitors. Also, some of the problems aren’t even caused by the browser itself, but from add-ons or because users refuse to update and upgrade their browser. And, of course, being the most popular browser makes it a tempting target for malicious programmers who want to hit as many people as possible.
Personally, I have to side with the tech geeks on this: if possible, stay away from Internet Explorer. It may seem easier and more convenient, but it isn’t worth the headaches in the long run, and honestly, other browsers available today are super-easy to install and use. If you really do prefer IE and want to stick with it, make sure that you keep it up to date, and be careful of which sites you visit.
A free and open-source web browser backed by the Mozilla Corporation, Firefox was the first of the new browsers to really give Internet Explorer a run for its money since its first release in 2004. One of Firefox’s main appeals is its absolutely massive library of available add-ons (or “extensions” as they’re known in Firefox parlance). Third-party developers can create these extensions, which create new features for the browser.
Extensions can be a great resource, and allow you to build a browser that does exactly what you need it to do, without having it bogged down with a bunch of code for features you’ll never use. Everything from blocking ads to plugging directly into Wikipedia — even enhancing bookmarks and downloads — can be handled through extensions.
The downside of extensions is that it can be kind of a chore to find the ones you want. There are hundreds of add-ons available for the browser and sometimes you don’t even know exactly what it is you want to do until you see it. And because they can be built by anyone, malicious or incompetent programmers can use them to introduce security flaws into an otherwise secure browser. It’s always a good idea to look at reviews and ratings on extensions you’re thinking of installing, and you should be sure to keep them up-to-date.
Really, though, Firefox is a great free alternative to using Internet Explorer. It’s easy to install, kept constantly up-to-date, far more secure and introduces many useful features not available with IE. And because it’s become very popular, it’s still easy to find help if you get stuck — plus it works on almost all websites.
Backed by the powerful Google Inc., Chrome is one of the newer introductions to the web browser scene, first released in 2008. Thanks to the exposure from Google, and the fact that it’s both lightweight yet powerful, Chrome has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity; as of December 2011, it has overtaken Firefox to become the second most popular browser in the world, after IE.
Chrome is especially useful for those who already have several services with Google, such a Gmail and Google Docs. Because they’re all developed by the same corporation, Chrome can plug right into Google’s available web apps and, of course, their search engine. It can also do things like pull info from Google translate in order to translate the language of a website on the fly.
Like Firefox, Chrome can also be enhanced through the use of extensions and add-ons — both free and paid ones. You can also use the Chrome Web Store to download in-browser applications like Angry Birds. In a way though, this has backfired, since a lot of the apps available through the storefront are actually just links to online games and other popular websites.
But Chrome is young and still growing, and Google has almost endless resources to throw at it. It is very lightweight and simple, and usually ranks as one of the fastest web browsers out there in terms of loading pages. Personally, I’d say the choice between Firefox and Chrome is just one of personal taste — and how much integration with Google is of use to you.
While Windows users are given Internet Explorer when they purchase a new PC, Mac users will no doubt be familiar with Safari, Mac’s default browser. Developed by Apple Inc., Safari has also been available for Windows computers since 2007, but has not really enjoyed the same rise to popularity as its younger competitor Chrome — even with its majority share of the Mac market, Safari only ranks fourth in overall web traffic.
If you’re a Mac user, keeping Safari on hand is a no-brainer. Unlike IE, Apple has never been accused of resting on its laurels just because Safari is the default browser on their machines. Even if you’re on a Windows-based computer, Safari is worth looking at, especially with some of the unique new features added with the release of Safari 5 in June 2010.
Like all things Apple, Safari is aesthetically pleasing and has a lot of neat little flourishes. On Mac systems, it makes full use of the multi-touch gestures and Lion’s new full-screen feature. If you do a lot of online reading — especially articles that span over multiple pages — Safari Reader is a great new tool that allows you to compile all of the text in one long, clean document without all the clutter and distraction from the rest of the page. You can also mark and store pages for later reading either through your browser or on an iPhone or iPad as well.
Safari has had a few security flaws and concerns over the years, but Apple is generally pretty quick to address these. Really, it’s a pretty robust browser that — outside of the Mac ecosystem — doesn’t enjoy the same levels of exposure as IE, Firefox and Chrome.
Often neglected and forgotten behind its more popular competitors, Opera is an extremely powerful and innovative web browser that tends to introduce new features — like tabbed browsing — way ahead of the competition. I’ll admit up-front that I am biased: Opera is and has been my browser of choice for about ten years now — which, yes, means it pre-dates Firefox, Chrome and Safari. The browser has been available publicly since 1996, and has offered the experience of tabbed browsing since 2000.
While Opera has started to offer extensions and add ons in recent years, many of its most useful and popular features are built-in. Unlike most other browsers, it has native support for ad blocking, and it can even handle BitTorrent downloads right in the browser without needing to use another program. Opera also features a built-in email client called Opera Mail, and can also handle RSS feeds and even online chats through IRC.
Opera is also extremely customizable. Almost every button and bar — like back, forward and the address field — can be moved, removed or added. You can also add new searches, so for example, in addition to having a Google search box, you can also have ones for searching Wikipedia or Dictionary.com.
Now, despite my ongoing love affair with Opera, it isn’t without its downsides. All of that customization and innovation means that it is more complicated and less familiar than some of the other options listed here. The learning curve can be steep and long — even ten years later, I’m still discovering features I never realized were there.
Also, while it usually ranks right at the top for speed and security, Opera can be a bit unforgiving on websites that have bad code. Pages that load fine in other browsers might look messed up in Opera; and because it isn’t widely used, web developers don’t tend to bother testing to make sure their products work properly with it. Still, I’d say it’s worth trying out; just make sure to have another browser on hand for those sites that don’t play nicely.