Web browsers group test review

the big three browsers go head to head
Photo of Web browsers group test

The beauty of Firefox lies in its approach. The browser itself is a streamlined affair, requiring a download of a little over 5MB. This standard core will do pretty much what you’d demand of such an application, and from there you’re okay to carry on using it as is, or you can extend its feature base through some of the hundreds of extensions that are freely available.

Yet that’s the beauty of open source software, and don’t Firefox devotees know it. New features are made available on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and in use it’s quicker than Internet Explorer 7 in the manner it goes its work.

Even from first execution, it gets down to business fast. Gone is Internet Explorer 7′s requirement to check that your operating system is genuine before allowing you to install it, and in its place is the requirement for a few mouse clicks to get the program quickly up and running. When you run it the first time, you’ll find bookmarks and settings seamlessly transfer across and the world seems good.

Yet when the program starts, nothing much appears to have changed. Internet Explorer 7′s interface is significantly altered from its previous iteration (to the point of requiring a little more reacquainting than expected), yet Firefox looks and feels the same. Sure, the assorted icons look a little smarter, but that seems to be it.

In use, for the most part, little has changed, though. The tabbed browsing is still excellent (and now pages open in fresh tabs, rather than windows, as a default), and a session restore feature will pick up where you left off should your system crash for any reason. But big, new, headline features are absent.

Yet if earlier versions of Firefox were about introducing a different way to go about Web browsing, version 2 is more about the details that make things a little smarter.

Firefox’s phishing protection is more subtle, for instance, although we felt IE7 had the slight edge here. We loved the new, integrated search box, which by default sits in the toolbar at the top right of the screen (though this is something that Opera has had for years).

You can customise what search engine to point it at, but it simply allows you to type a search term directly into it, without having to, for argument’s sake, track back to the Google homepage. Elsewhere, you have flexibility over handling of Web feeds, and spell-checking facilities are built in too.

Yet to criticise and praise individual facets of Firefox somewhat misses the point. Why? Because Firefox is built on user choice. You choose what bits to run, you decide what add-ons to incorporate, and you can customise pretty much any area of the browser’s work. And while the user who is happy to accept the default settings isn’t likely to grumble, were you to ignore the plethora of things you can do with Firefox, you’d really be missing out.

The biggest stroke against the browser? That there’s still a surprising number of sites that struggle to properly accommodate it. That’ll change over time, but particularly for those with online banking services, Internet Explorer 7 (or perhaps even version 6) is probably the best way to ensure full compatibility with the rest of the world. Though not, we’d wager, for long.Long before Firefox made its mark, there was a serious alternative to the Microsoft Web browser monopoly. Opera originally existed in a paid-for version, or one with advertising splattered around the browsing window. Fortunately those days are long gone, and what’s evolved is another smart, slimline browser that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The latest version, Opera 9, is very savvy from the off at knowing which boxes to tick. The installation is smooth, the initial download is comparably compact and it’s a smart browser to quickly get down to work with.

Its main working screen is uncluttered and it’s an easy program to get around. It’s even got a neat idea or two clear from the off – double arrow navigation, for instance, takes you the ‘next’ or ‘previous’ links on a page (for example, when tracking through search results pages), and there’s an intriguing menu item called Widgets that just calls out to be clicked.

Widgets are Opera’s way of handling small add-on programs. These might be a small applet to give you direct news feeds, little games, an on-screen ruler or calculator, that kind of thing. At the time of writing there are just over 800 to pick from, and that hints straight away at a problem that faces Opera.

Because if you contrast that with the number of extensions available for Firefox, there really is no contest. For instance, a quick check of Mozilla.com found 127 extensions for Firefox covering blogging alone, 122 for news readers and 206 dedicated to entertainment. Granted, quantity isn’t everything, but there are simply far more enthusiasts dedicated to Firefox, and the rate and quality of add-ons is developing at a rate that Opera can’t match.

There are further features to the browser, including the option to employ built-in BitTorrent support, but this didn’t really work as well as a separate client in our view. Many will find it useful that such support is built into the browser, however, and it’s feature we’d like to see developed further.

Interestingly, Opera prominently promotes the versions of its browser for mobile phones and other assorted devices (including the Nintendo DS), and you can’t help feeling that, as the main desktop browser is going to struggle to find any kind of niche, these markets are where Opera will ultimately be doing the bulk of its business.

While Opera is a very good browser in its own right, though, the rug has clearly been pulled from under its proverbial feet by Firefox, which is in some respects a better and slightly more stable alternative. There’s not much in it, granted, but enough to make Opera more the browser you admire and like a lot, rather than the one you actually use.Arriving long after it was initially promised, and some five years after Internet Explorer 6 first saw light, Microsoft has a lot resting on IE7, and the most to lose.

