Best browser for 2013

Which web browser offers the best balance of features and performance? Find out in our browser shoot-out

With browsers being updated on an almost-monthly basis, the days of being able to review new versions as they’re released have well and truly passed. So, we’ve taken a snapshot of the current browser market and put the top five Windows browsers by market share head to head.

We’ve subjected each to two different performance benchmarks and a memory-consumption test, the results of which you can see in the table. For the memory test, we measured how much RAM each browser consumed in opening the same 20 sites in separate tabs. To minimise the risk of different page loads, we deliberately chose everyday sites with little or no advertising.

When it comes to standards compliance, all five of the browsers we tested scored a perfect 100 in the Acid3 test, although support for the numerous HTML5 technologies varies.

Chrome 28

Chrome

Chrome has long been our preferred browser in the PC Pro office, but recently there have been more than a few grumbles about Google’s once-nimble browser bogging down PCs if more than a fistful of tabs are open.

Our tests bear out the anecdotal evidence. As ever, Chrome affords each tab a separate process in Windows’ Task Manager, but with our 20 tabs open, it consumed more memory than any other browser on test, topping out at 512MB. Worse still, it didn’t release any of that memory when we pushed our PC’s RAM beyond 90% utilisation using a RAM disk, which could lead to slowdown and instability for those using PCs with limited amounts of memory. At least unused background tabs weren’t consuming much in the way of CPU time.

Chrome’s benchmark performance was mixed. In the JavaScript SunSpider test, it was only a slim fraction ahead of bottom-placed Safari, although it topped the more wide-ranging Peacekeeper benchmark, scoring particularly strongly for support for various HTML5 tests. Chrome’s Windows 8 mode is barely distinguishable from the desktop browser – it makes few concessions to touchscreen users.

Chrome’s cross-platform compatibility is peerless. Bookmarks, passwords, apps and even open tabs are synchronised across mobile, desktop and even Chromebooks as soon as you enter your Google account details, although we’re concerned thieves can access saved passwords without having to re-enter the master Google password. There’s also a great variety of add-ons and apps available to extend the browser.

With the company’s new Blink engine under the hood – a fork of the previously used WebKit – which Google says will allow it to improve performance and remove unused clutter, we have hopes for a brighter future in terms of performance. For now, though, Chrome has grown too sluggish to earn our recommendation.

Rating: 4/6

Firefox 22

Mozilla Firefox

The notorious Firefox memory leaks of a few years ago convinced many people to dump the Mozilla browser and head to Chrome. Now it might be time to make the reverse journey.

Firefox was the most memory-efficient of the browsers on test, using only three quarters of the RAM Chrome demanded for the same 20 tabs. Even more impressively, Firefox was quick to hand back memory when we used the RAM disk to push our test PC’s memory utilisation beyond 90%, dropping from 347MB to 235MB.

Firefox recorded the second-best SunSpider benchmark score, although it was well off the pace in the more demanding Peacekeeper tests. Nevertheless, Firefox rarely feels sluggish in day-to-day use, and it’s good to see that some of the needless resource-hogging fripperies, such as the Panorama tab organiser, have been jettisoned since we last reviewed it.

The Firefox address bar (or Awesome Bar) has always been great at anticipating the sites you want to visit, allowing you to search for previously visited page titles and keywords, as well as URLs. The value of having separate search and address bars is questionable, however, especially when punching search terms into the address bar instigates a Google search by default anyway.

Firefox Sync works cleanly across desktop and mobile versions of the browser, and the option to protect access to saved passwords with a master password gives it another advantage over Chrome.
We’re also fans of the download manager, which makes it abundantly clear when a new download has been instigated, unlike Chrome, which can subtly hide downloads.

In short, Firefox’s speed and lightweight memory demands have won us over again. After many years in the wilderness, it’s once more our browser of choice.

Rating: 5/6

Internet Explorer 10

Internet Explorer 10

Like Firefox, IE has done well to shed its reputation as a sluggish resource-hog in recent years. It recorded the fastest speed in the SunSpider benchmark by some distance, although it was off the pace in the more demanding Peacekeeper, where it simply failed to run four of the seven HTML tests – the WebGL test, and support for the Theora and WebM HTML video codecs – harming its score. Nevertheless, for day-to-day performance, we have no qualms about IE.

Its memory handling was exemplary, too. Our 20 test tabs consumed 460MB of memory, which is the second-best on test; when we thrashed the memory with the RAM disk, it instantaneously handed back almost 300MB, making the system responsive again.

The IE design is very clean, and we like the way the address bar shrinks to accommodate multiple tabs. However, there are still problems with Microsoft’s browser. Support for features such as Pinned Sites – where sites offer quick access to features and sections once pinned to the taskbar – remains patchy, and IE’s library of extensions/add-ons isn’t a patch on those of Chrome and Firefox.

The Windows 8 implementations of IE are also a mess: having two separate browsers for Metro and the desktop, which don't talk to one another to share bookmarks, history or open tabs, is beyond daft.

The forthcoming IE11 for Windows 8.1 promises further performance improvements and features, but right now we can’t bring ourselves to recommend IE over Firefox.

Rating: 3/6

Opera 15

Opera

Opera is a bit like one of those stubborn homeowners who refuses to budge even when the big corporations have surrounded it with skyscrapers. Despite decades of minimal progress in desktop market share, it stays put, offering a quirky alternative to the big boys.

Opera 15 is based on Google’s Blink engine, which explains why the browsers share virtually identical scores in our browser benchmarks. It’s the same story with memory-handling: Opera took a shade over 500MB to host our 20 test tabs and failed to release any memory when we fired up the RAM disk.

Opera is certainly the most attractive of the browsers on test, featuring customisable photo themes that sit behind its Speed Dial homepage (Opera’s equivalent of Firefox’s quick-access bookmarks). The Stash feature is Opera’s equivalent of Apple’s Reading List, which allows you to save pages for later viewing, while the Discover feature offers up news headlines tailored to your interests. The Off-Road mode, meanwhile, uses Opera’s servers to compress web pages to save on data bills when you’re running a 3G connection.

Opera die-hards may lament the segregation of the Mail client, but this is nonetheless an attractive, modern browser with a smattering of unique features to distinguish it from its peers. We rather like it.

Rating: 4/6

Safari

Safari

Safari for Windows gets off on the wrong foot by installing Apple’s Update Manager alongside the browser, then attempting to sneak QuickTime and iTunes onto your PC with pre-ticked boxes. This kind of behaviour is beyond contempt, and would probably earn Microsoft a large fine from the anti-competition authorities if it attempted a similar stunt with IE.

Things are little better when you’ve cleared the installation hurdles. On the face of it, Safari used far less memory to open our 20 tabs than any of its rivals (around 100MB), but as we left the tabs idle, memory consumption slowly climbed before the browser eventually crashed in our three test runs. Its benchmark performance was abject: it finished bottom of the pack in both SunSpider and Peacekeeper.

Safari’s Reader view does a decent job of stripping away adverts and other on-page furniture, and it lets you read multipage articles by simply scrolling down the screen. Likewise, support for Apple’s Reading List system allows you to catch up on articles you may have previously earmarked on your iPhone or iPad. But unless you’re heavily reliant on Reading List – and there are plenty of equally compelling alternatives to sync your iPhone/iPad reading habits with other browsers – we can think of no good reason why you should allow Safari anywhere near your PC.

Rating: 2/6

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