My 2009, 2010, and 2011 browser comparison posts were so popular that by early 2012 they drove nearly all the traffic to this site. Several times in 2012 I began to write my fourth annual browser comparison. I did not finish. Why?
Partly, it’s because I had other projects that seemed like a better use of my time. Mostly, it’s because there wasn’t all that much to write about. Moves to a 6-week release cycle for Chrome and Firefox led to frequent incremental changes but not much change in the grand scheme of things.
Perhaps a French phrase sums it up best: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The 5 major browsers have become more alike than ever. They all display tabbed pages and run web apps quickly and competently. But there are still subtle reasons you may prefer one over another.
It’s time for another comparison.
Given how similar browsers are today, I will depart from my usual format of going into great detail for each browser. It would be repetitious, time consuming, and not particularly useful given the similarities. What you really want to know is which browser is best for you.
So don’t read this lengthy post in its entirety. Just look at the Table of Contents below and click on the sections of interest, perhaps starting with advice for everyone.
There are three sections. The first section covers browser history. The next section is the heart of this post, covering typical browser use cases. Click on those which most closely apply to you. I may add more use cases over the next few months. Finally, there is a section devoted to each browser, briefly describing what makes it unique and interesting.
Table of Contents: History
- Browser history: the early years
- Browser history: the golden years
- Browser history: 2012 to the present
Table of Contents: Use Cases
- Browser advice for everyone
- Browser speed comments
- I am a basic user with simple browsing needs—I usually have 5 or fewer tabs open
- I use old hardware or an old operating system
- I routinely use more than 10 tabs
- I want to use the same browser on any device and/or synchronize my browser data across all my devices
- I want to be able to change how the browser works to suit my preferences
Table of Contents: Browsers
Browser history: the early years
Netscape Navigator was the first widely adopted browser. Launched in 1994, it quickly attained dominant market share and was largely responsible for making the Internet accessible to the masses. Not long after, Microsoft began to compete with Internet Explorer (IE). Microsoft devoted substantial resources to improving IE and began bundling (and integrating) it with Windows, causing the market share of IE to rise from about 10% in 1996 to majority in 1999, to dominant by 2000. The end result was IE 6.0, released in 2001. Having attained dominant share, Microsoft stopped innovating and did not release IE 7.0 until late 2006.
During the years 2001-2006, innovative browser competition sprung up, along with web standards to make it easier for web developers to create sites that worked on all browsers. IE 6.0 did not adhere to these standards.
Mozilla Firefox gained more market share than all of the other new entrants combined, attaining 10% share some time in 2004 and over 20% by the end of 2006. Power users loved its flexibility and encouraged others to adopt Firefox. Opera was another browser that enjoyed some success, though market share always remained below 3%. Apple included a Safari browser with Mac OS X systems starting in late 2003, attaining market share commensurate with Mac OS X market share (less than 5% during those years).
By the end of 2006, Netscape was essentially gone. The four major browsers were IE 6, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.
The continuing evolution of web technology and web standards encouraged developers to make ever more complex web sites. Some of them began to resemble simplified versions of desktop applications, such as Gmail, a web interface to replace the desktop email client (launched 2004). While interesting in concept, many users become frustrated at the ever slower loading of web pages despite ever faster broadband speeds and computer hardware. Browsers were not yet well-suited to web apps.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer market share rapidly declined. Many developers began dropping support for non-standards compliant IE 6, which was also unbearably slow and riddled with security issues. IE 7 was an improvement, but still greatly lagged the competition in speed, standards compliance, security, and features. IE 8 was released in March of 2009. By then, IE barely had majority market share and had a rapidly declining reputation.
Browser history: the golden years
The years 2008-2011 were a fertile time for desktop browser innovation. Google Chrome was arguably the sparkplug, but Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera rapidly improved in response.
Google launched fast, minimalistic Chrome and updated automatically every 6 weeks, gobbling up market share as it added critical features that it lacked at first. Opera included ever more useful, innovative features into the browser without sacrificing speed. Firefox became fast and memory efficient, modernized its interface, switched to a six-week update cycle, and continued to maintain a rich library of add-ons. Distraction-free reading became possible with bookmarklets—or in Safari’s case a built-in feature. Internet Explorer managed to stop being terrible, and Microsoft did everything it could to get users to stop using crippled IE 6.
