The race for best browser tightens
Web browsers aren't just about navigation anymore. A decade ago, Internet Explorer was pretty much the only game in town and browsers were simply a way of getting around the World Wide Web, as it was called. Today, a web browser is much more than that; it's a center for your most crucial information and day-to-day activities. You can store your passwords, shop, catch up on the news, share links (with your other devices or friends) and download (or upload) your essential files. Used on our phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, our choice of web browser is critical to our daily lives -- and, increasingly our privacy.
The good news is that browsers are faster, boast more features and are safer than ever before. Internet Explorer was the first major browser to hit the market (remember the little "e" icon in every PC and Mac?). After losing market share to rivals like Firefox and Chrome, it has seen a resurgence of positive reviews in recent years thanks to its stellar privacy and security settings. For the past several years IE has captured well over 99 percent of malware, blowing away its competitors. Internet Explorer 11 is commended as having the fastest and most secure version in the browser's long history.
For the last several years, Firefox has been stealing away increasingly more of the browser market and is a reviewer favorite. Reviewers say Firefox isn't the fastest browser out there (that title usually goes to Chrome), but it is a great performer and boasts better customization options than other browsers.
New focus on mobile
Google Chrome, launched in 2008, is Firefox's main competitor. Like Google's search engine, Chrome is simplistic in appearance and efficient in function, but the browser has made serious strides in features and performance. Despite concerns about Google's respect for privacy, most reviewers say Chrome is now the best browser on the market.
Apple's Safari and Opera web browsers are less well known, but reviews reveal them to be somewhat worthy adversaries. Aside from Apple enthusiasts, however, reviewers are not exactly in love with Safari, and Opera has a very small share of the market. Social networking browsers like Rock Melt (which Yahoo bought and sunsetted) seem to be a thing of the past, with more and more focus being placed on mobile browsers for smartphones and tablets.
When it comes to the top-performing browsers, many Internet users won't notice small differences in page-load times, but speed is still a major factor in choosing the best browser. Not surprisingly, features like customization, tabbing, security and privacy -- and of course design and user interface -- are just as important as performance.
Best Web Browsers
Chrome vs. Firefox: Google wins (in this round)
The browser wars have mostly boiled down to a heated competition between two industry leaders: Firefox and Chrome. Both have been updating their web browsers at breakneck speed -- as of this report, Firefox was on the beta version 29 and Chrome was up to 33. Chrome is currently on top in terms of overall positive reviews thanks to its superior speed and performance as well as an impressive array of features (among them syncing browsing history, bookmarks and tabs via a Google account; easy tab management; and voice search). Chrome, the Best Browser Overall, is very stable -- even when it crashes the tabs can be easily restored.
Chrome's rapid rise to the top of the pack isn't surprising, given Google's dominance beginning with its ever-popular search engine. Chrome is a tribute to minimalism in web design that dominates web browsers today; users want a simple, fast, no-fuss browsing experience and will pull up or add on additional features if they choose.
Firefox isn't as fast as Chrome in nearly every test, but leads the browser wars in available add-ons and extensions, reviewers say. The most popular is the security feature Adblock Plus, which filters out unwanted advertising pop-ups and various forms of malware. (Firefox is our pick for Best Customizable Browser.)
Reviewers praise Firefox and other browsers for taking a page out of the Google playbook by replacing its clunkier, busy design with a clean, simple interface. And not surprisingly, many open-source advocates and techies want to make a statement by using non-profit Mozilla's Firefox vs. Google's profit-driven Chrome -- even though Firefox receives most of its revenue from Google by making the Internet giant its default search engine.
Beyond Firefox and Chrome, a popular "alternative" browser is Maxthon. Developed by a Chinese company, Maxthon Cloud Browser offers an impressive array of features including cloud syncing between your devices.
Opera is another smaller browser that is known for speed. It has an "Off-Road" mode that compresses pages and uses cached versions of sites, which is very useful for users who don't have broadband. It's our Best Reviewed browser for slow Internet connections.
Privacy and security grow in importance
Privacy and security are becoming increasingly important for Internet users, and browsers are seen as a key in protecting user data and information. In terms of security, Google uses a technique called "sandboxing", which means, essentially, that applications and processes run separately from each other, limiting a computer's exposure to attacks. This also means Chrome won't crash if you visit a website that's unstable or has features that overload your system. You can close the tab that's causing issues or use the Chrome Task Manager diagnostic tool to close just the part of the site that's causing the overload -- a media player, for example.
But Chrome's convenient features (like syncing via your Google account or returning to relevant sites based on your search history) don't sit well with skeptics who note that the browser isn't the best for privacy. As a PCMag.com editor remarks: "If you're paranoid, you won't want to have software on your computer from the company that makes its living by profiling users for targeted advertisement. Nearly every feature added to Chrome gives the company (Google) another way to keep tabs on you, even the spell-checker!"
In one unscientific poll, users chose Firefox as their preferred browser for trustworthiness; Chrome did not score well. (Google has shelled out millions in lawsuits for ignoring user demands not to be tracked.) But while Firefox is friendlier than Chrome in terms of private browsing and stopping third parties from tracking your browsing history, Firefox performs poorly in catching malware in independent tests.
The most highly recommended browser for privacy and security is actually Internet Explorer. Microsoft's browser may not be the most obvious choice for privacy given IE's parent company and its reputation for hardball business practices, but Internet Explorer has made privacy and security its calling card. It consistently catches over 99 percent of malware threats in NSS Labs tests (an industry benchmark) and sets private browsing and Do Not Track as defaults. (The privacy settings can be changed.)