Firefox is winning the latest round of browser updates.Eric Larkin | Tuesday, July 01 2008
Today's challenging, feature-rich websites require a gutsy browser that can save you time with better performance, enhance your experience with new tools, and help protect your PC via stepped-up security.
Recognising the opportunity, Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla each want their latest product to be your browser of choice. I ran Apple’s Safari 3.1, Mozilla’s Firefox 3 (the feature-complete beta 5 release), and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 (still in an early beta version) through a series of tests – and compared their features – to see which one is the best bet.
How they stack up
My pick is Firefox 3, the most customisable of the three. If a polished package that doesn’t need a lot of tweaking suits you, Safari might be the right choice; just be aware of its minor security issues. Microsoft’s IE 8 is too embryonic to judge, but its new touches so far aren’t compelling.
Safari 3.1 completed the test in just over 4 seconds – significantly faster than its current competitors, Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7. Meanwhile, Firefox 3 also rocked the SunSpider benchmark, finishing in just 3.61 seconds. IE 8’s 10.2-second time on the test is weak in comparison, but the browser is still in early beta form. And even so, its mark is far better than IE 7’s 50 seconds.
To gauge memory use, I loaded four sites: CNN, Netvibes, PC World, and Yahoo Mail. And to check for possible memory leaks, I left each of those pages up for an hour. Firefox 3 used the least memory: 81MB to start and 85MB after an hour, versus Safari 3.1’s 94MB and 95MB. It’s unwise to put much stock in performance tests for an early beta, but IE 8 Beta 1 used 114MB at start and 118MB after an hour.
I also ran each browser through a set of standards-compliance tests formulated by the Web Standards Project.
Safari 3.1 passed the so-called Acid2 test and earned top marks on the forward-looking Acid3 test – which gauges a browser’s ability to use technology available for Web 2.0-rich sites – with a score of 75 out of 100. Firefox 3 also passed Acid2, and its beta 5 release scored 71 out of 100 on Acid3. IE 7 did not pass Acid2, but beta 1 of IE 8 did. Microsoft reports that it is working to make the new browser more standards-compliant, but nevertheless the IE 8 beta scored only 18 out of 100 on the Acid3 test.
The winner: Firefox 3
Though the latest version of Firefox retains much of its predecessor’s basic look, its usability has improved. For instance, as you type a web address into the address bar, Firefox 3 searches your bookmarks and browsing history for matches based on how often and how recently you visited a given site. To see the most important Firefox 3 upgrade, open either the history or the bookmarks window. Both of them now live in an SQL database that displays them together.
You can tag bookmarks and drag a URL from your browsing history directly into a bookmarks folder. A new Smart Bookmarks folder catalogues recently bookmarked, frequently visited, and recently tagged sites.
A star icon to the right of a URL in the address bar lets you add a new bookmark with one click, but doing this unhelpfully leaves them in an unfiled category whose contents you can see only in the full bookmarks window.
On the security front, the phishing-site filter from Firefox 2, which uses a blacklist to block known phishing pages, can safeguard you from notorious malware-pushing sites. And careless typers will appreciate the revised password saver: instead of having to decide between saving and cancelling a password before you know whether it’s the right one, you can defer that decision until after you log in.
Version 3 adds support for extended validation (EV) certificates, displaying a green button bearing the company’s name on sites, like PayPal, that use them (they provide better site identification than do the regular certificates that many encrypted sites employ). To get more information on a certificate holder, click the button.
These changes make for a better basic application, but ultimately it’s the add-ons that make the browser. Firefox 3 helps you find new extensions by including in its add-ons window a ‘Get Add-ons’ button for displaying and installing searched-for and recommended add-ons.
Clean: Safari 3.1
Safari 3.1’s minimalist metallic theme has clean lines and uses space well. Tabs smoothly link to the bookmarks bar above them, and pop-up notices – such as the one that appears when you add new bookmarks – use animation to flow into and out of the title bar. The load progress indicator (which fills in the address bar) is a nice design touch, as is the blue outline around a page’s currently selected text box.
The browser handles RSS feeds smoothly, and it can show all of the posts from RSS-feed bookmarks gathered in the same folder in a customisable display. On the other hand, Safari lacks an anti-phishing filter (standard in both Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7), and it doesn’t support EV certificates. Another drawback: Safari doesn’t permit third-party themes or add-ons.
Early Days: IE 8
Unlike the new Firefox and Safari browsers, which are ready to roll, Microsoft’s early beta of Internet Explorer 8 remains a work in progress. But IE 8 beta 1 does provide a glimpse of new features – such as WebSlices, which let sites create widgety snippets of information you can view by clicking a bookmark button. You can add a WebSlice to your Favourites bar to link to a TradeMe auction, say, or to a friend’s Facebook profile – and it will update with the latest information, just as an RSS feed would.
A second new feature is Activities: when you select text, a small green arrow appears. Clicking it opens a drop-down menu with options for translating the text, looking it up on a map (if it’s an address), or finding a definition. You can choose which web services to use for each activity when you install IE 8, much as you are prompted to choose a default search provider for IE 7. Right-clicking a selected text block or a page will link you to activities, too.
One of the best improvements in IE 8 is also one of the simplest: at any site you visit, IE greys out all but the domain name in the address bar. This anti-phishing measure helps you spot the common scammers’ technique of disguising the real domain in a URL that may start with something like ‘www.paypal.com’ and list the actual domain at the end of a string of nonsensical characters made to look like site input.
Microsoft says that it is also working to improve IE 7’s phishing filter; and IE 8 continues to support EV certificates, as IE 7 does.
Which one’s for you?
I’m sticking with Firefox as the best browser of the three. I use my browser for everything from word processing to story research to invoice filing, and I love being able to customise it.
If you’re a tinkerer, you’ll appreciate Firefox 3, which may be final by the time you read this. But if you don’t mind relinquishing the ability to customise in return for a nicely polished package, you might prefer Safari. Just be extra cautious at potential phishing sites.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is going to have to move fairly quickly if it wants to dissuade users’ from switching to alternative browsers. It will take more than Activities and WebSlices to make IE 8 a serious contender.
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