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Choosing a Web Browser: Internet Explorer 7, Safari 2, Opera 9 and Firefox 2
Internet Explorer may still hold between 70% and 80% of browser market share, but the three leading contenders – Firefox, Safari and Opera – are increasingly giving Microsoft's ubiquitous browser a run for its money. Choosing the best browser for you will depend on a review of various factors, including the features most important to you, your operating system, and exactly what you want from your browsing experience.
Internet Explorer 7
Back in 1996, Mosaic was on the way out, and Netscape ruled the browser roost. But Internet Explorer was just beginning to creep into the market, and by 1999 it had gained the majority. Its lead continued to grow until around 2002, when the popularity of alternative browsers such as Mozilla and Safari began to increase. However, Internet Explorer still enjoys the vast majority of the market share.
- Tabbed browsing: After years of lagging behind in this respect, IE7 has finally introduced tabbed browsing. A nice feature not found in the other browsers is the ability to hit a "Quick Tabs" button which displays all your tabs as thumbnails. You can then just click to switch or close tabs. IE7 only has the closing X on the currently highlighted tab – space-saving, but annoying if you want to close a tab without looking at it (when, for example, your boss is looking over your shoulder…)
- Toolbars and customisation: IE7 features a highly reduced, slimline toolbar which, sadly, is only minimally customisable. Buttons and functions which used to be prominent are now tucked away in menus, and there's no way of putting them back where you want them. Frustrating.
- RSS feed support: This is probably the shiniest feature of IE7, and it's rather good. You can manage your RSS feeds in a sidebar, just as you can with your bookmarks, and they display in the browser in a nice web page format.
- Other features and considerations: Microsoft is busily touting IE7's better security features: the main addition is anti-phishing technology, but IE7 reuses IE6's code, and still carries a legacy of slow-to-be-patched flaws. Internet Explorer is the only browser which supports the Windows Live Toolbar, so if you are an active user of Windows Live services, you may want to stick with Microsoft's browser. IE7 doesn't feature download management or inline spellchecking (although add-ons for the latter are available).
The Bottom Line:
IE7 is only available for Windows Vista or XP SP2 (unless you run a parallel desktop, or Boot Camp on a Mac), so it's not even an option if you're not a Windows user. Also, IE7 still isn't compliant with web standards. The RSS support is very good, and the Quick Tabs feature certainly comes in handy, but unless you're a huge fan of Windows Live Services, the security holes and lack of customisable features mean that IE7 is still trailing behind the others in many areas.
Safari is a new browser – it's only been around since 2003. Depending on whom you ask, it has between 1.5% and 4.6% of the current browser market share, but there is no doubt that its popularity has climbed steadily since its release. While Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 continue their prominent battle for supremacy, Safari has been quietly offering high-end features to Mac users for the past four years.
Now, with the release of the public beta of Safari 3, Apple's browser is available to Windows users too for the first time. It remains to be seen how this will work out for the browser: current reports are mostly good, particularly in terms of speed and a nice window aggregation feature, but there are also complaints of instability (perhaps forgivable in a beta version) and incongruity with some Windows features.
- Tabbed browsing: Safari has always offered tabbed browsing, and tabs are clean and neat, taking up much less space onscreen than the bulky IE, or even Firefox's tabs.
- Toolbars and customisation: A good number of add-ons are available for Safari 2, and the toolbars are customisable with various inbuilt functions and buttons. One of the best features of Safari is its minimal style which gives you more web page and less clutter. There's no status bar unless you ask for it; instead, the address bar acts as a status bar, turning blue as your page loads.
- RSS feed support: Safari 2's RSS support has always been good: there's an RSS button at the right hand side of the address bar which displays the feed as an easily-readable page in the browser window.
- Other features and considerations: Safari 2 has a Private Browsing feature (a mode in which no browsing records are retained), the ability to search bookmarks, and the ability to archive and email the content of web pages in full (as opposed to just links). Safari 2 does not display the rich text formatting options in Gmail. Another complaint is that scrolling sometimes causes Flash content to disappear. Safari is not available for Linux users. Safari 2's built-in search box only features Google search. Safari 2 is very well-integrated with OS X.
The Bottom Line:
Safari is the most popular web browser for Mac users, but this is hardly surprising, given that it has been the default browser on new Macs since 2003. While Safari does offer impressive speed and some nice features, especially its RSS support, it does not have the customisability of Firefox or Opera, even in the version 3 beta. Safari looks lovely on a Mac with its integrated look, but Windows users might find its OS X styling frustrating, especially the smoothed fonts, which many complain are difficult to read.
Opera has been around since 1994 and is a product of Opera Software, a Norwegian company. It has been through various incarnations and is now a free product with between 0.5% and 1% of the browser market share – a small but dedicated following of users who often point to its exceptional customisability and small size. Opera is supported for various versions of OS X, Windows, Linux and Solaris.
