The best browser for safe and speedy surfing

Scott spanbauer By Scott Spanbauer

If you spend much time on the Web, you need more protection and better performance than you get from Internet Explorer 7.

You have several alternatives to choose from, but only one offers the top rendering speed, the best compatibility with major sites, and the most customization options.

If you use Internet Explorer, you’re missing out

Once upon a time, in a cyberspace not so far away, Microsoft and Netscape engaged in a conflict called the browser wars. As soon as every copy of Windows included a copy of Internet Explorer (starting with Windows 98), it didn’t take long for Microsoft to declare itself the winner.

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By the beginning of this decade, the overwhelming majority of Web activity took place via IE. Microsoft was so certain of IE’s dominance it even disbanded its browser-development team. For most Web users, innovation in browsing ended right there.

However, IE wasn’t perfect. Though eminently usable, IE lacked such handy features as tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking. And ActiveX — IE’s browser-based application technology — is a security nightmare, allowing carefully crafted Web sites to hijack your PC without your doing anything other than opening the infected page in your browser.

This drove security-conscious Web users to install alternative browsers, principally the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox and Opera Software’s Opera.

In addition to more features and better security — neither program supports ActiveX by default — both browsers are highly configurable. In particular, Firefox has spawned a small industry of browser extensions that do everything from blocking ads to securing scripts.

IE 7 on a fully patched version of Windows is much safer to browse with than earlier versions of the browser, though a careless user can still permit an evil ActiveX control to take over the PC. IE 7 is safest when running on a Windows Vista PC because Vista prevents browser applications from writing directly to the file system.

Nevertheless, there’s no reason why you have to use only one browser. In my experience, no single browser will open every Web site out there without errors. Some browsers are better than others at rendering specific sites. You’re likely to find that Firefox or Opera or both are excellent adjuncts to or even replacements for the browser that ships with Windows.

The best browser money can’t buy

There are three primary reasons why I use Firefox 3 every day. First, the browser is highly secure, as described in this PC World blog entry, “Study Finds Firefox Users Safest, IE Users Unsafe.” Second, Firefox loads almost every site and Web-hosted service quickly and without requiring any intervention on my part. Last, Firefox is almost infinitely expandable, thanks to the many extensions offered by third parties.

I wasn’t always crazy about Firefox. Version 2 has one major flaw: It (and its installed extensions) consumes system memory like crazy and usually refuses to give it back until you close the browser.

In my daily use of Firefox 2, I routinely notice the system actually slowing down as the browser chews up all the available memory. After using the browser for a day or so with several pages open, Windows’ Task Manager will often show that the browser is using nearly 300MB of memory.

Despite this major flaw, I never gave up using Firefox as my default browser — it has too much else going for it. Like IE and Opera, Firefox 2 has essential features such as multipage tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking, a password manager, and a phishing detector.

Still, what has always made Firefox irreplaceable is its array of downloadable extensions that allow you to fine-tune, secure, and customize your browsing experience.

At long last, Firefox 3 solves the memory leak problem and ices the cake with new features. Almost everywhere you look in the new release, Mozilla has made incremental improvements.

Topping the list of new features are its ability to browse new extensions right in the Add-ons dialog box, beefed up phishing protection, and a mind-reading address field that suggests sites from your history and bookmarks as soon as you start typing (see Figure 1).

Firefox 3 location bar
Figure 1. Firefox 3’s Location bar predicts the site you want to visit as you type the address.

The browser feels snappier than its predecessor. According to Mozilla, Firefox 3 loads pages much faster than the previous version. After a day or two of steady use opening and closing dozens of pages in multiple tabs, Task Manager reports that Firefox is using a mere 130MB of memory, leaving room to run other programs without slowdowns. That’s a blessing for people like me who need to squeeze another year of use out of a laptop maxed out with 512MB of RAM.

A feature-laden stickler for standards

Opera offered such key features as tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking long before Firefox and IE, and although the browser’s interface is a little different, Opera often matches or exceeds the features in the market-leading browsers, including password management.

Opera is fast and secure and is kept up-to-date whenever security flaws do occur. So why isn’t the program my favorite browser?

My biggest hang-up with Opera — and the one that keeps me from using it on a daily basis — is that, for whatever reason (perhaps its strict adherence to Web standards), Opera sometimes won’t load a page properly — or at all.

For example, the latest version 9.5.1 simply won’t display Gmail properly under Windows XP. This is a showstopper for me (though Gmail displays correctly in Opera under Windows Vista).

The browser also balks at loading secure Web pages that use the HTTPS protocol, including my ISP’s spam filter page (a daily destination for me) and my university e-mail page. No amount of enabling or disabling of security protocols in Opera’s Preferences settings overcomes this issue, though the same pages load fine in IE and Firefox.

My other operatic lament is the lack of the many Firefox extensions I’ve come to love. In a few cases, Opera includes a built-in feature that makes the equivalent Firefox extension unnecessary.

An example of this is Opera’s Web-based synchronization service, Opera Link, which lets you synchronize bookmarks and Speed Dial links (which are equivalent to Firefox’s Personal Bookmarks toolbar) among several different Opera installations, a task I perform in Firefox using the Foxmarks extension. In other cases, however, using Opera means giving up a handy tool I’ve become accustomed to.

Though extensions are not an absolute requirement, I prefer having the option to use them. Opera’s other great features are reason enough to keep the program installed on my PCs, however. I could certainly see making Opera my default browser, but not until I can be sure it will work with all of the Web sites I visit daily.

Scott Spanbauer writes frequently for PC World, Business 2.0, CIO, Forbes ASAP, and Fortune Small Business. He has contributed to several books and was technical reviewer of Jim Aspinwall’s PC Hacks.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-07-10: