Best Upgrade? The Browser . . . Five Browsers Compared

The best upgrade you’ll ever make? It’s not a new computer. It’s not an operating system upgrade. It’s a browser.

NOTE: In 2015 I posted a more current comparison of the latest browser versions, Best Browsers . . .

Most individuals access the web using the browser initially bundled with their computer, and typically don’t update it. Accessing the information superhighway with an outdated browser is like driving today’s roads with a Model T—slow, unsafe, unreliable, and in many places not usable at all.

How Old is Your Browser?

In this post, I explain why it’s so important to use the latest version of Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Safari—speed, security, reliability, and compatibility. I describe each of these browsers, to help you decide which is best for you. And I lay the groundwork for the next post on cloud computing.

The Browser Upgrade

In general, I’m not very keen on upgrades. Upgrading software and especially operating systems can lead to reduced speed, more bugs, compatibility issues, or the need to purchase a new computer altogether. There may be some enticing new features, but far too often the costs and learning required outweigh the benefits, which is why many people postpone upgrades as long as possible.

Fortunately, with modern browsers, the benefits of upgrading are numerous, while the costs and hassles are few. Major browser upgrades can cause some add-ons to stop working and there may be some learning required to get used to a changed interface. But the learning required is usually modest and the most popular add-ons are typically upgraded in time for a new browser release.

At the time of this writing, there are 5 well maintained browsers with over 0.5% market share. The latest versions of these browsers are:

  • Firefox 3.0.x
  • Opera 9.6x
  • Internet Explorer 8 (IE8)
  • Google Chrome 1.0.x
  • Safari 3.2.x

Upgrading your browser provides increased speed, security, stability, and compatibility, as follows:

Speed

You can see the speed tests for yourself, here. Or you can subjectively experience how upgrading from Internet Explorer 6 or 7 to a recent browser release feels like getting a newer, faster computer. You can even give a second life to an older computer. I did this recently by installing Opera 9.64 on a 10-year old Dell running Windows 98. It’s fast again!

Security

According to Wikipedia, Web-based vulnerabilities now outnumber traditional computer security concerns, and about one in ten Web pages may contain malicious code. Most Web-based attacks take place on legitimate websites.

Browsers are updated frequently to patch discovered vulnerabilities. Keeping your browser (and operating system) updated is the first and most important step to keeping your system and data secure.

Stability

Older browsers crash more frequently than modern browsers. The multi-process architecture in Google Chrome and IE8 means that a single tab freezing up or crashing has no impact on other tabs—making these two browsers more reliable than the others. Though Firefox is theoretically less reliable, my extensive use of Firefox results in two to four crashes per month, usually when opening a large, in-line PDF file. Older versions of Firefox crash more frequently.

Compatibility

Web standards have evolved over time to support greater speed, more sophisticated capabilities, and easier maintenance for web sites. On older browsers, if a web site looks strange or doesn’t work at all, it is usually because the web site is using techniques that were not possible using older standards. None of the 5 major browsers fully comply with the stringent acid3 standards test. However, the Safari and Opera versions expected later this year will comply with acid3, and the current versions of all 5 browsers display the vast majority of modern web sites properly.

Browser Market Share

According to Net Applications, world wide market share for browsers in March, 2009, was:

  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 66.8%
  • Mozilla Firefox 22.1%
  • Apple Safari 8.2%
  • Google Chrome 1.2%
  • Opera 0.7%

The more popular browsers benefit from greater web site compatibility testing and a well developed ecosystem of add-ons and plug-ins.  For example:  Chrome or Opera users are currently not able to use the 1Password and Roboform password managers (which I’ll be highlighting in a future post).

However, obscurity confers a security benefit to Opera and Chrome.  According to this report, “they are targeted by attackers far less frequently due to market share.”

Differences among the 5 Major Browsers

In this section, I highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each browser. If you need more than this brief overview to decide which browser is best for you, the following links provide more information:

Which browser is right for you?

Maximum PC Browser Battle: Nine Browsers of Today and Tomorrow Compared

Hardware Zone: Browser Wars Showdown

Lifehacker:  Browser Speed Tests

Wikipedia:  Comparison of Browsers

The browsers are presented in order of my personal preference, but all 5 are excellent when kept up-to-date and are likely to be supported and upgraded for years to come.

1. Firefox 3.0.9

A library of thousands of high quality add-ons makes Firefox the most customizable browser. When first installed, Firefox is not as fast, as secure, nor as feature-packed as its competition. But it is fast enough.  With just a few extensions, Firefox becomes more secure, innovative, and customizable than all other browsers by a long shot. Firefox’s availability on Windows, Mac, and Linux allows you to have a similar browsing experience on any machine, regardless of operating system.

