Last year I wrote about the five most popular browsers, and how keeping your browser up to date helps speed, security, reliability, and compatibility (here). My order of preference in 2009 was Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer (IE), Chrome, and Safari.
NOTE: In 2015 I posted a more current comparison of the latest browser versions, Best Browsers . . .
In 2010, the same five browsers continue to dominate the market, but my order of preference has changed. Why?
In a word: Chrome.
Google’s Chrome browser was designed from the ground up to be good at running web applications, with an underlying architecture that is faster, more secure, and more stable than the competition. Chrome succeeded. The competition has responded. Users have benefited.
The latest versions of the five major browsers are all far faster, safer, and more stable than they were in late 2008. All five browsers are good and getting better. But with the recent addition of extensions, Chrome has taken the lead, and in my opinion deserves the “best browser 2010″ award. I explain why I recently switched from Firefox to Google Chrome at the end of this post.
Below are summaries of the strengths, weaknesses, and future expectations of the five major browsers—and what makes each browser distinctive and appropriate for a certain type of user. Though ordered by my personal preference, what’s best for me may not be best for you.
1. Chrome 5
Chrome continues to be very fast, secure, and reliable. The uncluttered interface makes it easy to focus on work. Chrome is therefore an ideal browser for running web applications such as Gmail, Evernote, or Facebook. Over the past year, many features were added to Chrome, including support for extensions.
Chrome extensions can use only one tiny icon’s worth of screen space and are restricted in other ways. This purposeful tradeoff sacrifices flexibility and potential capabilities in order to keep Chrome fast, reliable, and uncluttered. Chrome also keeps the user experience streamlined with automatic browser updates, the ability to shrink tabs into small icons, and reduced use of dialog boxes.
Chrome is not for everyone. It is a memory hog, so your system should have 1GB RAM for 5-10 tabs, and 2GB RAM if you routinely keep more than 10 tabs open—otherwise you’ll need to close and reopen your tabs every few hours (see here for a more elegant workaround, and here for why this workaround has stopped working since September 2, 2010). Some people don’t like the minimal look and reduced menu access. Some Firefox users may miss the functionality of some of their favorite add-ons. The built-in password manager does not encrypt passwords, so don’t use it (Use a dedicated password manager instead).
Perhaps most importantly, some people feel uneasy about how much of their data Google can see, which can really add up if you use Google search, Gmail, and Chrome. For people who are uneasy about Google’s data collection but still want Chrome’s benefits, there are nearly identical alternatives that don’t collect user data, such as SRWare Iron or other browsers mentioned here.
However, for both the average Joe and the power user, Chrome’s speed, reliability, and uncluttered interface makes it the best browser in 2010 for getting work done. Users have noticed. Google Chrome’s global market share has jumped from 4.6% to 7.0% over the past 5 months.
Major Upgrade: Version 5 was released on May 25, 2010. It is faster, more secure (Flash auto-updates) and now works on Linux and Mac (10.5.6 or later) systems in addition to Windows (XP or higher). Version 6 will be faster still, with a number of additional minor features. Chrome appears to be improving at a faster rate than its competition.
By early 2011, tablets and netbooks will be available that launch right into the Chrome browser within seconds after turning on. Like Apple’s iPad, these devices are expected to be much easier to maintain and keep secure than today’s general purpose computers.
2. Opera 10.53
Chrome and Firefox attempt to be bare bones browsers, to which you add functionality with extensions. Opera, on the other hand, already comes bundled with many extras that users typically want, such as ad blocking, note taking, data sharing, and sync. While Opera does not support extensions, it does support many forms of customization through third-party add-ons, including plug-ins, skins, panels, as well as separate applications called widgets. Despite the extra included features, Opera is about as fast and uncluttered as Chrome. On top of all this, Opera experiences fewer security issues than other browsers, partly because hackers typically don’t bother with low market share browsers.
So why don’t more people use Opera? A small number of web sites do not load properly, as some developers don’t test their sites with Opera. Some users simply don’t care for the interface. Recent versions of Opera take up a lot of memory when many tabs are open. Perhaps the biggest reason is that few people have heard of it. But Opera is a fine choice for many users, especially for the majority of people who don’t spend much time changing settings, adding extensions, or taking extra security measures.
Of the five major browsers, Opera runs on the widest variety of systems. Opera runs on Macs (10.4 or higher), Linux, and Windows (XP or higher). Year-old Opera 9.64 runs on Windows 98. Opera also has mobile clients available for most mobile devices, which can sync bookmarks and history with Opera on the desktop.
