I currently run three web browsers regularly, for various purposes, and over the years I have used many others. While quite a few readers will be able to relate to that, the great majority of users simply use the browser their operating system presents to them on their desktop: Internet Explorer.
So I’m writing this to touch on the subject of differences among the browsers, and to raise the question of which browser might serve your needs best. Because it might not be the one that is most easily available.
I ran across an interesting browser speed test over at http://peacekeeper.futuremark.com by the people known for their benchmark software. If nothing else, the graphics they use to stress the browser are absolutely vivid and entertaining, and worth a look. But I was surprised at the outcome of the tests among my three browsers:
The surprise for me was that not only did Opera win, but that it did so so resoundingly, and that Chrome did so poorly. How these browsers will do for you depends a lot on your hardware and how well in tune you keep your system, but it’s worth putting the browsers to the test (it only takes about five minutes) to see how they fare relative to each other.
More than speed
So I’ve established that on my machine Opera handles graphics the best and gives the best overall performance. Fine, but actually, how well your browser serves you involves a lot more than raw speed and graphics quality tests. The question is whether your browser does what you need it to do to help you perform the tasks you want to perform.
Does your browser enable you to do searches easily? Many people will answer, “why yes, I can simply go to Google and do a search”, or “Yes, I use the search box on the toolbar”. Good, but those are actually very basic ways of searching. Advanced browsers support right-clicking on selected text on a page and then choosing from multiple sites on which to search for the selected text. For instance, in Opera I can right-click on power supply and then select the custom NewEgg search that I created, and voila, I am taken to Newegg.com and I am looking at their selection of power supplies.
Do you understand how powerful that is? By means of various searches, you can turn your browser into a powerful research engine. I can do instant lookups in an online dictionary, Wikipedia, Amazon, eBay or other shopping sites, my local public library, the Bible and so much more.
In Opera, all you have to do is right-click in any search bar on a site and click “create a search”. In Chrome, all searches are automatically stored in Options, and you need to go into them and pull out the ones you want to place in the right-click menu. In Firefox (and I’m behind the curve here; it may be different now), you have to add an extension that will enable you to configure custom searches.
And while we’re discussing searches, you can also give custom searches a keyword (say, “w” for Wikipedia) and then use the search in the address bar to go directly to the site, like this:
w George Washington
More than searching
Custom searches are probably the most important function the browser can offer, but not the only one. Session management is another. Most all browsers use tabs now, but you should also be able to save open tabs as a custom group for revisiting later. And there is one basic function whose lack in IE I find inexplicable: persistent tabs across sessions. When you close Opera, Chrome or Firefox, you have the ability to have the current session automatically reloaded when you open the program again. For some reason, IE actually had this feature but dropped it a couple of years ago. When you close IE, you lose your place. I can hardly think of a worse way to try to do research than this.
While we’re on the subject of IE, let’s talk opening speed. If you are finding it takes a long time to get the program loaded, there are a few things you can do. You can go to the Tools/Manage Add-ons menu and disable add-ons you don’t need (which, chances are, is most of them). IE 9 even tells you how much time each one takes to load. In Options, make sure your browser cache is set to something reasonable: say 120MB. There are some people still dragging around a TB of cache with them, like a ball and chain on their system. Next, you might set your start page to a blank. Normally this is done by speccing about:blank as the start page in Options, but it’s better to use about:tabs. This will give you another feature found standard in the other browsers: the “speed dial” or “quick start” page, which will configurably contain icons of the sites you frequent. This page is invaluable, as you only need hit CTRL-t to open a new tab with these favorites showing, and then click on the icon you want to go to.
Speaking of hotkeys, your browser should allow you to set hotkeys for the pages you go to often, and for other functions. Not all browsers do so. And if you’re a mouse person, you will benefit from using a browser that supports mouse gestures to navigate and do other things. Most browsers now support gestures, but as of this writing, IE still does not.
The list goes on. There is automatic syncing of bookmarks and settings across computers, onboard note-taking, and onboard mail/news/RSS feed clients. And if that isn’t enough, through extensions you can get your browser to do just about anything.
I understand that the coming IE 10 will bring big changes to that app. I hope so, because in almost every case I just mentioned, the Microsoft offering is the one browser that does not support the function.
What browser you choose is up to you. But I want you to be aware that there are other choices out there, and that they offer powerful features that the browser much of the general public considers “the Internet” is actually the least-featured of them all.