- Tabbed browsing: Originally, Opera had a multiple document interface (MDI), meaning that multiple web page windows could be viewed within one program window, and tiled, cascaded and resized at will. Opera 9 still has this feature, but uses the simpler tabbed browsing as the default option. It has supported tabbed browsing for longer than any other browser. Opera 9 also has a tab restoration feature, so that when the browser is exited and launched again, the user's open tabs are remembered. When you hover over a tab, you get a thumbnail of the web page with additional information such as URL and MIME type.
- Toolbars and customisation: For sheer number of built-in features, Opera 9 wins hands down. There are about half a dozen customisable toolbars and endless configuration options. The look of Opera 9 is also easy to customise. There are not many third-party add-ons available, though, because of its small developer/user base.
- RSS feed support: Opera 9's RSS support is competent but not stunning. It displays feeds like a list of emails; the feed content is viewed in a separate pane below. This mimics some dedicated RSS clients, and so seems to defeat the object of using your browser to view your feeds.
- Other features and considerations: Opera 9 has some great additional features, including BitTorrent and IRC clients, and the brilliant Speed Dial (nine easy-access thumbnail bookmarks which can be made to appear by default in every new blank tab). Its CPU usage is considerably lower than that of the other leading browsers, particularly the rather leaky Firefox, which could be useful for users running lots of programs at once or juggling more than about 20 tabs at a time. Opera 9 is very secure, and the browser has a good track record of fast patches for any flaws that are discovered.
Another good feature of Opera 9 is widgets – rather like Mac OS X's dashboard, you can download widgets supporting games, weather reports, stock information which appear in a sidebar. Opera 9 also features mouse gestures – you can go "Forward" and "Back" by just holding down the right mouse button and sweeping the mouse to the right or the left, and open a new tab by sweeping down. Finally, blocked pop-ups and closed tabs can be retrieved and restored from the "trash can".
The Bottom Line:
Opera is a cutting-edge browser with some fabulous high-end features, and it will maintain a strong fan base. However, the shortage of Opera developers around means that it will, for the time being, lag behind Firefox in terms of add-ons. Even though dozens of brilliant features are built into Opera 9, when there's something you want that isn't there, you'll be hard-pressed to find a compatible plug-in. There have also been some complaints of popular websites not displaying properly in Opera 9, and that the incredible range of customisable features renders it less easy to use than other browsers.
I hope, however, that Opera's user base will continue to grow. Improvements to rendering, usability, features and add-ons are dependent, in part, on the growth of its popularity. Given its current array of shining features, it certainly deserves the attention.
Since its individual release in 2004, Firefox's popularity has grown rapidly, and the browser now enjoys about 13%-14% of the current browser market share. Firefox is open source software. It was the first feasible alternative to the ubiquitous Internet Explorer that many internet users came across, and introduced many to the delights of such features as tabbed browsing and improved security. Firefox is supported on a wide variety of platforms, including various versions of Windows, OS X, Linux, and unofficially on other operating systems.
- Tabbed browsing: Firefox has a drop-down list at the side of the tab bar which lists all the open tabs. Firefox can remember your open tabs in the event of a crash, as well as every time you shut down and reopen your browser. It also has a "recently closed tabs" menu which is handy if you close one by accident. There are also several tab-related add-ons available, including TabRenamizer, which allows you to rename your tabs, Tab Scope, which gives you a hover pop-up thumbnail for each open tab, a la Opera; Downloads in Tab, which puts the download window into a tab within your browser rather than a separate window; and Colorful Tabs, which colours each tab in a different shade.
- Toolbars and customisation: As is obvious from just the number of add-ons available for tab management, there are huge possibilities for customising your Firefox browser. There are dozens of toolbars, buttons and neat little features available for download. My personal favourite is Resizeable Textarea, which allows you to resize most text boxes to give you more space to work. Have a look around Mozilla's add-ons pages for more. As well as add-ons, Firefox itself is well-featured, and most things can be turned off if you don't need them.
- RSS feed support: Firefox's RSS rendering is not as attractive as that of IE7 or Safari. You can tell Firefox to use its own Live Bookmark system, or to use any RSS client of your choice. There are also several RSS add-ons available for Firefox if its native support is not adequate.
- Other features and considerations: Firefox continues to offer inline spell checking, an excellent pop-up blocker and brilliant spyware protection. But the number of add-ons available is the browser's unique strength. New plug-ins are being added to the list every day. And the nice thing is, unlike the daunting complexity of Opera's huge array of built-in features, you need download only those you will find useful. The main criticism levelled at Firefox at the moment is its CPU usage and memory leakages. Users should note that Firefox 3 is expected in the latter part of 2007.
The Bottom Line:
Firefox continues to gain popularity, and there is a good reason for that: it's a brilliant browser. What it lacks in the built-in features that Opera offers, it gains in the enthusiastic and helpful user base that is constantly answering questions and creating new add-ons for Firefox aficionados to enjoy.
By Brian Jackson