Spoilt for choice of browsers


5 Aug 2011
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When Microsoft launched version 8 of Internet Explorer in the market, it was an instant hit with all its practical innovations. It was supposed to win back users who have made Firefox the number 1 browser in some parts of the world, and make it fit for a battle in which it has lagged behind the competition for a very long time. But the other players aren’t sleeping either. In addition to global pressure to force Microsoft to offer its users a choice of browsers, it has been caught sleeping while smaller companies have released products with far greater usability and value.
Many users no longer believe IE is the only choice for surfing the Web. But which browser is the best? CHIP gives you the answer in the big browser test. We tested the latest versions of Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox, Opera, Chrome and Safari in our own kind of triathlon: security, speed and functionality.

The easiest and most common way for malware to enter a system is through the browser. Security leaks make it easy for hackers—especially if you are surfing with an old version, you are an easy target.
The thumb rule is that the more popular the browser, the more it is targeted by hackers. IE 8 seems to continue the trend that previous versions set, with rather poor security. At the time of testing, the experts at Secunia indicated there were two unpatched security leaks for IE. Firefox had one gaping leak. In addition, both browsers have more known and patched weak points. For the new versions of Opera and Chrome on the other hand, no leaks were known at the time of the test—though they have been around for only a short while. However, since nothing revolutionary has happened with respect to the browsers’ security architectures, attackers will certainly find their way through here as well. Another security risk is browser plug-ins like Flash, QuickTime and Adobe Reader. For protection, Firefox offers a rather interesting approach from version 3.5.3 onwards: during a browser update, it checks the Flash version as well. If it is old, then the user can install the latest version using a link on the default “What’s New” page displayed after updates. The feature has been so successful that in its first week alone, around ten million users updated their Flash version. The way Mozilla is planning it, this service will be soon extended to other plug-ins as well.
Flash expands the option of websites for JavaScript, (and also the infamous ActiveX in IE), but with a risk. The handling of such active elements can be controlled in all browsers except Chrome. This, and the fact that it is the only browser that does not show any information about the identity of visited websites through the address bar, costs it a lot of points.
Nowadays it is standard for all browsers to have a protection mechanism that identifies phishing and other scam sites – unfortunately these are of varying quality. The filters cannot always identify the latest scam sites immediately. IE and Chrome need to do some catching up so that they don’t display pages which try to tap login data for bank accounts. However, IE is the only browser that protects against Cross-Site-Scripting (XSS), a type of scam which uses the credentials of one site while scamming you through another. Attackers use XSS to steal information from cookies or log individual keystrokes. IE’s XSS filter identifies and blocks dangerous scripts which are loaded from different pages. Firefox can however be upgraded using an add-on to include this protection.

For privacy on the web, keeping track of your own traces including cookies, search entries and website history is important. Here, the most convincing browser is Firefox, which offers many options to define how these are handled. You can delete data from the last 1, 2, or 4 hours or “forget” individual pages in the history list, i.e. deleting them selectively along with all sub-pages. Firefox also has the most refined privacy mode, in which the browser does not save any surfing traces. Except for Opera, all browsers now offer such a surfing mode (though Opera lets you delete all private data easily). IE further offers optional, freely configurable “InPrivate” filtering. This prevents data pertaining to surfing patterns or system configuration from reaching Google, Amazon, and other companies which like to track users’ online habits.

Page Display
Websites today like to dazzle users with advanced design techniques which browsers sometimes struggle to reproduce faithfully. To keep visual appeal intact, the browser have tweaked their graphics rendering engines and, to some extent, their interfaces as well. Opera, Safari and Chrome get full points in the Acid3 test, which checks whether the browsers can handle today’s various web standards. IE8 on still falls short of these standards, which, like before, makes it display some website elements incorrectly.
Plug-ins like Flash, Shockwave and Silverlight, which although unsafe are necessary to play videos and animations, could soon be a thing of the past. This is supposed to be made possible by HTML 5, the further development of the HTML language. Firefox and Chrome are ahead in this respect, and already support the video function of HTML 5 among other things. Safari and Opera cannot do it yet, but have implemented other elements such as the Canvas function, which can dynamically render vector graphics directly in the browser. For IE8, HTML 5 currently seems like Greek and Latin.
Opera has pioneered several innovations in the user interface, including the original idea of tabs many years ago. The latest version has a tab bar that can now be resized so that you can see thumbnails of all open pages. You can also find side panels for quick access to favorites, widgets, notes, downloads history and other functions if required.
When you open a new tab, Opera also presents the most frequently visited sites just like Chrome and Safari. However, while this overview in Opera and Chrome is functional enough, Safari scores more with a better looking version which automatically reloads pages and thus gives an overview of what is new on your favorite websites. Even otherwise, Safari has a sleek look, as is typical for Apple. For example, the favorites and the history can be browsed in cover-flow view just like iTunes. This is useful because you can find pages much more easily when you actually see them and not just read their names.

