Battle of the browsers - which is master of the web?

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Like cars and football teams, debates around which web browser is best are usually passionate, frequent and usually intense.

This isn't terribly surprising, after all browsers account for a huge amount of our day to day interaction with our PCs.



While competition to build the best browser was frenzied in the 90s as Microsoft's Internet Explorer slugged it out against Netscape's Navigator, competition died away with Netscape's demise.



Thanks to Firefox and Safari, however the battle for the best browser is again reaching a fevered intensity - which is great news for you and I as browsers pack an increasing array of cool features, use less system resources and go faster. Here's the current state of play on the browser battle front.



Microsoft Internet Explorer 8



Microsoft's latest entry into the browser battle trenches is Internet Explorer 8 which packs a bunch of new features and more significantly signals a move by Microsoft to finally comply with web standards.

Perhaps the most significant (and controversial) feature of IE8 is 'Web Slices' which allows web developers to mark areas of their websites to update on a tab.



Although Microsoft has used proprietary code for slices, they've seen the light and have made it available via a creative commons license so hopefully other browsers will eventually support it in the future.



Another nifty feature is 'Activities' which adds actions to right click menus. Whilst only 'Search with Live Search' is included by default, expect this to be extended as developers add their own activities (e.g. 'Share on flickr etc.).



Taking a nod from rival Google's Chrome, Microsoft have also improved the way IE handles crashes. Each browser window or tab is now handled by separate Windows processes, so if one tab kicks the digital bucket, it can be killed off without taking the browser down. Aside from being better able to handle crashes, IE8 also has colour-coded browser tabs, giving tab happy surfers a visual means of keep track of tabs.



But the big question on the minds of many is security. The first hint of anything security related is a security pull-down menu between Page and Tools on IE8's toolbar.



As well as blocking phishing sites, IE8 now highlights the main domain name of a website, which should help prevent you from being duped into dropping sensitive personal details onto a dodgy website.



IE8 also sports new anti-malware protection which will block threats and display on-screen warnings. Microsoft have also finally added private browsing, so webpages won't be cached, no cookies will be stored and history or passwords aren't updated.



Most importantly, IE8 also uses significantly less memory and is less of a CPU hog than previous versions, making it a great candidate for low-spec PCs. Most importantly, IE8 is expected to be embraced by most corporate IT teams so chances are it'll probably be your workplace browser sooner rather than later.



Google Chrome



Sporting a minimalist design, Chrome has some pretty hoopy technology under its hood and has helped to re-ignite the browser wars. Not only is it blindingly fast, it's also incredibly robust and secure.



Where other browsers seem to have buttons and tool bars for everything, Chrome adopts a more austere approach. Not only does this make for a significantly less cluttered browsing experience, but it also means that the controls that Chrome does display tend to be multi-purpose.



Type a URL in the address bar you'll quickly be transported there. Type a search query and Chrome will serve up some search results.



Whilst Chrome has forsaken the home button, it can display thumbnails of favourite websites, giving you a quick and visual means to access your favourite pages from any new tab.



Equally nifty is the ability to drag browser tabs onto your PCs desktop where they'll become separate browser windows. Given its Google parentage, it isn't terribly surprising that Chrome is also web app savvy. The most potent example of this is the ability to set up shortcuts for web apps on your PC's desktop so you can quickly launch Gmail, Google docs etc.



Using what Google call the V8 JavaScript engine, Chrome is pretty zippy and is one of the fastest browsers currently available. More significantly, Chrome also keeps each browsing session in its own virtual sand-pit so should a tab or window crash, or be hit by malware, it can be exited without trashing Chrome, making Chrome incredibly secure. At the recent Pwn2Own hacker competition where hackers and security experts tried to find and exploit browser vulnerabilities Chrome was unsurprisingly the sole survivor.



Chrome may be late to the browser battle, but it's freakishly fast, and near bomb proof to boot. As it gains wider support from developers, expect it to give both Firefox and Internet Explorer a serious run for their money.



Mozilla Firefox 3.5



Superficially Firefox 3.5 might look a lot like its predecessors, but it boasts a number of major changes, ranging from under-the-hood improvements as well as some truly useful yet subtle feature tweaks.



Like IE8, Firefox 3.5 sports a private browsing mode. When using the private browsing doodad, Firefox gets Alzheimers, forgetting to record history, cookies, usernames, or passwords. What sets the Fox apart from the hounds is its ability to close all of the pages already open when private browsing is started, restoring them once Private Browsing is switched off. Nice.



Firefox 3.5 has also been taking geography lessons and can allow sites to determine your physical location using both your IP address and nearby Wi-Fi or mobile networks (depending on how you're hooked into the interweb).



