Chrome 10 v. Firefox 4: Open source browser battle

Which open source browser is best for you? Here's a look at how the Firefox 4 release candidate matches up with Chrome 10

It's been a busy week for Web browsers. Chrome 10 was released a few days ago, and today sees the release candidate of Firefox 4.

I decided to take a look at the two open source browser platforms to see which is best for business users. My examination was decidedly unscientific, and we shouldn't draw too many conclusions. If nothing else, pitting a release candidate against a final release might be a little unfair, although at this stage we can expect Firefox 4 to be ready for the public, barring a few small bugs here and there.

For my test bed I opted for a low-powered computer -- an old Intel Core 2 Duo processor laptop with 2GB of RAM, running 32-bit Windows Vista. The Net connection was 6GBit DSL. I created a fresh Windows account for testing purposes too, to avoid performance being impacted by "cruft."

Screen Real Estate

Mobile workers require a browser that doesn't eat up screen space with user-interface elements, especially if they're using netbook computers. A criticism of the 3.x releases of Firefox was that its navigation buttons were a little too large. Well, that's been fixed in version 4, which overhauls the interface arguably for the better. The program has also switched to a status bar at the bottom of the screen that disappears when it's not needed, just like Chrome.

As you can see from the screen shot below, both browsers are pretty much neck-and-neck when it comes to space taken up by tabs and controls. Perhaps Firefox is a pixel or two greedier but that won't make any difference in the real world, and Firefox also has a "small icons" setting which saves a little space. For some reason Chrome opts for a much larger font to display URLs. I like this, but it's down to personal preference and it makes no actual difference to the space taken up by the controls.

Both Firefox and Chrome had easily accessible full-screen modes that slid the interface elements and Windows taskbar out of the way and dedicated the entire screen to web pages. Sadly, neither lost the right-hand scrollbar, which could easily have disappeared in the same way the status bar does, only reappearing when it's moused over.

Web App Performance and Compatibility

Looking at compatibility with HTML standards, along with Javascript performance, the aim is to judge how effectively the browser runs Web applications not only today, but also those that might arrive in the future.

I used various test Websites and thereby wandered into a minefield. No test is perfect, or representative, and in some significant ways these results should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, to the best of my knowledge, we currently lack "real world" benchmarking. We can't yet test performance in Google Docs, for example.

First, I gave both browsers a run-through with the Acid3 test, which tests overall compatibility with HTML and Javascript standards. Both are vital to the correct functioning of Web apps.

Chrome was the winner here, with a score of 100/100, although the Firefox release candidate was close behind with 97/100.

Next, I ran the browsers through The HTML5 Test, which tests compatibility with the forthcoming HTML5 standard. HTML5 aims to revolutionize Web applications, although it's very much a work in progress.

Again, Chrome was the winner with 288 points, plus 13 bonus points out of a potential total of 400 points. Firefox lagged behind with 240 points, plus 9 bonus points.

Finally, I ran the Sunspider 0.9.1 benchmark, which tests out-and-out Javascript performance. Because this is a performance test, I made sure only one tab was open in each browser, and closed any other open applications. I also ran each test three times consecutively, noting only the best score achieved.

Chrome scored 375.4ms, but, with lower scores being better, Firefox was the winner, finishing the test in 345.7ms. However, the scores are so close as to be practically indistinguishable.

Proxy Friendliness

Working at an office, you might need to connect to the Internet through a proxy server, depending on how your network administrator likes to run things. Mobile workers might also do this to prevent others from snooping on their Wi-Fi traffic.

Google Chrome has no proxy controls of its own. Instead, it obeys the overall Windows settings, and clicking the proxy configuration option within the Under the Hood settings dialog simply opens the Windows networking dialog box.

Firefox has its own proxy settings, which you can access via the Network tab of the Advanced section within the Options dialog box. However, it can still obey the overall system proxy settings, just like Chrome.

I prefer Firefox's approach because it gives me the freedom to alter settings without having to jump through the hoops of Windows User Account Control dialog boxes, or cause problems for other applications that need Net access, such as chat programs.

There's a range of extensions and add-ons for both Chrome and Firefox that make it easy to activate preconfigured proxy configurations with a single click, although in the case of Chrome, they merely activate the system-wide proxy.

Working Across Multiple Computers

Many workers access more than one computer to get stuff done, such as a desktop and laptop, and even a tablet computer.

Chrome 10 brings can automatically sync data among various computers. This includes apps, autofill data, bookmarks, extensions, passwords, preferences and themes. All the data is stored in Google's cloud, accessed via your Google account -- if you use Gmail or Google Docs you'll already have one of these, although you could sign up for an account and use it only for syncing.

This works extremely effectively. Syncing is instant once configuration has completed, and the data is also encrypted in Google's cloud.

Firefox offers a similar service, but it's limited to bookmarks, passwords, preferences, history, and tabs. It also encrypts data, but generates a sync key that must be written down by the user. (Google encrypts invisibly, although the user can generate their own key if they wish) However, Firefox offers the option to use an alternative server for syncing, which feasibly could be one run and operated by your own company or a trusted third party.

Syncing two computers was a little troublesome in Firefox. In Chrome it was simply a matter of signing in on each computer. Firefox expects you to have access to both computers to setup sync. If you haven't, you can bypass the setup steps but you'll need the original encryption key.

In my tests I couldn't get Firefox to sync across two machines, even if I selected the Sync Now option. However, we have to remember that I was using a release candidate version of that browser. It might be that the sync servers are not yet up and running fully.

It's also worth mentioning that Mozilla is pushing hard to get Firefox onto non-computer devices, such as tablets, with its Mobile Firefox project. At present Google is limiting Chrome to the mainstream desktop operating systems: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Mobile Firefox includes the Weave function, which brings syncing to portable devices, so despite the difficulty of getting things working, I'm tempted to chalk up this category as a win for Firefox.

Keir Thomas has been making known his opinion about computing matters since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at . His Twitter feed is @keirthomas .

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Tags open sourcebrowsersinternetGooglesoftwareapplicationsFirefoxmozilla

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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