Best Free Web Browser 2011

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Back in the early 1990s when the World Wide Web was young, there was only one web browser worth using Netscape, which had evolved from Mosaic. Then Microsoft gave us Internet Explorer and subsequently started including it with their OS. Thus began the browser wars, and IE eventually emerged as the clear winner.

Since then of course there has been a virtual explosion of browsers. Some are designed to be minimalistic and others target specific users such as those majoring on social networking. There are also clones of established browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome which seek to improve on the original by being “leaner” or offering different features.

When it comes to web browsers, everyone has an opinion. Every web browser will have a specific feature set that appeals to some but not to others. The criteria used for selecting browsers in this review are as follows:
Speed – How fast does the browser load a page? Important in any browser, but not the only criterion for judgment.
Security – How well can the browser handle exploits in web coding as well as keeping your online information safe? Some browsers today even have a “Private browsing” mode that leaves no trace of your browsing history on the PC.
Ease of use – How intuitive and easy to use is the browser?
Feature set – What kind of features are available to enhance the browsing experience (eg tabbed browsing, handling of bookmarks, etc.)?
Flexibility and Expandability – Can the browser handle badly coded or non-compliant HTML pages? Is it expandable through add-on programs? Does it display included content (such as flash video) properly?

Mozilla Firefox

The Heavyweight Champion, Mozilla Firefox, is back after being dormant in Betas for the last couple of months. FF is now faster, more powerful and enhanced with new features. It’s an absolute pleasure to use.

User Interface The new UI is minimalistic, pretty and polished. The tabs lie above the address bar and are easily draggable, while cycling between tabs has become lot easier. The status bar is gone, floats into view when you mouse over a link or while a page is loading. The orange Menu Bar is now squished into the top left corner, where it lets you pull down a list that gives you access to all the browser options. The home button and the dedicated bookmarks button (star to bookmark) have been shifted to the far right and the stop and reload buttons are now transformed into a single button towards the right of the location bar (ie address bar), also known as the Awesome Bar. The button goes green while you’re typing into the address bar and then turns Red (Stop) while the URL is being resolved. The search box lies to the right of the location bar, and various search engines can be customized.

Features If you type/select in the location bar the address of a tab which is already open, the Switch to Tab feature will let you switch straight to the open tab of interest. App tabs pins tabs as favicons in the tab bar on the far left, which glows when updated. Tab panorama organizes tabs into manageable groups that can be named, organized and edited (press Ctrl+Shift+E). The address bar has a dual function (paste&go and paste&search). Firefox Sync lets you synchronize browser bookmarks, history, passwords and even open tabs between different computers. Firefox can be personalized through add-ons and themes (Personas). Add-On manager opens up as a tab now with various options Add-Ons (popular & featured), Extensions, Appearance and Plugins; of note, the Get Add-ons tab includes a search box to call up available add ons from AMO (addons.mozilla.org). Video rendering supports Google’s WebM and the open source Egg Theora format. Manual updating is done through the About option in the Help menu.

Performance, Memory Usage, Stability The new Jagermonkey javascript engine running on top of Gecko 2.0 rendering engine makes it 6 times faster than FF3. Nevertheless, FF is still a memory hog and RAM usage increases dramatically as more add-ons are used. Plugin processes are separated from the main process by plugin-container.exe, thereby providing better stability. Freezing and crashing is greatly reduced than its former version. FF4 scored 97/100 in the Acid3 test. FF4 uses Hardware Acceleration of the CPU (harnessing the power of the GPU rather than the CPU to render web page graphics) and has full WebGL and 2D experimental support.

Security Minor security improvements like Content Security Policy (blocks cross site scripting attacks) and HTTP Strict Transport Security ( prevents login info from being intercepted) have been implemented. Instant WebSite ID gives users personal analytics data about websites. Do Not Track blocks websites from installing cookies. Forget This Site removes any evidence of the site on computer.

The customization capability of FF is unparalleled by any browser. Though the development of FF4 was long and rough, the fruits of the work can be clearly seen in its newest version. HTML5 support, hardware accelerated graphics, improved CSS3 support, good looking fonts, 3D video, multi-touch in Win7, crash protection and FF sync are some of its features that show to the internet world who the real KING is!

Opera

Opera, which was once a paid software, might be the most feature rich browser ever. Its eye candy interface combined with speed, security and lightness gives us a rich browsing experience.

If Opera Turbo was the main highlight in its earlier version, release of version 11 provides further surprises. A faster javascript engine with improved HTML 5 support, CSS3 rendering, and a one-third reduction in disk burden with respect to the last version (despite the new features) makes us WOW.

