First there was the war of the browsers in the nineties, when Netscape and Internet Explorer battled it out for space in the virtual world. But if you thought that we’d seen the end of it, here’s food for thought: this monsoon it’s been raining browsers. Microsoft released its Beta 2 version of Internet Explorer 8 on August 27, the Mozilla foundation brought out its 3.1 Alpha 2 update on September 5 and Opera came out with its 9.5 Beta on September 10. The most exciting thing to come out of this downpour has been, of course, Google Chrome — the much awaited browser from the guys at Mountain View — released on September 2, leaving most of us pretty impressed.
Typically, every time a new browser enters the webwork, there’s a frenzy of downloads (in just two days, Chrome was downloaded enough to become one of the top 5 browsers to be used in the world), a web full of superlative adjectives (‘awesome’ being the most common one) and instant comparisons with older ones. So, in all that thicket of opinion, we at Digit decided that it’s about time someone gave you the facts. We zoomed in on the top four browsers (IE8, Firefox, Opera and Chrome) and found out the truth. If you want to find out too, don’t stop reading.
Before we make our comparative analysis, allow us to take you through some of the key features of the four most popular browsers on the Web.
The second most popular browser in the world and loved by open source fans, Mozilla’s Firefox 3.0.3 is lightweight (7.8 MB), safe, rich in add-ons (5,000 and counting), full of active security features (anti-phishing, pop-up blocker, password manager, parental controls) and the industry’s fastest response times. Both the browser and add-ons are completely free. Until now, Google has been ardently supporting Mozilla and helping to pit Firefox against the hegemony of Internet Explorer, but with the coming of Chrome, things may change. The features that can be rated as “awesome” are plenty, but to list a few…
Tabbed browsing: You don’t need to open a dozen new windows to surf or search different sites simultaneously. Every new link you click on opens in a ‘tab’ in the same window. In fact, although Mozilla didn’t start tabbed browsing, they did make it popular by incorporating it into Firefox in 2003, making it a must-have in every new browser that has come up since.
Auto Restore: If your computer crashes or hangs midway through a session, Firefox restores the tabs automatically on being re-opened.
One-click Bookmarking: You don’t need to do a [Ctrl] [D] to bookmark a page. Simply click on the star in the location tab. If it turns golden, you’ve got a new favourite page.
Drag-and drop: You can select and pull text or hyperlinks from anywhere on a Web page and drop them straight into the search bar.
Intuitive Locator Bar: Firefox provides you with instant suggestions that drop down from the Locator bar above – which also doubles as a search bar.
Privacy: Firefox allows you to clear private data after browsing, deleting cookies, history and download details whenever you close the browser window. Particularly useful in Internet cafés.
Too many add-ons: (is that really a problem?) It’s quite possible that you may get a little overwhelmed with the sheer range of add-ons available for Mozilla. If you go overboard, this may clutter up the interface somewhat.
Slow Startup: While installing Firefox is a piece of cake, the initial startup time is a lemon. Click on the icon and it could take about 14 seconds to open the first time and four to eight seconds to start up later.
Internet Explorer 8
With the impending competition, Microsoft launched the Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 less than a week before Google Chrome. The Web site claims it is “Fast, Safe, Easy” and will “greatly enrich and improve your Web experience”. IE8 already offers a lot of add-ons, some free, some not so free, and tabbed browsing (fully integrated since IE7). It’s average startup time is better than all the other browsers around. There are a lot of parental controls that you can apply, providing greater protection to children from pernicious Web sites. Some of the really cool features are below.
Accelerators: Internet Explorer 8 provides tools that easily allow access to multiple points of information such as translations, maps, definitions, etc. — all in a single window, to accelerate your access to information on the Web. You can choose from a whole list of services like About.com, Windows Live Search, CNet.com, Egisca Search, etc., to find the kind of information you need directly from the tab on the top right of the screen, next to the Locator bar.
Web Slices: The ‘Suggested Sites’ button is definitely a brainwave that takes Internet Explorer one step ahead of Firefox. Microsoft uses ‘Web Slices’ technology to automatically trace sites that may be related to the one you are viewing, unlike the drop-down suggestions from the Locator bar (which are dependent on your viewing history). Using Web Slices, you can keep up with frequently updated sites directly from the Favorites Bar. If a Web Slice is available on a page, a green Web Slices icon will appear in the upper-right hand corner of the browser. You can then easily subscribe and add them to the Favorites Bar or delete Web Slices that are no longer desired. Updates then appear directly whenever information becomes available and the Web Slice appears highlighted. Click on the Web Slice for a preview and on the preview to get to the site itself.
Compatibility View: Old Web sites for old browsers sometimes don’t open in new browsers with new features. IE8 has the Compatibility View option to allow you to open sites that new browser technology may not open optimally. You can find it in the ‘Tools’ button on the top right of the toolbar above.
Grouped Tabs: Another marvel in IE8 Beta 2 is the use of colours to group tabs. If you’ve got two dozen tabs open at the same time, it sometimes becomes difficult to remember which tab was a hyperlink in which other tab. Whenever you open a link on a page in a new tab the current tab and the new one both take on the same colour to show that they are part of a single group. As you click on new tabs they also appear in the same colours. You can disable the colour feature if you find these too intrusive. The tabs can also be regrouped or ungrouped by dragging and dropping.
InPrivate Browsing: This is basically a feature that allows you to create a browsing session where cookies, history, passwords, form data and objects disappear once the browser is closed (akin to Firefox’s ‘Clear Private Data’ provision).
Looks: Try as it might, Microsoft just can’t seem to match up with the cool, smooth and soft-hued graphics of Safari, the easy-on-the-eyes shades of Opera or the clear contrasts of Mozilla Firefox.
Still under copyright: If you don’t already have a Internet Explorer, the MSN Web site will reject your request for download as invalid. In an age when there are browsers jostling to get into your computers for free – and even Chrome is open-source – it seems a little outdated to be restrictive with a browser that is anyway quite popular.
Opera 9.60 Beta
It is surprising that the usage of Opera is lower than even Safari, when most critics and browser reviewers swear by it. It has a whole range of outstanding features such as quick find, thumbnail previews (which it calls ‘Speed Dial’), skins and widgets. Tabbed browsing has an added feature (a unique one among browsers), allowing you to open a tab the way you like, either in the background or as a tab that takes over your screen. You can cascade or tile web pages to view and there are voice commands and text-reading provisions packed in. All in all, Opera is a browser that has very little to make you want to complain.
Speed Dial: Open a new tab in Opera and it shows you a thumbnail view of nine of your favourite Web sites, which you can customise. A single click on any one of them quickly gets you to the site and saves you the trouble of having to type the URL into the locator bar. This feature is available as an add-on to Firefox (Fast Dial) and is built into Chrome.
Widgets: Opera offers an incredible variety of widgets – little GUIs like ‘Pandora’s Radio’, ‘Opera.fm’, ‘Artist’s Sketchbook’, Opereach, etc. Just with a couple of clicks, you can access your favourite widget and simultaneously continue with the windows you’re working on.
Faster Page Loading: The tabs open much faster than previous versions of Opera and outdo Firefox, and occasionally even Internet Explorer. Evidently, using Presto as the layout engine seems to have helped to score over Firefox (Gecko) and IE (Trident).
Customisable: Opera has a rich database of skins to make the browser look different. You can arrange toolbars, buttons and panels any way you please and, in short, make it your very own personal browser.
Mouse Gestures: Opera is designed so as to be sensitive to the movement of the mouse, so if you simply move the cursor over the tabs that are open, it instantly shows you a thumbnail preview of the site you have opened. This feature exists as the Cooliris Preview in Mozilla Firefox, but that’s an add-on, while this is integrated into the browser itself.
Native BitTorrent support: BitTorrent is a peer to peer downloading protocol capable of really high performance, over a network of peers using the client. While using Opera, instead of depending on third party clients like BitComet, simply click on a torrent and Opera, which has the feature already integrated in it, will do the rest. However, the feature only supports the BitTorrent exchange protocol and is not intended to replace third-party clients.
Not Open Source: Seeing the immense benefits of community-developed software and browser’s like Firefox, it’s a pity that Opera isn’t yet open source.
Erratic: Opera is sometimes really quick, but often lags behind in navigation time when compared to Firefox and Internet Explorer. Its average startup time is also at least two seconds behind Internet Explore and Chrome.
