What's in a browser?


— 4:10 PM on March 16, 2009

With word that the final version of Internet Explorer 8 may be coming in the next few days, enthusiasts are once again preparing for another salvo in the ongoing browser war. As with most other major browser updates, I'll probably find myself reevaluating my weapon of choice for surfing the web—especially since IE8 doesn't look like an embarrassing release for Microsoft.

Like many of you, I've gone through a number of web browsers over the years. After Netscape Navigator died a slow and painful death, I reluctantly used Internet Explorer for a number of years—at least until a little-known Mozilla fork named Phoenix came along. I was along for the ride as Phoenix became Firebird, and later Firefox, as we know and love it today.

Beyond its improved security features, Firefox was just so different from IE. Tabs were a breath of fresh air in the stagnant browser market, and a myriad of plug-ins let you make Firefox a far more robust tool than just a basic web page renderer. The status bar could provide email updates, weather forecasts, and more.

Firefox certainly isn't perfect, though, and over time my tastes changed once again. Extensions could cause crashes, and web pages were becoming less static as JavaScript and Flash gained in popularity. Newer browsers like Chrome turned sites like Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter into self-contained desktop applications, putting increased importance on a solid rendering engine and less on what's around it. Suddenly, I didn't care about all of those add-ons. All I wanted was a browser that was just that: a browser. 

In recent years, I've found myself becoming further and further entrenched in the Safari camp. Like Firefox, Safari isn't perfect, but I've found WebKit to be far and away the superior rendering engine. Not only is it quite rigid with its standards compliance, but it's fast and versatile enough to power browsers in desktop PCs all the way down to cell phones. Since switching, though, I've still kept my eye on subsequent Internet Explorer releases, as well as other alternatives like Opera and Chrome. I might as well keep my options open, right?

What will Internet Explorer 8 be evaluated on when it comes out? Of course, everyone has their own method for judging a browser. Some dive straight for the Acid tests, while others run a volley of Javascript benchmarks. Personally, I take a bit more pragmatic approach. Here's what I look for:

  • Speed. Whether I'm reading the latest news on TR, checking emails, or arguing on forums, I spend more hours on the web than I do playing games or watching movies—and I want to spend as little time as possible waiting for the computer to catch up. As a result, I want a browser that's as fast as possible and won't leave me twiddling my thumbs while a page renders. Benchmarks give numeric comparisons, but in my unscientific research, Safari just proves to be the snappiest browser for the sites I view regularly. Microsoft is touting speed as a big improvement for IE8, so we may get a new champion.
  • Stability. It's not unusual for me to leave tabs open for hours or even days before finding the time to read them, so I need a browser that won't crash on me. Chrome might be the perfect browser for me in a few months (thanks in large part to its WebKit rendering engine), but for now, I just don't find it stable enough. Of course, I have yet to find a completely stable browser, and depending on the number of add-ons you're rocking, results can vary.
  • Standards compliance. I really don't care if a browser passes the Acid3 test—I care that it renders my web pages properly and consistently. In the case of Acid benchmarks, I personally haven't ever found these results to correspond to a browser's real world usefulness. So, while fanboys are welcome to argue over their Acid scores, I just want my browser to render The Tech Report and Gmail correctly. Anything Gecko- or WebKit-powered gets a pass from me, and I've always been wary of IE's oddball engine that often requires browser-specific hacks. Microsoft has made standards compliance a major focal point in IE8's development, so perhaps it will finally get things right this time.

Some browsers offer everything and the kitchen sink, but to be honest, I just don't need all of that. Here's what I don't worry about when evaluating a browser:

  • Add-ons. I touched on this already, but I just want my web browser to surf the Internet. I don't need it to tell me when my next dentist appointment is, if it's going to rain tomorrow, or what the time is in Bangladesh. Some Firefox plug-ins like Greasemonkey are quite useful, but I don't really miss them.
  • Resource consumption. Considering it's the most-used application on any of my PCs, I really don't care if my browser is a resource hog. I'm still not a fan of memory leaks, of course, and that can become a serious issue if browsing performance begins to suffer. But if a browser wants to eat up a few hundred megabytes of my 4GB of RAM for a large cache, then I have absolutely no problem with that. After all, RAM is meant to be used, not sit empty. Why people insist on arguing about "bloated" browsers using memory that would otherwise go to waste, I will never understand.
  • Aesthetics. I want a user interface to be functional and efficient—even if it sacrifices visual appeal in reaching those goals. Icons and menus can be ugly, as long as they're laid out in a sensible fashion. I've grown to like tabs embedded in the window's title bar (a la Chrome and Safari 4) and the status bar has long since lost its usefulness to me. Being able to customize the layout of the toolbars and buttons is also requisite for any browser I use daily.

Regardless of what you're looking for, increased competition is making the browser market interesting again, and both content producers and consumers stand to benefit. My goal really wasn't to start a browser superiority argument with this post, but I expect that could happen anyway in the comments section. Some people like Firefox; others are happy to stick with Internet Explorer. Safari is no longer just for Apple users, either, even if some think Chrome offers a superior WebKit experience on Windows. Everyone's got their own favorite browser, but I'm more interested in what you look for when making your choice. Are you hooked on browser plug-ins, or are you interested in the most lightweight browser possible? Maybe you're just too set in your ways to bother changing at this point. Hit the comments and share your thoughts!

   
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