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26 Jan 12 Best browser 2012: which should you be using?

Competition among browsers is more fierce than ever.

Google’s knocking out new versions of Chrome at an alarming rate, Mozilla’s been pulling nightshifts to improve Firefox, and Microsoft’s rejuvenated IE team is doing great things with its browser.

There are great browsers from Opera and Apple too, not to mention mobile browsers for smartphones and tablets.

So which browser should you be using?

Let’s find out which ones offer the best blend of power, expandability and all-round awesomeness.

The best browser for speed

We tested the latest official releases of the big browsers: IE9, Safari 5.1, Firefox 9, Chrome 16 and Opera 11.6 to see how they performed on the desktop. All of the big browsers deliver speedy browsing, but there are still differences when it comes to things such as JavaScript performance, which affects the speed at which web apps and complex websites work.

In the Sunspider JavaScript benchmarks Firefox left its rivals in the dust, storming through the tests in a hugely impressive 189.4ms. Safari was next with 219.6ms, followed by IE9 (247.9ms), Opera (254.3ms) and Chrome (291.0ms). We saw similar results in Windows Vista, with Firefox narrowly pipping its rivals to take first place.

These figures are based on brand new installations without any plugins, extensions or similar: once you start loading your browser up with goodies, performance is likely to take a nose-dive.


WOW: Firefox is the speed king on Windows and on OS X, but there isn’t much in it: all the browsers are swift

The best browser for add-ons

You can get add-ons for all the main browsers, but Firefox has the edge here: its huge number of add-ons and Greasemonkey scripts mean that its reputation as the Swiss Army Knife of web browsers is well deserved. It’s far and away the most expandable web browser, and it’s got the best browser sync features too. Bear in mind, though, that all of the main browsers are expandable, and while some – such as Safari – don’t have enormous libraries of add-ons, you can still get the essential ones such as ad blockers, Twitter utilities and Gmail notifiers.

Opera deserves a special mention here because it’s more than just a browser. It has integrated email, newsgroups and IRC chat, the Opera Unite file server, Opera Turbo to improve performance on crappy mobile connections, and Sidebar-style widgets for games, web applications and utilities.

The best browser for Windows 7

Safari’s the first to fall here: it just looks odd on Windows, and doesn’t offer anything over its rivals. IE9 and Opera are both very nice to use on Windows 7 and make good use of taskbar pinning and jump lists, but Firefox has the edge in both speed and expandability and it’s our pick here.

Opera on windows 7

UNEXPECTED?: Opera’s a joy to use and worth considering if you like the idea of widgets, integrated email and file sharing

The best browser for Windows Vista

IE9 flies on Vista – it hammered through Sunspider in 193.7ms – but Firefox is faster still, scoring 192.2ms in the same benchmarks. Safari ran through the benchmarks in 224.4ms, Chrome 246.6ms, and Opera in 251.2ms. Firefox isn’t just the speediest browser on Vista, but the most expandable too.

The best browser for Windows XP

Internet Explorer takes an early bath here, because Microsoft doesn’t make IE9 for its ageing OS. That leaves Safari 5.1, Firefox 9, Chrome 16 and Opera 11.6; of the four, Chrome demands the least RAM and hard disk space, making it the best bet for older XP systems. That means Chrome’s the best browser for netbooks too: its more modest hardware requirements are a boon on relatively low-spec machines.

The best browser for OS X

Firefox was massively in the lead on OS X Lion, rocketing through Sunspider in 153.8ms compared to Safari’s 209.2ms, Opera’s 214.7ms and Chrome’s 225.3. However, it’s worth noting that while Safari’s figures look good on paper, they don’t reflect the way it chugged through the benchmarks as if it were wading through treacle.

Firefox’s speed is countered by what we think is a faintly horrible interface. If that isn’t your top priority then Firefox is the best browser for Mac users; if it annoys you, then Opera or Chrome is a better bet. While Safari is a perfectly decent browser, its rivals performed better in our tests.

The best browser for privacy

All of the browsers we tested had excellent privacy protection including private browsing and warnings of suspicious web pages, but IE9 is marginally ahead of the pack here: its tracking protection enables you to subscribe to lists that tell specific kinds of websites not to track you, which is potentially more useful than a global “do not track” option.

The best browser for HTML5

All of the main browsers support the important bits of HTML5, but when it comes to full standards support Chrome and Firefox are in the lead by a significant margin. According to the excellent, Firefox and Chrome score 89% for HTML5 standards support, with Safari at 78%, Opera 74% and IE9 52%. If you add CSS support into the equation the scores are 87% for Firefox and Chrome, 83% for Safari, 75% for Opera and 59% for IE.

HTML5 in ie9

LAGGING BEHIND: All the browsers support key HTML5 features, but IE9 lags behind when it comes to full standards support

The best browser for Android

The stock Android browser is pretty good, but we think Opera Mobile has the edge for smartphones: it’s got a lovely interface, goes like the clappers – we’ve previously described it as “comically fast” on decent kit – and synchronises well with its desktop cousin. On tablets, the standard browser is still our preferred option: while Dolphin for Pad and Firefox are looking pretty nifty, they’re both still in beta.

Opera on android

CACHE KING: Opera Mobile for Android is particularly good on mobile phones. It’s “comically fast” on decent kit

The best browser for iPad

The lack of tabs in Apple’s Safari drove us daft on the original iPad, but now it’s got tabbed browsing and iCloud syncing we think it’s the best browser on the platform, especially on the iPad 2: in our experience it’s faster and more reliable than iCab Mobile, considerably nicer to look at than Atomic Browser, and less likely to dump you back to the home screen for no good reason than non-Apple browsers.

Safari on ipad

NATIVE THE BEST: Tabbed browsing and iCloud synchronisation make Apple’s own Safari the best bet for iPad owners


Liked this? Then check out Hands on: IE10 review (Platform Preview)

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