So, maybe the logo looks like a Pokeball with the trademark Google colours, but that doesn’t make the browser any less exciting. Using the WebKit rendering engine, Google’s foray into browser land scores really high on our list. It is fast, easy to use, simple and also looks great. Powerful and effective, here’s a browser that finally allows you to use almost the entire screen to view a Web site instead of searching for the site among the toolbars and sidebars of Flock, Opera, etc.
Tabs on Top: Google has learnt fast and picked up from other browsers most of the features that a good browser should have. One of these is Tabbed Browsing and, like the rest of the engines we’re covering, you can juggle the tabs around and regroup them by dragging and dropping. The cool thing about Chrome’s tabs is that while you’re shifting a tab from one position to another, you can actually see the thumbnail of the site you’re moving being dragged along with the cursor of the mouse. A masterstroke is the moving of all tabs to the top of the screen, a move that has been universally praised by users and critics alike.
Speed: Every tab runs independently. So if one fails, the others aren’t affected. This is a common complaint in other browsers because then the entire browser closes down when even one tab crashes. Chrome fixes this by running tabs as separate processes. Its navigation time is by far the best and in an age of impatience, Chrome should become everybody’s favourite quite soon.
Universal Bar: The Locator bar on top is not just that — it’s a search bar, a history viewer and an address bar all rolled into one. So as you type, Chrome gives you suggestions from sites you have visited or simply searches (using Google, obviously) for the text you have typed in.
Task Manager: Right-click on the ribbon above and you’ll see the ‘Task Manager’ in the menu that appears. Click on the Task Manager and Chrome will show you exactly how much memory each of your tabs are currently using, allowing you to close tabs that are hogging the CPU’s memory.
Secure: Having each tab run independently lets Chrome detect malware and automatically pause the opening of a particular tab, while flashing a warning.
Download Manager: Google has shifted the Download Manager to the bottom of the screen. Other browsers have intrusive windows appearing to notify download status: IE, Opera and Firefox download warnings appear in the middle of the screen, but Chrome simply shifts it to the bottom, allowing the user to get on with other more important things.
Private Browsing: Chrome’s ‘Incognito window’ facility allows you to open any webpage without leaving a trace – that is deleting all the cookies, history, etc. This makes the browsing experience safer.
Add-ons: Being a recent entrant, there are almost no add-ons for Google Chrome. However, since it’s open source, you can expect many to start appearing soon.
Impersonal: You can’t customise Chrome like you can Firefox or Opera — yet.
Controls: There’s a lack of possible parental controls, and Chrome omits the settings to be able to block particular Web sites but allow others. Merely providing the browser with a “Block all Insecure Content” or “Block all cookies” options, does not make the browsing experience any safer for children.
Flash files: Typically, a Web site using Adobe’s Flash plug-in gobbles up a lot of space on your CPU, greatly slowing down the Web experience. This is a common problem with Firefox (try opening ten sites with Flash content at the same time) and something similar happens with Chrome – though not to such an extent. Using the Task Manager in Chrome, however, is a step in the right direction, because then you could at least close the windows that are using up too much memory.
So Which One’s The Best?
The pros and cons of each browser may not be good enough to help you reach a decision, so we decided to put it all together in a table (on the previous page). This simple and quick overview can help you to arrive at the right browser for you.
More than three quarters of the world uses Internet Explorer, and doesn’t seem to be changing over in a hurry. If you’re one of them, there’s good news for you. The Microsoft team scores high on speed, ease, security, functionality and customisation. The use of colours to allow the end-user to identify the tabs that form a common group is one big leap forward and the Web Slices and Accelerators are the icing on the cake. So, in spite of it not being free for all, and not being a part of the GNU project, the fact remains that most apps in the world are still made for IE; and it therefore, rules the roost.
On the other hand, Chrome is great for its new features and super-fast browsing; Opera is terrific for its customisation options, speed and Opera Mobile has left the others far behind when it comes to cell phones; Firefox is also good, with 24×7 security volunteers, a new look, and thousands of add-ons. If we’re absolutely forced to give you a rating, keeping security in mind as well, we’d say it’s IE8 Beta 2 on top, Mozilla Firefox and Opera tied in second place and Chrome trailing — for now.
It all boils down to your personal preferences. Depending on whether you prefer a snazzy interface, an ultra-quick Web experience or a browser for social networking, you will have to choose for yourself. Regardless of which browser you choose, you’re assured a faster, safer and more pleasurable browsing experience than ever before. Happy surfing.