The browser battle has been raging almost as long as the internet has existed. But with new competitors in the fray and longtime entries revving up new technologies, the stakes have never been higher.
In the late nineties and early aughts, it was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer versus Netscape Navigator. Fast forward 20 years, and IE’s proprietary technologies for enabling interactive, application-like websites have given way to W3C standards-based features for delivering the online experience.
Meanwhile, the browser landscape has a new dominant force: Google, the search and web advertising behemoth that delivers the most content of any source on the internet (according to comScore), also claims nearly 70 percent of the browser market with Chrome (based on both NetMarketShare and StatCounter numbers). That’s for desktop use; if you add in mobile, Chrome is still king at over 60 percent.
Chrome may be leading in usage (except, of course, on Apple devices), but it’s not ahead by every measure or by number of capabilities. Firefox, Edge, Safari, and Opera all have features not found in Google's browser. That’s not to say that Chrome isn't an excellent piece of software, but you should know there are worthy alternatives. This article examines the top five browsers in the U.S. in order of popularity. Unfortunately, that rules out Brave and Vivaldi—both first-class and unique choices.
So what’s important in a browser these days? Speed and compatibility remain the top requirements. But in this day of the ever-present smartphone, the linkage between your desktop browser and your phone has become increasingly important. Indeed, some browsers now let you send a webpage from one device to another, and all let you sync bookmarks between them.
A rough measure of standards compatibility is the HTML5test website, which scores browsers’ compatibility with the moving target of web standards. The maximum possible score is 555, with points awarded for each standard supported. The new Chromium-based Microsoft Edge has taken over the lead from Chrome on this test with a score of 535 compared with Chrome's 528. The difference? Support for Dolby Digital and screenshots. Opera and other Chromium-based browsers hew closely to Chrome, while Firefox gets 491, and Safari 471. Just a few years ago, a score in the 300s was considered excellent, and Internet Explorer (still used by millions) is stuck at 312.
For speed testing, I ran each browser through the WebXPRT 3 benchmark, which tests the speed of internet applications such as photo enhancement, stock option pricing, encryption, and text manipulation. I tested on my Asus Z240IC 4K touch-screen all-in-one PC with a 2.8GHz Core i7-6700T processor running Windows 10. For Safari I used a 3.1GHz Core i7-4770S iMac (I realize the hardware is not completely comparable, but it’s sufficient for a rough comparison). Take benchmark results with a grain of salt, however, since purely synthetic tests don’t measure every component of actual browsing conditions.
In terms of disk space usage, on my Windows test system (after a cache clear) Edge took 319MB, Firefox 187MB, Opera 191MB, and Chrome 437MB. Since Chrome and Opera don’t report their storage use in the Settings / Apps & Features page, I used the size of their folders. I noticed that Chrome installs itself in the Programs (x86) folder, which is normally only for 32-bit apps; nevertheless, typing
chrome://version/ in the address bar showed I was testing with the 64-bit version.
Privacy, customization, convenience features, tab and start-page tools, and mobile integration have replaced speed and standards support as today's primary differentiators. All browsers now can remember passwords for you and sync them (in encrypted form) as well as your browsing history and bookmarks between desktops or laptops and mobile devices. Chrome by default signs you into Google services like Gmail and YouTube, which some consider presumptuous.
Privacy mavens like to use VPNs (virtual private networks) to hide browsing activities from ISPs and any other intervening entities between you and the site you’re visiting. Opera is the only browser that includes a built-in VPN. Firefox also has a good privacy story, with a private mode that not only discards a session’s history and cookies but also hides your activities from third-party tracking sites during the private session. In addition, Firefox and Safari include fingerprint protection—preventing trackers from identifying you based on your hardware and software setup. Firefox also has built-in Content Blocking to fend off known trackers and cryptocurrency-mining ploys.
Useful browsing tools can play a part in your decision, too. One, Reading Mode, strips webpages of clutter—mostly ads, videos, and content pitches—so you can focus on text. Another is the Share Button. With this era’s obsession with social media, it’s nearly an essential convenience.
Opera is alone among the popular web browsers included here with a built-in cryptocurrency wallet, though the aforementioned Brave browser also includes one. Opera is also notable for its Speed Dial, which consists of pinned tiles on your home screen (though the other browsers have similar functionality) and a toolbar for accessing frequently needed services such as WhatsApp.
Microsoft Edge offers voice-reading of webpages with remarkably realistic speech, a helpfully customizable homepage, detailed privacy settings, and (soon) a Collections feature for web research. Firefox lets you instantly save a page to Pocket or open a new Container in case you want to be logged into the same site with two different identities. Screenshot tools are making their way into browsers, with Edge, Firefox, and Opera for starters.
If you feel strongly about one browser or another, as is likely the case if you’re reading this, please feel free to let us know about it in our social channels.p>Most web users need no introduction to the search behemoth's browser, Google Chrome. It’s attractively designed and quick at loading pages. At this point most every website’s code targets it, so compatibility is usually not an issue. That said, every browser is occasionally flummoxed by a particular site or two, and sometimes a browser update breaks even well-crafted sites.
As mentioned earlier, Chrome gets top marks on the HTML5Test website. It also does reasonably well on the WebXPRT 3 benchmark, which tests the speed of internet applications like photo enhancement, stock option pricing, encryption, and text manipulation. It uses more RAM than other Windows browsers, but some of that is for speeding up operation by preloading content. It also creates far more program processes than the others, to ensure stability by isolating not only tabs, but also plug-ins and frames from other domains on the page.
Google is constantly working on security and feature enhancements, but as with all software, bugs happen, so make sure you stay updated. Another benefit of using Chrome is that you won’t have to dismiss those messages urging you to switch to Chrome every time you visit Google News, Gmail, YouTube, and so on.
Chrome can no longer boast any unique browsing features: There’s no built-in VPN, no fancy tab organization tools, no cryptocurrency locker, no Reading Mode, no share button, and no screenshot tool. That’s just fine for most web consumers, apparently. The Android version of Chrome has been getting more love from Google lately, with tab groups and dark mode.
Google has lately made two seemingly contradictory announcements, both concerning privacy. In May, it announced that it would be removing the API function that allowed ad-blocker software to fully block ads. Then in August it announced a set of open standards intended to enhance privacy on the web, called Privacy Sandbox. It’s just in the planning stage at present, and it tries to cater to both ad targeting and user privacy.
There are loads of features in Chrome that are only available to web geeks who can tinker in the about:flags settings. Examples include the recently announced password leak detection, a distilled page view, and forced dark mode for websites.
The Chrome mobile browser is very capable, and offers syncing of bookmarks, passwords, and settings. Like the desktop browser, it includes voice input when using Google search. The mobile browser also suggests content that may be of interest to you based on your browsing.
Firefox, an open source project from the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, has long been a PCMag favorite. The browser has pioneered many web capabilities and the organization that develops it has been a strong advocate for online privacy. It’s also notable for its wealth of available extensions. Pocket, the synchronizable site-saving service, is built in, and the unique Multi-Account Containers extension lets you sequester multiple logins to the same site on different tabs—without this, you'd have to open a private browsing window or another browser to sign out of all your web accounts and start a fresh session.
Mozilla’s browser is in the vanguard of supporting new HTML5 and CSS capabilities, and the company is working on open-source AR and speech synthesis standards. The organization now offers a full password management service called Lockwise, which can generate complex passwords, sync them between devices, and secure everything under a strong master password.
The mobile Firefox apps offer excellent interfaces, and you can send a webpage tab from any device to any others that are logged into your syncing account. That’s right: You can be reading a webpage on your desktop PC, and have it instantly open on your iPhone or vice versa—a slick and useful feature.
If that’s not enough, Firefox has a Pocket button in the address bar, letting you save a page for later viewing anywhere with one click. The Reader View button de-clutters a webpage loaded with ads, promos, and videos, so you can peruse it with no distractions. Finally, the browser is ultra-customizable, letting you select and arrange buttons on the toolbar to taste.
The default Mac and iOS browser is a strong choice, though its interface has some nonstandard elements on both desktop and mobile. Safari was a forerunner in a few areas of browser capability: For example, it was the first with a Reading mode, which cleared unnecessary clutter like ads and video from web articles you want to read. That feature debuted in 2010 and has made its way into all other browsers except for Chrome.
More recently, with macOS Catalina and iOS 13, Safari adds fingerprinting protection—preventing web trackers from identifying you by your system specs. The new version also gets Apple Pay support and a Sign in with Apple feature to replace Facebook and Google as web account authorizers.
If you use an iPhone and a Mac, Safari integration makes a lot of sense, since Apple’s Handoff feature lets you continue your browsing session between devices.
Safari has trailed other browsers on support for emerging HTML5 features, but I haven’t run into or heard of any major site incompatibilities with it. It performed faster than the other browsers here on the WebXPRT 3 benchmark, even though I was using an iMac with a Core i7 CPU a generation earlier than that of my Windows machine.
There’s a new Edge in town. The Microsoft developers in charge of Windows’ default web browser got tired of chasing compatibility issues resulting from site developers’ only targeting Chrome for compatibility. So, they decided to switch to using Chrome’s webpage-rendering code, Chromium, in the Edge browser software. That freed them up to add unique features instead of putting out compatibility fires. Notably, Edge now runs on Apple macOS and earlier Windows versions, in addition to Windows 10.
The compatibility is certainly now there in spades: For the first time since I’ve been reviewing browsers, another browser edges out Chrome on the HTML5Test measure of supported web standards. See the intro and table above for the actual scores. What pushes Edge over is support for Dolby Digital, ObjectRTC, and the Screen Capture API. In general, however, you won’t run into the kind of site incompatibilities that the previous Edge incarnation occasionally encountered.
Amusingly enough, Google still prompts you to download Chrome on its websites, even though there’s no difference in compatibility or performance when using Edge on those. If you’re a Netflix watcher, Edge is the only web browser that lets you view shows in 4K, and also the only Windows browser that supports Dolby Digital audio (Safari supports it, too).
But compatibility isn’t the only benefit of the new Edge: As you can see in the table above, it’s also a leader in performance as well as thrifty memory and disk usage.
What new features has the Edge team been working on, you ask? The initial focuses have been privacy, the customizable start page, and the intriguing Collections feature for web research. For enterprise customers who still rely on Internet Explorer to run legacy programs (and I still run into these at places like insurance and doctors’ offices), Edge offers an IE Mode, but this won’t be available in standard consumer setups.
Another new feature worth highlighting is Immersive Reader mode. Not only does this offer distraction-free web article reading, stripping out ads and nonessential eye candy (or eye poison, more aptly), but It can also read webpage text aloud using lifelike Neural Voices. This is really something to try: It reads with sentence intonation, rather than simply word-by-word, as we’ve come to expect text-to-speech audio.
The Collections feature presents a sidebar onto which you can drag webpages and images, write notes, and then share the whole assemblage to Excel or Word. This feature hasn't appeared in the released version, but works well in the beta and Microsoft says it's coming soon.
Maybe you don’t want a colorful corporate logo burning itself into your consciousness every time you open your browser? Edge offers four Home page options: Focused, Inspirational, Informational, and Custom. Focused is a blank page with search and buttons for your most-visited sites; Inspirational adds the gorgeous Bing photos that change daily as backgrounds; to all this, Informational adds customized news, weather, sports, and finance cards.
The browser offers three preset privacy levels: Basic, Balanced, and Strict. As you move from the first to the last, you increase privacy but possibly disable site features. The private browsing mode, like that in all browsers, doesn’t save any history from a private session.
Mobile versions for Android and iOS with syncing smooths moving from desktop to mobile, and I find that password management works more reliably than in most other browsers, though it’s still a good idea to use a separate password management utility such as LastPass.
Perennially hovering around the 2 percent usage level, the Opera browser has long been a pioneer in the segment, bringing us innovations as basic as tabs, CSS, and the built-in search box. Some people got scared of Opera when its parent company was bought by a Chinese investment coalition, but the firm is now publicly traded on NASDAQ, so the move was clearly just an investment and not some scheme to send data to Beijing.
In fact, Opera can make a bigger privacy claim than any other browser—if you’re a believer in VPNs, since it includes a built-in VPN that works well and quickly. Some consider Opera’s VPN to actually be an encrypted proxy server, but the only real difference between it and a standard VPN is that it only protects and reroutes traffic from Opera itself, rather than from any internet-connected app on the computer or smartphone.
Opera uses the Chromium page-rendering engine, so you'll rarely run into site incompatibilities, and performance is fast. Opera also takes up far less drive space and memory than Chrome—hundreds of megabytes less in my testing with 10 media-rich websites loaded.
Beyond the VPN, another unique feature in Opera is its built-in ad blocker, which also blocks crypto-mining scripts and trackers. Note that Opera added crypto-mining protection more than a year before Firefox did. (Google is still mulling adding similar protection to Chrome.) Ad blocking also means less data consumed, especially of interest for those using metered connections or mobile plans with data caps.
More unique features in Opera include its Speed Dial start and new-tab page, its quick-access sidebar of frequently needed services like WhatsApp, and its cryptocurrency wallet, which supports Bitcoin and Tron.
On mobile, Opera Touch is a beautifully designed app that connects (via quick QR scan) to your desktop. My Flow is the result of this connection, letting you send webpages and notes between devices easily.