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Firefox holds slim lead over Chrome among best web browsers

The top three sources we looked at -- Tom's Hardware, TopTenRevews.com and PCMag.com -- each picked a different winner after comprehensive performance testing. This proves a truth in today's web browser competition: the race keeps getting closer at the finish line. After extensive testing for speed and performance, Tom's Hardware chose Internet Explorer 9 as the best; TopTenReviews.com named Firefox first; and PCMag.com puts Google's Chrome at the top of the heap among best web browsers.

A close race raises an obvious question: If the reviewers are working with the same benchmarking tools, how can they get different results? The answer breaks down into two parts. First, web browsers perform differently depending on the operating system they are tested on. Safari, for example, loads pages more quickly on a Mac than it does a PC. Opera performs better with slower connections than other browsers. The second part of the answer comes down to interpretation. What does the reviewer value more, speed or security? Customization features or a clean interface? How the reviewers stack up the test results greatly influences their choice.

In its browser tests, Tom's Hardware ran Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 4, Opera 11, Safari 5 and Chrome 10 using a freshly installed Windows 7 operating system and the most stable version of each service. IE 9 topped Chrome with Firefox finishing third. IE 9 proved strongest in startup time, loading Flash and JavaScript, and memory usage. The reviewer was most surprised with Chrome's second place status and notes that with the web browser's frequent updates -- new versions pop up about every six weeks -- users can expect even better performance in a short amount of time. (Chrome updates happen automatically, in the background, so your browsing session is never interrupted.)

A quick glance at the colorful bar charts accompanying the Macworld review will show anyone that Firefox 4 is not the fastest browser out there, although it is considerably faster than previous versions. While not as streamlined as Chrome, Firefox 4's interface is far leaner than IE 9. Reviewers like the way the web browser groups tabs at the top of the page and syncs bookmarks with other computers. TopTenReviews.com gives Firefox top marks for ease of use and security. Users can quickly clear their browsing history, choose private browsing and a "Do Not Track" option that keeps websites from gathering information about the users surfing habits.

In late June, Mozilla released Firefox 5 -- just a few months after Firefox 4 became available, and soon after announcing it would switch to an 18-week release cycle. (Nearly three years passed between the release of Firefox 3 and Firefox 4.) This is similar to Google's schedule for Chrome updates and means that new features and improvements will come faster. Reviewers haven't yet offered in-depth looks at Firefox 5, though several outline the new features, which include minor performance enhancements. Firefox 5 for Android is a bigger change: it fixes a bunch of bugs and is said to be noticeably faster than the previous version.

Firefox leads the field by far in available add-ons, reviewers say. The most popular is the security feature Adblock Plus, which filters out unwanted advertising pop-ups and various forms of malware. PCMag.com recommends Adblock, along with the Amazon Wish List add-on, the screen-capture tool Aviary Talon and the download manager DownThemAll. There are also add-ons that allow users to sync bookmarks across multiple computers and manage passwords.

Mozilla's Firefox (now at version 5) gets the most expert recommendations and is our pick for the best browser overall. However, Chrome is hot on its heels.

Google Chrome: tops in security

Chrome's rapid rise to the top of the pack isn't surprising, given Google's history of web success, most notably its ever-popular search engine. Chrome (now in version 12) is a tribute to minimalism in web design. As Mark W. Smith notes in USA Today, Chrome brings with it an address bar, room for tabs and very little else. PCMag.com's lead software analyst Michael Muchmore also credits Chrome's speed, security and support for HTML5 for the browser's advanced standing among its peers. Chrome is now compatible with Mac and Linux in addition to Windows.

The Chrome browser loads faster than Firefox, and instead of a separate search window, Chrome combines address (URL) and search in one window for both, using your history to suggest choices. Shortcuts allow you to search inside other sites -- Amazon.com, for example -- from this same window. You can do this with Firefox only by installing specific extensions.

Where Chrome also shines is in security and stability. Google uses a technique called "sandboxing" which means, essentially, that applications and processes run separately from each other, which limits a computer's exposure to attacks. This also means that 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. Chrome also has a Safe Browsing option, which alerts users to "bad" sites, and warns users if they inadvertently attempt to download malware or suspicious content.

A major drawback is that the Chrome browser doesn't block ads. Because the Chrome browser is relatively new, not all websites display properly within it, particularly some web pages that require interaction, such as online forms. Just as with Firefox, these incompatibilities will improve over time, but for now, you'll probably find times when you'll need to switch back to IE or Firefox for certain web pages.

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