The ubiquitous Microsoft Internet Explorer seems to have been around, in its various incarnations, forever and, perhaps because it comes with Microsoft Windows, it’s held the number one slot for web browsers for a while too. However, recent years have seen the rise of a whole gaggle of competitors to IE’s crown, all of which claim to be better than the Microsoft offering, and each other.
Firstly, it needs to be said that there is, and always has been, a great deal of product loyalty when it comes to software. Much akin to the eternal arguments about Pcs Vs. Macs, Windows Vs. Linux etc, these are arguments which you just can’t win, as some people who have been using one or the other for years, aren’t interested in the virtues of anything else; however, it’s worth knowing that, whilst IE has been around forever, and is still the most commonly used web browser, the competition, three of the most popular of which we will look at here, is, in many ways, much better.
Google Chrome (current version 9.0), is Google’s contender for the web browser crown and perhaps the most well known amongst IE’s competitors, mainly because of Google’s high internet profile and, although its the new kid on the block, it already has a large following. Mozilla Firefox (current version 3.6), is probably IE’s most longstanding competitor, Firefox, also an open source browser, has been around for a while and is fiercely upheld by it’s loyal user base as being the best of the rest and Opera (current version 11.01), is also an open source web browser, with its own loyal band of supporters.
Probably the aspects of a web browser which are those most likely to concern the average user are the interface and its ease of use, ease of access to commonly used features, speed and stability.
Interface & Ease of Use
One of the things which strikes me, particularly when using another computer, is the amazing range of toolbars one can collect. A friend’s computer I saw recently had no fewer than three additional toolbars; MSN, Yahoo and Google’s, accompanying the title, navigation/url/search, standard menu and tabs bars, leaving barely a few inches of viewable webpage on her small, laptop monitor. It should go without saying then, certainly as far as I am concerned, that less is more when it comes to web browsers. The idea being that their sole purpose is to allow you to access the internet with the minimum of fuss and not to fill your screen with lots of its own unnecessary fluff.
Chrome’s interface immediately strikes you as clean and uncluttered; first, there’s no title bar, Google apparently trusting that most people will remember which program they’re using, tabs are located at the very top of the window, handy if you’re constantly jumping from one tab to the next, beneath which lies the multi-purpose navigation/url/search bar, and beneath that, should you desire, is the bookmarks toolbar, which can easily be closed on the right-click context menu if you require more space for viewing web pages. There’s also no status bar at the bottom, as with IE, and notifications on progress appear, semi-transparently, at the bottom of the web page being viewed.
The Firefox front end is reminiscent of Microsoft Internet Explorer, with a title bar, navigation/url/search bar, bookmarks bar, tabs bar, status bar at the bottom of the window and, on first running, a notification that Firefox is free, open source software. Firefox offered, during installation, to import my bookmarks/favourites from IE and Opera, but not from Chrome, which is my default browser.
Opera’s interface looks much like Chrome, but somewhat cleaner and more attractive. There’s a title bar, underneath which is the menu button, which lies alongside the tabs bar, and then the navigation/url/search bar. There’s also a status bar at the bottom of the window, where access to other features is available via additional icons. One nice feature is the tab thumbnail view, which shows a thumbnail of the hidden page when the mouse pointer is hovered over a tab, though if you prefer not, this feature is easily disabled in the menu.
As far as user interface goes, then, there’s little to choose between them. Firefox certainly appears more like IE, whereas Chrome and Opera look quite similar. Opera’s interface is certainly more appealing to look at compared to Chrome’s slightly utilitarian look and Firefox’s more traditional approach. There also appears to be more options to customise the look of Opera, with a couple of skins available initially, and more to download, though Chrome also has many themes to change the look slightly.
Based on my criteria of less is more, I’d have to say that Opera comes out on top, followed by Chrome then Firefox.
Ease of Access to Commonly Used Features
Navigation back and forth in all three browsers achieved by the right and left arrows to the left of the navigation/url window next to the refresh tool; in Chrome and Opera, labouring a click briefly on either button brings up the list of pages previously visited, whereas Firefox has an adjacent drop down menu button.
