Until a year ago choosing between browsers was simple. Mozilla’s Firefox 3.5 was so far ahead of the game, Chrome and Internet Explorer didn’t come close.
I pushed Firefox 3.5 to the limits with extensions. All of them seemed essential – although that proved an illusion.
Firefox rarely lets me down in use, although there were problems. It took several lifetimes to launch when I booted my PC in the morning and managing tabs was a chore.
I’m not sure when Google’s Chrome caught up – I’m guessing it was somewhere between versions 7 and 8. Either way, by late 2010 I’d made the switch to Chrome and was happy with the move. At the time Chrome was a faster browser with a minimal interface that knows when to keep out the way. It loaded less time it took to cold start Firefox and the tab handling was better.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 was also a vast improvement on earlier versions, but it was still too much of a memory hog to take seriously. What’s more, you couldn’t easily add web design widgets and other gizmos to IE8.
Now the browser game is wide open. And that makes life confusing.
Browser or browsers?
I would like to live with a single browser. I’d like to master its features. Learn its ways and tune it to my needs.
This wasn’t possible in the recent past. You needed to keep Internet Explorer on a Windows PC if you wanted to stay current with OS and software updates without dancing through ridiculous hoops. Those days have gone. And yet, I find it still isn’t possible to find a favourite and stick with it.
Chrome 10 is number one
Take Google’s Chrome 10. It is my main, everyday browser. It still starts up and loads pages faster than any rival. That’s a huge plus. Chrome plays nicely with Gmail – which stays open all through the day on my PC.
It works well with all the Google applications. I use Google Reader for my work and Google Docs, the integration between these applications and Chrome 10 is as tight as the integration between Internet Explorer and Microsoft Windows.
Chrome is the only browser at present which allows me to run Tweetdeck in a tab. I use a total of ten Chrome extensions; some are as good as the Firefox extensions. LastPass works well. Delicious and WideStamp behave as well as with Firefox. There’s a clone of the WordPress Press This extension which acts as expected. Firebug is distinctly second-rate on Chrome when compared to Firefox, while the third-party Read it Later extension; Postponer is a sluggish disappointment.
I’ve only come across a handful of sites which struggle to render properly in Chrome, but when that happens, the rendering is awful. At times the sites are barely readable. I suspect this is because designers are working with Firefox or Internet Explorer and miss testing Chrome, but for this reason alone I need to have more than one browser installed on my machine.
Perhaps my favourite Chrome feature is the way bookmarks and settings sync across my PCs. Firefox also offers sync, but Chrome syncs everything simply using my Google account details. It can even sync bookmarks with my Android phone.
Other people like Chrome’s built-in PDF reader. I hate it. The PDF rendering is not a good as with standalone readers and controlling the way documents look onscreen is hard. I’ve also struggled with cutting and pasting text or pictures from Chrome-rendered PDFs. Your mileage may differ.
Firefox 4.0 remains essential
Chrome does the job for day-to-day browsing, but it is not the best tool when I’m tweaking my website. My self-hosted WordPress site is easiest to manage in Chrome, but checking the HMTL and CSS works better in Firefox.
That’s mainly because Firefox has a better choice of extensions. Firefox also handles extension better than Chrome. Navigating Mozilla’s extension website is hard – Chrome has an iTunes-style App-store.
Mozilla has cleared up all of Firefox 3’s shortcomings – this happened progressively with the various point updates of Firefox 3 tidying up shortcomings. With Firefox 4.0 tab management is improved. Firefox 4.0 still isn’t as nicely integrated with the operating system as Internet Explorer or Chrome. I use Windows 7 and find right-clicking toolbar icons work better with the other two browsers.
The new Firefox interface is minimalist and the browser is faster than before. Even so, in my experience it remains the slowest of the three. Having said that, Firefox’s start-up speed has improved so much the few extra seconds is no longer an issue. We’re talking nine or ten seconds for Firefox compared with five or six elsewhere.
Firefox has a better hit rate than Chrome when it comes to rendering websites. I’ve rarely hit an unreadable one with the browser.
Microsoft gets Internet Explorer 9 right, not perfect
Although there’s little to choose between the three browsers, I found Internet Explorer 9 the least useful. It ticks all the right boxes and in my admittedly unscientific testing appeared the fastest of the three. It also has a tidy minimal user interface and – as you’d expect – it integrates beautifully with Windows 7. IE9 also handles images better than the other browsers.
I have two and a half problems with IE9. First, if I want to run an extension – say LastPass – Internet Explorer insists on adding a toolbar across the top of the screen. While this only removes 20 or so pixels from the main browser window, it adds a toolbar for all extensions wanting them. Add five toolbar extensions and you lose a sizeable slice of the display. If you hide the toolbars, IE9 switches off the extensions.
Second, I ran into weird text rendering issues with IE9 and Google applications. If I load, say, Gmail or Google Reader, each of the boxed lines of text shows the tops of the second line of characters. The effect is small but distracting. This is sad because, most of the time, Internet Explorer beats Chrome and Firefox when it comes to displaying text. Every character appears crisper and easier to read in IE9, but the ghostly tops of other text more than outweighs the good.
The half problem may be related to the text rendering, Internet Explorer sometimes chokes on sites and pages. I’ve seen it simply come to a halt when displaying pages and the browser needs restarting. Other times text appears strangely.
Conclusion: Pick two browsers
All three browsers are good – you won’t go wrong with any of them. Each has pluses and minuses. Most everyday users would probably be able to pick one and stay with it.
While I like Internet Explorer 9’s minimalism and display quality, it is the easiest one to dispense with. Chrome’s ability to run Tweetdeck and its integration with Gmail and other Google applications mean I’m likely to stick with it for most of my browsing. However, I can’t get by without some of the Firefox extensions. This means I’ll need to keep running both browsers for now.
My browser choice has less to do with the features of the browser software and more to do with the state of the extensions on offer for Chrome and Firefox. That’s not a conclusion I expected to arrive at, but I suspect a metaphor for the current state of personal technology.