The best browsers go beyond benchmarks, racing through real-world webpages as well as canned routines. They’re easy to set up, flexible and extensible, and connect other devices and services into an ecosystem.
Look, throwing a few benchmarks at a browser just doesn’t cut it any more. Just as you expect us to test graphics cards against the latest games, we think your browsers should be tested against a collection of live sites. Can they handle dozens of tabs at once? Or do they shudder, struggle, and crash, chewing through your PC’s processor and memory?
To pick a winner, we put Google Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge and Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera to the test, barring Apple’s abandoned Safari for Windows. We used the latest available version of each browser, except for Firefox, which upgraded to Firefox 40 late in our testing. And we also tried to look at each browser holistically: How easy was each to install and set up? Does Opera make it simple to switch from Chrome, for example?
You’ve already seen part of our tests, where we showed you how much of an impact enabling Adobe Flash can have on your system. Disabling or refusing to load Flash can seriously improve performance—some sites, like YouTube, have begun to transition to less CPU-intensive HTML5 streams. Still, other readers pointed out that they simply need to run Flash on their favorite sites. That’s fine—we tested with and without Flash, so you’ll have a sense for which browser performs best, in either case.
Oh, and Microsoft: We found that your new Edge browser isn’t quite as fast as you make it out to be. (Sorry!) But it still demonstrated definite improvement over Internet Explorer.
The benchmark numbers favor Chrome and Firefox
We do consider benchmarks to be a valuable indicator of performance, just not a wholly defining one. Still, they’re the numbers that users want to see, so we’ll oblige. We used a Lenovo Yoga 12 notebook with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-5600U inside, running a 64-bit copy of Windows 10 Pro on 8GB of memory as our test bed.
We tested Chrome 44, Windows 10’s Edge 12, Firefox 39, Internet Explorer 11, and Opera 31 against two popular (though unsupported) benchmarks—Sunspider 1.0.2 and Peacekeeper—just for reference purposes. But we’d encourage you to pay attention to the more modern benchmarks, including Jet Stream, Octane 2.0, Speedometer, and WebXPRT. The latter two are especially useful, as they try to mirror actual interaction with web apps. We also tested using Oort Online’s graphics benchmark as well as the standardized HTML5test—which is not so much a benchmark, but an evaluation of how compatible a browser is with the HTML5 standard for Web development.
From our testing, Chrome and Firefox topped the Speedometer and WebXPRT tests, respectively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google was the fastest browser under the Google-authored Octane 2.0 benchmark. But Microsoft’s Edge led the pack in the Jet Stream benchmark—which includes the Sunspider tests, which Edge led as well. (For all of the benchmarks, a higher number is better; the one exception is Sunspider, which records its score in the time it took to run.)
What’s surprising about Edge is that it led the pack in the Jet Stream benchmark, but fell way behind on Speedometer, only to record a quite reasonable score in WebXPRT. (Microsoft claims that Edge is faster than Chrome in the Google-authored Octane 2.0 benchmark as well, but our results don’t indicate that.)
Chrome flopped on the Sunspider test; the only test Firefox failed equally miserably in was the Oort Online benchmark, which draws a Minecraft-like landscape using the browser.
For whatever reason, I noticed some graphical glitches as Edge rendered the Oort landscape, including problems drawing a shadow that slid across the bay in the night scene. But Oort proved even more problematic for Firefox, rendering “snow” as flashing lights and rain as a series of lines. (We’ve included the test result, but take it with a grain of salt.) Internet Explorer 11 simply couldn’t run the Oort benchmark at all.
We also included the HTML5test compatibility test, which measures how compatible each browser is with the latest HTML5 Web standards. Although some developers focus extensively on each browser’s score, even the test developer isn’t too concerned:
HTML5test scores are less interesting to me than people think. Any browser above 400 points is a perfectly fine choice for todays web.
And the only one that fails that test, of course, is the semi-retired Internet Explorer 11.
What does all this mean? It doesn’t indicate a clear win for any specific browser, including Chrome. Based on our benchmark tests, many of the browsers will handle the modern web just fine.
Next page: Real-world testing and “the convenience factor.”
Real-world testing: Opera makes its case
Opera Software has always lived on the periphery, with what NetApplications says is just 1.34 percent of the worldwide browser market. With Opera considering putting itself up for sale, it may not be long for this world. But in terms of real-world browser performance, Opera is worth a long hard look while you still can.
Why? Because in real-world browser tests, Chrome and Opera performed very well.
It’s important to know how each browser will actually perform while surfing the live web. Testing this is a challenge—some canny Web sites constantly tweak their content, and ads will vary from one visit to the next. But we tried to minimize the time over which we visited each site to help minimize variation.
We used a selection of 30 live sites, from Amazon to CNN to iMore to PCWorld, as well as a three-tab subset of each, to see how performance scaled. Our tests included adding each site to a new tab, one after another, to weakly approximate how a user might keep adding new tabs—but quickly, so as to stress-test the browser itself. Finally, we evaluated them with Adobe Flash turned on and off. (Both Opera and Firefox don’t natively ship with Flash, so we tested without, then downloaded the Flash plugin.)
After loading all 30 tabs, we waited 30 seconds, then totaled the total CPU and memory consumption of both the app itself, the background processes, and the separate Flash process, if applicable.
So what does all this mean? If you own a mid-range and low-end PC, you might have purchased one without a lot of memory, or with a less powerful CPU. In that case, you might consider switching your browser to something that’s more efficient.
This chart contains a lot of information; you can click it to enlarge it. But what you should focus on are the differences in memory consumption (the yellow bars) and the differences in CPU consumption. We’ve included the raw data in a table at the bottom of the chart. In each case, a lower number indicates a more efficient browser, with the one exception being Firefox (with Flash)’s zero scores, which we’ll cover below.
Oddly enough, we noted an actual decrease in CPU consumption when Flash was enabled on the three-tab test, specifically within Edge, Firefox, and Opera—perhaps because the Flash plugin was more efficient at lighter workloads. As our previous report indicated, however, CPU and memory consumption soared when we started throwing tab after tab at each browser.
The other discrepancy that you may note is that Chrome, with Flash enabled, consumes nearly the memory that Edge does without Flash enabled. We double-checked this, but we did so on another day, where Edge’s memory consumption was even higher than what we recorded. (That’s probably due to just a difference in the ads and video the sites displayed.)
Chrome has a reputation for sucking up all the memory you can throw at it, and these numbers prove that out. But it also consumes relatively little of your CPU—which, if you scale down your tab use, makes its impact on your PC manageable. Opera, however, really shines. In fact, without Flash, Opera consumed just 6.6 percent of the CPU and 1.83GB of RAM during our stress test. With Flash on, Opera consumed 3.47GB of memory and 81.2 percent of my computer’s CPU.
And Mozilla was getting on so well—but with Flash on, tabs essentially descended into suspended animation until they were clicked on, then began slowly loading. It was awful. “Tombstoning” tabs that aren’t being used is acceptable, but please, load them first, Mozilla!
Finally, we tried loading pages, then timing how fast before the page became “navigable”—in other words, how soon one could scroll down. Fortunately, all the browsers we tested did well, although some were faster than others; Chrome and Opera did exceedingly well, especially with Flash turned off. In all, however, we’d say that any browser that can load pages at three seconds or less will suit your needs. (Keep in mind that the time to load pages depends in part on your Internet connection and the content of the page itself.)
The convenience factor
Since all of these browsers are free, ideally you should be able to download every one and evaluate it for yourself. And each browser makes it quite easy to pluck bookmarks and settings from their rivals, especially from Chrome and Internet Explorer. But manually exporting bookmarks is another story. It’s almost like telling the browser that you’re fed up with it—and Firefox, for example, passive-aggressively buries the export bookmarks command a few menus deep. Even stranger, Opera claims that you can export bookmarks from its Settings menu, but only the import option appears to have remained in Opera 31.
More and more, however, browsers are using a single sign-on password to identify you, store your bookmarks online, and make shifting from PC to PC a snap—provided that you keep the same browser, of course.
Chrome, for example, makes setting itself up on a new PC literally as simple as downloading the browser, installing it, and entering your username and password. You may have to double-check that the bookmark bar is enabled, for example, but after that your bookmarks and stored passwords will load automatically. (As always, make sure that “master” passwords like these are complex.)
Chrome isn’t alone in this, either. Firefox’s Sync syncs your tabs, bookmarks, preferences and passwords, while Opera syncs your bookmarks, tabs, the “Speed Dial” homepage, and preferences and settings.
That’s an area where Edge needs improvement. Edge can import favorites/bookmarks from other browsers, manually, but doesn’t keep a persistent list of favorites across machines—at least not yet. But if you save a new favorite in IE11, it’s instantly available across your other PCs. Other browsers—not Edge—also allow you to access your desktop bookmarks within their corresponding mobile apps.
It’s also interesting that, more and more, browsers are moving away from the concept of a “homepage” in favor of something like Edge or Opera, where the browser opens to an index page, with news and information curated by the browser company itself. But you still have options to set your own homepage in Chrome, Edge, and Firefox.
Honestly, all of the browsers we tested were relatively easy to set up and install, with features to import bookmarks and settings either from other browsers or other installations. You may have your own preferences, but it’s a relative dead heat.
Final page: Little extras and PCWorld names the best browser of 2015
Going beyond the web
Modern browsers, however, go beyond merely surfing the web. Most come with a number of intangible benefits that you might not know about.
Perhaps you’d like your browser to serve as a BitTorrent client, for example. In the early days, you’d need to download a separate, specific program for that. Today, those capabilities can be added via plugins or addons—which most browsers offer, but not Edge, yet. (This can be more than a convenience; Edge will store your passwords, but not in an encrypted password manager like LastPass.)
If there’s one reason to use Firefox, it’s because of the plugin capability. Mozilla has a site entirely dedicated to plugins, and they’re organized by type and popularity. Installing a plugin is as easy as clicking through a couple of notifications, then restarting your browser. And given the market share of Chrome—and the plugin popularity of Firefox—you’ll find developers who will focus on those two first. A good example is OneTab, which transforms all of your open tabs into a text-based list, dramatically cutting your browser’s memory consumption. Note that the more plugins you add and enable, the more memory and CPU power your browser will consume.
Opera doesn’t appear to have nearly the number of available plugins that Firefox does, but it does have a unique twist: a “sidebar” along the left hand side that can be used for widgets, like a calculator or even your Twitter feed. Opera is also extensible via wallpaper-like themes, but they’re far less impressive.
But you’ll also notice browsers adding more and more functionality right in the app itself. Firefox includes a Firefox-to-Firefox videoconferencing service called Firefox Hello that works right in your browser, and you can save webpages to a Pocket service for later reading. And this is where Edge shines—its digital assistant, Cortana, is built right in, and there are Reading View options and a service to mark up webpages, called Web Notes. Cortana does an excellent job supplying context, and it’s certainly one of the reasons to give Edge a try.
Over time, we expect that this will be one area where Edge and Chrome will attempt to “pull away,” as it were. In a way, it’s similar to the race in office suites: a number of apps mimic functionality that Microsoft Office had a few years ago. But Microsoft has begun building intelligence into Office, and Edge, elevating them over their competition. Given that Chrome is also the front door to Google Now on the PC, we may eventually see Google try to out-Cortana Cortana on her home turf.
Chrome narrowly beats Opera
So who wins? Here’s the way we see it.
Give credit where credit is due: Edge’s performance has improved to the point that it’s competitive, though perhaps not as much as Microsoft would make it seem. Still, its lack of extensibility and proper syncing drag it down, at least until they’re added later this year. Firefox also performed admirably, until it bogged down under our real-world stress test. We also believe Opera would be a terrific choice for you, since it zips through benchmarks and real-world tests alike. Sure, it lacks the tight OS and service integration of Chrome, IE, and Edge—but some may see that as a bonus, too.
All that said, we still think Google’s Chrome is the best of the bunch.
Chrome has a well-deserved reputation for glomming on to and gobbling up any available memory, and our benchmarks prove it. But it’s stable, extensible, performs well, integrates into other services, and reveals its depths and complexity only if you actively seek it out. For that reason, Google Chrome remains our browser of choice, with Opera just behind.