Browser Blowout 2010

Does Speed Still Matter?

Illustration by Gary Neill
If performance is most important to you, it really doesn't matter much which browser you use.

As our testing shows, any current browser is fast enough for anyone's purposes, despite what browser vendors' marketing departments may say. In our testing, we saw that even though there was a striking difference in JavaScript handling (the one aspect of browser performance that most browser vendors seem to be touting above all others), in actual page-loading tests the differences we found were minuscule. Unless you run two browsers side by side on identical PCs, you won't really notice if one loads a page in 1.5 seconds and the other loads it in 2.5 seconds.

And in reality, other factors, such as your PC's hardware, its operating system, and its connection speed, will likely affect your browsing speed more than your Web browser will.

Now that speed has essentially become a baseline standard, you should put more weight on the other aspects of a browser: interface, stability, security, ease of use, and add-ons. The good news, of course, is that all of the major browsers are free to download and try. If you don't like one, you can always switch to another until you find the browser that works best for you.

How We Test Browser Performance

We took a hybrid approach in our testing, which we conducted on a MicroExpress KHL9070 laptop running Windows 7 Home Premium.

First, we ran the SunSpider benchmark to get a read on how each browser handles JavaScript, the programming language at the heart of modern Web apps.

Additionally, we pitted the browsers against a suite of eight live Web pages: PCWorld.com, PCWorld's YouTube channel, PCWorld's Twitter feed page, the English Wikipedia homepage, eBay, Amazon, the New York Times homepage, and Yahoo. We connected to the PCWorld office network via ethernet for our testing.

We also tested the browsers on a subset of Web pages saved to an Apple MacBook running Apache Web server software, into which we plugged our test PC directly.

In both cases we loaded up each of the browsers on the test PC, ran our speed tests in one browser at a time, and restarted the computer between tests. In the page-loading tests, we cleared the caches before each test run.

One last note: Web browser performance can vary greatly depending on your PC's hardware, the operating system, the specific browser version you're running, and the sites you visit. That one browser performs well on one PC or on the particular sites we tested is no guarantee that it will perform well on every system or on every site.

HTML5: The Future of the Web

Illustration by Gary Neill
As any Web designer will tell you, getting a site to look right and work properly in all the major browsers can be very tricky. Doing so usually means settling for workarounds and compromises that can detract from the user experience. Fortunately, some upcoming Web technologies could help change that: The new HTML5 and CSS3 promise to give designers more flexibility so that they don't have to resort to hacks and tricks.

Plenty of areas within HTML5 still need to be hammered out--the specification won't get finalized for another 12 years or so. One of those areas is which format to use for Web video. Apple is backing the H.264 standard, but that's guaranteed to be royalty-free for Web use only through 2016. Other browser vendors, such as Mozilla, back Ogg Theora video since it's open source, but some parties have raised concerns about its quality.

Meanwhile, Google recently announced WebM, another possible contender in the Web video format wars. And Microsoft, true to form, has said that it will allow for support for all three formats in its upcoming Internet Explorer 9.

That said, HTML5 is already sneaking into some Websites. Most of the current Web browsers have some HTML5 support, and both Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4 will improve HTML5 compatibility.

If you want to play around with HTML5 demos, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have you covered. And for more on the topic, see "Geek 101: HTML5, CSS3, and You" and "Your Browser in Five Years."

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