Browser Blowout 2010

Of all the software on your PC, the Web browser may be the most important tool you use each day--but you may not give it much thought. The difference between a merely good browser and a great one, however, can be vast. The best browsers are those that stay out of your way: When you're in the right browser, you feel as though you're alone with your favorite site. The browser loads pages quickly, without crashing, and it can deftly handle any Web page you visit without prompting you to do anything extra.

Of all the software on your PC, the Web browser may be the most important tool you use each day--but you may not give it much thought. The difference between a merely good browser and a great one, however, can be vast. The best browsers are those that stay out of your way: When you're in the right browser, you feel as though you're alone with your favorite site. The browser loads pages quickly, without crashing, and it can deftly handle any Web page you visit without prompting you to do anything extra.

Slideshow: The Web Browser Turns 15: A Look Back

But there's more to a browser than just that. To satisfy power users, it must support a multitude of add-ons and extensions. It must be customizable. And to protect you online, it should do a good job of catching and blocking potential security threats--such as phishing or cross-site scripting attacks--and be resistant to malware.

We put the top five browsers--Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera--through an exhaustive set of lab-based tests and subjective examinations to see exactly how they stack up in terms of interface, security, extras, and speed.

BROWSER Theme support Add-on support Bookmark/data syncsupport Extra security features Plug-in crash protection Web page crash protection RSS reader Internet Explorer 8 No Accelerators, toolbars, Web Slices None URL domain highlighting No Yes Yes Firefox 3.6 Yes Extensions, toolbars None Plug-in update checker Yes 1 No Yes Chrome 5 Yes Extensions Google Bookmarks syncing Sandboxing, URL domain highlighting Yes Yes No Safari 5 No Extensions MobileMe Bookmarks syncing None Yes No Yes Opera 10.53 Yes Widgets Opera Link None No No Yes FOOTNOTE: 1 Crash protection introduced with Firefox 3.6.4.

For a summary of the browsers' features, see the chart here. For more on what we found, read on.

User Interface

Browser interfaces all follow the same basic formula. Within those constraints, though, browsers exhibit some notable differences.

First off, you can tell quite a bit about a company's approach to product development just by its browser interfaces. Apple's Safari has a fair amount of fit and finish, for example. Google's Chrome is spartan and unadorned, and Mozilla's Firefox interface is usable but feels dated compared with newer competitors.

Slim is in. Most browsers now sport more-streamlined looks, with fewer, narrower toolbars--and in many cases on Windows, no menu bar to speak of. This sort of layout typically works well, since it usually includes a couple of drop-down menus in the toolbar that give you easy access to the browser's features.

Firefox, Chrome, and Opera all let you apply different skins to the toolbars. Generally I find it pretty simple to locate and change skins in each of these browsers. Google, for instance, has an online repository that lets you browse and apply themes for Chrome. Mozilla has a similar site for Firefox. One nifty part of Firefox's skins feature--called Personas--is that you can "try on" any of the skins simply by mousing over the thumbnails on the Personas site. In Opera, meanwhile, you browse themes from within a control pane in the app itself; that works okay, but the pane isn't quite as easy to browse as the Chrome and Firefox skins galleries are.

We based our evaluation here on the ease of use, polish, flexibility, and layout of each browser's interface. We also looked at whether the interface got in the user's way too much, or whether it allowed Websites to take center stage.

Internet Explorer 8

The leading browser on the market, Internet Explorer, sports a decent interface in version 8, but it feels cluttered when compared with newer browsers on the market. Two features pertaining to its tabbed-browsing function are useful, however. First, IE 8 groups related tabs together using color coding. If you open a link from PCWorld.com in a new tab, for example, it will open adjacent to the original tab, and the tabs themselves will have a matching color. You can move tabs from one group to another; but if you have, say, three unrelated pages open, you can't create a group out of them.

Second, IE 8 provides a tab thumbnail view: Click the thumbnail button (the one with four squares on it) in the tab bar, and up pops a screen with thumbnails of your open tabs' contents. It's a good way to see all your open tabs at once; whether it's better than Opera's mouse-over thumbnails is up for debate, though.

Firefox 3.6

Bearing the same basic look and feel as earlier versions of Firefox, version 3.6 seems dated next to other modern browsers. It has more "window chrome" (a window's toolbars, menus, title bar, and so on) than what the latest versions of Chrome or Safari have, which makes it seem like something out of 2006, not 2010. In addition, its highly cross-platform nature means that it can feel a little out of place at times, even on Windows.

But there's nothing seriously wrong with Firefox's interface, and it has its share of niceties. For one thing, its Find bar makes searching for a specific word or phrase on any given page easy. And though Firefox isn't the only browser to have a URL-autofill feature, it does the job better than most other browsers do.

One note: Shortly before we finished this roundup, Mozilla released a beta of Firefox 4. Among Firefox 4's new features is a revamped user interface that takes cues from competitors like Chrome and Opera. Check back for our ongoing coverage of Firefox 4 as it nears its final release.

Chrome 5

With Chrome, Google applied its trademark minimalist style to its browser. The main Chrome window has only the basics (a tab bar, an address field, back/forward/reload buttons, and a couple of drop-down menu buttons), which lets the page you're browsing become the star of the show. You won't find a status bar, either; page-loading messages appear as needed in the bottom of the window. The overall result is a browser that's slick, speedy, and responsive.

