Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Best Browser

With the Chrome-Opera JavaScript speed war, HTML5 video support coming in IE9, and an improved Safari from Apple, can Firefox keep our Editors' Choice?

Google Chrome, Google's entrance into the browser fray just over a year ago has sent shockwaves through the Web, delivering a potent challenge to long-time favorite Firefox. Perhaps even more eye-opening is the radical ground shift Google envisions by making the Chrome browser the centerpiece of a new Google Chrome OS in which every application lives in the Web, rather than on your local machine. All browser makers want to enable sites that act like rich, responsive local applications, but are the pieces in place for this vision now? Is the most forward-looking browser the best browser to use today?
Google isn't alone when it comes to browser innovation. The key goal of the upcoming Internet Explorer 9 is "bringing the whole power of the PC to the Web," according to Internet Explorer Principal Group Program Manager Rob Mauceri. That's what's behind the next Microsoft browser's use of hardware acceleration. Another phrase I keep hearing from the IE team is "same markup." This means letting Web developers write one set of code that displays the same on every browser. If you talk to people from competitors, they'll tell you that Microsoft strayed from the same markup concept a few years back and now is playing catch-up.

HTML5 Support

But even though the self-proclaimed "modern" browsers—Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Apple's Safari—claim to support HTML5, that support varies widely from one browser to the next. Two browsers based on the same underlying rendering engine, Chrome and Safari, which are based on WebKit, for example, sometimes behave differently when displaying the same sites.

Video Codecs

Even when a browser can legitimately claim to support, for example, HTML5 video, it doesn't mean their support is identical. Since the HTML5 spec doesn't specify a video codec, the support has forked in two directions: some browsers use the claimed open Ogg Theora codec, while others use H.264, which requires licensing fees for the browser makers. Apple has made a lot of noise about supporting HTML5 video, since the browser on its mobile devices don't implement Adobe's Flash plugin—the Safari desktop browser doesn't suffer from this limitation.

Web Standards Support

HTML5 seems to be the rallying cry for browser makers from Apple to Mozilla. A frequently cited measure of standards support is the Acid3 test from the self-anointed "Web Standards Project." This is actually overseen by a Google employee, Ian Hickson. It's a select bunch of tests, rather than a comprehensive measure of the full spectrum of standards, but at least it shows some support for emerging capabilities. Opera, Safari, and Chrome pass this with 100 out of 100, while Firefox scores high, at 94, and Internet Explorer 8 scores low, achieving just 20. IE9 is addressing this, with its engine already scoring 83. But that's with a bare-bones browser without even a GUI. How the full-fledged version will score is anyone's guess. In any case, no one knows when that development project will be available, and Microsoft isn't giving out any hints.
All this variation in standards support may make you think that you need a different browser for every site you visit. In fact, most major sites' developers make sure their pages display correctly in Internet Explorer and Firefox, as that covers the vast majority of Web browsers. The other browsers may receive pages saying you need to switch, but often you can simply ignore the warning. Many browser will display perfectly well despite the caution. Occasionally you'll see small glitches in text or layout alignment. To be sure, there are some avant-garde pages that will tell you that you can't use Internet Explorer, but these aren't major sites.
But do we really want the different browser choices to be defined by support for standards? Shouldn't that be a given? Well, yes, but unfortunately that's not the current state of affairs. It will be a better World Wide Web when all browsers support all the same standards and we can make our choice based on performance and features.

Browser Speed

One thing that browsers can fairly be differentiated on is speed. There are different parts of the page-rendering pipeline, but the one that's gotten the most press is JavaScript speed. It's also the performance area with the clearest benchmark testing available—most popularly using WebKit's SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. Lately, Chrome and Opera have been leapfrogging each other in winning this test, though Safari held the lead briefly a few months ago. Here are my latest results on a 3.16GHz dual-core 64-bit Windows 7 machine with 4GB RAM (but keep in mind the lead changes every month or so):

SunSpider browser performance in ms (lower is better)

Chrome 5   356 
Opera 10.5  410 
Safari 5   439 
Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview   470 
Firefox 3.6  872 
Internet Explorer 83993 
And there are certainly features aside from standards support and speed that set the browsers apart: Chrome has its combined address and search bar (the "Omnibar"). Opera has its Turbo cached Web speedup mode and Unite, which turns the browser into a server. In fact, Opera innovated many of the conveniences we've come to expect in any browser—for example, tabs and the Web search bar. Internet Explorer offers Accelerators to quickly apply Web services like translation or lookup to text on a Web page and WebSlices for quick access to fetching updated Web content. And Safari offers the most eye-candy, with its gallery view new tab page and cover flow history view. And its new reader view cuts out all the clutter so you can concentrate on the text.