Over the past two years, Firefox has eaten up 5-10 percent (depending on whose statistics you opt for) of the browser market, and while Internet Explorer still retains over 80 percent of what’s left, it does appear to be on a downward spiral. So will IE7 reverse that? Maybe, maybe not. But it is an improvement over the last version, as you’d hope and expect.

A lot of the changes are to do with catching up. For instance, tabbed browsing – which Firefox users have been taking for granted – has been integrated into Internet Explorer for the first time, and it’s far easier and more convenient to have several tabbed pages within one browser window than an open page for every site you’re concurrently looking at.

Furthermore, the interface has been streamlined and smartened, and while that means a little reacquainting is required for long-time IE users, it does de-clutter the screen a little. Proper RSS support is built-in, too.

But Internet Explorer 7 is more than just catch-up, and it has a few tricks of its own up its sleeves: the phishing filter for one. This slows your browsing down a minute amount, as it now cross-checks pages you’re visiting against a list of known phishing sites that Microsoft maintains. It’s a welcome security feature and it scores a point over Firefox and Opera in that regard. We also warmed to the font smoothing, and while we didn’t have much problem reading Web sites with IE6, it does undoubtedly make them a little clearer.

There are, however, inherent problems to IE being developed by Microsoft. While you end up with an all-singing, all-dancing release every few years, it’s clearly less organic than its open source alternatives, and while those who like their Web browser to do what it’s told and are never tempted to tinker with it won’t mind that too much, there’s not a good feature in IE7 that Firefox won’t be able to match within months (at the very most), simply because of the way it’s developed.

Internet Explorer is incapable, by design, of progressing fast enough. Some people are also not going to appreciate the fact that Microsoft is delivering the product via Windows Update, which should entertain those with broadband caps no end.

Our main quarrel, though, was over stability. Granted, it’s the early days of the product’s life, but we’d have hoped that given the prolonged development period it enjoyed, irritants such as a Flash plug-in constantly crashing the browser would have long since been ironed out.

But still, it is a very good Web browser, and no amount of negative press should blind people to that. Granted, it won’t be long before some sort of security problem emerges that Microsoft has to patch, as the company’s products seem a magnet for such issues (and there’s plenty of debate over the whys and wherefores of that).

And you’d struggle to appreciate that this is a product that’s been in development for so long. Yet you won’t find a better closed-source browser anywhere, and Internet Explorer 7 does have a lot going for it.You may have heard by now – especially as one of them is arriving via Windows Update – that there are some fresh Web browsers fighting for your attention.

We’ve been taking a looking at the formal release of Firefox 2, the long-in-gestation Internet Explorer 7, and the often-forgotten alternative Opera 9.

The result? Three strong competitors, each of which racks up plenty of points.

Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.For a long time Microsoft dominated the Web browsing scene, and we all paid a price for that. Once Netscape, the original mass market browser of choice, saw its market share decimated, the lack of a true competitor allowed Microsoft to get a little complacent with developments of Internet Explorer, and perhaps that goes some way to explaining why it’s taken five years in a fast-moving Internet world to come up with a new version.

That new version, initial teething problems aside, is undoubtedly an improvement, though, and finds Microsoft learning from the fairly harsh lessons that it has had to learn of late. Seemingly from nothing, one of its market-dominating products has lost a significant slice of market share, as Firefox has well and truly seized the initiative, and while IE7 doesn’t exactly see Microsoft wrenching it back, the developers have smartened their program up. Would we recommend Internet Explorer 7? Yes. Happily. Is it going to win this round up? Absolutely not.

That prize is going to Firefox. But before we get there, we should spend a little time saluting Opera. It’s certainly a browser that’s hurt by its relative lack of user support, which would help maximise the Widgets function built into it, yet it’s a smart, sleek Web browser, and while we feel that few people will be compelled to seek it out in desktop form, those who do will be perfectly happy with their choice. It seems very strong in the hand-held market, too.

But Firefox still wins, for several reasons. First, its ethos. By harnessing user choice in an accessible way and positively encouraging its user base to expand and improve the program to their heart’s content, it’s grown and expanded at a rate that any company with a spreadsheet to balance simply couldn’t keep up with.

It’s also backed by a large, dedicated community, who will ensure that even in areas where it struggles, it won’t be long before a solution comes alone. And ultimately, it was the best of three in our tests. It hits the sweet spot between streamlining the software and delivering the functionality and ease of use we rightly demand of our modern day browsers.

Company: Mozilla