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The Browser Wars Revisited?

Suddenly there’s more speed, more sophistication, more choice. Is it time to make a change?

By Bill Camarda

If you spend as much time on the web as some of us do, you could be spending more time with your web browser than you do with your spouse and kids. For most of us – roughly 70% at last count – that means you’ve been snuggling with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. On Windows PCs, that’s the browser that came preinstalled. As with more than a few marriages, this is a relationship that often endures based on inertia, if not necessarily passion. But some new young new browsers are out there nowadays, trying to catch your eye. And Microsoft, which took for you for granted for years, has also been working out and getting buff.
So, should you stray, or should you stay? Let’s take a look at the contenders for your affections.
Mozilla Firefox 3.0.4

Mozilla Firefox, with about 20% market share, is now the world’s #2 browser. It’s also one of the world’s leading “open source” projects, which means it was created by volunteer programmers who make all the underlying code available for anyone to explore and play with. Lots of folks have been doing precisely that, and they’ve helped dramatically improve FireFox since it was first introduced. 

Many open source projects result in clumsy, “written by a committee” interfaces. But Firefox Version 3.0.4 is friendly, comfortable, and a lot faster and more reliable than it used to be. (The forthcoming Firefox 3.10 is expected to be faster still.)  

A few Firefox’s features are especially worth your attention. To begin with, there’s the “Location Bar,” a.k.a, “Awesome Bar.” You start typing what you’re looking for, and Firefox gives you a list of web pages it thinks you might want, based on “frecency” – a mixture of the pages you’ve visited most frequently and those you’ve visited most recently. Unlike some similar shortcuts we’ve seen over the years, it really works -- and, as Firefox gets to know you, the results keep getting better. It can be a huge timesaver. You might eventually decide you don’t even need to bother bookmarking pages anymore: the Awesome Bar will almost always get you where you’re trying to go.

Firefox’s attraction to programmers gives it one more powerful advantage: they’ve created huge numbers of “add-ons” that customize Firefox in all sorts of ways. For example, StumbleUpon “discovers web sites based on your interests, learns what you like and brings you more,” while AdBlock prevents web page ads from loading. (You can explore the full collection of Firefox add-ons at addons.mozilla.org.) Today, no browser is more “tweakable.”

Apple Safari 3.1

Apple’s Safari
browser comes with every Macintosh, and Windows users can download Version 3.1, too. As Macs have become more popular, Safari’s market share has grown: currently about 6% of web surfers are using it. What makes Safari special? For one thing, Apple’s brought some of its trademark elegance and simplicity to Windows with its Safari 3.1 web browser.

Safari’s user interface uses up no more real estate than necessary, leaving more room for the pages you want to see. Safari also contains more than a few Apple touches: a bookmark management tool that looks and works a whole lot like iTunes; built-in color technology that displays some web images more accurately; and a “SnapBack” feature that makes it extremely easy to get back to a page you were viewing a little while ago.

Performance is solid, and Safari boasts some of the best compliance with web site development standards we’ve ever seen (though many sites don’t support web standards perfectly because they need to work with Internet Explorer, a browser doesn’t support them perfectly, either).

Google Chrome 1.0

Just days before this was written, Google Chrome moved from “beta” to “finished product” status, though, as with most Google products, it’s permanently a work in progress: you’ll open it one day and find that it’s been automatically updated to work a little better, or deliver a new feature that wasn’t there before.

Chrome’s #1 advantage: it’s wicked fast – especially when you’re running the slick, sophisticated applications that are becoming increasingly common on the Web. Google planned and built Chrome from the ground up to run these applications really well. (That’s no wonder, since Google clearly intends to dominate the Internet by providing applications just like these, such as its increasingly popular Google Docs office productivity suite.) Chrome’s also architected so that if one web site crashes, any other sites you have open should keep on working, rather than forcing you to restart the whole browser. That’s awfully welcome, though not yet 100% foolproof. (If you want the gory details about Google Chrome’s technology, Google’s created an online comic book – yes, a comic book – that’ll explain it all to you.

Google Chrome’s interface makes Safari’s look gaudy. For one thing, there are no menus: just a row of tabs at the top of the screen that correspond to the pages you have open at the time. Open an empty new page, and Google shows you thumbnails and lists of the sites and pages you’ve opened or bookmarked most recently, since you might well be intending to return to one of those. You can enter web searches and page addresses in the same “Omnibox”: Chrome knows the difference and responds accordingly. It’s a neat and innovative piece of work. But, one downside: if you like to customize your browser, you’ll find far fewer options for doing that than Internet Explorer or Firefox give you. 

Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 (Beta 2)

For years, Microsoft sat on its lead in browsers, allowing Internet Explorer 6 to get creakier and creakier in its old age. But with major competition on the horizon, Microsoft got busy – delivering one substantial upgrade (Internet Explorer 7), and, very soon, another (Internet Explorer 8, now in the late testing stages). We’ll talk about “IE8,” since we’re expecting it to be finalized soon. But remember: as an unfinished “beta,” it’s still a bit crash-prone. (Thankfully, Microsoft’s added a new crash protection feature that limits the damage to the page you’ve visited, rather than unceremoniously shutting down the entire browser.)

Microsoft’s brought quite a bit of innovation to IE8, though you’ll have to do some exploring on your own to find it all. Among IE8’s coolest new features: “Accelerators.” Say you see a word on a web page and don’t know what it means. Select the word; then click on the blue Accelerator icon that appears. You’ll see several options; choose “Define with Encarta,” and the definition appears right in front of you – you needn’t even browse to another page.

Another nifty feature (but read Microsoft’s privacy statement before you enable it): “Suggested Sites.” Found a site you really like? Microsoft will recommend other, similar sites you’d like, too. And, speaking of privacy, IE8’s “InPrivate” browsing feature lets you explore the web without leaving traces of where you’ve been on your computer (though your Internet Service Provider might still know).
Take the fling!

None of these browsers will transform your life. But upgrading could make your web browsing experience a whole lot faster and more pleasant. If you haven’t upgraded in awhile, they’re all a whole lot better than what you’re using now. Unless your company forces you to use business software that demands a specific browser or version, it’s time to move up (even if you decide to stay with Microsoft). All these browsers are free, and they’ll all import the “favorites” or “bookmarks” you’ve already created. So, take the fling: you’ve got nothing to lose!

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.

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