Browser wars redux: Top 5 duke it out

With major new versions released this year, Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari vie for the crown

Firefox 3.5


Although most of Firefox's major updates and improvements were introduced with last year's version 3.0 update, version 3.5 for Macintosh, released in June, offers enough improvements to warrant the download.

Browser features

One of Firefox 3.5's key enhancements is, of course, performance. The latest version uses the Gecko 1.9.1 engine for HTML rendering and the TraceMonkey engine for faster JavaScript rendering. For everyday use, this translates to noticeably faster rendering of Web pages compared to earlier versions.

However, if absolute speed is really important to you, Google's Chrome (still in beta on the Mac) or Apple's Safari are the browsers to get. According to tests I ran using Futuremark's online benchmarking application Peacekeeper, Chrome and Safari bested Firefox every time -- sometimes by a lot, sometimes by a little.

Firefox 3.5 embraces open Web standards, offering HTML 5 support -- that is, the ability to view multimedia based on commonly used standards such as JavaScript, CSS and HTML instead of using proprietary plug-ins like Adobe's Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight. Currently, the HTML 5 standard is still in its infancy, and there is a war of wills between Apple and the Mozilla group concerning the use of codecs.

Format squabbles aside, the ability to natively stream content from the Web without the use of proprietary plug-ins is a win for everyone. No doubt the Mozilla group will ensure that Firefox adheres to the Web's constantly evolving standards.

Another benefit of HTML 5 is support for offline resource caching, which allows downloading Web content for offline access. Firefox now supports this, too.

Firefox for Macintosh has also learned some tricks that have been available on other browsers for some time. As of version 3.5, it offers gesture support using Apple's laptop trackpad, similar to that offered by Safari. Web sites can be scrolled through using two fingers, Web pages can be navigated back and forward with a three-finger swipe, and Web content can be zoomed out and in using the pinch and reverse-pinch gestures.

In addition, Firefox now supports private browsing. I found that private browsing worked as advertised; once turned on, Web sites leave no apparent bits of evidence that they were visited on your computer. Using Firefox's Privacy Preferences, it's possible to set Private browsing as a permanent mode.

Another new Firefox feature is location-aware browsing. For example, if you type the word "pizza" in Firefox's Google search field, you'll get listings, map results and phone numbers of pizza restaurants near your location. These services have been available on mobile handsets like the iPhone for some time, and now that it's in Firefox, searching for local areas of interest should be that much easier.

Interface and extras

Firefox's default interface features an oversized back button, along with the usual retinue of navigation icons: forward, reload, stop, home, address bar (with site identity and drop-down history) and a search bar (featuring a drop-down search engine selection). Below that is the bookmark bar, and below that, browser tabs. Throughout, there are splashes of color in the display of site icons and the search/address bar fields.

Although I'm more of a Safari fan, the default Firefox look is straightforward and laid out well enough for most people. It's certainly an improvement over earlier versions, and if you don't like it, you can download a wide variety of themes that change the look.

Where Firefox truly shines is in its customizability, which can't be matched by any other browser. Add-ons are still Firefox's strength, with over 6,000 available for download.

For example, Walter Coots, a Web developer I've worked with in the past on site designs, noted that Firefox offers a wide variety of add-ons for Web workers. "I have one add-on that allows me to switch which version of Flash I have installed," he said. "The debug (developer) version of Flash player also has support for outputting errors, and there's an add-on in Firefox that allows me to see that in the sidebar."

The bottom line

The latest Firefox for Mac offers plenty of compelling new features and improvements, and the attention to detail shows. There's a reason this browser is grabbing so much attention. If you're still using Safari, it might be time to see what this fast-growing open-source upstart is like, especially if you like customization.

-- Michael DeAgonia

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Tags FirefoxInternet ExploreroperaGoogle Chromesafariweb browsers

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