Customization: Extensions & Extras

Most new browsers have introduced syncing of bookmarks and other settings; Internet Explorer trails here. All but Chrome offer built-in RSS readers, though you can now get a Chrome extension to handle this. Speaking of extensions, Firefox still wins for customizability, with over 6,000 extensions available that do everything from change the colors of your tabs to speeding surfing. Though Chrome now offers extensions, and Internet Explorer has long had add-in capability, Firefox still wins here. Both Chrome and Firefox offer Themes to dress up your window on the Web, but again, Firefox offers more radical customization of buttons and such.

Security and Privacy

Security is one aspect of browsers that concerns many people. Internet Explorer has a patchy history on this score, but the current version 8 is one of the most secure browsers available, with a default protected mode that prevents shady sites from executing code. Chrome has an excellent sandboxing feature that has the same effect. All the browsers here offer phishing-scam warnings about malware-distributing sites and support SSL encrypted browsing.
Internet Explorer was one of the first to implement defenses against a particularly devious attack method, the cross-site scripting (XSS) exploit. And a recent report from NSS Labs had IE providing the best protection against socially engineered malware.
All of these browsers offer a private browsing mode, which discards all your history and web content when you exit. IE8's actually hides your browsing from other web sites, rather than just from future users of the same PC. But Opera gives you the choice to have one private browse tab in a window containing other non-private sessions.

Minor Players

With so much choice coming from the major software houses, we hardly have time anymore to think about less-prominent alternatives, of which there's a healthy choice. The biggest of these is Flock, the "social browser" which streamlines social network and Web service use and just changed its underlying engine from Mozilla's to Google's. And one browser, LunaScape, lets you switch the rendering engine between IE's, Firefox's, and Google's—an intriguing capability. Another long time favorite of some techie's has been Maxthon, which offers a highly customizable browser based on IE's engine.
Given all the choice, it's hard to believe that there are still people surfing the Web, sticking with the browser their computer came with without giving a thought to switching. Despite possible confusion, all this choice is only a good thing, and the best part: They're all a free download away! My current favorite is Firefox, because of its endless customizability. But, to be honest, Firefox is starting to look a little long in the tooth—especially as it falls further behind in the speed wars. Mozilla will have to pull off something big soon to fend off Google's challenge. IE9 looks good, but, with no release date in site, who knows how it will stand up when it finally becomes available.
For a drilldown into the pros and cons of today's leading browser choices, read the blurbs below. To read my extensive full reviews, click the links in the titles. As always, please be sure to weigh in in the comments section to let us know which browser you use, and why.

Apple Safari 5

Version 5, while not a huge leap from 4, adds increased speed, HTML5 support, and a very useful new Reader view that hides the junk on cluttered websites. Its new Reader view hides webpage clutter, cover flow and other beautiful interface elements adorn your surfing. Its JavaScript performance is fast, and it offers a powerful tab implementation, built-in RSS reader and decent standards support.
Firefox 3.6
This update is mostly a plumbing change from version 3.5, adding new HTML5 support, performance and stability improvements, and support for Persona, or theme, switching. It's still the most customizable browser around.
Google Chrome 5

Sizzling speed, a slightly revamped bookmark manager, more HTML5 support, and the ability to sync settings and run extensions in private mode make Chrome 5 even more compelling. Now Mac and Linux users can enjoy the speed and simplicity of Google's Web browser.
Internet Explorer 8

The latest released version of the world's leading browser delivers category-leading security and adds some pretty slick browsing aids, such as WebSlices and Accelerators. It defaults to a more standards-compliant mode, but still offers a backward compatibility button. A predictive address bar brings it closer to Firefox, but the lack of a download manager and robust extension ecosystem hold the browser back.
Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview
Not a full-fledged browser at this point, but Microsoft's preview of the engine underlying its upcoming browser is fun for tinkerers to check out. However, there are zero conveniences like search, bookmarks, or history—there's not even an address bar. It's fun to play with, but not ready for full-time use yet.
Opera 10.5

This dark horse form Norway and favorite among Web cognoscenti has just retaken the JavaScript speed lead with the version 10.6 update. Its innovative Turbo mode for slow connections will be a boon to those still on dial-up, and its revolutionary Opera Unite engine turns the web on its head, making your browser a Web server. The inventor of tabs handles tabs extremely well, and offers all the goodies like RSS readers, bookmark syncing, and download managers, but don't expect the level of customization offered by Firefox's extensions.


Anonymous said...

Wow its amazing yr. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I like all and apreciate ur hardworking. Thanks umerm

UMER said...

Your Welcome.

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