Thursday, March 24, 2011

Browser wars heat up between IE, Firefox & Chrome

The so-called browser wars have been rekindled this week with the launch of IE9 and Firefox 4, but both face stiff competition from Google's own Chrome browser.

Those with Chrome need do nothing in terms of upgrades as it updates automatically. For IE and Firefox users they must make a specific effort to upgrade, though they may be prompted by their browser software.

But what are the differences between the top three and is it worth switching? For some users, a browser is just a browser. But there are issues of speed, security and usability.

A look at IE9

On downloading and installing IE9, well one may as well at least try these things despite being a convert to Chrome, the first thing of note was the long installation time which involved a full restart of the computer. Some thirty minutes later and another 3 minutes waiting for the browser to launch, IE9 users are first confronted with a welcome screen.

"The first thing you'll notice when you open Internet Explorer 9 is the simplified design," a message reads. Well, that is one design feature that is apparent. But the first thing any user of Chrome will notice is how long the browser took to launch. While it actually took only around three minutes from a cold start, it felt like an eternity. On a subsequent cold start IE9 took less than 30 seconds, but even that is slow compared to the competition.

There is no prompt to import favourites, and of course no syncing with Google's cloud in this regard, since of course it is not Chrome. The address bar too is a step back in time for those used to Chrome's omnibar in which suggestions, including recent searches and favourites, are instantly displayed.

IE9 was launched in the last few days to a great fanfare, and 2.35 million downloads were recorded in the first 24 hours of its launch [BBC]. But Microsoft has some stiff competition from other web browsers.

Within days Mozilla unveiled its new Firefox 4 browser which saw nearly 5 million installations in a day [CNET / BBC].

While Google Chrome is used by only 13% of the world's Internet users, it is fast catching up. IE for all versions still accounts for more than 43% while Firefox has a user base of some 29%, but Chrome is growing while IE use is dropping and Firefox remains fairly static.

Technical comparisons

There are several major factors which affect users; the interface, speed, security and privacy, standards support and extra features. In terms of the interface the main three browsers are fairly similar. While Google was the first to create a minimalist feel, both IE and Firefox have emulated this design aspect. All have slightly different ways of facilitating the display of tabs, favourite apps and so on. Much of this is about personal preference however. The switch from any system may take some getting used to.


As regards speed, Chrome still leads the way though some tests show the others are catching up or are slightly ahead. In Javascript tests conducted by PC Mag there were varying results with IE9 winning the SunSpider benchmark test, Firefox winning its own Kraken test and Chrome taking first place in Google's V8. The results of the Sunspider benchmark test were not much different and IE showed a massive improvement on its predecessor. IE9 scored 246 ms, Firefox 280 ms and Chrome 10 283 ms while Chrome 11 beta scored 537 ms. IE8 failed altogether in Mozilla's Kraken test and Chrome came second being some 2,000 milliseconds slower than Firefox's 6,760 with IE9 trailing at more than 15,000 milliseconds. Chrome 11 beta came in a little slower still at 12,233 ms compared to Chrome 10's 8,171. Google's own V8 test showed Chrome 10 as being way out in front of Firefox 4 and IE9 which came 2nd and 3rd respectively. Chrome 11 beta gave a lower score than the stable version 10 but still beat Firefox 4 and IE9.

Start-up times showed Chrome to be the fastest, both in cold start-ups and warm start-ups. While memory, age and other factors will affect the start-up for different users, PC Mag's test showed Chrome 10 to be the fastest with a launch from cold in a blistering 2.6 seconds with IE9 launching in 3.6 seconds and Firefox 4 trailing at 6 seconds.

Standards support

Chrome still leads in terms of standards support according to PC Mag. The Acid3 test still fails in Internet Explorer. In the past it was a complete failure, but at least it now scrapes a reasonable 95/100. Only Chrome tops the chart with a 100% score. Moving on to the HTML5 test, and IE9 still under performs other browsers. Google's Chrome 10 hits in at 288 plus 5 bonus points from a possible 400 [Chrome 11 beta scores slightly less at 278 and 13 bonus points]. IE9 fairs badly scoring a poor 130 with 5 bonus points. Firefox 4 meanwhile scores 240 with 9 bonus points.

Privacy and Security

Security is an aspect of Web browsing that no one can afford to ignore. While all three browsers offer excellent tools like malware blocking and anti-phishing, Chrome has an edge with its full code sandboxing for the browser. This means the browser code can't mess with other areas of your computer. IE has partial sandboxing, with its protected mode, but only time will tell whether IE9 will prove to be as secure as Microsoft claim.

All three browsers include an "over the shoulder" privacy mode, which hides a browsing session from any future users of the computer in question. In Chrome the easy to launch incognito mode allows a user to browse without any data being stored in the computer

IE has a Tracking Protection feature which allows users to block tracking sites, such as DoubleClick, from following a users Web surfing history and tracking them.

