What is a Browser?
Your browser is, quite simply, the most important piece of software that you don’t pay any attention to. These days, the internet is a pretty essential part of almost everyone’s lives, and web pages and web applications are something we interact with consistently, without even really thinking about it.
From checking Facebook or Twitter for the latest updates on what your friends have been doing, to sending workplace email communications, to researching that school paper on sites like youtube or wikipedia, you’d have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t include internet usage in their day-to-day life. The reason your browser is important is that every one of those actions interacts with your web browser before it gets to you. It’s natural, then, for people to want certain things from their browsers, and there are some unique options available now where there haven’t always been.
According to Browser Statistic Tracker Net Applications, in late 2004, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer held over 90% of the average web browser market share. Today, only 5 years later, their market share is estimated at just over 60%. Admittedly, browser statistics are difficult to track accurately, but Net Application’s results are comparable to those found by other counters. Unarguably, Internet Explorer’s market share has dropped dramatically, and in the space they’ve created, the market share of their competitors has increased dramatically. For a long time, Internet Explorer was allowed to set all the standards for what a web browser needed to be, and due to a lack of worthwhile competition, there was no real need for them to innovate anything. The increase in competition has been a wonderful thing, as it has forced all browsers to improve.
Why You Should Care What Browser You’re Using
So what exactly does the average user want when they’re getting started with their browser? There are some obvious things, of course. People want their browsing experience to be their own experience, uninterrupted by things they may not want, so all major browsers make an effort to block unwanted pop-up advertising and any attacks on your security.
The two biggest examples of these attacks are malware and phishing. Malware is malicious software designed to harm your computer, and phishing is an attack designed to steal private information such as passwords or banking information from the user by simply asking for it in the guise of an official entity, often with a nearly identical URL. People want their privacy as well, of course, so all the major browsers also offer a “private browsing” mode where nothing the user does during that session will be logged in any of the browser’s history. Everything you do is forgotten the second you close the window. People also want speed and customizability, two things the major players are consistently struggling with each other to be the best at.
At the end of the day, every browser is attempting to satisfy the same conditions. Many things, such as tabbed browsing, where every subsequent web page you open stays within the same taskbar window and simply opens a new “tab” within that window, or integrated searching that allows you to search within specific sites from your url bar instead of going to that site directly, have become standards, and basically every browser has adopted them in some form or another.
Every browser offers the things people want in varying degrees, and the difference between your choices exists in the degrees of success. The reason to choose any one over any other is simply which things it succeeds the most at, and whether those things intersect with your specific needs as a user. The top 5 browser on the market today are, in order of web usage statistics, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. In this article, I’m going to cover what stands out about the top choices among the other browsers, and then what stands out about Chrome specifically, as it is the youngest member of the Top 5. Is Chrome the browser for you? Read on, and you can be your own judge.
Internet Explorer, the default Windows web browser, is still the most widely used of any of the available options, and though its popularity has declined some, that drop has been slowing down. Microsoft has had no choice but to improve their browser in an effort to keep their users, and so most features now thought of as standard, many of them introduced by their competitors, are present in the latest version of their browser.
Also, holding the largest share of usage means that basically any web page is going to load properly in Internet Explorer, as theirs is still the most necessary browser for a developer to make a web page work in. They have the largest support for the web standards most commonly used by developers today.
However, Internet Explorer does actually have less support in the emerging standards. They have time to improve that before it becomes an issue, but they are not at the head of encouraging that progress. Internet Explorer has less plugins available than many of its competitors, but it comes pre-packaged with some of the most popular features currently in circulation as plugins. While this does mean you won’t have as much customizability or as many features as with many of your other browser options, there is some available.
When it comes to speed, Microsoft admits that their browser is slower than their competitors in benchmark tests, but they insist the noticeable “real world” difference is negligible. This is debatable, especially since traditional browsers are prone to slow down more over time as greater amounts of memory become allocated improperly.
Internet Explorer is also not open source, and by preventing the sharing of ideas, it does little to help improve standards for browsers in general, including their own. However, the one area where they do appear to shine, above all competition, is security. The latest incarnation of their browser, Internet Explorer 8, is currently the best browser available for not allowing socially engineered malware or phishing attacks to reach you, according to a recent study by NSS Labs. Internet Explorer has the basic features you’d expect with some customizability, and it’s reasonably fast. It’s not open source, and it lacks support for some emerging web standards, but it is incredibly secure, with additional features such as cross-site scripting to prevent attacks. It probably still isn’t the best choice available for web browsing, but it’s come a long way from what it once was, and it is still improving with each release.
