It is hard for me to think of a software war that sees more action than the browser wars. Today the browser is probably the single most important program on one’s computer. We live in a world where not having a computer connected to the Internet is unthinkable (kinda makes me wonder how I survived my first 5 years with a computer, huh mom and dad?) Yes, the browser is that indispensable window to the world that makes up most of our lives. Name one other program in your arsenal that sends as much time running as the browser.
At anytime I have about 3 browsers on my computer, and I’m constantly cycling through them as my tastes change. If I find a deficiency in one, I move to another for a time until something else arises. However, on the whole I juggle my time between Safari 5 and Chrome 10 (mostly because Safari is needed for launching my school’s VPN). RockMelt is used from time to time, though my love of the browser has waned overtime. Firefox has long been absent from my arsenal because version 3.6 is pretty slow.
So today, with the release of the much-awaited Firefox 4 that vastly improves Mozilla’s offering, I’ve decided to compile a guide to browsers. Hopefully you can all make some better-educated decisions about which programs you’ll allow on your computer. Each has their pluses and minuses that I hope to weigh in on, from UI design and utility, performance and stability, and real world convenience of design. As well, I will be running a few benchmarks to give you some quantifiable differences. Pretty graphs and everything! But don’t just look at the data, make sure to browse on and see my opinions on the real feel with each browser.
As for the Acid3 Test, all browsers save two failed to get a perfect 100/100. IE9 gets a 95, which is still markedly above IE8. Firefox manages a 97, which is really splitting hairs in real world difference against a perfect 100. RockMelt gets a 100 but failed the visual rendering test – text briefly popped up that said, “you should not see this”. Again, splitting hairs in real world performance. In all honesty, the Acid test has greatly diminished in importance as rendering engines are getting better at compensating for less that total standards compliance.
So these are the hard numbers, and while it gives a great idea of each browser’s technical abilities, this doesn’t address how each browser actually feels. And trust me, there is a difference. Every browser has a pro and a con, and so this next section will give a little bit of an idea on each browser’s appeal in the real world.
Chrome is kind of the antithesis to Safari. Leading the other fork of Webkit development, Google’s browser is all about fast releases and experimentation. We are already on Chrome 10 after two years of development. A now-rigid 6 week release schedule can be to blame for that. While the differences between versions are often trivial, it makes Chrome one of the most mature browsers on the circuit. V8 has become a powerhouse of rendering in 10, the browser is wicked fast. Instant Search and Instant Browsing also make loading webpages as you type the URL an option. You think it would be trivial, but it makes browsing much quicker. Chrome has support for GPU accelerated video and graphics, a fully sandboxed tab interface, a lot of customization with themes and web apps, which have a lot of promise. My caveat is that I struggle with Chrome because I have a bad Flash player. Whether using the integrated plug-in on the browser or the one loaded to my computer, Flash crashes without fail every time. It’s frustrating and apparently not too uncommon – a fix has not be found. Chrome is probably the fastest real world browser out there and that omnibox, jeez I’d pay for that thing on Safari.
Internet Explorer 9
IE has been the butt of Windows jokes for over a decade. IE6 was released in 2001, and then we waited 5 years for IE7, which sucked, and then almost two more years for IE8, which sucked a little less. The browser was slow, a colossal example of how to ruin UIs with extensions, and failed to support modern standards. Yet surprisingly, IE9 fixes basically all of that. It’s a good browser! The UI is remarkably minimalist, just a thin strip at the top for a URL and tabs lined next to it (an option exists to place tabs below the URL bar, do it) and it feels like a real Windows 7 application. It’s gotten a lot faster too, with the quickest (and most consistent) running of the SunSpider benchmark in my test bed. V8 seems to hate IE9 but I can say in the real world it feels drastically better than older releases. HTML5 support is here in spades, along with extensive hardware acceleration and a great process model that leverages multiple CPU cores. IE9 is not the most feature rich – that still goes to Firefox and Chrome – but like Safari for Mac users, IE9 might be the only browser you need on Windows. Fast, ubiquitous, and stable.
RockMelt is our bonus browser for this shoot out, mostly because I want to comment to the great job the team has done on improving the browser. Most of that comes from stability. RockMelt used to slow to a crawl after long up-time, probably due to memory leaks. It was terribly processor intensive as well. However, now RockMelt is far more behaved and feels very complete. The edges that aggregate information remain very useful and RockMelt has added application support that allows you to access YouTube and Tumblr from the edges. Though technically behind Chrome in performance now, RockMelt is a pretty great alternative for people who want more utility out of their program. The browser is now in Open Beta so go download it for yourself.
Alright, 5 browsers put up to the test by me, for you. Go forth readers and you decide.