Best of all, browsers kept leapfrogging over each other to get faster.
I found all this innovation exciting. Once each year, I compared and contrasted the 5 major desktop browsers and always had major changes to report.
Browser history: 2012 to the present
In 2012, not much changed, other than continued speed increases (especially Firefox, which also became much more memory efficient). In 2013, Opera abandoned much of its code base in favor of Google Chrome’s open source code base, Chromium. Opera thus became much more like Chrome. Other than that, most changes have been incremental, with continued emphasis on increasing speed. A new feature that proves very popular with one browser often makes its way to other browsers within a year or two.
So, the differences between all five of (the latest versions of) the major desktop browsers today are not as great as they were in 2008. All have tabs. They are all so fast that speed is no longer a distinguishing feature. They are all more or less standards compliant. They all work with the vast majority of web sites. Since 2011, the greatest browser innovation has occurred on smartphones and tablets, not computers.
One benefit of the sameness in desktop browsers is that it is not as difficult as it used to be to adapt to a new browser after switching. An even bigger benefit is that there is less reason to switch at all. If the browser you use does not have a particular feature that is very popular on another browser, there’s a good chance that feature will eventually make it to your browser, or perhaps it already exists as an extension.
Browser advice for everyone
Before you spend much time researching and deciding which browser is best for you, consider first following suggestions that apply to almost everyone:
- Whichever browser you use, keep it updated to the latest version. This helps with speed, security, reliability, and compatibility. Luckily, all five of the major browsers update automatically, though Safari and IE only update to most recent versions if you have recent versions of the operating system. Those of you with many add-ons may want to delay upgrades a month or two to wait for your add-ons to be updated.
- Don’t use the password manager built into your browsers. Stand-alone password managers are much safer, easier to use, and allow you to use your passwords anywhere.
- If satisfied with your current browser, keep using (and updating) it. Although the 5 major browsers all look, feel, and work similarly, it takes time to learn many little details such as how to change a certain setting, which add-ons meet your needs, etc. Except . . .
- Stop using versions of Internet Explorer (IE) before IE 9. Older versions of IE are far behind the competition in speed, features, security, usability, and standards compliance. IE 9 requires Vista or higher, while IE 10 and IE 11 both require Windows 7 or higher. Also, Microsoft announced in January 2015 that it will be abandoning further development of the Internet Explorer browser line, in favor of a brand new, and very different, browser to be launched by the end of 2015. Expect security updates for Internet Explorer, but little else.
- If you are still using Windows XP, switch to Firefox, the only one of the 5 major browsers to continue offering the latest version of its browser for XP after April 2015.
- If you’re thinking about switching to another browser from Opera, Chrome, or Firefox, first consider if there’s a way to make your current browser work better for you with add-ons or themes, especially if there’s only one or two “pain points.” Or if your browser has become unbearably slow, search the web for how to solve your speed issue. Generally, a brand new installation of (the latest version of) any of the five major browsers with fewer than 5 tabs open will run plenty fast.
- If you still want to switch browsers, consider Firefox, Chrome, and Opera before considering Safari or IE. Safari is only available on devices with Apple operating systems, while IE is available only on Microsoft Windows systems. Furthermore, both Microsoft and Apple make their newest browser versions available only on newer versions of their operating systems. With Firefox, Chrome, and Opera you’ll be able to use the latest version of the browser on a wide variety of operating systems and hardware, both new and old.
When I consider most typical use cases, Internet Explorer or Safari are rarely the best browser option. The main reason they are as popular as they are is that many people use the default browser bundled with their computer.
Browser speed comments
Unless you are using older hardware (pre-2009 computers or Atom-based Windows netbooks), you should find any of the major browsers sufficiently fast. Several web sites routinely benchmark browsers. In past articles I’ve linked to these tests, but in recent years the results have been so close that it no longer makes sense to choose a browser based on the results of synthetic speed benchmarks.