Safari has been increasing in popularity recently with the increase of the Apple brand, since it is the default browser for Mac users. It is designed around the core of webkit, the same Apple open-source browser engine that powers Google’s Chrome browser, as well as many other things, such as Android phones.
Though while webkit is open source, Safari itself is unfortunately not. The browser has a fair number of customizable options as well as a fair number of plugins available, though still not the most of any browser. It also has most of the basic features available to it as defaults.
Safari is reasonably stable and secure, and is arguably one of the fastest browsers on the market, but some of the unnecessary added touches for the sake of style do slow it down some. It has the ability to load multiple-page articles in a single scrollable page, as well as the ability to display bookmarked or searched websites in what they refer to as a “cover flow,” which is a sideways-scrolling list of web page screenshots, like scrolling through album covers on an iPod or an iPhone. These things will slow the browser down when being used, and some memory leaks will eventually occur, but overall, it’s very fast, and it comes with a graphical flair none of the other browsers do.
Safari was also one of the first browsers to pioneer and support the current crop of emerging web standards, in a continued effort to create a standardized base across all browsers. Safari doesn’t really land at the top of the heap in most categories, but they are perfectly sufficient at everything, and they include the sort of graphical flair Apple is quickly becoming known for.
Mozilla’s Firefox can trace its roots back very far, actually. In the early days of the Internet, before Microsoft exploded onto the stage with Internet Explorer, Netscape was the primary name in web browsers. When Internet Explorer took away its market share, Netscape responded by releasing Mozilla, which had been the internal code name for their Netscape browser.
In 2004, Mozilla launched their browser under the Firefox brand and started gaining popularity due to their open source philosophy, their browser’s customizability, and their willingness to innovate and try new things. Today, the popularity they continue to have is thanks to those exact same things. They are never afraid to innovate and give people new ways to customize their browser. They provide the standard features in the form of pop-up blocker security, malware and phishing site blockers, a private browsing mode for user privacy, tabbed windows, etc. A lot of these “standard features” are actually things they popularized to begin with, in fact.
Beyond those basics, however, the best feature Firefox has to offer is a seemingly endless suite of optional features, including a wonderful variety of addons such as plugins you can download. Due to being an open source browser, the entire community is constantly working to improve Firefox, and everything they do right or wrong is freely visible to every other browser to imitate or avoid, improving standards for the entire market. Firefox does a very good job at everything you’d expect from a browser, and when it comes to customizability and variety of available plugins specifically, they’re head and shoulders above everyone else. This does mean, unfortunately, that you run the risk of compromising the quality of your speed and security by downloading the wrong thing, so even cautious users should be careful when finding new addons.
Opera rounds out the top 5 browsers, quite frankly, at the bottom of the list. They’re the odd one out for sure, but plenty of people do use their browser, often without even noticing, thanks to Opera for devices, which runs on non-computer browser-enabled hardware (such as the Nintendo Wii) and holds a much larger market share in its respective field than their PC browser does.
It’s still worth noting as a computer web browser, though. It’s incredibly fast, and easily up there in the debate for fastest browser. It even has an “Opera Turbo” version which compresses websites before loading them to increase speed. It is, however, just as susceptible as most browsers to memory fragmentation and memory leaks which could slow it down. It also has a great set of developer tools in Opera Dragonfly which allows you to debug and inspect “under the hood” of any website instantly.
Sadly, however, Opera is another browser that is not open source, an unfortunate downside for budding web developers. As for security, it integrates avg antivirus to do that job for it, which is one of the most popular free antivirus softwares for a reason. As such, Opera is usually quite secure. However, AVG is only one antivirus, and anything can be compromised. Should something compromise Opera’s security, it does lack any sort of safety net.
Opera also has its own share of plugins and customizable features available, and like the other browsers, it has a few of its own unique features, such as setting your favorite shortcuts to “mouse gestures” instead of keyboard shortcuts. Finally, it has the ability to link to other devices as well as PCs in a shared network, which while not ground breaking, might be considered a bigger plus with Opera since some of your hardware may be running Opera for devices by default anyway. Opera isn’t the largest browser on the market, and it’s not the most secure, but it’s extremely fast, and being able to synchronize it to your devices, phones, and PCs all at once is a great feature.
Their url bar, which they refer to as the “omnibox,” has a few of the favorite features from some of their competitors carried over. It allows for inline completion of web pages you have visited before or suggests search terms in much the same way Google’s search engine does.
