Best browser: which should you be using?
20th May 2013 | 11:45
The best browser for Windows, OS X, Android and iPads
Competition among browsers is more fierce than ever. Chrome and Firefox release 72 new versions every week, Microsoft has redesigned Internet Explorer to make it finger-friendly, and as we all race to tablets and smartphones we're being tempted with all kinds of alternatives to systems' stock browsers.
But which is the best browser for you and your hardware? Let's find out.
We tested the latest official releases of the big browsers - Internet Explorer 10, Firefox 19, Safari 5, Chrome 25 and Opera 12 - on a Core i5 PC running Windows 8 Pro. It's worth noting that Safari on Macs running OS X Mountain Lion is at version 6, but the PC version and older Mac versions are one behind.
Whether you've got a Windows PC, Mac OS X laptop, an Android tablet or something in between, we've got it covered.
The best browser for speed
Every browser we tested felt perfectly snappy in everyday browsing, but as ever we put them through the Sunspider benchmark tests to see how well they fared. IE raced through the tests in 97ms in desktop mode, while the touch-based IE took 113.7 milliseconds. Those numbers are amazing: it wasn't that long ago that IE benchmarks were measured in millennia.
Chrome was next, at 147.2ms, Firefox was narrowly behind with 176.6ms, Opera scored 180.5ms and Safari was narrowly beaten into last place with 182.7ms.
The best browser for add-ons
Firefox has always been the king here, its combination of add-ons, App Tabs for web apps and Greasemonkey scripts making it the power user's friend. That's still the case, but Chrome is catching up fast, its Web Store positively packed. Apple and Microsoft's selections are fairly thin, but Opera's selection includes commonly used add-ons such as ad blockers, password managers and so on.
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 simply doesn't cut it in this company: it's last year's browser, the slowest here, and we don't like the user interface very much. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there's nothing particularly right with it either.
Long-term browser battle fans will be highly amused by IE's performance these days: it's really, really quick, comfortably ahead of its rivals, and now everyone's making their browsers as minimalist as possible there's no horrible UI to get angry at unless you start going crazy with third-party toolbars. Please don't. For sheer speed on Windows 7 PCs, IE is the browser to go for.
The best browser for Windows 8
25 best laptops in the world
If you're sold on the new touchy-feely direction of Windows 8 then Internet Explorer is the star, at least in Metro/Modern mode: it's a very nice touch-based browser, although it doesn't support Flash. Firefox has a Metro version in development, but it's not quite ready for prime time just yet.
In desktop mode it's the same story as with Windows 7: Safari knocked out first, IE winning on sheer speed and Chrome and Firefox competing on syncing and extensions support.
The best browser for Windows XP
Internet Explorer takes an early bath here, because it no longer supports Windows XP or Windows Vista. Our pick here would be Chrome: its system requirements are tiny (Pentium 4, 100MB of disk space, 128MB of free RAM), making it particularly good on even very modest hardware.
The best browser for OS X
We tried the main browsers on a Core i5 iMac, and while the results were similar on paper - Safari went through Sunspider in a reported 197.4ms, only slightly behind Chrome's 164ms and slightly faster than Opera's 201ms and Firefox's 204ms - the reality was different: where the other browsers raced through Sunspider in a matter of seconds, Safari took several minutes.
We also found its performance nose-dived when we had more than a handful of tabs open, and opening image-heavy sites such as Tumblr archives was a fairly reliable way to kill it completely. The other browsers felt noticeably nippier visiting the same sites.
There's more to the browsers than just speed, of course. Safari offers a clutter-free reading mode, Reading List for reading interesting things later on and iCloud syncing with iOS devices; Firefox has Firefox Sync; Opera has the Unite file sharing system and Visual Tabs and so on.
For simply browsing we think Chrome has the edge here, but you might find that your chosen sync service - iCloud? Firefox? Chrome? - makes the browser choice for you.
The best browser for privacy
While each browser offers a decent range of privacy protection, they're not all enabled by default - so for example Firefox's Do Not Track button is unchecked when you install it, and so is Opera's.
Safari for Windows doesn't have a Do Not Track setting - as we've already said, it's a comparatively old browser - and Chrome buries its privacy controls in the Advanced Settings section.
We like Microsoft's approach here: its Tracking Protection Lists offer something more useful than a broad-brush Do Not Track system, enabling you to block specific kinds of tracking such as advertisers who really want to flog stuff to your kids.
The best browser for HTML5
HTML5 is the lingua franca of the modern web, and the better your browser's standards support the happier your online life will be. Using HTML5test.com, which awards up to 500 points for standards compliance, we found Chrome the clear winner with 448 points and 13 bonus points.
Opera had 404 and 9 bonus points, Firefox 393 and 13, Safari (OS X) 393 and 13, Internet Explorer 320 and 6, and finally Safari (Windows) had just 278 and 2 bonus points.
The best browser for Android
Android users are spoilt for choice these days. In our head-to-head of the best Android browsers, several apps shone.
Chrome shone for its speed and its integration with its desktop sibling; Dolphin Browser HD for its bulging features list; and Skyfire for its many bright ideas. Once again Chrome has the edge here in the speed stakes, but it's worth looking at rivals' features before committing to it.
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 newest devices.
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.
That's unless you use Chrome on the desktop and want to sync tabs, bookmarks and passwords, in which case Chrome's the one to go for.