There are at least two use-specific exceptions:
- If you like having one or more inexpensive netbooks around the house, and you already have a Google login for Gmail or some other Google service, then get a Chromebook. You’ll get a very fast Chrome browser despite slow hardware. Windows-based netbooks run browsers more slowly, no matter which browser you use, because the operating system is slower. This is because Chromebooks are optimized from the ground up to be fast at running the Chrome browser. See my Acer Chomebook c720 post for more detail.
- If you frequently open your browser with 10 or more tabs saved from a prior session, then delayed tab loading will have a huge impact. All tabs are visible when starting the browser, but only the active tab is loaded, so that the browser can start in seconds instead of minutes. Firefox and Opera have this feature built in, and it can be enabled in Chrome with extensions. For more information on this, see I routinely use more than 10 tabs.
I am a basic user with simple browsing needs—I usually have 5 or fewer tabs open
Although much browser advice is written by “power users,” the majority of users use browsers to email, socialize, keep up with news, plan outings, and find answers to obscure questions—and not much else. Basic users typically don’t use a browser for more than a few hours each week.
If you fit in to this category, then chances are you use the browser that came with your computer and have little interest in learning new software or tinkering with your computer.
There’s only one reason for you to consider switching to another browser: safety. If your browser is kept up-to-date automatically, then many browser security issues are automatically fixed. Unfortunately, IE and Safari are only kept up-to-date automatically if you’re using a relatively recent version of your operating system.
If you’re a Mac user you’re probably using Safari. It’s a fine browser and I know some basic users who are happy with it. Unfortunately, Apple updates its operating system annually, and expects its users to stay up-to-date. Many basic users are not keen to experience the aggravation and complexity of updating their Mac to the latest version of Mac OS X and simply won’t do it unless there’s a tech savvy relative to do it for them. For those of you using Safari 6.2 or higher, you will continue to receive security updates. But (as of January 2014) if you’re using OS X 10.7 or earlier, then Safari can no longer be updated. I suspect that OS X 10.8 will receive Safari updates for at most another 9 months. Chrome, Opera, and Firefox continue to support OS X 10.6.
If you are one of those people who rarely or never upgrades your Mac OS X, then you are much less likely to get hacked if you use Google Chrome, which will keep self-updating automatically for a longer period of time than Safari. Once you download and install Chrome, it’s no more difficult to use than Safari. The same could be said for the Opera browser, even though it is less well known, as it is almost the same as Chrome. While Firefox is a fine browser, it has more options and complexity. You’re more likely to have a simpler experience with Chrome or Opera.
Windows users are in a similar situation. Older versions of Windows won’t update you to the latest version of Internet Explorer. If you have Windows Vista or earlier, you will benefit from a switch to Chrome or Opera. However, if you have Windows 7 or Windows 8 and are happy with Internet Explorer, Microsoft makes the latest versions of IE available for such systems, so there’s little incentive to switch.
I use old hardware or an old operating system
My first browser comparison post in 2009 was primarily a guide to the best browsers to use on older hardware. At the time I was still using Windows XP, and my wife was using an ancient version of Mac OS X. I have a problem with how consumers are practically required to get a new computer every 3-5 years and am always interested in ways to prolong the life of old hardware. Consumers are in luck. Browsers on older systems have been running ever faster since 2009.
The best browser for older systems depended on a variety of factors in 2009. In 2015 the answer is simple: Firefox.
The latests versions of Internet Explorer and Safari are only offered on more recent versions of the operating system. Chrome and Opera are supported on older hardware to a larger extent, but support for Chrome and Opera on Windows XP is promised through April 2015. It’s unclear what will happen after that date. Despite its age, Windows XP still has significant market share and many Windows XP systems have 1GB of RAM.
Firefox is the most memory efficient browser when many tabs are open. Firefox recommends at least 512MB of RAM and 200MB of hard drive space, which is a modest requirement. While some other browsers such as Chrome list that same 512MB minimum, this only works with no more than 2 or 3 tabs. As more tabs are opened, Chrome and Opera spawn a brand new process for each tab. While spawning a new process offers security and crash resistance advantages, it uses more memory. Firefox very comfortably operates with 1GB of RAM and many open tabs, which is not the case for Chrome or Opera.
