Updated Web Browsers: Which One Works Best?

Back when the earliest programs for viewing Web content simply browsed flat pages of images and text, the name browser truly fit the software.

But yesterday's amateur pages have evolved into dynamic, content-rich portals and powerful online programs. For many online habitués, the do-it-all browser has become a PC's single most important program.

Recognizing that fact, Apple's Safari, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and Mozilla's Firefox are battling to win the nod as your browser of choice. So which one should you use--Safari 3.1, Firefox 3, or Internet Explorer 8?

Apple's latest offering, Safari 3.1, preserves the company's signature focus on clean design and smooth usability, but it lacks any phishing or malware filters.

For its part, Mozilla should have applied the finishing touches to Firefox 3 by the time you read this (I tested the feature-complete beta 5 release). From under-the-hood memory improvements to a major reworking for bookmarks, version 3 represents a big step forward.

Whereas the new Firefox and Safari browsers are ready to roll, Microsoft's early beta of Internet Explorer 8 remains a work in progress. Bugs and rough edges are to be expected in a first beta intended for developers and testers. But IE 8 beta 1 provides a glimpse of new features such as WebSlices (which let sites create widgety snippets of information that you can view by clicking a bookmark button) and Activities (which add right-click menu options for looking up selected text and pages on map, translation and other sites) that will distinguish the browser Microsoft eventually releases.

Firefox, IE, and Safari are the three most popular browsers, according to Internet usage statistics, but they aren't the only ones available. So I also took a separate look at two worthwhile, free programs--Flock and Opera.

Safari Pushes Onto PCs

Here's a shocker: Safari, an Apple product now being pushed out to the world via iTunes updates, looks good. The minimalist metallic theme has clean lines and uses space well. Tabs smoothly link to the bookmarks bar above them, and pop-up notices--such as the one for adding a new bookmark--use animation to flow in and out of the title bar.

Try Safari, and you'll soon notice such nice design touches as a clear load progress indicator (which fills in the address bar) and a helpful blue outline around the currently selected text box on a page. The browser also handles RSS feeds smoothly and can show all of the posts from RSS feed bookmarks gathered in the same bookmark folder in a customizable display.

On the other hand, Safari's use of Mac OS X font technology makes text look slightly fuzzy, as if  a faint shadow surrounded each letter. On my monitor, pages looked better when I changed the 'Font smoothing' setting to Light.

Safari version 3.1 adds support for CSS3, HTML 5, and other emerging Web standards. Because Safari supports CSS3 Web fonts, the browser can download a custom font used on a page at the time it's displayed.

I didn't encounter any sites that Safari couldn't render properly, and the browser passes the Acid2 standards compliance test formulated by the Web Standards Project. Furthermore, it tops the forward-looking Acid3 test--which attempts to measure a browser's ability to use technology available for Web 2.0 rich sites--with a score of 75 out of 100.

For a sample performance test, I ran clean browsers (ones with no add-ons or plug-ins) through the SunSpider Javascript benchmark site. Webkit.org provides both the test and the open-source core for Safari and other browsers, but the test is applicable to all browsers. Safari 3.1 completed the battery in just over 4 seconds, which was significantly faster than its current competitors, Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 (read on for a Firefox 3 performance surprise in this category).

To gauge memory use, I loaded four sites--CNN, Netvibes, PC World, and Yahoo Mail--and to check for possible memory leaks, I left the pages up for an hour. Safari used 94MB to start with, and the figure had grown to 95MB an hour later. Those are good numbers, but not as good as the ones that the new Firefox posted.

Safari comes up short on security features. Most notably, its lack of an antiphishing filter (standard in both Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7) led PayPal CEO Michael Barrett to advise PayPal users not to conduct transactions with Safari. Safari doesn't support extended validation (EV) certificates either; EV certificates provide better site identification than the regular certificates that encrypted sites use. Finally a small, easy-to-miss padlock in the upper right corner is the only visual indicator (aside from the https:// at the beginning of the URL) Safari offers that you are on a secure Web page.

Another drawback: Apple continues to adhere to its closed-shop mentality for Safari--the browser doesn't allow third-party themes or add-ons.

Firefox 3 Packs It In

In version 3 of its Firefox, Mozilla hasn't changed much about the browser's basic look, but many usability changes make themselves known quickly.

Start with typing Web addresses into the address bar. As you type, Firefox 3 searches your bookmarks and browsing history for matches based on how often and how recently you visited a given site.

To see the most important upgrade, open either the history window or the bookmarks window. Both now live in an SQL database that displays them together. You can tag bookmarks and drag a URL from your browsing history directly into a bookmarks folder. And a new Smart Bookmarks folder catalogs your most frequently visited, recently bookmarked, and recently tagged sites.

A star icon to the right of the URL in the address bar enables you to add a new bookmark with one click--but this method unhelpfully sequesters them in an unfiled category whose contents are visible only in the full bookmarks window. If you click the star a second time, however, you can choose a particular destination folder and add tags.

Mozilla says that it has fundamentally improved Firefox's memory management and speed. And indeed, with four test sites (CNN, Netvibes, PC World, and Yahoo Mail) loaded, version 3 used less memory than Safari 3.1 did: 81MB to start and 85MB after an hour, versus 94MB and 95MB for Safari 3. It also rocked the SunSpider Javascript test, with a score of 3.61 seconds; Safari 3.1 failed to break the 4-second bariier on this test.

Firefox 3 passes the Acid2 test, and the beta 5 release scored 71 out of 100 on Acid3, a scant four points behind Safari 3.1. The current beta does have some known problems in dealing with sites such as Gmail and Windows Live Mail, but those issues should be resolved in the final release.