Major Upgrade: With the release of Opera 10.5 in March of 2010, Opera’s speed is comparable to Chrome and Safari. New features added over the past half year include independent widgets, a very flexible framework for sharing any kind of data across devices (Opera Unite), and support for new web standards. The next major upgrade for Opera has not been announced, though Opera 10.6 will further increase speed and stability.
Firefox continues to be the most customizable browser, thanks to its vast library of add-ons. It continues to work well on Windows (2000 and later), Mac (10.4 and later), and Linux. Its memory efficient design allows multiple tabs to be opened and closed on systems with as little as 512MB RAM. For those who desire or need the highest level of security, nothing beats Firefox used in conjunction with the NoScript add-on.
This flexibility and security is great for the power user who can make Firefox do almost anything. But for the average Joe, there are simpler, alternatives. With no add-ons installed, Opera and Chrome are both faster, more secure, and less cluttered than Firefox. This is not to say Firefox is a bad browser. It is a great browser, which continues to get faster and better with each release. It’s just that lately, Chrome and Opera are even better.
Major Upgrade: “Catching up with Chrome” is the easiest way to describe most improvements to Firefox since the June 2008 release of Firefox 3.0 (private browsing, process isolation, changing themes without restarting, etc.). Firefox 4.0 is scheduled for release by early 2011 and promises to close the gap further with greater speed, automatic updates, and a simpler interface. Significant improvements to password management, automated sign-ins, and the ability to sync bookmarks and add ons will also be included.
4. Safari 5
For the last few years, Safari lagged behind Chrome, Opera, and Firefox in terms of speed, security, and flexibility. This just changed. Version 5 (released June 7, 2010) is just as fast as Chrome, and finally offers a framework for extensions. It is not yet clear whether Safari is more secure, but Apple’s approval system for extensions will reduce the chance of security issues arising from rogue extensions.
Though Safari still lacks Full Screen mode, a press of its built-in “reader” button transforms cluttered web pages into an easy-to-read format (similar to the “readability” bookmarklet I describe here). The reader button currently works more slowly and on fewer sites than “readability.”
As the browser bundled with all new Mac systems, Safari 5 will likely be good enough for most users. The pretty interface blends in well with the overall look and feel of a Mac. However, some may prefer Chrome or Opera to reduce distractions (such as cover flow) even further. Others may prefer the flexibility of Firefox with its massive extensions library.
Major Upgrade: Version 5 was just released for both Windows (XP, Vista, 7) and Mac (10.5.8, 10.6.2, and 10.6.3), and is described above. Expect to see a number of officially sanctioned extensions by August 2010. Apple has not discussed what it has in mind for version 6.
A version of Safari is available for the Apple’s iPad which was released in April. Early adopters are nearly unanimous in their praise for how fast and easy this version of Safari is to use, though it doesn’t work on all web sites due to lack of Flash support.
IE8 is a good browser, and it is vastly better than its slower and dangerously insecure predecessors. But it is ranked last because it is slower, less flexible, and less standards compliant than the competition. And it is also slower to improve. Slices, accelerators, and site suggestions seemed like promising new features to help access information like maps or definitions with fewer clicks and keystrokes—but they don’t seem to have caught on in a big way.
IE8 works on Windows desktop versions XP, Vista and 7, and Windows Server versions 2003 and 2008. Despite the fact that Windows XP currently has over 62% market share, IE9 will not be available for Windows XP.
All Windows users have to use some version of Internet Explorer at least occasionally for Windows updates, Netflix streaming or some other IE-only sites. It is the only browser at many workplaces and comes bundled on all Windows systems outside of Europe. For many of these people, IE8 will be good enough. However, given the greater speed and flexibility of the competition, Window users who have a choice will generally be better off with Chrome, Opera, or Firefox.
Major Upgrade: A beta version of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) will be released for testing this summer. It is expected to be generally faster, more secure, and more standards compliant. Graphics-intensive sites will run many times faster thanks to support for hardware acceleration. IE9 will run on Vista and 7, but not Windows XP.
Conclusions – And Why I Switched to Chrome
Firefox has been my primary browser since 2003. Last year, I began to regularly use web apps like Gmail, Evernote, and WordPress on a wide screen. The Firefox interface worked well for browsing, but not so well for writing and working. I tried to simplify the Firefox interface with extensions like Tree Style Tab, Tab Mix Plus, and Personal Menu. But once RoboForm’s extension was released for Chrome, I capitulated. I switched to Chrome in April 2010 and haven’t looked back.
The best thing about Chrome is you don’t even have to use it to get many of its benefits. Thanks to the increased competition, you just need to keep regularly upgrading your browser to see big speed, security, and stability improvements, along with an ever less cluttered interface. Your browser may not be as good as the latest version of Chrome, but it may be good enough.