All browsers, including Firefox, drop support for older versions of Mac OS X when the market share becomes minuscule. But Safari drops its support for older versions of OS X faster than Chrome, Opera, or Firefox.
I routinely use more than 10 tabs
Most studies show that only a few percent of users routinely keep 10 or more tabs open in the browser. I happen to be one of them. We’re a demanding bunch. How browsers handle many open tabs is possibly the single biggest factor that has caused me to switch browsers over the years.
Firefox is easily the best browser for handling many tabs, as it has tab grouping and delayed tab loading built-in. If you don’t like the way freshly installed Firefox handles tabs, there are numerous add-ons that allow you to customize Firefox in almost any way you can imagine. But even freshly installed Firefox has better tab handling features than the other four major browsers.
The most important feature is “delayed tab loading,” which is enabled by default. Try opening 25 tabs on your browser. Close your browser, then open it again. In Chrome, IE, or Safari, it will take minutes to open. In Firefox or Opera, it will take seconds. With delayed tab loading, only one tab loads, even though the tabs for all other sites are visible. The drawback is that there will be a several-second delay the first time you click on one of the unloaded tabs. But this is a small price to pay, compared to having to wait a few minutes to open the browser initially.
I like knowing which tabs are loaded and which are not, and I don’t like to be distracted by all my open tabs. Until recently, my solution was to use Colorful Tabs. It colors tabs which are loaded (I choose “Generate Colors by Domain Hostname” so that, for example, all google.com tabs are colored the same). It “fades” all tabs that are currently not selected. I choose fade level 5. Depending on your monitor and desktop background, it may work better with a very light or transparent theme. I just began using a simpler solution, BarTab Lite X. It accomplishes the same thing, but without colors or changing how tabs look. BarTab also lets you unload one specific tab by right clicking, then selecting Unload Tab.
It is possible to add delayed tab loading to Chrome as well, by using extensions such as Tabs Outliner or a combination of The Great Suspender and Session Buddy. However, I don’t find using Chrome to be as simple or convenient as Firefox to manage tabs, and therefore I use it without these extensions, trying to keep fewer than 10 tabs open.
For those who routinely keep dozens or even hundreds of tabs open at a time, organizing tabs into some kind of hierarchy becomes essential. Firefox’s built-in tab grouping feature is one possibility. Another is to use an extension that organizes tabs hierarchically, such as the popular Tree-style Tab add-on.
A lifehacker post on managing many tabs has additional ideas.
I am under the impression that some browser makers don’t think supporting many open tabs is an important priority, because such a small percentage of browser users keep more than 10 tabs open at a time. However, I suspect that more people would use large numbers of tabs, if browser support for this were improved.
I want to use the same browser on any device and/or synchronize my browser data across all my devices
As of 2015, Google Chrome is roughly tied with Opera for the most ubiquitous browser. I personally don’t see much advantage to using the same browser on every device. I much prefer Google’s Chrome browser on my iPhone to the bundled Safari browser, while I prefer Firefox on Windows. Independent browser data syncing software such as Xmarks can keep bookmarks in sync, which makes me wonder if there’s any advantage to using the same browser on every device. Nonetheless, here are the details about which browsers work on the greatest variety of platforms:
Chrome runs on Windows, Max OS X, Linux, and Chrome OS. Other than attempts to blend in colors and styling with the operating system, you’ll be hard pressed to find much difference between the versions of Chrome on these different platforms.
Chrome has many more versions on handheld devices, and these are necessarily different due to the smaller form factors. Chrome is not limited to Android smartphones and tablets. It can also be found on iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches as well. Google also makes it straightforward to sync bookmarks, history, apps, and extensions across your devices. For Android device users (and to a lesser extent, iOS users), Google Chrome also offers the advantage of tight integration with other Google apps.
Opera runs desktop versions on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Several mobile versions of Opera are also available on a wide variety of smartphones and feature phones. The mobile versions are different from desktop versions and different from each other. However, all mobile Opera browsers can sync browser data across devices using Opera Link. Opera is actually more well known for its mobile browsers than its desktop browsers.
