Web & communication software

The Best Web Browser: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, or Safari?

Not too long ago the job of a Web browser was simple: Get the text from the Internet and pour it into the window. If a tag like <strong> comes along, change the font. Now the challenges are greater because the browser is becoming the home for almost everything we do. Do you have documents to edit? There's a website for that. Did you miss a television show? There's a website for that. Do you want to announce your engagement? There's a website for that too. The Web browser handles all of that and more.

Choosing a best browser is an impossible job. On one hand, the programs are as close to commodities as there are in the computer industry. The core standards are pretty solid and the job of rendering the document is well understood. Most differences can be smoothed over when the Web designers use cross-platform libraries like jQuery. Many websites look the same in all of the major browsers, a testament to the hard work of the developers and their desire to get their information out to the largest audience.

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On the other hand, there's a lot of competition, and some very smart people are working hard to produce very clever new innovations. Yes, some of the so-called innovations are trivial, but if you're going so spend all day with a piece of software, it makes sense to be picky. While you may not care if someone moves a button from the left to the right, other users do -- and the discussion forums are filled with debate.

It may be impossible to be rational about many of the cosmetic issues, like the placement of buttons or the location of the tabs. These are intensely personal decisions, and the look and feel can often be changed with add-ons. There's not much point debating these issues.

The technical details can also be a bit personal and political, but they have bigger implications for developers and consumers everywhere. You may or may not like Adobe Flash, but the support or lack of support is important for all of us. Careers of Flash developers and the fate of projects they build will rise and fall on these issues. And Flash is just the beginning -- all of the browsers are rolling out various combinations of new features, but developers can't begin to use them until there's a stable platform with wide enough adoption. The control of the living room screen is worth billions of dollars, and the success or failure of the browser's video delivery mechanism will determine who may or may not have control over that shimmering rectangle and the zombie eyes glued to it.

Choosing a Web browser is made even harder because solid numbers are often preludes to debate. Some people complain when their browsers suck up every spare byte of memory. Others want their browsers to respond immediately. In many cases there's a trade-off because the programmers gain speed by filling up the memory and precomputing and precompiling every part of the Web page. You can have small or you can have fast, but you can't have both.

Often, the bloat isn't the fault of the browsers themselves, but the Web designers who lard up the site with endless AJAX calls and slick morphing features. Some users may blame the browser when they have 80-odd tabs opened to pages that are issuing AJAX calls left and right. The poor browser has to try to keep them all ready in case someone wants to see any of those tabs immediately.

Choosing among Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari is not simple. All are perfectly good choices, but one may be slightly better for certain users than others. Sophisticated users, including developers, may want a browser that supports the latest standards, while casual users may want to avoid the cutting edge for simplicity and stability. Others may have a favorite plug-in they can't live without. Some users may want to choose based on the location of the buttons. The choices are close enough that this could be fair if you really care about your interface.

The battle of the Web browsers: Google Chrome 5.0

It's easy for a programmer to be enthusiastic about Google's Chrome because Google has been emphasizing some of the things that programmers love. Chrome sticks each Web page in a completely separate process, which you can see by opening up Windows Task Manager. If some Web programmer creates an infinite loop or a bad AJAX call in a Web page, Chrome isolates the trouble. Your other pages can keep on running. This isolation isn't perfect, though, because Chrome users have still experienced crashes.

The good news is that Chrome is among the fastest current browsers, at least when using long-running JavaScript loops as benchmarks. It also offers good support of the HTML5 standards and will continue to push them, at least in spirit.

There is some confusion afoot, though, because in addition to backing HTML5, Google is also embracing Adobe Flash. Google is supporting Flash by including it in the Android OS, and reports claim future versions of Chrome will sport their own, well-tuned version of the Flash plug-in, an approach that will probably do even more to fix crashes and annoying bugs. The developers won't be able to point at each other across the moat and blame the other side.

Google also encourages plug-ins, and the collection for Chrome is growing quickly. Chrome's plug-in architecture is much simpler than Firefox's because it only lets coders write in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is typically more than adequate, and many Firefox developers port their creations to Chrome with little extra work.

If there's one complaint about Chrome, it's that it remains a relatively small presence; thus, Web developers usually get around to testing their work on Chrome only after trying IE, Firefox, and Safari first. Just the other day, one of Facebook's AJAX calls failed on Chrome but worked when I tried the same button on IE. Chrome offers nice developer tools, though, and I suspect that the Web development gap will slowly disappear.

If that's not enough for you, Chrome is also the one and only component of the Chromium OS. When the operating system boots, it starts up Chrome, then it's nothing but HTML for your machine. It's a very lightweight vision of the future.

Best for: People who want to juggle many windows filled with code that crashes every so often.

Worst for: People who get upset when a website breaks because the developer tested the site on IE only.

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