Opera was one of the pioneers of tabbed browsing. Now, the introduction of Tab stacking makes working with multiple tabs a whole lot easier by letting you drag and drop tabs one over the other to create a stack. Hovering around the tabs displays thumbnail previews – a unique feature. Reopening closed tabs has been made easier thanks to a clickable bin icon in the menu bar. Visual mouse gestures allows you to perform most basic actions with a flick of the wrist, and holding down the right button brings up a visual guide. A smarter and Safer address bar hides protocol information and provides information on site security level (Ash web, Yellow secure, Green Trusted, Blue Turbo). An enhanced mail panel and newly the introduced Support for Extensions (in addition to the existing widgets framework) enables us to personalize Opera even more.

A handy mention goes to the so-called ‘big 3’, a set of functions which makes Opera stand out from other browsers… Opera Link (merges all bookmarks across all opera browsers), Opera Turbo (speeds up page loading) and Opera Unite (share content with other Opera users). Speed dial with up to 9 dials (can be configured for more), search engine customization options, a Personal bar, notes synchronization, pop up blocking and an integrated mail client truely shows how rich a browser can be. Quick find helps users to recall the pages they visited, by typing any text of that page in the address bar. Plugins can be switched on and off to decrease page load times and increase security.

Other respectable features include tab previews, newsgroups support, built in session manager, password and download manager, page zooming, Google search predictions and an inline spell checker with support for over 51 languages. Despite its promising offerings and pioneering features, Opera does not have the benefits of back up from a large organization or user community – unlike other top browsers such as IE, Safari, Chrome and Firefox.

Google Chrome

Based on the open source WebKit engine and Google’s V8 Javascipt engine, Google Chrome has been one of the fastest browsers available across multiple benchmarks. It’s pleasant, fast, standards compliant and versatile. Google’s fastest browser tuned itself from a fast, lightweight browsing alternative to an innovative browser with competitive features.

With version 9 Chrome has three new main features. Chrome instant search loads up web pages in an instant (default switched off, check tools menu). Start typing the name of any website and Chrome instantly guesses which site you are trying to visit and opens it automatically. WebGL support – the cutting edge hardware accelerated 3D graphics – gives support and access to Google’s new Chrome Web Store to find web applications and extensions for the browser. Reassuringly, the 9 security flaws of its previous version have now been dealt with. Google Cloud Print lets you print remotely to printers connected to another PC (tools -> options -> under the hood).

Chrome has been always known for its impressive usability, ease of use and a clean minimalistic streamlined interface with powerful tools.The Chrome interface gives more room to the pages you are visiting. The tabs are dynamic and detachable. Hence, dragging and dropping of tabs between windows has never been easier. Since each tab exists in its own environment, when a page crashes in one tab the issue doesn’t spread to the others (though memory leak seems to be a concern here). When opening a new tab you can get a visual sample of most visited websites, recently closed windows, applications & bookmarked pages.

Omnibox (an all in one purpose bar for web search, history, address bar and suggestions) and Incognito window (private browsing mode) are the two major terms merged with Google Chrome. Downloads appear at the bottom of window (phew… I hate it when pop ups hit the window every time I download). The ‘star’ icon bookmarks a page and the ‘spanner’ one provides access to Chrome’s controls and customization options. Both of these appear on the right. On the left, and an ‘earthly’ icon provides the security level information about the website you’re visiting (when not using SSL, in which case a ‘lock’ icon appears). Chrome extensions appear only as icons to the right of the location bar, thereby maintaining a uniform look, while limiting customizability. Sidebars are not yet available. The extension, bookmark and download manager features are not so robust.

Chrome provides broad search engine control and customizability. It’s easy to tweak privacy settings and toggle flash plugin, inbuilt pdf reader, javascript, pop-ups etc. Chrome excels in account syncing and you can sync themes, autofill entries, extensions and bookmarks via a gmail account. Automatic updating, auto blocking of harmful websites, translation features and a pdf viewer are all baked inside the browser. Being a leader in HTML5 implementation, Chrome is surely making waves in the browser world.

Apple Safari

Apple’s new Safari, along with the release of the God phone I-Phone 4, are certainly good news to browser fans. Not much has changed in version 5 except for some neat features. With a slight improvement in performance and standards support, Safari is still the best browser for MAC.

Its looks didn’t seem too appealing to me and lack of Aero support makes me wonder whether Apple can code right for Windows. Fast? …Definitely, and its new Nitro javascript engine (formerly SquirrelFish) on top of Safari’s WebKit engine definitely makes it feel very fast, almost one-third more than its previous version, rivalling King Chrome. Performance has been improved thanks to graphics hardware acceleration (smoothes rich media), DNS prefetching and improvements in the Nitro Javascript engine and page caching.