Major Upgrade: Firefox version 3.5 is expected by July 2009. It will be much faster at running complex web applications.

2. Opera 9.64

Feature-packed, compliant, secure, extensible, yet fast and small—Opera is a better choice than Firefox for the person who will never install an extension. Opera supports the widest variety of operating systems, including many cell phones with an Opera Mini version. It’s the only major browser still supported for Windows 95 and 98. Opera’s interface makes customization easy yet gets out of your way when you need it to. Opera’s small market share means far fewer add-ons, but also fewer security threats (See Market Share, above).

Major Upgrade: Opera 10 is expected by the end of 2009. It will be much faster at running complex web applications.

3. Internet Explorer 8 (IE8)

IE has always been bundled with the Windows operating system, and that is the primary reason it has been the most popular browser over the past 15 years. Prior to 2009, nearly all versions of IE were slower, much less secure, less web-standards-compliant, less extensible, and less innovative than the competition—which is why Firefox was able to gain over 20% market share. However, IE8 (which Microsoft released in March 2009) catches up to, and in some ways surpasses the competition. It is secure, stable, compliant, fast enough, and innovative. Slices, accelerators, and site suggestions are new features which access information like maps or definitions with fewer clicks and keystrokes. Microsoft only supports IE8 for Windows desktop versions XP, Vista and 7, and for Windows Server versions 2003 and 2008.

Major Upgrade: Users of any IE version prior to IE8 should immediately upgrade to IE8 or switch to another browser in order to experience greatly increased speed, reduced security risks, and numerous other benefits. Microsoft has not yet announced plans for a major new release beyond IE8, which was released March 2009.

4. Google Chrome

Only 8 months old, this browser is very fast, secure, reliable, and has little interface clutter—which makes it ideal for running web applications heavy in JavaScript (such as Google’s sites). Speed is not a compelling enough reason for users of Firefox 3.0.x, Opera 9.6.4, or IE8 to switch to Chrome, which currently only works on Windows (XP and Vista), lacks a number of common browser features (including full screen mode), and has a very small library of extensions. Given Google’s strong commitment to Chrome, an underlying design optimized for web applications, and a number of new features and add-ons coming soon, Chrome may rapidly gain market share after version 2.0 is released.

Major Upgrade: Version 2.0 (available for beta testing, release date unknown) will be faster and will adopt many features users miss from other browsers (included F11 for full screen mode). Macintosh and Linux versions are under development.

5. Safari 3.2.x

Safari is bundled with Macintosh computers running OS X, and has been gaining market share in proportion to the market share gains of Macintosh computers. It is fast, has an attractive, Mac-like interface, and now runs on Windows (XP and Vista) as well. However, Safari 3.2.x is less flexible, less extensible, and less secure than the other two major browsers available for Macs (Firefox and Opera). It also offers less control over appearance. Though Apple does not actively promote add-ons for Safari, there are actually a number of plug-ins available that provide additional features. For example, full screen mode and many other features are added with Saft and Glims.

Note: The multi-touch version of Safari that runs on the iPhone and iPod Touch is by far the best browser for a handheld device, but is beyond the scope of this post. The Apple Tablet rumored to be released at the end of 2009 will almost surely run a similarly impressive multi-touch version of Safari—and may well become the browser/hardware combination of choice for reading.

Major Upgrade: Safari 4.0 is expected by the end of 2009. It is more secure, 100% compliant with new web standards, and runs complex web applications extremely fast. Apple is currently pushing the seemingly stable 4.0 beta version on its web site. If you intend to stick with Safari, I suggest you upgrade soon to the Safari 4.0 beta (here). The two plug-ins I mentioned above (Saft and Glims) are compatible with Safari 4.0.

The 6th browser:  iCab 3.0.5 for Mac OS 8 or 9

None of the major browsers are maintained for Mac OS 8 or 9, as virtually all Mac users have migrated to newer computers running Max OS X.  iCab 3.0.5 ($25) is the only option.  You can learn more by visiting iCab’s web site. I learned of iCab from a comprehensive listing of all Mac web browsers, here.

Last Words

My next two posts will be on the topics of cloud computing and password security. To safely use the web for any purpose, an up-to-date browser is required.

IBM reported that 637 million users surf the web with an insecure, out-of-date browser (July 2008). Net Applications reported worldwide market share of 46.5% for IE7 and 18.4% for IE6 (March 2009). IE7 and IE6 are less secure and less functional than any of the 5 browsers featured in this post. So spread the word to anyone you know who uses an older browser: Upgrade!

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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