If you have only ever run the browser that came with your computer, an upgrade to something more modern could make using the Web both faster and safer.
Internet Explorer 10/11
A few years ago, one of the first things to do when setting up Windows was to replace Internet Explorer (IE) with something more modern. No longer – recent releases of IE have come on in leaps and bounds, especially in performance, where it makes good use of hardware graphics acceleration, if available.
The very latest version, IE11, is part of the free Windows 8.1 Preview. There are actually two versions of IE11 which can run simultaneously: one with the familiar framed window with tabs and icons; and the other being a frameless full-screen version for touchscreen devices with the smartphone-like modern user interface.
For Windows 7 or 8 users, the latest version is IE10. This is a very capable browser, with the ability to pin pages to the app bar, making them look like Web apps, an integrated spelling checker, and add-ons such as accelerators to directly translate Web page text.
However, IE10 and IE11 lag their rivals in some areas, most notably in HTML5 compatibility. In addition, older versions of Windows cannot run IE10 or IE11. Vista is limited to IE9, and if you are still on XP then you can at best have IE8, which came out four years ago but is still the most commonly used browser on the desktop.
Apple has done a good job of keeping Safari up to date, on Mac OSX at least – the Windows version is Safari 5, and not comparable with the state of the art. Safari 6 is based on WebKit, the open-source page rendering engine that also underlies Google Chrome.
Neat features in Safari 6 include the ability to sync open tabs with other OSX or iOS devices via iCloud, integrated social sharing, and touch-based features such as pinching the screen to see an overview of your open tabs (some of these require OSX 10.8).
It has the unified address/search bar that has become standard now, and also implements the new do-not-track specification (as do IE10/11). The problem is that do-not-track relies on Web servers recognising it, which most do not.
Perhaps more interesting is its implementation of offline reading, which is smart enough to fetch subsequent pages of an article before you request them – some read-later implementations only pull down the first page, which makes for a 'Doh!' moment when you go to read it.
Still the most popular alternative to Internet Explorer on the desktop, according to NetMarketShare – though only just, as Chrome is nipping at its heels – it is also the only other major browser besides IE that is not WebKit based.
Firefox 22 scores highly in several areas: it is still the best for add-ons, although again Chrome is catching up, and it has some nice privacy features. For example, you can have normal and private browsing windows open at the same time – a private window will not keep any history, cookies or temporary files – and it can be set to reject third-party cookies, which are typically tracking tags from ad servers and the like.
It has a full bookmark manager, and an integrated download tool, which drops down a list of your recent files. Other usability features include a new home-page providing quick links to commonly needed features, and the ability to sync bookmarks, history and more between computers.
While Chrome looks little different to its rivals, its big difference is how tightly it integrates with other Google services, such as voice recognition, spelling checks and, of course, search – Chrome Instant starts providing search results, predictions and even Web pages as you type. It can also sync tabs across devices, and sync your bookmarks and settings to your Google account and therefore your Android phone.
It has some interesting privacy controls: a dropdown menu on the address bar lets you control what the current website can and can't do, and there is anti-malware protection for downloads. The exception is, of course, Google – it feeds much of what you do back to HQ.
A neat touch is that things such as the bookmark and downloads managers appear as Web pages.
Chrome also has an incognito mode for privacy, with extensions (add-ons) able to run incognito too. And it currently has the best support for HTML5, including support for geolocation.
Opera Software Publisher
This was the fastest browser everywhere we tested it – OSX, Windows 8.1 and Vista. The one area where it came second was HTML5 compatibility, where it equalled Firefox and was exceeded only by Chrome.
We could not check its Linux performance as only v12 is available for that – there is a big difference between 12 and 15, as the Opera team decided to move from their own rendering engine to WebKit in v15. An unexpected side-effect is that v15 takes 135MB on disk, three times as much as v12.
Useful Opera 15 features include a smartphone-style Speed Dial page with the ability to create groups of apps and pages – this will be instantly familiar to many iPhone and Android users, but may surprise those used to traditional browsers – and Turbo, which compresses Web traffic at Opera HQ for speedier browsing over slow connections.
It also provides contextual search, a read-later option, a recommended articles feed, and an integrated email and newsgroup reader. The one thing currently lacking is a decent built-in bookmark manager.