User experience

Much of the above is technobabble for the average user. It is the using of the browser which counts. Again, being so used to Chrome, IE9 feels like a step back into the dark ages. One need only type 'yo' in Chrome's omnibar before it suggests YouTube and even one's own channel, given you've been there before. If already signed into Google it is literally one or two key strokes away. With IE one first had to type almost the entire phrase of YouTube, and even then it only returned a Google search rather than a suggested URL in a drop-down box. Then a further click was needed to access the site itself followed by the need to sign-in. All time wasting, something Chrome dispenses with.

Of course, IE9 learns from a users interaction. One can click an option to send keystrokes to Google, thus allowing instant suggestions. But is is very much a situation of starting from a clean slate.

The clean look is perhaps a step forward, though there will many who will wonder where all their add-ons have gone, such as the Google toolbar. They can be reactivated, but by default they are not displayed.

No syncing in IE

Both Chrome and Firefox offer syncing of bookmarks, passwords, and preferences, which lets users keep customizations when moving between different computers with the browser installed. Chrome's version is easier to setup up, requiring nothing more than a Gmail login.

Firefox, however, can also sync open tabs, history, and even tabs, so you can pick up where you left off when switching computers, or even move to a mobile device running Firefox or Firefox Home for iOS. Firefox does not facilitate the syncing of extensions or themes, while Chrome does. IE9 despite all the songs of praise by Microsoft does not offer any syncing.

For users with only one computer this is perhaps not an issue. But for those flipping between desktops at work and home as well as personal laptops, syncing is a massive time saver.

Extensions & tools

All three browsers offer extensibility through extensions, a capability most often associate with Firefox. Chrome offers over 10 thousand extensions in its gallery, but Firefox's 5,000-plus can more drastically change the operation and look of the browser. Chrome also possesses advantages over the others. Its extensions do not require a restart of the browser, they update automatically, and a user can choose whether they should run when in privacy [incognito] mode. Internet Explorer's extensions mostly fall into the Accelerator, Web Slice, Search provider, and toolbar categories, but there are a surprising number in many categories at Microsoft's IE Add-ons site.


Some 2.35 million people downloaded IE9 in the first 24 hours after its release though Microsoft are still fighting a losing battle in persuading some users to upgrade from earlier versions of the browser, and even its operating system. IE9 is not supported by Windows XP, something Microsoft want users to abandon. In February this year some 12% of the world population was still using IE6. Although this has fallen some 9% from 2010, IE6 is still popular in many countries.

In China more than 36% of the country's Internet users are still using IE6 and the most common operating system is XP. Part of the problem is that many people do not wish to change a system they are familiar with. But there are also practical issues. Many banks in China do not support IE7 or IE8 for online services. Even those using other browsers such as Firefox and Chrome have to switch back to IE6 for their financial transactions. Microsoft have set up a special page to show the use of IE6 and to encourage people to make the shift.

There are security issues affecting older browsers, and although Microsoft attempt to patch the holes as quickly as possible, the older operating systems and browsers are laying many people open to phishing and other cyberattacks.

It is a matter of opinion amongst some, but Google's Chrome browser is widely seen as being one of the most secure and safest browsers. Chrome updates automatically and often requires only a restart of the browser rather than the whole machine.

For many converts to Firefox and Chrome, Microsoft's new sparkly browser will fail to impress and is likely rust away on most people's desktops.

Chrome remains the clear winner

All three browsers are fast, trim, and up-to-date with standards support, and all are good choices. However while IE9 will run on Vista it works best on Windows 7. In addition many cannot make the choice since IE9 will not run on many other operating systems at all. Chrome and Firefox both work in all major operating systems; Linux, Mac, and Windows back to XP.

Chrome's Instant feature, built-in Flash and PDF reader, auto-updating, and great speed give it some serious advantages over the other two main contenders. Its full sandboxing for security further tips the odds in its favour, making it the best of the big three browsers to release in the last week or so.

Some users have complained that the RealPlayer video download feature fails to work in Chrome since the release of version 10, though it still works in IE and Firefox. But this aside, Chrome still stands out on top.

After a painfully slow and clunky 30 minutes of playing with IE9 I was bored and it went back into the box. Closing the program was a lot faster than its launch time [ZDNet].

Google setting the standards

Google has brought many innovations to the web and to the browser. Such moves have been copied and emulated, but few have been as refined as Google's offerings. Pushing yet another benchmark Chrome 11 beta was released on Wednesday and offers web developers the ability to build in speech to text support.

In a blog post Google says the new API allows developers to give web apps the ability to transcribe voice to text. When a web page uses this feature, a user may simply click on an icon and then speak into the computer's microphone. The recorded audio is sent to speech servers for transcription, after which the text is typed out.

It is not yet clear where Google will go with this, but it could prove to be useful in may applications. In conjunction with Google Docs and a fast Internet connection this API could make the composing of documents or taking notes that much faster. There are still problems with voice recognition however. A test page [obviously only usable in Chrome 11 beta] produced a few bizarre results. "Google Chrome is fantastic" returned "Google Chrome is a friend"!

Near enough perhaps, but certainly room for improvement. The browser wars certainly aren't over yet.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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