Having the right web browser can completely change the way you use the internet. Even though they all look almost identical (we’ll discuss why shortly), each has its own unique features and tweaks which makers hope will persuade you to make the leap, and most have some annoying little niggles that could be showstoppers for you.
We’ve put all the mainstream browsers currently available for desktop computers through their paces on a Windows-based test machine, but all are available for macOS, Linux, iOS and Android unless otherwise stated.
What to look for
When deciding which browser to choose, you should ask yourself a few questions about how you’re going to use it. For example, if your company uses bespoke web apps, you’ll need to check if the browser will support them. Although there’s been a huge improvement in compatibility between different browsers, meaning 99% of pages work on 99% of browsers, there are still risks to going “off-piste” if you’re using your machine for work.
If you’re using a budget machine, with limited RAM or a slower CPU, you should consider browsers with a lower resource footprint to avoid lagging and freezing. Additionally, try and find the browser which has as many of your must-have features built in to it as possible. You can add extensions, of course, but each extension will hog even more RAM.
We’ve assumed for the purposes of this round-up that you’re using your computer for work, but if you have specialist needs, there are specialist browsers – for example Opera GX for gaming, and Firefox Reality for visiting the metaverse.
Finally, although all of these browsers make bold claims about their credentials for security and privacy, you’ll need to make sure that the one you choose is compliant with your company’s IT policies. Indeed, if you’re working remotely, you’ll need to make sure that your system administrator will actually let it on to the network. We’d be amazed if any of our choices cause any conflicts, but forewarned is forearmed.
Chrome vs Chromium vs ChromeOS
You’ll see “Chrome” and “Chromium” used a lot in this roundup. It’s not a misprint – they’re two separate browsers. Except they’re not. Let us explain. Chromium is a completely open-source, white-label version of Chrome, which Google released alongside its flagship browser in 2008. The majority of the codebase is the same, and although Google curates the project, it is siloed from Alphabet LLC. The Chromium logo is identical to that of Google Chrome, but rendered in blue and grey instead of Google’s usual colours, and the UI is absolutely identical – although Chromium lacks some codecs and syncing technology which is standard in the proprietary version of Chrome.
The reason Chromium is such a significant browser is that it acts as a basis for many other browsers on the market, including Microsoft Edge, Vivaldi and Opera. It’s available for more unusual machines, like the Raspberry Pi for example, thanks to the work of the open source community, and anyone who creates a browser based on a ‘forked’ build of Chromium is expected to add their code to the Chromium codebase for the benefit of all. Stock browsers from companies that have forked Android such as Samsung (Samsung Internet) and Amazon (Silk) are usually based on Chromium.
Chrome is Google’s official build of Chromium and the most popular browser in the world. It has tighter integration with Google accounts and a number of additions “under the hood”. It has three ‘channels’ – Stable, Beta and Canary – with each updated to a new official build on a four-weekly cycle.
Chrome OS, meanwhile, is another separate yet related entity. It is an operating system built on the Chrome browser and used in Chromebooks and other Google desktop products; almost identical to the Chrome browser, but with a desktop, settings and driver support. As of February 2022, you can also install it on PCs and Macs, via Chrome OS Flex.
All three products share the same codebase and are completely compatible with Chrome’s wide range of extensions. Updates to Chrome OS also run on a 4 week cycle, but often arrive several days later than the standalone Chrome browser.
What about Internet Explorer?
Because it has been bundled with every version of Windows since Windows 95, Internet Explorer is familiar to almost every computer user. Although Microsoft stopped active development of Internet Explorer back in 2016 in favour of the more advanced Edge, it has continued to bundle IE11, the final edition, with Windows to allow compatibility with older sites.
This all changed during 2022, when on June 15th, Internet Explorer was put out to pasture, once and for all. Going forward, Microsoft recommends using Edge (of course), which offers an Internet Explorer emulator mode that can be opened in a new tab. This should only be used for web pages that are business-critical, and only as a stopgap until your organisation upgrades the page or package in question to be compliant with more modern alternatives.
Some products which already bundle Internet Explorer, such as Windows Server, won’t reach EOL until 2029, so Microsoft will continue to offer IE security updates until that time – but it bears repeating that in 2022, use of IE really should be a last resort. There’s a joke in the tech industry that “Internet Explorer is the browser you use to download Chrome”. It’s funny because it’s true.
