The browser battle has been raging almost as long as the internet has existed. But with new competitors in the fray and longtime entries revving up new technologies, the stakes have never been higher.
In the late nineties and early aughts, it was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer versus Netscape Navigator. Fast forward 20 years, and IE’s proprietary technologies for enabling interactive, application-like websites have given way to W3C standards-based features for delivering the online experience.
Meanwhile, the browser landscape has a new dominant force: Google, the search and web advertising behemoth that delivers the most content of any source on the internet (according to comScore), also claims nearly 70 percent of the browser market with Chrome (based on both NetMarketShare and StatCounter numbers). That’s for desktop use; if you add in mobile, Chrome is still king at over 60 percent.
Chrome may be leading in usage (except, of course, on Apple devices), but it’s not ahead by every measure or by number of capabilities. Firefox, Edge, Safari, and Opera all have features not found in Google’s browser. That’s not to say that Chrome isn’t an excellent piece of software, but you should know there are worthy alternatives. This article examines the top five browsers in the U.S. in order of popularity. Unfortunately, that rules out Brave and Vivaldi-both first-class and unique choices-but you can read about them in my article covering the best alternative web browsers.
So what’s important in a browser these days? Speed and compatibility remain the top requirements. But in this day of the ever-present smartphone, the linkage between your desktop browser and your phone has become increasingly important. Indeed, some browsers now let you send a webpage from one device to another, and all let you sync bookmarks between them.
A rough measure of standards compatibility is the HTML5test website, which scores browsers’ compatibility with the moving target of web standards. The maximum possible score is 555, with points awarded for each standard supported. Chrome currently leads with a score of 528. Opera and other Chromium-based browsers hew closely to this, while Edge gets 492, Firefox 491, and Safari 471. Just a few years ago, a score in the 300s was considered excellent, and Internet Explorer (still used by millions) is stuck at 312.
For speed testing, I ran each browser through the WebXPRT 3 benchmark, which tests the speed of internet applications such as photo enhancement, stock option pricing, encryption, and text manipulation. I tested on my Asus Z240IC 4K touch-screen all-in-one PC with a 2.8GHz Core i7–6700T processor running Windows 10 (version 1903). For Safari I used a 3.1GHz Core i7–4770S iMac (I realize the hardware is not completely comparable, but it’s sufficient for a rough comparison). Take benchmark results with a grain of salt, however, since purely synthetic tests don’t measure every component of actual browsing conditions.
In terms of disk space usage, on my Windows test system (after a cache clear) Edge took 177MB, Firefox 187MB, Opera 191MB, and Chrome 437MB. Since Chrome and Opera don’t report their storage use in the Settings / Apps & Features page, I used the size of their folders. I noticed that Chrome installs itself in the Programs (x86) folder, which is normally only for 32-bit apps; nevertheless, typing chrome://version/ in the address bar showed I was testing with the 64-bit version.
Privacy, customization, convenience features, tab and start-page tools, and mobile integration have replaced speed and standards support as today’s primary differentiators. All browsers now can remember passwords for you and sync them (in encrypted form) as well as your browsing history and bookmarks between desktops or laptops and mobile devices. Chrome by default signs you into Google services like Gmail and YouTube, which some consider presumptuous.
Privacy mavens like to use VPNs (virtual private networks) to hide browsing activities from ISPs and any other intervening entities between you and the site you’re visiting. Opera is the only browser that includes a built-in VPN. Firefox also has a good privacy story, with a private mode that not only discards a session’s history and cookies but also hides your activities from third-party tracking sites during the private session. In addition, Firefox and Safari now provide fingerprint protection-preventing trackers from identifying you based on your hardware and software setup. Firefox also has built-in Content Blocking to fend off known trackers and cryptocurrency-mining ploys.
Useful browsing tools can play a part in your decision, too. One, Reading Mode, strips webpages of clutter-mostly ads, videos, and content pitches-so you can focus on text. Another is the Share Button. With this era’s obsession with social media, it’s almost a necessary convenience.
Opera is alone among the popular web browsers included here with a built-in cryptocurrency wallet, though the aforementioned Brave browser also includes one. Opera is also notable for its Speed Dial, which consists of pinned tiles on your home screen (though the other browsers have similar functionality) and a toolbar for accessing frequently needed services such as WhatsApp.
Edge offers a unique and nifty right-click option for showing a side panel of search results on selected text. It also displays drop-down tab previews and lets you set aside a batch of tabs for later use. Firefox lets you instantly save a page to Pocket or open a new Container in case you want to be logged into the same site with two different identities. Screenshot tools are making their way into browsers, with Edge, Firefox, and Opera among them.
If you feel strongly about one browser or another, as is likely the case if you’re reading this, please feel free to let us know about it in the comment section below.