Browser battle royale: Which should you use?

Column – Learn the ups and downs of Firefox, IE, Chrome, Safari, and Opera.

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

I can still remember very clearly the day that I downloaded my first Internet browser. It was early May, 1993 and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) had released a graphical browser called Mosaic a couple of weeks earlier, which allowed you to “surf” this thing called the World Wide Web. Unlike earlier, simpler browsers, such as Lynx, Mosaic used not only text, but pictures, video and audio clips, and hypertext links to connect sites around the world.

There were other browsers around at the time, but Mosaic was the one that literally changed the world. And looking at the suite of different browsers available on the Internet in 2009, they all still retain many of the original features developed for Mosaic, albeit greatly enhanced. (You can, in fact, still get a copy of the Mosaic browser from NCSA.)

These days, you have a broader choice of Internet browsers, despite the attempts by Microsoft to drive all the other browsers out of the space over the past decade. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer remains the most popular browser with a 65.9 percent share, but Mozilla’s open source Firefox has been showing a lot of strength in the past two years, controlling 22.9 percent of the browser market as of May 2009. (In 1999, IE was the browser choice of 95 percent of the market.)

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Here is my own list of which browser to use, top to bottom.

Top choice: Mozilla’s Firefox 3.5

The hands down winner. Firefox was the browser to popularize the use of tabs, which allows you to open various sites in the same browser window, rather than having numerous version open on the desktop. Its first attempts at tabs were a bit clunky (I can remember a few times when I was working weekends at Boston.com and we would lose a fair bit of work because the tabs malfunctioned) but later versions are much more stable. The other great feature about Firefox is what is called “session restore.” When you turn the browser off, it asks if you want to remember what you were currently looking at. If the browser closes without warning, it automatically remembers and restores your windows and tabs.

The “Awesome Bar” is well, pretty awesome. Can’t remember that business site you visited yesterday and you don’t want to go back through all the history files. Just type business into the Awesome Bar and it will look for matches in your browsing history. The more you use it, the more it remembers. Wicked cool.

The Monitor looked into Firefox 3.5, the newest version, here.

Google’s Chrome

Chrome has some nice features, like the Omnibox search and automatic browser updating. Its introduction last year shook up the competition in a good way. But it has two things strongly against it. It’s currently only available for Windows, and Google tends to play fast and lose with privacy. The privacy policy on Chrome states “some Google Chrome features send limited additional information to Google.” You’ll like the performance, but use with caution. For more, check out our full review.

Opera 9.64

Opera doesn’t try to be all things to all people. And the folks who use it, LOVE it. It’s very fast, frequently coming out on top in speed tests, and has won numerous other awards. Techies love it because of its simplicity, which just gets you to where you need to go as fast as possible. It also works really well with the distribution protocol BitTorrent, which means you don’t have to open a new application to download files.

But for me, Opera is a bit too simple. I like the multitude of features that you get with Firefox or Chrome. Yes, it takes up more space on my computer and slows things down, but it also allows me to do more of what I want to do. But I highly recommend Opera if you’re using a notebook computer or a laptop with limited memory.

Microsoft IE 8

It’s not that IE is a bad browser. It’s pretty decent, if a bit slow and clunky. It’s just that IE had a troubling history. It was horrible on security, for instance, a problem that plagued almost all Microsoft products. Its Mac version stunk up the joint.

But IE has made some real improvements. Security is much improved. The parental control features can be customized for each person in the family. And inPrivate browsing allows you to surf without adding those sites to your browsing history, which raises some interesting questions about why you don’t want to leave a browsing history.

Safari 4

I’m not a Mac user (yes, I know, there are PC versions) but Safari is really aimed at Mac users. So I asked my wife, who is, as you may remember, a Mac snob – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“It’s fast, and almost never hangs up [i.e. crashed],” was her quick response. But then she admitted that she used FireFox almost as often, frequently having both open at the same time. Which, I suspect, is what many Safari users do.

I’ve used Safari and it’s not bad. But its performance and features just do not match Firefox, Chrome, or IE. Monitor bloggers Matt Shaer and Andrew Heining wrote about Safari here and here.

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