Geeks get excited about JavaScript and HTML 5 performance. I want a web browser to give a reliable and consistent experience. The user interface is important, so are features and security,  mainly I want a browser that “just works”.

So far I haven’t found one.

Earlier I compared Firefox 4, Chrome 10 and Internet Explorer 9. Chrome was best.

Best, not perfect. At the time Chrome met most of my needs and ran into trouble rendering pages less often than the alternatives.

The unbearable lightness of Chrome headlines

We’re now on Chrome 14. Google has added Instant Pages and print preview. But one step forward, one step back.

Suddenly I’m seeing hard to read sites. Although I may see a fleeting display of text or headlines while a page is loading, at some point the characters disappear. It as if the foreground colour is the same as the background colour, or the text colour is too light, or the background is displayed over the top of the text. I’m not sure which.

So many pages are poorly rendered I have to turn to another browser to read them. I decided to revisit the alternatives.

Internet Explorer 9 almost there

Pages Chrome struggles to display show up fine in Internet Explorer.

The browser is fast, works smoothly with Windows 7 and has a tidy minimal feel. It still handles images better than Chrome or Firefox. Text appears better in Internet Explorer – characters are crisper and appear at sensible sizes.

While Internet Explorer show the text missing in Chrome, it runs into problems displaying text on a different set of troublesome pages. Explorer is best for e-commerce sites and reading online newspapers.

Firefox 7 still in third place

Firefox is the most improved browser this year, but I still don’t like it. Firefox is faster than it was and now uses less memory. That’s good, but it is still the slowest of the three main browsers. Worse it seems to have trouble with more pages than Explorer and Chrome. When it comes to “just works” Firefox remains in third place.

Conclusion

Intense competition means web browsers are evolving at a cracking pace, not all the changes are for the better. Chrome still has the edge, but the gap is closing fast.

Until a year ago choosing a browser 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.

One browser to rule them all?

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: I need at least 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.

Developers have neglected personal contact management in recent years. Microsoft Outlook still dominates, Google has never had a serious offering.

Now Mozilla has entered the fray with Contacts, a Firefox contact management plug-in.

It’s still at version 0.1, not even a beta at this stage. Which means Contacts is clunky and could cause crashes or other problems. Mozilla recommends you don’t use it with your normal Firefox profile.

The still-unfinished software promises to pull all your contacts together from a variety of sources. There are importers for:

  • Twitter
  • Gmail
  • Gravatar Avatar Images and
  • Native address book (on your computer)

The first three worked on my system. The Gmail importer works when you log into Google . The Twitter importer needs a Twitter password stored in your Firefox password list. The first two work almost instantly, the Gravatar importer takes a few minutes.

At this stage, the contact list isn’t much better than Gmail’s and I found many duplicates and unidentified contacts in my list.

Eventually, Mozilla contacts will allow you to auto-complete names and email addresses when filling on web forms.

For now, it has limited functionality, but there’s potential here. I’m particularly impressed with the data portability – keeping one set of contacts on my desktop and laptop.

 

My plan was to use Google Docs exclusively for two weeks. I wanted to test it as a Microsoft Word alternative.

The experiment fell at the first hurdle. I caved in after two days because my productivity dropped too far. Worse, I made more errors with Google Docs than with Word.

I’m a journalist. I write 10,000 or more words a week.  When you type that many words, the tools matter.

Productivity hit

My productivity dropped 25 percent when I switched to Google Docs. This may have been temporary – maybe my speed would pick up as I became familiar with the software. But the price was too high – a 25 percent productivity drop means I working 33 percent longer to produce the same output. This is not acceptable.

What was the big problem? Google Docs requires more mouse activity than Microsoft Word. Both applications offer a full set of keyboard shortcuts and many of them are the same. Scrolling up and down the page to read my work is harder on Google Docs.

Cutting and pasting copy from other documents was also harder. And I had problems switching between web browsing and Google Docs. Switching between a browser and Word using alt-tab is easier than control-tabbing through a large number of open browser tabs.

To make sure the problem wasn’t browser related, I used Google Docs with Firefox and Internet Explorer. I also tried using Google Docs in a separate browser Window.

Two days into the experiment my wrists ached from the extra mousing. I didn’t experience serious pain – I bailed out before reaching that point.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

Speed is important. So is quality.

My other problem with Google Docs was proofing. That’s the business of rereading your words to find and correct mistakes or improve the text.

At first, I struggled to find why my proofing was so bad. Then it hit me. Text extends across the entire width of the screen. With Microsoft Word, the text is restricted to relatively narrow columns. Proofing is harder with wider text columns.

There may be ways to work around these problems, but I need to get on and earn a crust, so earlier today I went back to Microsoft Word – a better experience.

A press release from Nielsen (not online at the time of writing) says Mozilla Firefox is winning New Zealand users from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

It is, but Microsoft’s browser still accounts for a 60 percent market share. According to Nielsen, Internet Explorer dropped from 72 percent to 60 percent between July 2006 and July 2009. Over the same period Firefox climbed from 11 percent to 20 percent. The remaining market share goes to rats and mice – with Google’s Chrome picking up just 3.2 percent of the market.

At the current rate, it’ll be at least two more years before Microsoft’s market share drops below 50 percent – and longer again before Firefox goes past Internet Explorer.

Nielsen’s press release doesn’t explain what it means by market share. The company manages a net measuring business where it tracks traffic to a number of commercial websites. The traffic information includes browser data, so we can assume Nielsen  adds up each browser’s share of the total traffic to these sites. Because Nielsen’s clients are among New Zealand’s busiest sites, it is a reasonable measure of total share.

What Nielsen doesn’t measure is the way many users, myself included, switch between browsers for different jobs. I’d also like to see data on which versions of the various browsers are used.

There’s also no mention of mobile browsers – which may still be a freak show – but are likely to grab market share quickly now New Zealand has two reasonable mobile data networks.