image by cogdog
What you need to know about browsers
- Browser market share: each browser is slightly different in terms of how it renders sites, and of what it can render. Site programmers need to specifically test their pages with each browser to ascertain that their site will work with it - all the more if they provide more powerful or cutting edge functionality. They will test the browsers with large market share - not all the others.
- Security: browsers can be more or less secure, and may leave open cracks for malware to reach your computer. In addition, the more market share a browser has, the more likely it is to be targeted by hackers.
- Memory footprint: browsers use widely varying amounts of memory, of which you have a finite resource on your computer.
- Extensibility: some browsers allows for extensions to be added to the core of the application. In fact, many users depend upon these extensions and add-ons for their daily workflow.
What are the most significant browsers?
- Internet Explorer is known by all. Produced by Microsoft, it ships (right now) with Windows by default (although this will change in Europe soon). Because of its inherent advantage (shipping with Windows) it has had the largest market share since the demise of Netscape, that is for many years. It was a quasi monopoly for so long that, as a consequence, it ended up with little innovation for several years until it encountered some significant competition in the form of Firefox.
- Firefox has been driving competition in the browser market for several years. It is driven by an open source organization, Mozilla. Most if the innovations in the browser market have come through Firefox, and progressively shown up in other browsers. It has a strong emphasis on general architecture and extensibility.
- Chrome, Google's browser, is the latest entry in browsers,. Introduced in September 2008, it has climbed up the ranks quickly and shown interesting technologies and directions. It is the fastest growing browser today. It reserves most of its real estate to the actual site, and focuses on security and speed.
- Safari is the native Apple browser. It shows the usual Apple approach: tight, fairly closed code base, elegant user interface, rare releases. Safari is also available for Windows.
- Opera is a long time platform with an excellent track record and a small community of highly committed users.
How do they compare?
1. Market Share
image by Net Applications
Net Applications is a trusted source for browser market share, which they average across 40,000 sites in multiple countries, and approximately 160M unique visitors per month. From March 2008 to February 2010, Net Applications reports IE going from 77.4% to 61.6%, Firefox going from 17.2% to 24.2%, Chrome (not launched in March 2008) going from 0% to 5.6%, Safari (Apple's browser) going from 2.7% to 4.%, and Opera going from 1.8% to 2.4%. Based on market share, we can expect that all sites will test for IE, and most (but not all) for Firefox. Quite a few more advanced sites will not work properly for Safari or Opera (although run-of-the-mill sites should be fine).
Because of its large market, and possibly because of its architecture, IE has been traditionally targeted by hacker, and has yielded the largest number of vulnerabilities. (although, to be fair, we should add that Microsoft and NSS Labs disagree with that statement). The other browsers have not shown large numbers of security issues yet. Chrome, in particular, has been specifically architected with security in mind, and has an interesting sandbox approach to browser security (see ComputerWorld security blog here). Standard hacking competitions such as this one target browsers every year and give a vivid illustration of browser weaknesses: last year, Safari was cracked first, and Chrome was the only browser to resist hacking. Browserscope, an open source project, scores browsers in real time (for security and other things) and scores Chrome 5 tat the op in security.
Comparisons change at every release - an releases are frequent... In addition, benchmarks have shown slight differences in results. However, there is no doubt right now that Chrome and Opera are faster, that Safari and Firefox come next, and that IE trails the speed race. Check the latest benchmarks at Tom's Hardware, which gives its first Best of Tom's Hardware Browser Award ever to Chrome. You may also want to look at Lifehacker's browser performance benchmarks from January 2010.
4. Memory Footprint
We are all caught into the life cycle of daily-use computers, which means that, at any given time, about 1/3 of us will be using computers with relatively low memory, and 1/3 or us will be "just OK" (assuming 3 year life cycles). Browsers are large users of memory. If your computer is not brand new and well supplied with memory, you might be particularly interested in how well your browser conserves memory. Looking at Toms' Hardware memory tests, you quickly find out that Opera and Chrome performance are, in part, due to a very high amount of memory consumption when opening multiple tabs - IE is close behind... The big winner in memory footprint is Firefox. Lifehacker's performance tests confirm the memory consumption of multiple tabs, and discover the same issue with multiple extensions in Chrome's case, where increased security also pays a price in memory use.
Firefox has, for a long time now pioneered the use of extensions, and their extension/ add-on library is second to none. Chrome only added extensions in December 2009, but, probably because of its easy add-on process, has seen its list of available extensions grow dizzily fast, as seen on Tech Crunch. Safari and IE have significantly smaller lists, while Opera does not easily support extensions.
Conclusion: Should you Switch?
Because of the risk of compatibility issues due to low market share, it is best at this time to avoid Safari and Opera (unless you are willing to use multiple browsers to be able to access all the sites you need to go to). Extensions are now so valuable that their wide availability makes a huge difference to browser functionality, favoring Firefox and Chrome. Learning curves on all browsers are very gentle, and there is really no reason today to stay with IE.
If your computer has plenty of power and lots of memory, then Chrome will give you the best speed, and is mature enough to warrant being picked as your main browser. If, on the other hand, you are using an older computer with limited memory and power, Firefox is your natural choice, and will make you very happy.
- Chrome: new computer, lots of memory
- Firefox: old computer, short on memory