Thursday, December 07, 2006

Browser Smackdown: Firefox vs. IE vs. Opera vs. Safari

Four experts go head-to-head (to-head-to-head) to defend their Web browser of choice in an opinionated free-for-all.

Scot Finnie, Dennis Fowler, Preston Gralla and Ken Mingis

People may be passionate about their favorite sports team, but if you really want to get them fired up, ask what Web browser they use.

There's the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" crowd who tend to stick with the browser that's included with their operating system -- Microsoft's Internet Explorer on Windows and Apple's Safari on the Mac. There are the "I've just gotta be me" folks who prefer lesser-known browsers, such as Opera from Opera Software. And there are the "live free or die" open-source true believers who champion Mozilla's Firefox above its commercial counterparts.

Then there are those people who simply demand the best browsing experience there is. They'll defend their favorite browser to the death because they think it kicks all the other browsers' butts in terms of elegance, features, security and so on. But if a better option comes along, they'll happily switch and speak out just as loudly for their new browser of choice. At Computerworld, we fall into this camp, always looking for the Next Great Browser

In terms of market share, the winner is obvious. Most estimates show Internet Explorer commanding between 80% and 85% of the browser market, with Firefox trailing at somewhere between 8% and 13%. Safari is the third most popular browser, with approximately 2% to 4% market share, followed by Opera and AOL's Netscape, with around 1% each.

But in terms of quality, there's no clear winner right now. For years, Internet Explorer lagged far behind the competition in both features and security, but the October launch of IE7, a fairly radical overhaul of the aged browser, has brought it up to par with the rest. Almost simultaneously, Mozilla released Firefox 2.0, a less ambitious update that nevertheless made some important and well-thought-out improvements.

Meanwhile, Safari (currently in Version 2.02) and Opera (in Version 9.02, with 9.1 on the way) have been quietly improving and innovating away from the spotlight. Thus, for the first time in years, the top browsers are roughly equal. (Note: We chose to leave Netscape out of our browser roundup. In our testing, we found it too buggy and unstable for serious consideration.)

So which browser should you use? Which is really best? To help you decide, we asked four power users to do battle in support of their chosen browser: Scot Finnie for Firefox, Preston Gralla for Internet Explorer, Dennis Fowler for Opera and Ken Mingis for Safari.

Each expert is positive that his browser is the best and will try his hardest to convince you of that. These are not rational, disengaged reviews; these are opinionated essays meant to sway your point of view.

When you've read all the arguments and looked at our side-by-side comparison of features, you make the call by voting in our best browser poll. You can also drop us a line and let us know what you think; we'll use the best responses in a follow-up article.

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