Chrome is customizable with many themes as well, and some very good plugins, though Google certainly doesn’t lead the pack in that regard. It’s an entirely open source browser, in keeping with Google’s philosophy that as a company that thrives entirely as the result of the internet as a medium, it’s in their best interest to improve the medium itself by sharing ideas rather than trying to keep them under lock and key. As well, the “Google Gears” team works behind the scenes to create tools for developers in an effort to standardize things and to improve the base functionality of all browsers.
Of course, Chrome does come with some of its own unique features, such as automatically translating foreign web pages to your browser’s default language. In addition, when you open a new tab, rather than a blank page, Chrome presents you with a page showing your most viewed pages and a tab of integrated search bars for the sites you search on the most, as well as your recently bookmarked pages and recently closed tabs. This gives you a nice list of the places you were the most likely to have been going in that new tab anyway.
The biggest differences, however, are that Chrome runs multiple “processes” at once, and it does something that they refer to as “sandboxing” with those processes. Google Chrome’s development team determined that running a single process, as all other browsers currently do, meaning that everything you do is forced to run through a single gateway, is bound to cause slower browsing than running multiple processes would. Your computer’s operating system runs a great deal of processes at once for the same reason.
Thus, every tab you open has its own process assigned to it, and when you close that tab, you close down the entire process, which prevents memory fragmentation from occurring. This also allows them to isolate problem tabs, the feature they call “sandboxing,” so if their malware or phishing blockers fail, anything that gets through will be contained entirely within that process, and will not be able to touch anything outside of the virtual sandbox’s parameters, meaning it can’t read or write to anything on your computer without user permission. You simply close the tab, and it’s gone.
The parameters of individual sandboxes can be altered by the user if you feel a specific site deserves greater permissions. This also means that any pop-ups are blocked and contained exclusively within the tab they originated from, and they remain there unless you decide to take them out and give them their own tab. As well, if a tab crashes, that tab alone crashes, instead of your whole browser, which is something that among the alternatives, only Internet Explorer also offers.
Chrome also allows you to open web apps such as gmail in streamlined windows that have no tabs or url ba for even greater speed, and the main process manager that all the tabs run through comes equipped with a task manager just like your computer, so if you find that you are getting slower speeds than you like, you can identify which process is using too much memory, and close that alone.
Plugins, however, can not be sandboxed, and are allowed greater permissions within the browser than other tabs. There is no way for Google to get around this, so what they’ve done is separated the plugin’s process from the tab’s process, so they exist entirely separately and if the plugin attempts to cause problems, it is at least as isolated as possible. Still, you should always be careful when downloading things, especially from third parties, as it is the quickest and easiest way to sabotage the speed and security of any browser, and ultimately of your entire computer.
Is Chrome the Browser for You?
Google Chrome does most things pretty well, and being open source allows it to be consistently improved by the entire community. It provides good security, and while it may not have tested as well as Internet Explorer in blocking malware, the sandboxed tabs do mean that any malware that gets through will do infinitely less damage than it would likely do on another browser.
Ultimately, it still isn’t as secure as Internet Explorer by a lot, but it’s a smaller gap than it would appear from the results of just that study. It’s not as customizable as Firefox, but it does still have a decent suite of plugins to provide as many of the more popular customizations. Also, like firefox, Chrome is open source, so more plugins and more customizations are always on the way as the development team and the community continue to work to improve all aspects of Google Chrome.
Unless you have the need for an almost infinite amount of variety, the options offered by Google Chrome are probably enough for most people. As well, by supporting emerging web standards and working to improve base functionality of all browsers behind the scenes with the Google Gears team, Chrome is simply good for the entire internet.
More than anything else, however, Google Chrome is probably the fastest browser available. Ultimately, you should download Google Chrome if you’re looking for speed, especially in loading web applications. You are unlikely to find an incredible difference in the speed of loading a web page in any browser because they’re so much smaller. But more intensive applications, even the smaller ones like your email, or chat programs and image uploading applications on social networking sites, are going to be faster in Chrome. The multiple processes prevent a great deal of memory fragmentation and memory leaks as well, so as the length of your browsing sessions increases, the difference in speed will become even more noticeable.
Google Chrome does a great job meeting all of its expectations, and its incredible speed makes it worth a second look for anyone, and if you’re thinking of switching from your current browser and getting started with Chrome but you don’t want to lose anything from your old browser, Chrome allows you to import your old favorites and bookmarks from any other browser.
For those interested in the technology “under the hood” of Chrome that makes such speed possible, this comic explaining how all of it works is definitely worth a look. The text is taken exclusively from quotations of Google developers discussing Chrome, and the adaptation of those words as well as the illustrations are courtesy of Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics.