Which is the best web browser to use? From Chrome to Safari, we compare the current browsing options
In terms of things that are vital to day to day living, the web is right up there.
It has grown to a level of importance where it can pretty much be slotted in behind the likes of such life-sustaining essentials as air, food, water, and shelter. Think we're being dramatic?
Think about how many of your day to day activities depend on it. Your job. Your smartphone. Your social life. Your TV subscription. Who knows, maybe even your love life.
As such, it's perhaps surprising what scant notice most of us give to the means through which we access the internet. It's often a case of touching or clicking on the first vaguely globe-shaped icon we encounter and thinking nothing more of it.
In truth, there's been a certain amount of design homogenisation of these browsers in recent times. It's like the developers have come to an unspoken agreement on a set of 'best practice' principles.
The web browser field remains a highly competitive one, with clear front-runners, plucky pretenders, walled-off platform-specific favourites, and quirky alternatives - but the edges appear to have been filed off each.
Let's look through the pick of those and see if we can determine the ideal lens through which the internet should be viewed.
Key features: Cross platform compatibility, extensions, HTML5 performance, clean design, handles lots of tabs well, auto translate
According to numerous metrics, Google's Chrome is the most widely used web browser in the world. According to StatCounter, it has more than half of the desktop market.
That might come as a surprise to some raised on Internet Explorer, but Google has grown increasingly dominant in the field.
It's easy to see why. Chrome remains the best all-round choice for most people, with a clean design, swift performance, peerless compatibility, and a range of powerful cross-platform tools and optional add-ons.
Its clean design works well regardless of platform, whether that be a 27-inch desktop monitor, a 10-inch tablet, or a 4-inch smartphone display, and Google is incredibly inclusive with the platforms it supports.
What's more, once you have a Google account (and who doesn't?), your Chrome data - including tab and browsing history - will sync seamlessly across all devices. Google was one of the first and certainly the best at doing this.
In general usage, Chrome's approach to tabs is very strong. It makes tracking multiple open tabs easy thanks to its uncluttered design and its use of little thumbnail icons within the tab itself. That's not unique, but Safari users in particular will know that its not ubiquitous either.
Then there's the influential "omnibox," which combines the search bar and web address field into one. Everyone does this now, and it's tough to imagine a time when they didn't.
SEE ALSO: Google Chrome tips and tricks
Another way Chrome excels is in the field of extensions. The Chrome Web Store is packed full of little apps that plug into Chrome and extend its functionality, essentially allowing you to personalise it according to your needs.
These really are too varied to discuss in any great depth, but popular extensions include an ad blocker for preventing pop-ups, VPN tools for obscuring your internet location, and tools for saving web pages for later offline viewing.
Again, other browsers have this facility, but they're usually not as extensive or well implemented, and the ecosystem not as rich.
Another great feature of Chrome that we're deeply enamoured with is the integration of Google Translate. Visit a foreign language website, and Google will detect the language and translate it automatically. It still feels like magic every time.
Weaknesses? There are a few. Google doesn't quite seem to be able to settle on a solution for handling bookmarks with Chrome - or at least not an elegant one, at least.
Lining your most frequently used website shortcuts along the top of the browser is fine, but the Other Bookmarks folder to the right of this has always felt a little clunky to us.
While Google has added recently accessed web pages when you open up a new tab, Chrome's bookmark system lacks Safari's clarity.
Chrome also misses a native reader option for saving and reading articles offline.
Key features: Add-ons, themes, Firefox Hello
Mozilla's web browser is another extremely popular choice. The latest version is very similar in design to its peers, with a layout that's more or less the same as Chrome.
For some reason there remains the needless clutter of a second field along the top for Google searches - particularly curious given that the main field boasts the same omnibox functionality as the Google equivalent.
Otherwise, you get a similar tab arrangement (complete with icons) and basic command layout to Google's browser. You also get the same 'recent tabs' options when you open a new tab, and it's possible to bookmark swiftly with a single click of a star icon, just like Chrome.
Firefox's expanded option menu located towards the top right of the browser is perhaps the clearest and most intuitive of the lot, with a nice layout that
Firefox is another browser to have a strong ecosystem of extensions, or add-ons to use Mozilla's parlance. In this case, the add-ons provide a great deal of customisation potential for how Firefox looks. Don't like its rather bland grey style? Then you can change it completely.
We're not massive fans of the add-on browsing experience in Firefox, but there's no doubting the potential to completely change it through their use.
A recent addition and fairly unique addition to Mozilla's browser is Firefox Hello, which is essentially a WebRTC-based video chat service built right into the browser. Why would you want this over your existing, separate video calling tool, like Skype or FaceTime?
You may not, but one big advantage is compatibility. You can make calls from Firefox Hello to users with Firefox, Chrome, or Opera, and Microsoft is said to be implementing support for its browsers too. Not everyone has Skype or FaceTime installed, but an awful lot of people have one of the aforementioned browsers.
Another advantage is the lack of fuss - you don't need to set up an account to make use of Firefox Hello, and you don't need to install any extra software or plug-ins.
Overall, it's easy to see why Firefox is the first choice for many power users who like their browser feature-packed and arranged just so. However, we find its default layout just a little clunkier than the likes of Chrome and Safari for general web use.
Key features: Turbo mode, Speed Dial
Opera is a small player in the web browser game, but it's stayed relevant by picking its fights carefully, copying the big boys where necessary and finding a useful niche for itself.
It has adopted Google's Chromium web engine as its own, and indeed at first glance the latest version of Opera has a lot of the look and fell of Chrome about it.
What that means is that it holds its own in terms of usability and speed - but its those extra features that really make it stand out.
First up there's Speed Dial, which isn't quite as unique as it once might have been. This is essentially the same as opening a new tab in the other browsers, with thumbnails of your favourite websites laid out in an attractive grid.
It's a lot more colourful and attractive here than, say, Firefox or Chrome, though it's less useful than Safari's. Also, there's a Discover feature found here that offers up a selection of current stories. It's a handy way to quickly digest the day's news, if you're in a rush and don't have a preferred provider of such things.
But by far the best and most unique feature of Opera is Turbo mode. This saves bandwidth and compresses data while you browse the web, speeding up performance on poor connections.
It essentially optimises each web page you request in the cloud, shaving off inessential image pixels, removing extraneous page elements, and compressing downloads.
The obvious beneficiary of this is the mobile phone version of Opera, particularly with those on data-restricted contracts. But it also pays off on laptops when browsing from a congested public Wi-Fi hotspot, or even on your computer at home during particularly busy periods.
Another interesting feature here is that Opera will restore your previous browsing session when you boot it up by default. This will be a nice touch for some and incredibly irritating for others. Naturally, you can adjust this in the preferences section, but it's another small sign of how Opera is working smartly to differentiate itself from its bigger, richer rivals.
Opera may have become a little 'me too' in recent versions, but it still has the headline features to warrant a place as your second or third web browser.
Key features: Optimised for Mac, Reader mode, easy access to favourites
Apple's own web browser used to be a bit of a joke - a walled off, single-platform (two if you include iOS) browser with a feature set that lagged behind its rivals.
But Apple has improved its baby significantly in recent years, to the point where it's a contender for the top spot for Mac users - particularly those who also use Safari on their iPhones. The bookmark and history syncing there is great, with Continuity allowing you to quickly continue web browsing sessions from one device to the next.
The latest version of Safari has been designed with OS X Yosemite's crisp new design in mind. It's significantly streamlined over previous versions, with the chunky title bar removed. There's considerably less clutter here than before, and even in comparison to other browser.
Little touches also reflect this stripped-out aesthetic, such as the fact that web addresses in the universal address box (yep, Apple has adopted this too) just display the basic website you're on rather than the string of additional text that points to specific sections and stories.
Apple's spartan (Microsoft pun unintended) approach also has its drawbacks. The most glaring of these, to our mind, is Safari's handling on tabs. It doesn't add individual website icons to their tabs, which gives a cleaner and more consistent view at the expense of legibility. Once you have a number of tabs over, it's impossible to navigate between them quickly without using the separate 'show all tabs' button.
There are extensions available that add this ability, but we really shouldn't have to rely on them.
Speaking of extensions: Safari has them. They're pretty useful too, embedding into the browser and enhancing its capabilities according to your needs. We run an ad blocker and a Pocket tool (saving stories for later viewing through the mobile app), and they sit nicely alongside the omnibox.
One feature we really like about Safari is the way it handles bookmarks and favourites. Yes, there's a now normal grid of favourites when you open a new tab (though it's particularly well handled here), but the best bit is when you click on the address bar, the same list of favourite websites pops up instantly. It makes navigation a whole lot quicker, and means that we rarely have to dig through menus to get to a saved bookmark like we do on Chrome.
Another great feature is Safari's built-in Reader View option, tucked into left side of the address bar. Hit this and the current website will be rendered in a beautiful stripped-back text-only format, like you're reading a well-presented Word or Pages document. Alongside this, you can hit a little plus sign that appears in order to add the web page to your reading list - and offline, read-me-later feature that's also built into Safari.
If you do a lot of reading of long-form articles on the web, then Safari is arguably the strongest browser of the lot.
Key features: Ubiquity, Windows 8 integration, Tracking Protection
It might sound crazy, but we seriously ummed and ahhed about including Internet Explorer in this round-up. It's not that the default Windows web browser isn't popular - it's the second-most popular in the world after Chrome.
It isn't that it isn't any good either, as we'll go on to discuss.
Rather, it's the fact that Microsoft is set to make Internet Explorer obsolete later this year. The software giant is going back to the drawing board with the completely new Edge browser for Windows 10, and IE will soon slip into a slow death spiral of legacy support and security upgrades.
Still, it's the longest serving browser on this list, and it's not dead yet. So what does it offer next to its rivals?
While Microsoft is ditching Internet Explorer, it's actually a very accomplished web browser. There's no ongoing support for a Mac version, but on PC it's a viable option.
Designwise it's arguably the most stripped back of the lot, with a transparent section immediately above the web content that leaves the settings, home key, bookmarks option, and even the web address bar floating in space.
We appreciate the sentiment here - it's a kind of minimalism one-upmanship - but it looks a little lopsided as a result. It also gets in the way of functionality, with the tabs squished right up alongside the web address bar, leaving less room for additional tabs. This can be changed in the right-click settings menu, of course, but most casual users probably won't notice.
You really notice the lack of favourites when you open a new tab, too - a touch that's made its way into all of IE's rivals.
Where Internet Explorer's strength really lies, still, is in its tight integration with Windows 8. Set it as your default browser and you get a full-screen web browsing experience that works particularly well with touchscreen devices, though it remains a little bothersome and laborious on a traditional PC or laptop (like Windows 8 itself).
Still, if you've bought into Microsoft's divisive take on the future of operating systems, we dare say that no other web browser will feel quite as intuitive.
You can also pin individual web pages to the Windows taskbar, which can prove to be the speediest route to your frequently-visited websites.
Another unique feature of Internet Explorer is its Tracking Protection facility, which sends Do Not Track requests to websites seeking to communicate with your browser. Provided the websites comply, they will be blocked from accessing much of your browser's information.
It's the only browser to do this, but it's a feature that won't be making its way into Edge, with few major websites playing along with these requests.
It's tricky to judge the relative speed of each browser in real world usage, because all of them perform well to the naked eye. Or at least, I couldn't spot any major or consistent differences.
Where there do appear to be variances to the eye, other factors (such as connection fluctuations and other background tasks) are often to blame.
So, we ran a couple of benchmark tests to establish which is the best performer. With Opera, Firefox, and Chrome, we ran these tests on both a Windows 8.1 system and an OS X 10.10 system. Given the difference in hardware specification between the two systems and Safari and IE11's platform-specific nature, it's still hardly scientific, but the tests gave a decent pointer as to relative performance.
First we ran the standard HTML5 test, which rates how well suited the browser is to running the modern web's key language. On this front, Chrome came out as the winner, with Opera not far behind (hardly surprising given that they're built on the same foundations).
Firefox was a creditable third, Safari a disappointing fourth, and Internet Explorer a distant last place. Bring on Edge, eh?
Ultimately, all are fast, but varyingly so depending on specific conditions.
It's difficult to go wrong with any of these modern browsers, but at this point there appears to be a clear weak link.
Internet Explorer has been a fine servant, but Microsoft is putting its slightly outdated components out to pasture - and so should you.
Of the rest, your choice will likely be influenced by your mobile browser of choice, which deserves its own piece.
Overall, though, we'd have to go with Google Chrome as the best overall choice for most people. It's fast, intuitive, and it does its best to get out of your way.
Its popularity and ubiquity on desktop and mobile platforms means that it's a great choice in terms of keeping a consistent experience across multiple devices and screen types, and its extension ecosystem is one of the best out there.
Still, Safari, Opera, and Firefox have plenty of unique attributes among them that will make them better suited to certain people, and many power and professional users will want to keep two or more to hand for various uses.
It's a good thing they all look and handle so similarly, then. Whichever of these four you choose, you really can't go wrong.