Firefox and Chrome employ similar methods for adding a bookmark; to the right of the navigation/url window is found the add Bookmark star, which, when clicked on, automatically adds a bookmark for the current page to your bookmarks list. You have an opportunity to edit the entry and its location in the requester which appears, any bookmarks saved in the bookmarks root folder, automatically being added to the bookmarks bar at the top. By editing the name, it’s possible to fit many of your most frequently visited sites on the bookmarks bar for faster navigation. The bookmarks toolbar in Firefox and Chrome can easily be hidden or, in Firefox, unhidden via the toolbar right-click context menu; Chrome’s bookmarks bar, if hidden, is re-enabled via the tools sub-menu on the tools menu. Adding a bookmark in Opera, the bookmarks bar of which is hidden by default, is achieved by the right-click context menu, or the main menu at the top, which opens a requester where you can edit the entry or choose it’s location. Other bookmarks, those not on the bookmarks bars, are accessible via the menus on all the browsers. Opening a new tab in Chrome reveals a page of thumbnails of your most visited pages.
Chrome uses a single url/search window i.e., the default search engine is accessed by typing the search term into the url window, which usually displays the url of the current page. I’m not entirely convinced that this system offers any advantages over the separate search window adjacent to the url window, such as is used in Firefox and Opera, the search provider being selected from a drop down menu, which includes some of the most well known search engines, and those from a few popular sites such as Ebay and Wikipedia.
The menus on each browser are where some of the less commonly used features are accessed. Ideally, one would expect to see the most commonly accessed features on the root menu, with less necessary features being out of the way on sub-menus and, both Chrome and Opera have one menu, where all the most commonly accessed features are immediately available with a single click, more sub-menus being used by Opera, whereas Firefox’s more traditional menu system consists of seven menus.
It should be said that, as far as most users are concerned, they aren’t looking for a plethora of options, and there’s really nothing more frustrating than having to search through sub-menu after sub-menu or umpteen options to find what you’re looking for. On that basis, Chrome’s menu is very accessible, the root menu consisting of all the most frequently accessed features and only one sub-menu, followed by Opera’s single menu, which, although having many sub-menus, has been well planned and, again, attractive to look at, then Firefox’s more traditional menu system.
One of the complaints frequently leveled at web browsers, in particular IE, is its speed, or more accurately, its lack of. Again, as far as most users are concerned, this is the most important aspect, as even more frustrating than looking for a feature hidden in the menus, is sitting and waiting for a page to load.
Of course there are many variables to consider, only one of which is the browser itself. The type and speed of your connection and internet traffic etc are likely to have a greater effect on how quickly pages are displayed than the browser has. If you’re also using other programs alongside the browser, then they can also have an effect on speed, particularly if your system resources are low.
However, switching between each browser, opening tabs and loading differing websites, produced no discernible difference in display speed, the main difference being in traffic at different times of the day.
Not necessarily the best guide of how resources are being used, here’s a snapshot of Task Manager showing Chrome, Opera and Firefox all running (alongside many other programs), with three tabs open in each browser.
As you can see, Chrome has four tasks, a main task and another for each open tab (a system designed to lessen the risk of losing all tabs should something go wrong), of a total memory usage of 38+ meg. Opera has a single task using only 17+ meg, a substantial saving in resources, whereas Firefox, with its single task, weighs in at a whopping 105+ meg.
Based on a simple reading of memory usage, therefore, Opera appears to be much less hungry than Chrome, and even less so when compared to Firefox.
During my test of all three browsers, I’ve had no issues regarding failure of the browsers to function, or hanging, though that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at some point. However, as Chrome has been my default browser for some time, I have experienced one or two issues. One recurring lockup was whilst on YouTube under XP, which would lock up periodically, unfortunately necessitating a system reset; however, I would add that Chrome on the same website under Windows 7 had no such issues.
One item of note, below is a snapshot of Task Manager several minutes after all browsers were closed. Opera and Chrome’s tasks have gone, whilst Firefox, strangely, still remains.
Frankly, I started this exercise with the biased preconception that Google’s Chrome would best the opposition, with Firefox coming second and Opera bringing up the rear; however, although the differences between all three are minimal, and for most people any of them would suffice, I’m quite pleasantly surprised to find that Opera has proven to be, in almost all respects, the best of the bunch.