On the security front, the phishing site filter from Firefox 2, which uses a blacklist to block known phishing pages, now has the ability to block known malware-pushing sites as well. And faulty-fingered surfers everywhere will appreciate the revised password saver. Instead of having to decide between saving and canceling a password before you know whether it's the right one, you can now decide after logging in.

Version 3 adds support for EV certificates, too, and it displays a green button bearing the company's name on sites (such as Paypal) that use these certificates. For more info on the certificate holder, you can simply click the button.

These and other changes make for a better basic app, but it's the add-ons that make the browser. Firefox 3 helps you find new extensions more easily by including in the add-ons window a 'Get Add-ons' button that can display and install searched-for and recommended add-ons.

As of the beta 5 release, Mozilla says that about half of all extensions work with Firefox 3, but not yet included in the ranks of the compatible are such must-haves as the Foxmarks Bookmark Synchronizer and PwdHash. The new browser looks good, but I want to see those extensions in working order before I make the switch.

Internet Explorer 8: A Work in Progress

Safari 3.1 is a finished product and Firefox 3 is nearly so, but IE 8 remains under development. Beta 1 has a number of bugs (as any early version of a complicated program would), and its test performance is very likely to change. The first beta release isn't suitable for day-to-day use; and as for the next iteration, Microsoft will say only that Beta 2 will emerge sometime this year.

Still, Beta 1 provides a glimpse of what's to come, especially with respect to certain brand-new features such as Activities and WebSlices.

The Activities feature works on any Web page: When you select text, a small green arrow appears. Clicking it opens a drop-down menu with options for translating the text, looking it up on a map (if it's an address), or finding a definition. You can choose which Web services to use for each activity when you install IE 8, in much the same way as you're prompted to choose a default search provider for IE 7. Right-clicking selected text or a page will link you to activities as well.

WebSlices are somewhat like specialized mini-RSS feeds. You can add one to your Favorites bar to link to a particular eBay auction or to a friend's Facebook profile, and the WebSlice will update with the latest available information, just as an RSS feed would.

Unlike Activities, the WebSlices feature requires site designers to add specific code defining what information will display in a WebSlice. As yet, the WebSlices feature is IE-only, but Microsoft says that it has released the programming code for both Activities and WebSlices for use in other browsers.

IE 7 doesn't pass the Acid2 test, but Beta 1 of IE 8 does. Though Microsoft says that it's working to make the browser more standards-compliant, it still has some work to do before final release: Beta 1 scores only 18 out of 100 on the Acid3 test.

When I checked Beta 1's memory usage on the four test sites (CNN, Netvibes, PC World, and Yahoo Mail), I discovered that the browser couldn't correctly display the Netvibes site, and also that it runs two processes on XP. Those results show that you shouldn't put much emphasis on performance tests for an early beta; nevertheless, the browser used 114MB at start and 118MB after an hour. Likewise, its 10.2-second run-through on the SunSpider test stacks up poorly against the results for Firefox 3 and for Safari 3.1--though it greatly improves on IE 7's treelike time of 50 seconds.

One of the smartest improvements in IE 8 is also one of the simplest: For any site you visit, IE will gray out all but the domain name in the address bar. This antiphishing measure makes it easy to uncover the common scammers' technique of trying to disguise the real domain in a URL that may start with something like 'www.paypal.com' and list the actual domain at the end of a string of nonsensical characters made to look like site input.

Microsoft says that it is also working to improve IE 7's phishing filter; and IE 8 continues to support EV certificates, as IE 7 does.

I'm sticking with Firefox. I use my browser for everything from word processing to story research to invoice filing, and I love being able to customize the program I use most often.

If you like to tinker, you'll probably want Firefox 3. But if you aren't, and if you don't mind trading away the ability to customize in return for a nicely polished package, you might like Safari. Just be extra cautious at potential phishing sites.

Meanwhile, Microsoft needs to move quickly if it wants to reverse the trend--steadily increasing since mid-2006, according to TheCounter.com--of users' switch to alternative browsers. Redmond must add more than Activities and WebSlices to the final version of IE 8 if it wants the updated browser to be a serious contender.

Two Free Alternatives

Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari are today's Big Three, but they aren't the only good browsers out there. Here's the skinny on two free alternatives, Flock and Opera.

To understand Flock, the self-billed social browser, picture starting with Firefox 2. Then imagine linking to sites and services like Blogger, Facebook, Picasa, Yahoo Mail and YouTube.

Then visualize custom features like a Media Bar (to search for and display pictures and videos from social networking sites), a blog editor, and a Web clipboard that can snip images, text, and links from pages for later viewing.

Wrap everything up in a new design with buttons and sidebars providing access to all of these features, and you have Flock.

Ultimately, Flock delivers little or nothing that you couldn't get from Firefox plus a bunch of add-ons. But for people who don't enjoy customizing their browser, this one offers a lot of social-networking functionality built in. In addition you can introduce Firefox and custom Flock extensions, though not all Firefox add-ons will work.

Flock says that it aims to deliver patches via automatic updates within 48 hours of Mozilla's releasing them for its browser. One note of caution: By default, the Flock browser collects anonymous usage data, but you can turn off that option.

Though the Opera browser has been around for years, it has never achieved mainstream popularity despite a solid array of built-in features. If I couldn't use Firefox add-ons to mimic some of Opera's features--such as mouse gestures for moving backward and forward through my browsing history--I'd likely go with this well-made alternative.

A Speed Dial start page provides quick access--with page thumbnails--to your favorite destinations. You can switch downloadable themes without having to restart the browser, and add "widgets" such as calendars and clocks that display outside the browser.

Throw in some other useful features, such as a built-in RSS reader and site-specific settings for using cookies or Javascript, and you have a commendable browser. The company also offers a version of its browser for mobile phones, Opera Mini 4.

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