If you’re reading this online, chances are good that you are using a web browser to do so. You could be using an RSS feed reader, but if you are, it is probably a browser-based reader. And, chances are good that the web browser you are using is Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, as these two browsers are the market leaders in terms of usage among the general public. For many people, the installation of Internet Explorer with their operating system works just fine for them—or they are at institutions/organizations that disallow the use of anything else. For others, fine-tuning one’s own set of productivity tools means picking a primary web browser that best suits their needs in terms of processing speed, memory footprint, web development standards compatibility, and overall flexibility. In other words, is it fast, does it show things correctly, and can you make it do other things besides just show web content (if that’s important to you).
As someone whose first web browsers were NCSA Mosaic, Lynx, and even Cello, you can imagine that I have spent an inordinate amount of time working with web browsers over the last 15+ years. But even I have six different web browsers that I use on a near-daily basis.
The main reason that I use several different web browsers each day is because I spend part of my day in web development land, and it is an absolute necessity to view web content in a variety of browsers so that a happy display medium can be found. Although web browsers process and handle information in the same general way, there are some specific differences among them that result in things not always looking the same. As all developers know, you can only ensure that you write standards-compliant HTML and CSS, test what you’ve done, and hope for the best.
The current browsers installed on my machines are (in alphabetical order):
- Apple Safari, available for Mac and Windows
- Flock, available for Mac, Windows, Linux
- Google Chrome, available for Windows (Mac and Linux in development)
- Microsoft Internet Explorer, available for Windows
- Mozilla Firefox, available for Mac, Windows, Linux
- Opera, available for Mac, Windows, Linux/UNIX
While I do have a personal favorite—I use Firefox probably 95% of the time—there are things I really like in almost every browser listed above (which do not even represent all the web browsers out there).
When choosing the browser that is right for you, think about the following (after determining that you can run an alternate web browser):
- Processing/Rendering Speed: If you type “fastest web browser” in your search engine of choice, all of them will show up as a result. Really—go try it. A recent PC World article named Chrome the fastest browser. I’ve seen other tests that name each of the other browsers the fastest browsers. This goes to show that the tests are more like a guideline, and if you have the opportunity to install and test them yourselves, obviously you should. Even this comprehensive but a little outdated list of results also comes with the recommendation to take all tests with a grain of salt, because some browsers are optimized for certain platforms, and “speed” is relative to your own hardware plus what you actually do with your browser.
- Memory Footprint: This refers to the amount of memory used when your browser is in use. For instance, if your browser has been open and in use all day, does it consistently take memory away from other processes and thus slow your machine to a crawl? Or, does it sit in the background and not affect overall computing performance when you’re not using it? Your web browser should help you be productive, not take memory away from other processes or necessitate a reboot because it’s taken all your memory away and you can’t open your word processor.
- Web Development Standards Compatibility: This is a big consideration for web developers, but also should be for web users. You don’t want to use a web browser that makes “the web” look all wonky, right? Look for a browser that is compatible with current web development standards, and that passes the Acid3 test to determine how well it follows web standards (currently, Chrome sits at the top of the standards-compliant list).
- Flexibility: I saved this for last because I feel it’s the most important—and that’s saying something since “speed” and “standards compatibility” are also on this list. I’ve written previously on ProfHacker about being productive by using Firefox add-ons, and believe that your web browser should be as customizable as possible. The plugins/add-ons support in the browsers listed above ranges from “little” to “awesome” with “getting there” somewhere in-between. Browser developers are also realizing that flexibility is key to extended use.
If you were waiting for me to tell you the Super #1 Browser of All-Time, it’s not going to happen. I will say “I like Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, in that order, but I don’t hate all the others.” I do know that if Chrome ramps up the add-ons, I can see myself switching to it full-time in the next year or two. But your mileage may (and will) vary.
Speaking of mileage…kind of…several of these browsers also have portable versions. I carry around Portable Firefox, Portable Opera, and Portable Chrome on a USB drive, for times when I need to see things in different browsers but I only have access to a terminal (such as at a coffee shop or library) that has Internet Explorer installed on it.
Since one of the goals of ProfHacker is to provide you with our lessons learned so that you can make your own good decisions, hopefully this post has shown you that there are some considerations to be made when choosing the web browser that is best for you, and that there are many options available to you. Happy Choosing!