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A good browser does what you want, when you want it to. At a basic level, any browser you choose will do the basics — page display, secure websites for matters such as online commerce and banking — to a standardised level. So what marks out one browser from another?
We've taken a look at the latest and greatest from Microsoft, Apple, Opera, Google and Mozilla to sort out where each browser scores well or offers something unique that makes them a must-use proposition. Most users tend to use one browser and stick to it as a familiar kind of playground, but are they missing out on the best the web can offer as a result?
We're well past the point where you have to pay for a browser, and with the exception of Internet Explorer, everything we're looking at works across multiple computing platforms. These aren't benchmarks or reviews per se; we're just using the currently most up-to-date browsers to point out where it might be worth switching browsers.
The biggest players get to go first. So up first, we've got Internet Explorer 9.
Internet Explorer 9 Beta
Where to get it: http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/
There was a time when Internet Explorer was the internet for most folks, with market share that was fast approaching 100 per cent. That time has passed, but IE still holds a commanding market share, and its status as default Windows browser makes it the standard choice for a lot of web users.
Still in beta at the time of writing, most of Internet Explorer 9's big new features are under the hood and promise speed jumps over previous versions of Internet Explorer. To put it kindly, previous versions could often tend to be rather keen on using up as much memory as possible, but our sampling of IE9 suggests it's been slimmed down extensively. Likewise, the user interface finally drops the toolbar-heavy approach for a slimmed down interface that draws obvious comparisons with Google's Chrome. There's no shame in utilising a good idea, however, and that's what the slick Internet Explorer 9 interface does, right down to integrated search in the URL bar. Bing is not surprisingly the default, but you can easily add other search engines.
In terms of tweaked features, the two standouts are pinned tabs and the very nifty way that IE manages your add-ons. Pinned sites can be dragged down to the Windows Taskbar where they act like an individual program application instance. You can launch the sites of your choice automatically, and if the site developer enables it, right-click to launch site jump-lists. One-click site launching is very cool, and one of the first things we did with IE9 was add CNET.com.au to our Windows Taskbar. We'll wait while you do the same.
As for Add-On management, the very first time you start up IE9, it'll search out your add-ons and tell you how much time they add to the program start time, with the option to disable them individually or all at once. So if you enable an add-on and IE9 starts dragging its feet, it's easy to find the culprit and lop its head off in just a couple of clicks with no confusion.
And finally — and it's taken long enough, Microsoft — Internet Explorer has a download manager. Quite why we had to wait so long for such a basic feature will no doubt go down as one of history's great mysteries.
If you're still using Windows XP, however, there'll be no Internet Explorer 9 for you. The minimum requirements call for Vista SP2 or better. If you're stuck on XP for a specific reason, we'd suggest switching camps to Chrome or Firefox rather than sticking with an older and potentially less secure IE version, especially as its market penetration make it a favourite of hackers.
In terms of browsers, the current "Fords vs. Holdens" analogy would have to be Internet Explorer vs. Firefox. Over to all things Mozilla we head...
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Firefox 4 Beta
Where to get it: www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/beta/
From looking at the beta version of Firefox 4, it's clear that browser minimalism and top-loading tabs are the new black in browser design. Like IE9, Chrome and Safari, the newest version of Firefox eschews complicated toolbars in favour of a clean layout that emphasises the pages you're surfing to. On Windows (Vista and 7 only), the minimalist design means that all of Firefox's menus spring out from the inventively named (and arguably Opera-borrowed) "Firefox button" that sits at the top left of the user interface. Standard menu layouts can also be invoked with a tap of the Alt key. Our only complaint with the Firefox button is that it sits in a vertical plane by itself, taking up what feels like a lot of screen real estate. It's still early beta days, so hopefully that'll change for final release. Tabs have shifted by default from the bottom to the top, although you can tweak this back if you're not in favour of it.
If you're the type of web surfer who always has hundreds of tabs open, you'll appreciate Firefox 4's Switch To Tab feature. If you're entering in the URL bar ... sorry, "Awesome Bar" by official Firefox parlance, the details of something that matches an existing open tab, it'll offer you the option to switch straight to that tab. Not so useful for single tabs, but if you've got dozens shrunk down to the point where they can't be found, it's potentially quite handy.
On the technical side, Firefox 4 supports yet another new video standard, WebM. It's open source and seems reasonably slick, but whether it'll unseat Flash and H.264 in any significant way isn't yet clear.
Firefox 4 is still very much in beta, and with that in mind, there's a permanently affixed Feedback button on the top left of the browser screen. We'll give them extra points for naming the feedback options "FireFox Made Me Happy Because" and "Firefox Made Me Sad Because..." if only because it's a cute way to engage browser testers.
Firefox 4 is still a beta, and it showed intermittently in our testing, with a few crashes along the way. Other than that, however, it's a swift browser that performs well. Existing Firefox users should upgrade to it once it's gone final, and those wanting cross-platform compatibility and a good browser could well be tempted to switch camps.