Edge vs Chrome vs Firefox
The growth in market share for Google’s browser since launch has been phenomenal. During 2021, Statcounter reports that 63.84% of devices around the world were running it, and at one point that figure was over 70%. There’s a lot to love about Chrome – most notably its tight integration with Google services making it extremely easy to switch between devices, as well as a huge ‘Chrome Store’ full of extensions, apps and customisations. As the world’s most popular browser it has almost complete compatibility with any webpage you can throw at it and renders them at speeds unimaginable even a decade ago.
All that speed comes at a cost, though. Chrome is a notorious resource hog, using over a gigabyte of RAM during runtime. Add a few extensions and you could find it monopolises the bulk of your machine’s memory. Google has worked hard to bring down Chrome’s memory footprint, but it’s still a lot more resource-hungry than any other browser on this list.
Despite this, Chrome is still the people’s choice by a factor of three and if there’s a feature not available natively, the chances are someone has written an extension to add it. Just remember that more extensions equals more RAM usage, so if you’re running a 2GB netbook, you might want to rethink how many you add.
Chrome is available on Windows, MacOS, most Linux distros, Android, iOS and Chromebooks (as part of Chrome OS).
Technically, the current product calling itself Microsoft Edge should be called Edge 2. When it launched back in 2016 it looked very different and owed much of its layout to its predecessor, Internet Explorer. It failed to capture the public’s imagination, so it was completely rebuilt from the ground up using the Chromium codebase, and from April 2021 that became the only version of Edge, pre-installed alongside Windows 10 or 11.
It differs from Google’s Chrome in a number of ways, not least of all that it’s slightly less of a memory hog. It’s compatible with a limited number of extensions originally designed for Chrome, but Microsoft controls which ones. This is supposedly due to security concerns, but ironically it’s the browser that collects the most user telemetry, leading some experts to question its own security. Users still report compatibility issues with extensions, which is a good point to remind ourselves that Edge, in its current form, is only two years old and occasionally shows its relative lack of bug-squashing.
Where Chrome links up nicely with Google products, as you’d expect, Edge syncs with your Microsoft account. Being a Microsoft product, it’s very keen to enforce Bing on you, which takes a certain amount of tweaking to change and in some cases (such as translation) can’t be switched to another provider.
There’s no question that Chromium Edge is a great deal better than the legacy version and yes, for basic tasks, it’s a little less power hungry than Chrome, but the fact that it uses Bing so liberally whilst having relatively poor extension support means there’s still no reason not to download Chrome at the first opportunity. The fact that in 2021, it only garnered 3.99% of the market, despite being preinstalled on Microsoft products, speaks volumes. It’s a good browser, but it’s young, and it’s not quite there yet.
An open source project, originally designed for use by Mozilla’s development team, Firefox is the oldest of the ‘big three’ browsers – in fact in 2022, it’s celebrating its 20th birthday. Before Chrome arrived, it was gaining significant market share. After several years in the relative doldrums, it was retooled in 2017 under a project called ‘Quantum’ which allowed its proprietary Gecko engine to perform at speeds more akin to Chrome.
Firefox was the first browser to offer extensions, which it refers to as “Add-ons”, and as a result, it had a wealth of them to download, but since Quantum it has relaunched the feature and this treasury has been replaced by a new library which is still growing. The new addons use the same API as Chromium and as a result, there is now some cross-compatibility.
In recent years, Firefox has focused on its security credentials and in 2021 became the first browser to offer the ability to block cross-site tracking. It also offers DNS over HTTPS (DoH), a feature that makes it almost impossible for hackers to monitor your web traffic, and a feature that blocks any scripts that attempt to mine cryptocurrency from your machine.
Firefox is still a great browser, but with Chromium-based browsers so much the norm now, it has seen its popularity plummet from nearly 30% at one time, down to 3.91% in 2021, putting it almost exactly on par with Edge. Whilst it still has a lot to recommend it both in terms of security and performance, Mozilla has been consistently last to basic features (it only began sandboxing processes in 2018) that are standard in other browsers. However, if you’re looking for a corporate deployment to your whole team, there is a long-term support edition available alongside tools to push itself to multiple machines on a domain, making it a smart choice for business.
Although we’re focusing on Windows browsers for this round-up, we can’t ignore Apple’s stock Safari browser, which has 19.56% of the market, almost entirely made up of Mac and iPhone/Pad users after Apple ceased updating the Windows version a decade ago. For macOS and iOS users, it offers a more familiar layout and continuity features that let you carry on your surfing from exactly where you left off on another Safari instance, as well as a handful of unique software features built on integrations with the rest of the macOS platform.