I’m not going to test every version of each of these browsers on every possible device, so it doesn’t make sense for me to discuss the pros and cons of Opera vs. Chrome. But clearly they are the two leaders in terms of getting their browser brand name onto the widest variety of devices.
For those who own nothing but Apple devices, Safari runs on pretty much every Apple device. Similarly, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer runs on Windows hardware, including the Xbox.
While Firefox runs on a wide variety of computer hardware, including older hardware, it currently has a mobile offering only for Android devices.
I want to be able to change how the browser works to suit my preferences
Firefox has long been king when it comes to flexibility. It has a very extensive ecosystem of add-ons, with thousands of extensions able to modify a wide variety of Firefox behaviors. Firefox also allows users to delve into many low-level settings using about:config (at your peril). Even settings for regular users are more diverse than they are on other browsers. For example, users may reconfigure what appears in various bars and in what order.
Chrome (and Opera, which can use Chrome extensions if this add-on is installed) also offers flexibility. Like Firefox, Chrome has thousands of add-ons and allows adventurous users to change low-level settings using chrome://flags, or more generally chrome://about. However, Google designers purposely created stricter limits than Firefox on what extensions can do and what kinds of settings can be changed, in order to retain more control over the user interface and, more importantly, keep the browser more secure. In addition to being a desktop browser, Chrome is the desktop operating system interface for Chromebooks and Chromeboxes, so Google needs to keep users from doing anything that would decrease security or cripple usability.
I have experimented quite a bit with various extensions over the years. I’m not going to detail all of my explorations here, but will just summarize. While Firefox, Opera, and Chrome all offer substantial flexibility to power users, the quality and range of choices available for Firefox are tops among the five major browsers.
Internet Explorer and Safari, on the other hand, are hardly worth considering if changing browser behavior is something you find important. They do both support add-ons, but the breadth and depth of offerings pales in comparison to what can be found for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera.
Each browser has its own identity. With all the time I’ve spent exploring browsers over the years, I figure it’s worth sharing my take on that. So, in alphabetical order, I describe what makes each browser unique and interesting.
Chrome was designed from the ground up to serve as a platform for web apps, emphasizing a minimal interface and an underlying architecture more similar to an operating system than a piece of software. It succeeded. By making web apps so much more viable, the quantity and quality of web apps blossomed, so much so that other browser makers have had to scramble to provide the same support. They have largely succeeded. However, Chrome still enjoys a reputation as the web app leader, and most especially with regards to Google’s own web apps.
Chrome shines best when running on a Chromebook or Chromebox using Chrome OS, an operating system optimized for running the Chrome browser. For about $200, one can purchase a laptop that boots in seconds into the Chrome browser, and operates faster than most browser setups on much more expensive Windows or Mac systems. The dream of an inexpensive net appliance that relies on cloud services has been around since the late 1990s and was revived by Asus in 2007 in the form of EEE PC netbooks. But such systems always had severe compromises—until Google finally did it right with Chromebooks, using the Chrome browser. See my post, Acer c720 Chromebook: Netbook Dream Becomes Reality, for more detail.
Firefox has developed a reputation as the most flexible and customizable browser thanks to its vast and varied collection of add-ons. In my experience, this reputation is warranted, though other browsers offer customization as well, most notably Chrome and Opera.
Firefox should also be praised for always making its latest version available on a wider variety of computers than the competition, including older operating systems and hardware. For example, with many tabs open, Firefox performs well on a Window XP system with 1GB RAM. The same cannot be said of the other browsers.
IE is the default browser for Windows. While all browsers choose colors and styles to blend well with each different operating system, no browser blends better with Windows than Internet Explorer 11. For example, the Windows taskbar that is so central to using Windows now offers slick previews of any IE tab, as well as the ability to pin a tab to the taskbar. IE also does well under the hood, for example taking nice advantage of graphics hardware acceleration.
For many years, Internet Explorer lagged far behind the other 4 major browsers in terms of speed, security, and standards compliance, and therefore developed a poor reputation. This reputation is no longer deserved.
