Rounding up the most popular Web browsers

By IKU KAWACHI

Many of us probably use the default Web browser that comes installed with our computers’ operating systems — whether it be Windows Internet Explorer or Apple Safari — with nary a second thought.

Indeed, one monthly study by Net Applications shows that Internet Explorer still accounts for some 60 percent of browser market share, followed by 23 percent for competing Mozilla Firefox. Even if your Web-browsing needs consist almost entirely of reading news articles, interacting with friends on Facebook, and flipping through the occasional album on Picasa, however, there are numerous alternatives with unique features and capabilities that may be worth serious consideration.

Internet Explorer, now in version 8 (with 9 available as a public beta), was first released in 1995 and has become a mainstay in personal computing, due largely to Microsoft’s controversial approach of bundling it with its Windows line of operating systems. The latest version is equipped with most of the features that have become common among browsers, such as a privacy mode (“InPrivate Browsing”) and tabbed browsing. It also has a unique feature called “Web Slices,” which allows users to track changes and subscribe to certain portions of a page. The interface can be somewhat cluttered, though, especially when additional toolbars are enabled. More importantly, it’s often sluggish in displaying content, lagging behind competing browsers.

Mozilla Firefox is the most popular open-source browser on the Web, currently in version 3.6, and is powered by the venerable Gecko layout engine. In addition to mainstream features like tabbed browsing, a privacy mode and spell checking, it has also gained a following for its enormous selection of add-ons such as Adblock Plus and Video DownloadHelper that can extend or improve the capabilities of the browser. Its memory footprint is also relatively small, freeing up system resources for other applications. Firefox has come under some criticism for its lack of support for certain types of scripts and multimedia plug-ins, though, and it provides little advantage in speed over Internet Explorer.

Apple released version 5 of its popular Safari browser, available for both Windows and Mac OS X, this June. Its user interface is minimalist, sleek, and attractive—in typical Apple fashion—and it does the simple things well, rendering HTML and CSS elements quickly on Mac OS X. Its performance on Windows machines, however, has been regarded as somewhat spotty. Its toolbars and overall interface also have little customizability, a major disadvantage for more tech-savvy users who spend long hours browsing the Web and would like every feature no more than a couple of clicks away.

Google Chrome 7.0Google Chrome, now in its seventh iteration, may be the best browser on the market today: it has a simplistic, no-nonsense interface that can also be customized via hundreds of themes, and it is seamlessly integrated with Google‘s family of products. Instead of having an address bar and a separate search box, its innovative “Omnibox” combines the functions of both, recognizing when a user enters a search query rather than a URL. Perhaps most importantly, it’s fast—it came out first among the five most popular browsers in Tom’s Hardware‘s “Web Browser Grand Prix” showdown in March.

Finally, Opera, currently in version 10.6, is a little-known but compelling alternative to the aforementioned industry “heavyweights”. Opera Software describes its browser as the “fastest browser on Earth”, and while that may be a bit of an exaggeration, its load times often beat those of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari. Users can view tabs as thumbnails of pages (instead of simple text descriptors), and its toolbars and various widgets are also highly customizable. Some users may find its interface somewhat quirky, however, and even the most popular Web sites are rarely designed for Opera, putting it an inherent disadvantage in rendering pages.

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