Back in the old days there was just one browser, and everyone was happy. Okay, maybe not happy, but it was certainly easier to decide which browser to run when the answer was always Netscape.
Now, though, it’s much more complicated – not least because the big browsers appear to be updated every fourteen minutes and boast more options than the world’s most complicated Swiss Army Knife.
So which browser is best for you? Is it the same answer on Windows 8 as Windows XP? Should Mac owners stick with the Apple option or go Google? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to put the big browsers head to head and see where they shine or struggle.
We’re comparing moving targets, of course: for example, while Firefox 28 is pretty great the incoming Firefox 29, which introduces the new Australis interface, is already available as a beta. To keep our comparisons fair, though, we’re sticking with the most recent final releases. On Windows that means Internet Explorer 11, Firefox 28, Chrome 33, Opera 20 and Safari 5.1.7, all available on Windows 8.1.
Best browser for speed
Browsers don’t generally feel sluggish any more, but there are still crucial differences in the way they do things, especially web apps. The venerable Sunspider benchmark is a good indication of how well a browser performs under pressure, and the lower the score the faster the browser. At the risk of sounding like an Upworthy headline here: we tested all the major browsers in Sunspider. Their scores may surprise you.
- Safari 197.9ms
- Opera 174.4ms
- Firefox 157.9ms
- Internet Explorer (desktop)94.7ms
- Internet Explorer (modern)93.1ms
As you can see, Internet Explorer (both the desktop and modern incarnations) isn’t just ahead, but ahead by a significant amount.
Best browser for add-ons
Firefox has long been the king of this particular category, its combination of add-ons, Pin Tabs for web apps and Greasemonkey scripts making it the power user’s friend.
Chrome isn’t far behind, however, and its reach now extends to your desktop in the form of Chrome Desktop Apps and Google Now notifications, which began rolling out to Chrome users in late March.
Opera has changed its rendering engine and now uses the same technology as Chrome, which means Chromium extensions can work on the Opera browser. Opera’s extension gallery is much smaller than Google’s, but it’s early days and big hitters such as Evernote, Pocket and AdBlock Plus are present. It’s also a very nice looking browser; to our eyes it’s much, much better looking than its rivals.
Internet Explorer isn’t in last place here: that honour goes to Safari, whose extensions gallery is smaller than something very small indeed.
Best browser for Windows 8
As we’ve already seen, for sheer speed Internet Explorer wins easily over the other browsers. Now that Firefox has dumped its touch-based Modern browser for Windows 8, IE’s pretty much the only sensible choice for Windows tablets and touch screens.
In desktop mode the picture is cloudier. IE has the speed but there isn’t that much in it, both Firefox and Chrome are more expandable and have better synchronisation options. There’s essentially nothing to choose between the two IE rivals in terms of speed, so the choice really comes down to which one has the add-ons and synchronisation options you need.
Safari can’t cut it in this company: the most recent version, 5.1.7, was released in 2012 and it felt pretty half-arsed then. There’s absolutely no reason to consider it now: even Apple’s own iCloud Control Panel eschews it in favour of Firefox and Chrome.
Best browser for Windows 7
It’s the same story here as it was for Windows 8. Internet Explorer wins on speed, Chrome and Firefox have the edge on expandability, Opera’s nicer to look at and Safari’s up on bricks with the wheels removed.
Best browser for Windows XP and Windows Vista
Internet Explorer takes an early bath here because it only goes back as far as Windows 7. If you want a modern browser on an ageing Windows, our choice would be Chrome. It’s good as far back as Windows XP SP2+ and its spec for “optimal” performance is a Pentium 4 with 100MB of disk space and 128MB of RAM. You can buy fridges that are more powerful than that.
Best browser for OS X
Safari on OS X hasn’t suffered the same neglect as its ill-fated Windows sibling. On OS X we’re currently on version 7.0.2, which offers iCloud bookmark syncing, shared links from your social media accounts and power optimisation that promises to get more life from your laptop.
That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best choice for Mac users, though. On Sunspider, our copy repeatedly took ten minutes to run (benchmarks normally execute in a matter of seconds) and returned a page full of errors. Here’s how the other browsers stacked up:
- Chrome 191.8ms
- Opera 190.4ms
- Firefox 185.6ms
There are other reasons to consider alternatives to Safari. We’ve found it often chokes when we’ve got lots of tabs open or when we’re browsing image-heavy sites such as Tumblr, and it’s no stranger to the frustrated Force-Quit when it makes the entire system unresponsive. In this company we think Chrome has a narrow lead, although if it has the extensions you need the redesigned Opera is very nice on OS X too.
Best browser for privacy
All the major browsers have private browsing modes to prevent your partner seeing what you’ve been surfing or shopping for. But if you’re really serious about privacy you’ll need to turn to the world of add-ons and extensions such as HTTPS Everywhere, Disconnect or AdBlock Plus.
Firefox and Chrome have the edge here, possibly because the kind of people who take security and privacy seriously are the kind of people who want more than just a basic browser. Opera’s new Chromium-based extensions include our three examples too. IE isn’t entirely extension-free, but its rivals do have a wider selection of tools to cover your tracks.
Best for HTML5
The HTML5test awards up to 555 points for standards compliance: the bigger the score, the more standards compliant the browser is. Chrome is head and shoulders above the competition here, while Safari limps in in sixth and last place.
- Chrome 505
- Firefox 448
- Opera 392
- Internet Explorer (modern) 376
- Internet Explorer (desktop) 372
- Safari 260
Best browser for Android
If it’s sheer power you’re after then Dolphin is the winner here. It’s fast, very expandable, packed with features and has a deserved four-and-a-half-star rating after a million and a half user reviews. But it’s not the only option. If you don’t need Dolphin’s many options you’ll be perfectly happy with Chrome, and if you’re using Firefox on the desktop then Firefox Browser for Android‘s syncing will keep you happy.
Best browser for iPad
Our answer to this one would have been very different if Apple hadn’t shipped iOS 7.1. The version of Safari in the previous iOS 7 release was incredibly and frustratingly prone to crashing, the updated one is much more stable (it hasn’t bumped us once despite constant daily use).
Safari also has one feature rivals can’t possibly offer: being the default handler for web links. While other apps have their joys – Dolphin is handy, Chrome ties in nicely with Google’s other programs and services and Coast by Opera is nippy – Safari’s OS integration gives it an unfair advantage.