Between them, Firefox and Internet Explorer eat up at least 80 per cent of the world's browser share. Moving over to Google next...
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Google Chrome 8.0.552.224 Beta
Where to get it: www.google.com/landing/chrome/beta/
Is Google's Chrome ever not in beta? You can always play it safe and download the stable version, but for those who like to live a little on the wild side, Google's Chrome page has a permanent link to the latest beta version of the company's search-centric application. This makes picking the beta-specific updates rather tricky to actually spot, as so many features end up being organically adopted by the browser along the way. We tested with version 8.0.552.224, but there could well be a more fresh public beta by the time you read this. It gave us the choice on loading of importing existing settings and, to our surprise, choosing our preferred search engine. If ever there was a setting we'd figure Google would lock down by default, it's search.
The big new feature (from a web surfer's perspective) in the Chrome 8.0.552 branch is Google's Chrome Web Store, a one-stop shop for various applications — everything from games to productivity applications is on offer, although at the time of writing, it's technically US only. This can be worked around with a credit card and a Google Checkout account, but developers keen on getting money out of Google should note that there's no way for Aussie developers to get paid — yet. Chrome Apps aren't really applications in the standard Windows sense; they're more like a mix of add-ons/extensions mixed with web pages, as nothing ends up as a distinct application on your desktop in the way you might expect.
As a browser, Chrome continues to be good at its core competency points. The stripped down look that every other browser is "borrowing" for its 2011 look was pioneered on Chrome, and it still arguably does it best, with a single bar for all searches and URL entry. PDF viewing is built in, and in version 8 it's sandboxed, so if you do end up with an errant PDF that would otherwise crash the whole browser session, everything else is protected.
The Chrome Web Store, in its current incarnation, probably isn't enough to get anyone to particularly switch camps if they're married to their current browser, but Chrome's swift page rendering, even in beta form, just might be.
From Google, we head into Operatic territory...
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Where to get it: www.opera.com/browser/next/
Opera's main web page poses the question "What is faster than the fastest?", which, if nothing else, proves that the Norwegian firm doesn't really understand how comparative terms actually work. We do get what they're aiming at, though, which is to claim that Opera's browser is, perhaps, quicker than other browsers you might consider. The speed jokes continue with the latest beta, with the Spinal Tap-inspired tag line "This one goes to Eleven".
Opera has grimly kept hold of an idea that once permeated the browser space, namely that your browser could be multiple applications at once. It's the only browser in our round-up that comes with an integrated email client. It's neatly enough laid out, but the utility of this (especially in an age of web-based email clients that work across any browser) is debatable.
Opera's claim is that the browser code itself has been optimised to be 30 per cent smaller than Opera 10.60, making it a swifter install. It was fast to install in our tests, and while we weren't sitting with a stopwatch, we couldn't honestly say it was significantly faster than other browser installs. Once it's installed, it's there permanently anyway.
The big new feature for web surfers that Opera touts in Opera 11 is Tab Stacking. Clearly, we're all opening too many tabs at once, and Opera's solution to this crisis is to allow you to stack them into logical groups, which can then be previewed by hovering over a group, or fanned out across the tab bar. Creating groups is as simple as dragging one tab on top of another, although we did find it frustrating that you can't drag tabs sideways to group them. You've got to fully detach them from the tab bar and slot them back up onto another tab to create groups.
Mouse gestures have been made easier to access with a full visual GUI for quick page flipping, zooming, minimisation and duplication, depending on the gestures you wish to use. Mouse gestures are one of those features that you either love or loathe, but they're easily switched off if you don't like them.
Opera 11's browser bar also shrinks down longer URLs and more clearly displays the security information of a given site. Given the prevalence of phishing attacks, this is clearly a good thing.
And moving out of the beta space completely, we go on a Safari...
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Apple Safari 5
Where to get it: www.apple.com/safari/download
Apple's notorious for not giving anything away until it's ready to say something, which makes reviewing Safari betas available to the general public rather difficult, although the company did reverse that position for a little while with Safari 4. As such, in the interests of testing something you can use too, we're stuck just looking at the regular stable release of Safari, which at the time of writing was version 5.03.
Safari doesn't boast a huge range of world-altering web browsing features, instead opting to run with that rather well-worn Apple credo of "it just works". And, indeed, Safari does just work, with a simple and slick interface that handles basic web tasks competently, if not in a manner that's all that exciting. The default "Top Sites" panel of commonly visited sites is a little more slick-looking than Google Chrome's very similar-looking "Most Visited" panel, but they both basically just do the same thing.
On a Mac, Safari takes the pride of place that Internet Explorer enjoys on Windows, and as such it's the default browser of many Mac users simply because it's "just there". On Windows, however, the reasons to switch to Safari, compared to other, more feature rich browsers, are less obvious. If you're a Mac user who intermittently dips into the PC world we could see the sense in a common user interface, but otherwise switchers would do better with something like Chrome or Firefox for an alternate browsing experience. It's not that Safari's bad at what it does, but in the free browser space, the alternatives simply do a little bit more.