The url bar is smarter and shows previously visited sites and top hits, as well as URLs in the history and bookmarks, but it still isn’t smart enough, as Chrome provides a unified one (location bar & web search). The new tab page is vivid and presents a 3D gallery view of the 12 most visited sites and a cover flow history view. Tabs are kept below the navigation bar with forward and back buttons, location bar, search box, current page menu and preferences menu. The customization options, which add a new spicy feel, include opening into new tab, tab focus, confirmation when closing multiple tabs, and visual indicators for multi-tabs. The search box is alongside the address bar and the search engine of choice can be customized (default Google, Yahoo, Bing).

Extensions in Safari are disabled by default (ever wondered right now its useless) and sandboxed (for child protection, security and scalability). Also, the browser extension framework urges developers to create extensions in html, javascript and css, and to fill forms to package and distribute them through the Safari Developer Program. The best feature yet in v5 is the Safari Reader, an adaptation of bookmarklet “Readability”. Safari identifies a web page as an article by heuristics and thus presents a “reader button” in the location bar. At the bottom of the reader window the window buttons let you zoom in and out, e-mail and print. The reader actually strips out pictures and video, and we have pure scrollable text view without any ads, widgets, sidebars, header, footer in a white overlay window (note images still don’t print).

Safari learns which sites are your favorites and presents them under the top sites icon on the left in a cover flow navigation layout along with the history by switching tabs. The bookmarks bar brings forth “Collections” which can be customized to display by default history, bookmarks menu, RSS feeds, and imported favorites. Other features include pop up blocking, inline find, snapback (go to the first level without hitting back buttons), resizable text fields, private browsing and more. While scoring 100% in Acid3 test, surfing has been a near pleasure on Safari.
Microsoft Internet Explorer

The erstwhile giant turned mediocre franchise Internet Explorer now roars back into the browser competition, facing the heat from Chrome and Firefox, with its newest version 9, smarting other browsers with epic new changes.

Interface Stripped down interface, clean and simple, more focus on web content now than the browser frame, with transparent top and side borders. Square edged tabs lie alongside the address bar by default (they can be moved down via the context menu). The status, menu and tool bars are all gone by default, while the button icon uses new artwork. The New Tab page opens up thumbnails of frequently visited websites (which can be disabled for privacy), with a bar showing the frequency of visits. Reopen closed tabs and previous browsing sessions with In-Private browsing is also included along with a ‘Discover other sites you might like’ icon and a Suggested Sites feature in the new tab window. The Home button with the Favourites star button (managing bookmarks) and a gear shaped Tools button (controls access to all options) lies to the upper right corner, while the back (significantly larger) and forward buttons are present to the left.

Features “One Box” combines the search box within the location bar. Hence, navigation to sites and viewing of browsing history and favourites can be done in the same box. The Auto-suggest feature is turned off by default and various search providers can be customized. The new Pinned Sites feature docks sites to the taskbar (click, hold & drag tab) as favicons and custom jump lists and overlays can be provided. Multiple sites can also be added to a pinned site icon. Tab sandboxing prevents a single tab crash from taking down an entire page. In-Private browsing provides an anonymous browsing mode. The IE9 Notification Bar alerts users when visiting webpages containing insecure and secure content, and this in-turn is less intrusive by appearing at the bottom of the browser. The long awaited new Download Manager is now included.

Performance, Standards and Stability Inclusion of GPU acceleration now shoves the rendering tasks to the graphics card. This especially accelerates rendering of HTML5 graphics. The new JavaScript engine Chakra is now lightyears faster than its predecessor. IE9 utilizes WebM video codec. Crashing has now been almost eliminated and the browser is highly stable. For the tabs, Hang Recovery mechanism comes into effect when a website script runs forever and Crash Recovery restores unresponsive tabs or reloads groups of tabs to the last good configuration. Add-on performance advisor provides an intuitive page which shows the time taken to load the installed add-ons while disabling unwanted ones.

Security A Tracking Protection feature which blacklists bad sites auto-populates while visiting them (sites can be manually added too) and prevents the browser from downloading various tracking devices (JavaScript and pixel images). A Do Not Track feature compliments it by a header based solution, preventing advertisers from tracking your activities. The new ActiveX filter blocks all ActiveX content by default, while allowing you to activate them when needed (by toggling a ‘line crossing circle’ icon). Unsafe downloads are flagged using a reputation mechanism through the SmartScreen filter which protects users from phishing sites.

Internet Explorer has now resurrected from re-cycle bins to a respectable position, earning a sweet spot in this category for the first time. IE has finally found its ground and made its best shot to stop the market erosion caused by FF and Chrome. The “yet another browser” perception tag has changed.

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