Intelligent Functions
The new browser generation not only looks better, it has makes surfing the web more comfortable. The largest scope of functions is offered by Opera as before: mouse-control, password manager, integrated mail-client (which now also supports HTML-Mails) – the competition cannot keep up there. For users with slower Internet connections, Opera Turbo could also be interesting. Here, the browser refers to data through a proxy server, which compresses large elements like pictures to a great extent and thus enables fast surfing.
IE is also trying to develop new features. Web slices, which let modules from websites be cut out and used as independent widgets, are still not found in any other browser. Web slices can be stored in the favorites list like bookmarks. There, they are automatically updated like RSS feeds and display fresh content after a click in the preview window.
Chrome is light and sleek. Although the browser has a lot of basic functions, it has hardly any luxuries to offer. Nevertheless, you can now beautify it with themes that suit your taste. Under the bonnet, the Chrome developers have enabled prefetching, which tries to read the IP addresses of links on a page and load the most likely ones in the background before the user even clicks a link. With this feature—which Firefox version 3.5 onwards also offers—linked page loads become somewhat faster.
Opera and IE can be expanded to add functions; however, the selection of plugins is not extensive. Here, Firefox, which continues to rely heavily on the tab add-ons, offers the maximum variety (although Opera has many of these functions already built in).

The new rendering engines used by the browsers not only ensure improved visual presentation, but also promise faster surfing. In our performance tests, we hit the gas pedal and thrashed the browsers to their limits. The benchmark Peacekeeper tests different JavaScript functions, rendering typical HTML elements, loading, sorting, searches in databases, generating dynamic websites, filtering and replaceing character strings. The SunSpider test measures the speed of browsers while loading JavaScript objects, and the CSS test specifically measures the loading and handling of style sheets.
The overall picture of this test is clear: Safari and Chrome—both of which rely on the WebKit engine—are the fastest. They achieve better results in all tests than the competition. Safari, overall, manages to do a tad better than Chrome. The differences are mainly with respect to web applications such as Google Maps: the modern browsers load map sections speedily while IE clearly struggles. Safari and Chrome are therefore also better equipped for interactive Web 2.0 applications.
Firefox is also now much faster than older versions, thanks mostly to a new JavaScript engine, TraceMonkey. This translates script language into machine code and thus processes it faster.
The benchmark SunSpider confirms that in comparison to its predecessor, the current version needs only a third of the time. The result for the CSS test is more or less the same. Although IE8 is clearly smoother than its predecessor, it still lands in the last position. Nevertheless, while measuring the RAM utilization directly after each browser starts (with the start page set to www.google.com) IE8 had the best value of them all with only 11.7 MB.

The test ends in a close finish, with Firefox slightly ahead of Opera. As before, Firefox is the most balanced browser; a true all-rounder with functions that can be expanded any time using add-ons. The most innovative browser is Opera; however, the missing private surfing mode is a drawback. Safari is, no doubt, fast and looks good, but cannot keep up with respect to security and the scope of functions. Chrome lags far behind and has nothing more to offer than smooth surfing. IE8 therefore brings up the rear. Although this version of IE is far better than its predecessor, it is just not good enough to overtake the competition yet.

The latest version of HTML (4.01) is already almost ten years old—no wonder that it can only be used to meet the demanding requirements of today’s interactive Web 2.0 sites only with the help of Flash and other plug-ins. In the coming version HTML 5 on the other hand, web designers can integrate audio and video files directly in a website. Flash containers, as we are used to seeing nowadays to play films on the web, will thus become unnecessary. Chrome and Firefox already support these audio and video tags.
They have the necessary codecs for the playback on board (both use the free Ogg Theora and Ogg Vorbis, Chrome also uses H.264). HTML 5 also has other innovations in store, which could even replace JavaScript functions and thus make the browser faster and safer. However, what is still unclear is whether and when the standards demanded by developers and browser manufacturers will be completely implemented. For the time being, only demos exist, such as the flash-free YouTube minisite www.youtube.com/html5.
The other major development we're looking forward to is CSS 3. Even though it's been delayed for several years, browsers have started implementing draft functionality. CSS 3 will allow for embedded fonts, shadows, transparency, scalable vector graphics, rounded corners, and animated transitions.

Source : Chip Magazine.
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