Chrome's tabbed browsing is presented in a thoughtful manner. The tabs are located above everything else on the page, which makes for a logical flow of information in the window. As you open up more pages, the tabs shrink to fit the avalable space; and as you close tabs, they grow again.

Safari 5

Safari delivers all the standard options, but throws in a bit of Apple flair. For example, the address bar doubles as the page-loading progress bar. The default homepage displays thumbnails of your most commonly visited sites against a glossy black background. The bookmarks manager is laid out well and lets you view thumbnails of bookmarked pages as you click through them.

New to Safari 5 is one of my favorite features in any browser: Safari Reader. When you read an article on a site in Safari 5, you can click the small Reader button in the address bar, and up slides an overlay that displays only the article's text. The feature has caused controversy in certain circles--some site operators believe that it hurts ad sales--but it makes reading an article far easier. On the other hand, Safari does foist a number of Mac interface conventions onto Windows users, so it may not be for everybody.

Opera 10.6

All of Opera's menu items are glommed together under a single, small drop-down menu button--and that button disappears entirely if you hide the tab bar, in which case you have to press the Alt key to pull it up. I've got to hand it to the folks at Opera for trying something different, but the result is perhaps a little too minimalist.

In part because of this minimalist aesthetic, Opera's interface is clean, polished, and attractive. The interface is also plenty flexible, with a healthy number of toolbars for you to choose from. Some of the toolbars, such as the favorites bar (Opera calls it the Personal Bar), take up more screen space than I would like. Opera also gives you the option of displaying page thumbnails in the tab bar; it's a great way to distinguish one tab from another, and it's one of my favorite features of the browser.

BEST INTERFACE: Chrome

Chrome comes out ahead thanks to its clean, functional interface, but we also liked the polish of Opera and Safari. Which interface is "best" can be subjective, so this is largely a matter of personal preference.

Security

Though some browsers are better than others at keeping you safe online, all of them have at least some security features. Phishing filters, for example, have become more or less universal over the past few years. These filters typically connect to an online database of known phishing sites to keep tabs on which sites are kosher and which aren't; when you browse to a known phishing site, you'll usually get a warning indicating that the site may be trouble. The downside to such filters is that they may not have brand-new phishing sites on their lists, so you'll still have to use your own judgment.

Usually browsers will also warn you before you open any applications that you download; the reason behind this, of course, is to keep you from getting caught flat-footed opening a piece of malware disguised as an image file, for example. Again, these features have limitations: They can't distinguish bad software from good software, so you'll still need a separate antivirus app for that.

Every browser we looked at has some form of private-browsing mode, as well. Though these features are useful for preventing the next person who uses the computer from knowing what you've been up to (you were purchasing a gift for your significant other on Amazon, say), they won't protect you from online security threats like phishing--so don't let your guard down.

Internet Explorer 8

Historically, Internet Explorer has suffered a bad reputation when it comes to security, but IE 8 has some solid security features in its own right. IE 8 displays sites' domains in a darker text color, so you can more easily see whether you're actually visiting an ebay.com page, for instance, or, instead, a fake eBay page on a phishing site you've never heard of. Microsoft could still put a little more emphasis on the domain name (using a different-color background, for example), but the highlighting is a welcome addition, and Google Chrome has since picked up this little trick. In addition, IE 8 provides a cross-site scripting feature that can prevent various types of cyberattacks.

Firefox 3.6

Firefox does a good job at keeping you informed about the state of your browser's security. For instance, when it automatically installs an update, it also checks to see if any of your plug-ins need updating as well, and it warns you accordingly. You can run this check at any time within Firefox by visiting the Plugin Check site. (Bookmark that page! Do it now!) The plug-in check seems to work in other browsers, too; but when I ran it in other browsers, it erroneously told me that I was using an up-to-date version of Flash when I wasn't (shame on me).

Another security feature: Firefox displays the name of sites that provide "identity information" in a box adjacent to the address bar. When you click on that box, more details about the site pop up.

Chrome 5

Google took a novel approach to security with Chrome: Each open Web page is "sandboxed." That is, if a site you open has been hijacked by cybercriminals, sandboxing can help prevent malware implanted on that site from accessing the files you have stored on your PC. If you're more interested in the technical nitty-gritty, see Google's blog post on the topic.

Safari 5

Though Safari has a fairly standard set of security features--phishing protection, private browsing, a "Reset" function--one particularly useful feature is its handling of browser cookies (small files stored on your PC that typically save preferences for a site). Instead of merely letting you enable or disable cookies altogether, Safari gives you a third option that enables cookies for the sites you visit but disables other cookies that are on the same page. For example, if you visit a news site, Safari will accept cookies for just that site, and not cookies for the page's advertisements.

Opera 10.6

Like Firefox, Opera is good at displaying the status of a Website in the address bar. It uses color coding in the address bar to indicate whether a page is encrypted (and if so, whether the page has any problems), or whether the site is flagged as fraudulent (Opera uses AVG's database of fraudulent sites and those carrying malware).

Similar to Safari, Opera lets you choose to accept cookies only from the site you visit (thus blocking advertising cookies, for example), but it allows you to do so on a per-site basis. To change this setting for a particular site, right-click the page and select Edit Site Preferences from the pop-up menu.

BEST SECURITY: Chrome

For security, we have to come down on the side of Chrome. Its page sandboxing is a great security feature (and one that you'll never notice), and as a result Chrome was the last browser remaining at this year's Pwn2Own hacking contest.

Extensions and Add-Ons

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