Before you can utter "big brother", bare in mind that any site wanting your location must first get your permission. Given Forefox's huge developer community, expect this feature to be used in weird and wonderful ways going forward.



Mozilla has also copied Chrome by ripped into Firefox 3.5's tabs - literally. Tabs can now tear off to form new browser windows and be dragged and dropped to be rearranged. Both Chrome and Safari already support tearaway tabs as well as drag and drop rearranging in a smoother real-time fashion (Firefox 3.5 can only show you an outline of where dragged tabs will end up as you drop them). Best of all in the tab department has been the addition of a small + sign on the tab bar. It might not sound like much, but it makes creating new tabs far faster.



Firefox 3.5 also remembers what you've entered into web forms before you close the browser window, restoring information that you've entered should you re-visit the page.



Once again it's not a massive reality transforming feature but it does make a real difference. Like many, I've lost large and valuable chunks of my life re-entering data into web-forms after accidentally closing the page (or having my browser crash) because the browser couldn't remember it.



Firefox 3.5 also feels incredibly snappy, backing claims made by the Mozilla folk that 3.5 is at least eight times faster at JavaScript than previous versions.



Combined with a bunch of genuinely useful features and thousands of themes, applications and add-ons, Firefox 3.5 will be pretty darned hard for other browsers to beat.



Opera



The original alternative indy browser that gave Internet Explorer and Netscape a kicking, the latest version of Opera still has some fight left in it. While most other browser makers have long since purloined many of Opera's innovations (e.g. tabs, pop-up blocking etc), it's continued to evolve with as those cunning Norwegians continue to add some really nifty and unique features.



Perhaps the funkiest of all is Opera Link which syncs bookmarks and homepage selections between PCs that have Opera installed. Not only is this very useful because it gives you a uniform browsing experience across all your computers, it's also verily cool indeed.



Equally impressive is Opera's indexing capabilities. As you surf, the Opera has Norwegian elves slaving away inside your PC, indexing every word of every web page you visit. This means you can type words into the Opera address bar and it'll search every site you've visited to suggest related links. Anyone doing even the slightest amount of research will find this feature incredibly handy. Here's hoping Microsoft, Google and Mozilla purloin this feature soon too.



Opera may have been superseded by Firefox and Chrome but it has stealthily stolen a march on the others in the mobile and console space, with Opera now the browser of choice for most windows mobile and Symbian smartphone PDA and users. With Nintendo also offering Opera on the Wii, Opera's foot print is massive.



Apple Safari



Originally Mac only, Apple relented and released Safari for both Windows and Mac, partially to aid Windows iPhone web application developers.



While Safari's iTunes-like interface is easily the most visually attractive and one of the more usable in this round-up (especially compared to the likes of both Internet Explorer 8 which looks as if it has been beaten with an ugly stick), it still lags behind Chrome and Firefox in the performance department.



Slick user interface design aside, the relatively small load Safari places on system memory and CPU makes it a great choice for low-spec PCs. Whilst Chrome and Firefox 3.5 feel faster, Safari is still quick off the mark when it comes to loading and rendering pages.



Whilst Safari has all the usual browser bells and whistles such as tabs, private browsing etc, its page search function is outstanding. Not content with merely highlighting matched text on a webpage, Safari darkens the web page being searched and highlights each instance of the word being searched for. It might not solve world hunger, but as a standalone feature I found it surprisingly useful.



Like most Apple products, Safari just works. It's relatively low learning curve makes it a great choice for people new to the web and should Apple stick to supporting and developing it, Safari will only get better.



Which browser is fastest?



The clever clogs at the accurately named geeksaresexy.net, have been busy putting all the latest browsers through a battery of benchmark tests to determine which is fastest. Testing the latest releases, Google's Chrome was the fastest overall performer, but both Firefox and Safari were not far behind.



Chrome was fastest overall, winning 15 of the 49 benchmarks run (some by sizable margins), whilst both Firefox and Safari also chalked up quite a few wins. Neither IE8 or Opera however won any benchmark tests. Safari chalked up an impressive score of 236.98 in the JavaScript tests, followed by Chrome at 196.65, Firefox with 184.09, Opera at 30.84 and IE8 trailing at 19.9.



JavaScript performance is only one part of a browsers overall performance.



Factors such as page rendering, the efficiency with which a browser can simultaneously download files, its memory and its CPU footprint also play a huge role in overall its overall performance.



Other issues such as features and compatibility are also likely to ensure that you have several (if not all) of the browsers in this roundup installed on your PC.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald

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