The internet is like a sprawling forest: That which is useful and beautiful is often hidden in the undergrowth. Since users want to be able to progress comfortably through this jungle, their browsers have to be lean and secure, and capable of keeping up with the speedy development of the internet. When Microsoft made Internet Explorer 11 (IE 11) available to the widely used predecessor of Windows 8, Windows 7, many users were once again confronted with the task of identifying the browser that offers the highest degree of surfing-related comfort. In this test, we used Windows 7 to compare Internet Explorer 11, Chrome 33, Firefox 28 and the refurbished Opera 20 to test out each one’s functional range, security and speed.
We’re leaving out Safari, Apple’s MacOS and iOS browser, since its last Windows version emerged in the middle of 2012, and is no longer recommendable on account of security-related reasons alone. Likewise, we’re not paying too much attention to the older versions of Internet Explorer (10 and 8), to which XP and Vista users are pinned down. Those who are using these outdated programmes should upgrade to one of the more modern alternatives, all of which are betterarmed vis-à-vis current requirements and threats.
The most popular browsers: Chrome and Firefox are on top
Globally, Chrome may be leading when it comes to browser-statistics – but Firefox does have it share of fans. Surprisingly, Internet Explorer 11 is still running behind its predecessors.
Those who use several bookmarks and tabs need a browser with a lean user interface and intuitive functions. The manner in which users surf the internet is often similar to the manner in which people surf through TV channels: They load a website, discover an interesting link, click it, occasionally look up a keyword on Wikipedia and go back to the original site. In order to ensure that this rather wide-ranging surfing pattern becomes a comfortable part of the users’ routine as their daily pilgrimages through their favourite sites, browsers must feature a practical and seamlessly-integrated management system for tabs and bookmarks.
Chrome, Firefox and IE 11 manage this in the standard manner, via sub-menus and bookmarks right below the address bar. Opera, on the other hand, banks on a system that is, from a theoretical point of view, more elegant: Links featuring large preview images on the home page, which can also be pooled in folders. However, the preview images are not updated automatically, which means that news websites become outdated quickly. Furthermore, it takes a bit of fiddling around to import a bookmark as an HTML file. With that said, brownie points were awarded for the handy mouse gestures that the user can use when the right mouse button is held down.
All four have managed to pull off the tab management system to pretty well, but there are a few differences. In situations in which several tabs have been opened, IE takes a different approach compared to the other browsers by not allowing the user to save the tabs in the form of a group of bookmarks. This option is actually quite handy, and makes it possible, for example, to pause a surfing session involving several tabs and continue later.
Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer allow users to use the context menu to duplicate tabs and the respective history with a single click. This option makes it possible, for example, to compare pieces of information associated with the respective website.
Useful tab preview in the taskbar
IE is the only browser that displays a little preview image of all the tabs that have been opened in the Windows taskbar, when the user uses the mouse to hover over the IE symbol. This is very snazzy and useful. Furthermore, IE users can use drag-and-drop operations to hyperlink websites vis-à-vis the taskbar or the start menu.
Chrome also offers this option, but when it comes to Chrome, it’s done with the help of a sub-menu. One of the core elements of a browser is the search function. All the candidates have integrated the search function into the address bar. Except for Firefox, the browsers deliver live search results that are refined further whenever an additional button is pressed: Good in terms of comfort level, but bad for data protection. However, the live-search option can be deactivated.
Furthermore, Chrome, Firefox and Opera make it possible to allot an abbreviation of your choice to search fields on websites. This abbreviation can then be integrated into the browser search: So, entering ‘w [search key]’ into the address bar can launch, for example, a query on Wikipedia. Too bad Microsoft decided to forego this intuitive and useful function. Thanks to its many useful features, Chrome creates the most comfortable surfing experience.
Browsers have many protective functions that are supposed to protect users from malware and fraudulent sites – but not all of them are reliable The biggest danger associated with the internet stems from plug-ins: Attackers use loopholes found in the PDF reader, Flash and Java to hijack the browser and, in the worst-case scenario, the entire PC. Consequently, browsers run plug-ins separately from the main process, in conjunction with diminished rights. This sandbox acts as an airbag for the browser: therefore, a successful attack hardly causes any damage.
Chrome, Opera and IE 11 go a step further: They run all the tabs in isolated processes (refer to the image on the right). This enhances the working speed in situations involving higher workloads, since multi-core CPUs process several small processes a lot faster than a single large one. Furthermore, multi-process browsers are more stable, if a tab that crashes, it does not lead to the immediate termination of the main process.
However, they strain the RAM to a higher extent. In this regard, Firefox does lag behind the competition, but when it comes to daily applications, it responds as briskly as the other browsers, thanks to several optimisations that have been made through the main process. A modernised Firefox architecture called Electrolysis is currently in the works. Chrome is the best at protecting its users Google’s browser comes with pre-installed PDF and Flash plug-ins, which raises the comfort level and lessens the risk of attacks, since Google keeps updating these plug-ins. Furthermore, Java, which is infamous for its security loopholes, is deactivated by default in Chrome and Firefox. Users have to explicitly authorise it when necessary.
As far as Chrome and Opera is concerned, the Flash plug-in can be configured so that it only launches after an input has been made. Many of the browsers offer solid protection against fraudulent sites, but said protection isn’t completely reliable. In the security test, we visited 100 topical malware sites, of which Chrome managed to block 90. In this regard, the best performance came from Opera, which spotted 96 sites. The worst performance was delivered by IE 11, whose smartscreen filter only issued warnings for a total of 61 brand-new sites. In light of the latest NSA-related disclosures, it must be admitted that data protection is also very important.
Firefox has the confidence bonus on its side, since its source code is freely available on the internet. It also scores with well-thought-out data protection options, such as a master password for the password management system. Google and Opera use the open web-engine Blink, but they have user interfaces where codes are sealed. Microsoft’s IE 11 is totally proprietary. In terms of performance, none of the browsers warrants any cause for complaint. All in all, Chrome was at the top of the mountain, in terms of benchmarks.
IE 11 often came up short, but it exhibited top-notch performances in a few 3D tests. However, in terms of day-to-day operations, all the browsers facilitate brisk surfing, and performance-related differences are hard to spot. However, those who visit websites featuring brand-new experimental HTML5 elements like the graphic-demo site Citadel, may encounter partial compatibility issues when it comes to IE.