However, IE 11 does still have one major outstanding issue. It’s not always available. Not only are Mac and Linux users excluded, but even Windows XP or Vista users can’t use this latest version of IE.
Despite market share which has usually hovered around 1%, Opera used to be characterized as the most innovative of the browser makers, bundling a number of interesting features without sacrificing speed. Other browser makers would adopt the most popular of these experimental features. Opera appealed mostly to power users.
All that changed in May 2013, when Opera 15 was released. Version 15 and all subsequent versions are based on the Chromium code base, which Google uses for the Chrome browser. On the plus side, this means that Opera is now compatible with a higher percentage of sites and has access to Chrome’s extensions. On the minus side, Opera simplified the interface, dropping many of its most interesting and unique features.
The changes to Opera appeal to a different type of user. The jury is still out on whether these changes were a good move. The way I now think of Opera’s identity is “alternative flavor of Chrome.”
Opera loyalists were disappointed with this change, inspiring ex-Opera CEO Jon Von Tetzchner and his team to create Vivaldi. This browser, still under development, is designed to appeal to power users and has some features from Opera 12.
I downloaded Opera for the first time in 3 years and was quite surprised to find that I like Opera’s take on Chromium better than Google Chrome. It felt snappier, particularly when starting with many tabs open (when the delayed tab loading feature is enabled). I also slightly prefer Opera’s look and feel.
For those who like Chrome but are concerned that Google has far too much access to their information, Opera may be the perfect answer. You get to experience pretty much everything good about Chrome, minus the sharing (who knows what) with Google.
I don’t use Mac systems regularly, Safari is no longer maintained for Windows, and I can’t use the latest version of Safari on my wife’s Mac because she doesn’t have the latest version of OS X installed. So unfortunately, my experience with this browser is minimal and mostly based on impressions from extensive testing I did a few years ago, and comments from people I know who use it. That already says a lot about the latest version of Safari. Hardly anyone has the option to use it.
That caveat aside, Safari is the default browser for Mac OS X. Apple strives for aesthetics and simplicity in Mac OS X, and by extension Safari.
Simplicity is pushed even further in Safari 8, with the browser adopting cues from phone browsers, including dropping the title bar and simplifying the display of URLs to merely the top-level domain.
The simplification I appreciate more than any other is “reader view,” a feature which has been present for several years on both mobile and desktop Safari. It rids a page of everything except a very readable view of the main text. Other browsers require a bookmarklet or extension to enable this functionality.
When I read reviews of Safari from those who do have access to this latest version, I’m not seeing a lot of enthusiasm. But then again, most such reviews are written by power users.
A basic Safari user I interviewed recently sounded largely satisfied with Safari, especially since the latest version corrected problems he had using bookmarks in prior versions, where Apple had pushed an aesthetic at the cost of usability.
I would love to hear additional impressions in comments below from basic users, presumably Safari’s intended audience.
Conclusion: Which browser is best overall?
In my 2010 and 2011 browser reviews, I graded Chrome, Firefox, and Opera above IE and Safari. I continue to feel in 2015 that most users are better off using one of these three browsers. It mostly boils down to one simple reason: You can use Chrome, Firefox, or Opera on almost any computer.
Apple did make a half-hearted attempt to make Safari available for Windows, but the Windows version is no longer being maintained. So Safari is only maintained for relatively recent versions of Max OS X (and the latest Safari version only with the latest OS X version), while IE 11 only works on Windows 7 or 8. Furthermore, neither Safari nor IE has attracted anywhere near as much add-on development as the other three.
Which browser is best among Chrome, Firefox, and Opera? All three are good, and can be used on a wide variety of systems. So it will often boil down to minor differences that happen to be important to you. That’s why this guide is organized the way it is.
If you’re already using one of these three browsers and mostly happy with it, then you’re better off learning how to use it better. That may even be your best option if using IE or Safari. Research how to overcome any minor irritation you might have rather than switching to a new browser in hopes of a better experience. Browsers are so similar these days, it’s usually not worth the cost of switching.