Best Browsers 2010 . . . Five Browser Comparison

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 March 2011 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.

Browser Reviews

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.

For detailed Windows speed tests, look here or here, and for Macs, here.  (UPDATE:  For browser updates coming in 2011, see here for December 2010 speed tests).

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.

3. Firefox 3.6.4

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.

5. Internet Explorer 8 (IE8)

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.

Filed in category: Browsers and the cloud.

22 Comments

  1. rick@rickety
    June 9, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    I’ve used Chrome for some time and really like it. It is nifty how the bookmarks are synced and stored in your Google Docs account.

  2. Crankcase
    June 12, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    There seems to be resource problems when using Firefox with Windows 7 (64-bit), and it becomes very laggy.

  3. petir
    June 29, 2010 at 12:24 AM

    Hmm…

    Opera also supports their own version of extensions (widgets).

    No, widgets are nothing like extensions. Widgets are separate applications, not add-ons.

    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.

    No, Opera experiences fewer security issues because it was designed with security in mind. People are actively looking for security holes in Opera.

    Recent versions of Opera take up a lot of memory when many tabs are open.

    Not really. What it does do, is to dynamically adapt the memory usage to the system. If you have a lot of RAM, why shouldn’t applications like Opera use it to increase performance? Other browsers have more primitive memory handling.

    Also, Opera can open more tabs at the same time than any other browser without slowing down.

  4. June 29, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    Petir – Thanks for your comments and corrections. I did not know about Opera’s sophisticated memory management techniques. That’s a real advantage over Chrome, whose memory leaks require closing and opening the browser every few hours when using tabs that automatically refresh themselves (at least on Windows) on machines with 1GB of RAM or less.

    On security, I am no expert. My source of information was IBM’s X-force reports, which made a similar general comment – that high market share browsers (and operating systems) attract far more attention from hackers than low-market share browsers (and operating systems). And this therefore is an additional advantage of using a browser with low market share. If Opera received as much scrutiny as the various versions of Internet Explorer, I think it likely that more security issues would be found. So I stand behind what I wrote.

    http://xforce.iss.net/

    I do understand that widgets are not identical to extensions. I made an appropriate adjustment to the post.

    I try to write my posts to be accessible to a wide audience including non-technical types, partly by keeping things simple. However, if I oversimplify to the point of inaccuracy, I’m glad to be called on it and make a correction.

  5. petir
    June 29, 2010 at 8:48 AM

    Browser with a high market share experience a higher number of exploits in the wild, but Opera is clearly being scrutinized by security companies. Otherwise no one would have found any vulnerabilities.

    But since Opera vulnerabilities are being discovered, it means that people are actively looking for them. They may be fewer and usually less severe than vulnerabilities in other browsers, but they are still being actively looked for by the same people who look for holes in all browsers.

  6. Steve from Ohio
    July 31, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    I too switched to Chrome from Firefox. I sell a lot on E-bay and found out that Chrome would not allow me to format my E-bay listings correctly.

    I could not change fonts or add background images like I can on FIrefox. So I still use FIrefox for certain applications and Chrome for all the rest. I also found out that Google would not allow me to visit certain sites that Google thought were not in their interest for me to visit. With FIrefox, that was never an issue.

    So I use both FIrefox and Chrome….depending on what I want to do.

  7. chris
    September 16, 2010 at 1:53 AM

    Nothing can beat Opera, buddy. I wish they were open source like Firefox. I’ve tried all the above mentioned browsers, but when it comes to reliability + less clutter, Opera’s the best. I’ve been using it for the last 6 years or so, and i know what i’m talking about. Firefox and Chrome are both hyped software. They dont deliver what they promise.

  8. September 16, 2010 at 7:26 AM

    Chris – Opera suits your needs better than the others but it’s not the best choice for everyone. I personally don’t use opera because RoboForm is my preferred method for managing passwords, and Opera’s lack of support for extensions is the reason I can’t use RoboForm the way I can with IE, Firefox, and Chrome. I think extensions is the big reason some people prefer Firefox or Chrome over Opera.

    That’s not a knock against Opera. It’s a terrific browser. If you’ll never install an extension (or use a password manager that requires one to fully function), than Opera is the best choice.

    I’d love to hear comments from others on which browser is your favorite and why.

  9. Shah
    September 23, 2010 at 6:22 PM

    I’m not a sophisticated user of browsers but my experience about these browsers is as below.

    Mozila Firefox:- is too slow when loading for the first time after
    computer boots up.
    Opera:- good but lacks some international font support like
    “Hindi” hence these fonts appear in a wrong way. When
    trying to open a second instance by clicking on its icon, it
    opens a new tab in the previously opened instance.
    Chrome:- there is no way to stop a download once it is started.
    Does not ask for save, run for a download to proceed.
    Safari:- Some problem with International language. Fonts does
    not show up correctly. Some problem while opening new
    window and new tabs. Could not configure it to open new tab
    but remain focused to previously opened tab.

    For myself IE6 was perfect as it is very fast compared to other browsers and its own versions above 6. And also it is very familiar. But it used to crash for no reason on some sites on some pages. Also one very good features of tabs is missing.

    I installed all the above browsers for some time on my Laptop but seeing one problem or the other I had to uninstall them.
    Hence after examining all these browsers I have stuck to Firefox and bearing its slow initial load speed. Meanwhile I am also continuously searching for other browsers if I can find any which is fast like IE6 and good and stable and supports tabs and does not have above problems. I have tested some very small browsers like TheWorld which use IE engine but these also have some problems, like there is not support for opening a new window from within a opened tab. Hence my search for a browser is still on while using FireFox….

  10. Wyzard
    September 23, 2010 at 10:50 PM

    No one browser is right for everyone. That is universal law. I use Opera. It is sleek, fast and sexy, I simply browse and have fun, read my email and see what’s going on in the world.

    My Texans are going to overwhelm the Cowboys this Sunday by the epic score of 42-17, Not one single field goal was kicked. All good hard work. Go Texans .. 3-0

    That was fun with my Opera browser.

    A lot of folks just love their Firefox and Explorer. The Internet is there for all of us. Get there the best way that you can.

    Take Care

  11. Kim
    November 10, 2010 at 7:30 AM

    I use opera. Is it perfect? No! I tried every major browsers and liked opera best. They are good at making browser but bad for marketing. I think there are so many people who never even heard of opera browser before.

  12. Hugh
    November 21, 2010 at 2:12 PM

    Thanks for the great article!

    I was using chrome for a while because it was faster. Then I started getting hit with viruses. I switched back to firefox. I still was hit with viruses. This is even while using McAfee. Finally I just uninstalled Adobe reader and flash. I can’t read pdf’s or view flash video, but at least I have no viruses. I now use hp/vista/firefox/mcafee.

    Do you know if others are having these problems? I have spent ridiculous amounts of time doing system restores and even system recoveries, along with reinstalling my mcafee and windows updates.

    Thanks again,

    Hugh

  13. November 21, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    Hugh,

    Many people using Flash and/or Adobe Reader get viruses while browsing, unfortunately. However, there is one set of defenses that will stop such attacks completely, while still being able to use Flash and read PDFs:

    1) Use Firefox
    2) Install NoScript and be very cautious about which sites stop NoScript from blocking
    3) For PDFs, use a reader other than Adobe, and turn off the ability for external commands to execute. Foxit Reader is one of the better alternatives – select “Safe Reading Mode” in the Trust Manager section of preferences.

    Furthermore, keep all of your software and your OS updated with the latest security patches.

    I continue to use Chrome, but cautiously. If I hear my hard drive start to make noises that I’m not expecting or an unauthorized download seems to be happening, I just close the browser and restart it. Anything malicious in your browser goes away once you close it (assuming it hasn’t finished downloading something permanent on to your system).

    As you know, stopping use of Flash or PDFs will also solve your problem – but you also lose some desired functionality.

  14. Hugh
    November 21, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    Joe,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. I was not aware of any of these alternatives. I was not aware that there are other readers than Adobe. I am going to make these changes now. This is great news because a lot of the financial stuff that I like to read is in pdf form.

    Regarding browsers, I liked chrome because of its speed. However, I noticed that when I used chrome, my McAfee software was constantly notifying me that chrome was trying to access my computer. I tried blocking, and then downloading a new chrome version myself. However, it seemed like I would still get hit with viruses. I have literally spent 40+ hours over the last 5 months dealing with fixing virus problems. It has been very frustrating.

    Recently with firefox I have been having all cookies deleted every time that I close firefox. I hoped that this may help my browser and computer with their performance.

    I just came across your blog after seeing your comment on rationalwalk. I am working my way through your posts. This is good stuff.

    Thanks again,

    Hugh

  15. Hugh
    November 21, 2010 at 5:47 PM

    Joe,

    I am going to install no script and foxit reader now.

    To see flash video, I think that I will have to download flash and then use no script to decide whether the website with the flash video is safe.

    Thanks again,

  16. November 22, 2010 at 8:48 AM

    Hugh – I appreciate the feedback. I believe the current state of the internet requires far too much security savvy of individual users. And even people in the technology profession (or have a serious tech hobby) get hit with security issues. To make matters even worse, much of the security advice out there is unnecessarily complicated – to the point where many people do nothing because they are overwhelmed.

    The best material on FilterJoe is on password management, which after much study I managed to boil down to a simple phrase (to understand why this works, read How Attackers Steal Passwords):

    Use a password manager to assign unique, random 15 characters for all accounts, protecting them with a strong master password.

    Do that, in combination with Firefox/NoScript/FoxIt and a good security suite and you’re far more likely to remain free of malware and password theft than the average user. You still won’t be perfectly safe (which is impossible if you are connected to the internet), but you’ll have the equivalent protection of locked doors, an alarm system, and big barking dog at your home.

  17. Hugh
    November 22, 2010 at 10:20 AM

    Joe,

    Thanks for the informative response. This information is very helpful.

    Hugh

  18. Hugh
    November 22, 2010 at 8:59 PM

    Joe,

    I noticed from your about link, that you are a member of the value investor club. I would be interested in reading some of your articles/ideas. I have a guest account there, and I like to read about ideas there.

    Also, I noticed that you focus on socially responsible investing. I do not know much about socially responsible investing screens, but I would like to learn more. Do you have any recommendations on books? I came across this book on Amazon:

    Socially Responsible Investing : Making a Difference and Making Money by Amy Domini

    Sorry for all the off topic questions. Just to let you know where I am coming from, I am an individual investor.

    Hugh

  19. November 22, 2010 at 9:31 PM

    Hugh – I’ll reply privately via e-mail (within a few days) to keep the thread from drifting too much further afield. At some point, I’ll likely add investing content to the site, but probably not in the next few months.

  20. Hugh
    November 23, 2010 at 8:39 AM

    Thanks!

  21. February 8, 2011 at 5:39 AM

    I was previously a Firefox user and switched to Chrome and haven’t looked back. I absolutely love its speed, stability and simplicity.

  22. Johnny
    February 27, 2011 at 4:52 AM

    fiirefox always freezes on me everytime i go on it, so i have to turn my computer off. internet explore does too