Mac and iOS users should be aware, however, that all the browsers on this list are rendered using Apple Webkit rather than the standard renderer (usually Blink) in order to comply with Apple’s policies. As such, you’ll find that performance between browsers is much of a muchness, and any desire to switch to something other than Safari should be based on features, rather than any hope of a performance boost.
Google Chrome alternatives
If you like the Chrome user experience, but don’t necessarily want to feed Google’s data-hungry business model, there are a number of alternatives to the big three that make for interesting comparisons. So many challengers have come and gone over the years, but there are currently three which seem to be around for the long-haul. All are based on Chromium, but have their own USPs.
Of all the Chromium browsers, Opera is the one that looks most visually distinct from Chrome. As one of the first browsers to switch to Chromium from its own engine, back in 2013, it has had ample time to carve a distinctive path, and has done so in spades. With a free VPN and Ad-Blocker built-in, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d done enough, but with “Speed Dial” access to your favourite sites from a mosaic of thumbnails, a built in crypto wallet, a sidebar for social media and a variety of instant messaging platforms, and a one-click eraser for all your cookies and browsing history, Opera is an absolute powerhouse.
Unfortunately, its add-ons aren’t directly compatible with Chrome extensions, but there is an unofficial way to add them. The big turn off for Google users is that it syncs with other instances of Opera, but not with Google (or Microsoft) accounts. It’s not a dealbreaker, but you’ll notice the lack of this feature if you’re used to it. It’s a shame because in most other ways, Opera is very, very special.
A relative newcomer, Vivaldi is the product of John Van Teschiner, one of the architects of the original (pre-Chromium) Opera. Originally designed to replace some features retired from his old browser, Vivaldi has blossomed into a distinct product in its own right, offering stackable tabs groups, tracking protection through DuckDuckGo, a pop-out video player, native mail and calendar clients and Chromecasting support, to name but a few. Vivaldi has become more like a dashboard for everything you’re doing, meaning you could, in theory, never leave it for another app all day. It’s also very privacy and safety minded, with granular controls over blocking of ads and cookies by type, content, or source.
Brave is a privacy-first browser with a twist – by default it will block ads, but if you switch them on, you can earn cryptocurrency for each one you watch. It has repeatedly come top in “most private browser” testing, but it also has some unique features – for example if you try and surf to a page that doesn’t exist, it will automatically search for a cache from Wayback Machine. If you need further privacy, you can route traffic through the TOR network and it also has its own in-built news aggregator. You can use cryptocurrency earned to offer micropayments to bloggers on certain sites, a reflection of Brave’s attempts to try and find new ways to finance the internet. There’s a lot to love (perhaps too much) and from a business point of view, you might find it a bit “busy”, but as a product in its own right, it’s a promising new alternative.
Head to head performance
The results were surprising. You may remember a few years ago, all the major browsers claimed that it was theirs that offered the fastest performance. Our results explain why – there simply is no clear winner. While Chrome offered a blistering 62.619 in the Jetstream tests, compared with a pitiful 35.182 for Firefox, Speedometer results were so poor at 19.5 that we reran the test several times to make sure it really was that bad. Compare that to Microsoft Edge at 69.1, with Opera a valiant second at 66.2. Kraken, a tool created by Firefox maker Mozilla, actually proved a problem for its own browser – it gave the slowest result of 3967.1ms. The winner was Vivaldi, which scored 1618.6, more than twice as fast as Firefox – yet scored mid-table on our other benchmarks.
By aggregating the results, we’re declaring that Opera is the best performing browser by some margin, coming a consistent runner-up in all our benchmarks. Microsoft Edge is next, followed by Vivaldi, Brave and bringing up the rear, Chrome in fifth place, thanks to its perplexingly poor Speedometer performance, and Firefox bringing up the rear.
It’s worth remembering though, that none of these scores indicate a problematic or unusable level of performance, and we found that all our browsers (with the exception of Opera) were better at some tasks than others – so it may be that for your workload, another browser could be the right one for you.
In the early days of the internet, there was a definite advantage to sticking to the default browser for your operating system. However, these days, the basic job of a web browser – to browse the web – is a fairly commensurate experience across all major contenders. As such, it’s now the feature set of each browser that you should consider before choosing the one that’s right for you – be that a lightweight footprint, compatibility with other products or one of the more “out there” ideas in the smaller browsers.
In most cases, any features not supported natively can be added as extensions or add-ons. There’s no single browser that we can say is the right fit for everyone (though if you push us, Chrome is the best of most worlds), so experiment, try a few and create your perfect surfing environment.
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