It's up to your Web browser to make using the Internet easy and enjoyable -- it's arguably the most important piece of software you use. As the Internet becomes more integral to daily life, the browser you use is of great importance to software companies too. That's why every major browser developer is working on new versions of their product.
Fortunately, they've all released early versions of their work -- that's betas to you -- for us to poke around and play with, so we can suggest fixes and improvements that could be made before the final version is released to the general public.
The four browsers in question are Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8, Mozilla's open-source Firefox 3, Opera 9.5 and Apple's Safari 3 for Windows. All are free downloads and all try to offer something better than the competition.
With this furious battle for worldwide adoption, we've decided to put the most recent beta releases head-to-head to see which is looking to be the best, and why.
We're not benchmarking and we're not reviewing; we're simply using each browser as the average user would, to determine which we think is the coolest, which works best so far and which we expect to be the strongest offering to the general consumer.
So without further introduction, let the browser war begin. We'll start with Microsoft...
Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, beta 1
The first interesting addition to IE is 'Web Slices'. It's essentially a Microsoft version of RSS and serves a similar purpose. Web developers can assign areas of their sites to be 'sliceable', so updates to that area are available to the browser in the form of a tab. In a provided example, friend statuses in Facebook can be sliced, adding a pull-down tab on IE 8's new 'Favourites Bar' that displays three of the most recent status updates along with their photo. We're not entirely sure of the point of this, as RSS already works perfectly well.
Microsoft has also integrated 'Automated Crash Recovery'. This lets each IE window or tab be handled by separate Windows processes, so if one tab in a window of ten tabs crashes or hangs, it can be terminated without the entire browser needing to be manually closed and restarted. The feature worked well when we forced IE to terminate its processes in Task Manager, though real-life crash recovery remains to be seen.
Along with improving compliance with Web-design standards, IE 8 is a decent improvement over IE 7. Web Slices may be useful if enough sites adopt it, but RSS is commonplace and isn't tied to one installation of a browser -- Web Slices will only be in place if you're using your home computer, whereas anything subscribed to with RSS can be accessible from any PC in the world if the right services are used. And seriously, where's the download manager? IE needs a download manager.
We do like the lower memory and CPU overheads though -- IE 8 was less resource-intensive than Firefox in our tests, so new computer users or those with less capable machines may be perfect candidates for IE 8.
How it compares
It may save 'company time' being wasted on fixing a crashed Firefox, and it's probably compatible with your corporate VPN software, too, so it's a decent choice in a business environment. There will surely be a beta or two more before the final release, so if you're already using IE 7, keep your office-focused eyes peeled. It's not going to be a crucial download for us, however, if nothing major changes between now and the final release.
Opera browser 9.5, beta 1
The most interesting feature the lovely Norwegians at Opera Software have introduced in this version is 'Opera Link'. This syncs your bookmarks and Opera's 'Speed Dial' homepage selections with any other computers you use Opera on -- so wherever you are, you get the same browsing experience. It's similar to Firefox's Foxmarks Add-on, but having it native in a browser is a massive bonus. It worked perfectly for us across two machines. Very useful and very cool.
Another useful feature is the 'Full Text History Search'. Opera 9.5 indexes every word from every Web page you visit. You can type keywords in the URL address bar and Opera searches every site you've visited -- in real-time -- and suggests links for you. Although the suggest links list that pops down looks cluttered, it's extremely useful and a killer feature for anyone in the business of research -- students would love this.
It's worth noting that Opera is still the only browser we looked at that has a built-in mail client, and it still works well in this new beta.
How it compares
Along with linked bookmarks, the terrific page indexing and searching, and general ease-of-use makes Opera ideal for students, or indeed any researcher, who needs to quickly
plagiarise look up a quote, reference or source.
Apple Safari 3 for Windows, beta 1
Apple has released Safari for Windows mainly to aid the Windows-based development of Web apps for the iPhone, which is a smart move. But it's not a mind-blowing browser compared to Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3.
It's simple and elegant, much like everything Apple produces. For this reason it's a good choice for technophobes and, thanks to its good resource management, lower-specced systems. the small load it places on RAM and CPU is, in the heavy world of IE and FF, a feature by default. It's also very quick to load pages, and in our experience the fastest to render them.
It also has an extremely attractive in-line page search function -- Safari darkens the entire Web page being searched and highlights each instance of the word being searched for. Okay, it's not as ground-breaking as automated crash recovery, but if you, er, search for words, it could be helpful.
How it compares
It's clean, it's fast and it just works. It's a good choice for people taking the first step into cyberspace, thanks to its simple operation. It's uncluttered and will make for great early experiences on the Web. But after a few months of getting used to it, even grandparents will enjoy the move to Firefox or Internet Explorer. How much will change before it leaves beta remains to be seen, but it's a cute underdog in the Windows world for the moment.
Update: Apple has now released Safari 3.1 for both Mac and Windows users.
Mozilla Firefox 3, beta 4
Firefox 2 suffers massive problems with memory usage, so much so that it's not unheard of for the browser to use half a gigabyte of RAM on a well-specced machine. On slower machines this kind of overhead can cripple the browsing experience. This has been largely remedied in version 3.0, with a daily average RAM consumption in our experience of around 120MB -- still quite high, but far, far more acceptable and in line with other browsers.
New bookmarking features have been integrated, making it easier to add and organise favourite sites. A little star sits in the address bar now, allowing one-click bookmarking. Bookmarks Manager has also been upgraded for easier management of links and tagging, and to reduce browser load times and boost performance.
Report to your manager
Firefox is famous for its wealth of add-ons and these can now be discovered and managed within the 'fox's add-on manager, negating the need to visit Mozilla's site to find extensions. A searchable download manager makes add-ons easier to locate and manage, and downloads can now be resumed between browser sessions.
While Internet Explorer has attempted to innovate, it's simply evolution, not revolution (though Automated Crash Recovery fans may argue this if ACR works like it should). The same can be said for Firefox 3 -- one of FF 3's key improvements is its better management of PC resources, something that should've been fixed in a previous version.
How it compares
Firefox remains the best browser on the whole, with great features, impressive improvements all-round, a revised bookmarking system and thousands of add-ons to make it easy to perfectly customise.
The improvements in performance are stellar, it's got some well-integrated features than everyone will use (resumable download manager, tag-ready bookmarking) and it offers, overall, a better, richer Web experience. We're behind Firefox and we hope that when the final release is out it'll be just that little bit better to boot.
Incidentally, did you know about the Flock browser?
Flock is a Web browser built on the Firefox codebase, and is aimed squarely at social network obsessives and YouTube devotees. It integrates loads of these sites and offers features such as friend update notifications, and the posting of blog entries without having to visit a blog's admin section.
It's very useable and rather than giving you a rundown of features, we encourage you to just have a play. It's not in beta, but it's in the early stages of its life, and new functionality is sure to happen in the not-too-distant future.
Should any of the other browsers we've looked at today integrate social sites in this way? Is it completely pointless? Or is it reasonable to use two browsers for different types of Web use? Let us know on our forums.