The best web browser
The best web browser 2016
Are you getting the best of the web? We all have our preferred web browser, and we tend to stick to it. We generally won’t even think about changing unless something goes disastrously wrong. According to the statistics, most of us opt for Chrome – but is it the best?
We’ve selected 10 top contenders – Chrome among them, of course – to show that there’s much more to viewing the web. Perhaps you’re looking for raw speed, high levels of customisation, or rock-solid privacy for your browsing exploits. Maybe you’re just looking for a change for the sake of making a change. Whatever your reason, read on.
1. Google Chrome
A powerful and adaptable browser, if your PC has the resources
With Chrome, Google has built an extendable, efficient browser that deserves its place at the top of the browser rankings. According to w3schools’ browser trend analysis its user base is only rising, even as Microsoft Edge’s install numbers are presumably growing. Why? Well, it’s cross-platform, incredibly stable, brilliantly presented to take up the minimum of screen space, and just about the nicest browser there is to use.
Its wide range of easily obtained and installed extensions mean you can really make it your own, and there’s support for parental controls and a huge range of tweaks and settings to ensure maximum efficiency.
But there are downsides, and potentially big ones. It’s among the heaviest browsers in terms of resource use, so it’s not brilliant on machines with limited RAM, and its performance doesn’t quite match up to others in benchmarking terms. And with Google’s tentacles running through it, you might be uncomfortable with the ways in which your browsing data may be used.
An underrated browser with a superb Turbo mode for slow connections
It’s sad that Opera makes up only around 1% of the browser market, because it really is a quality browser. It launches fast, the UI is brilliantly clean, and it does everything its rivals can do with a couple of extras thrown in for good measure.
The key reason we’d at least recommend having Opera installed alongside your main browser is its Opera Turbo feature. This compresses your web traffic, routing it through Opera’s servers, which makes a huge difference to browsing speed if you’re stuck on rural dial-up or your broadband connection is having a moment.
It reduces the amount of data transferred too, handy if you’re using a mobile connection, and this re-routing also dodges any content restrictions your ISP might place on your browsing, which can be mighty handy. Opera automatically ducks out of the way if you’re using secure sites like banks so your traffic is free and clear of any potential privacy violation.
There’s also an integrated ad-blocker – which can be switched off if you’re morally inclined in that direction – and a battery-saving mode which promises to keep your laptop going for longer.
3. Microsoft Edge
Microsoft’s new, user-friendly browser is fully integrated with Windows 10
The default ‘browsing experience’ on Windows 10, Edge is an odd one. Quite why Microsoft needs to be running a pair of browser products in tandem is beyond us. The company’s reason, it seems, is that Edge represents the more user-friendly end of Redmond’s offering while Internet Explorer scales a little better for enterprise.
Integration with Windows 10’s core gimmicks seems to be Edge’s main strong point. It happily runs as a modern-skinned app on Windows 10’s tablet mode, and works with Cortana. It’s also highly streamlined for the current web age, doing away with insecure protocols like ActiveX and forcing you into Internet Explorer if you want to use them. We’re more used to browsers failing to render newer pages than we are to being told off for visiting older corners of the web.
Curmudgeonly grumbles aside, actually using Edge is a perfectly pleasant experience. It’s super-quick, hammers through benchmarks, its integrated reading mode makes complex sites more palatable, and by sandboxing it away from the rest of the operating system Microsoft has ensured that Edge won’t suffer the security breaches of its older brother.
4. Mozilla Firefox
A divisive choice these days – flexible, but a little sluggish
Once the leader in overall popularity in the browser war, Firefox is now now a slightly sad third place. It’s not clear why; while it lags behind its main competitors in terms of design, keeping the search and URL boxes separate and leaving buttons on display where others have removed them, it’s regularly updated on a six-week schedule and has a raft of extensions available.
It tends to hit the middle-to-bottom end of benchmark tests, however, and we did find it a little sluggish to a barely noticeable extent. Recent additions like built-in support for Pocket and Hello aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but some will love them. And that about sums up the Firefox of today; incredibly divisive, despite being a solid browser with a quality rendering engine.
If you’re looking for an alternative take on the same structure, Waterfox may fit the bill. It’s built on Firefox code, removes many of the restrictions and integrations of the main release, and purports to be one of the fastest browsers around.
Apple’s browser is fast and now available cross-platform
Safari may be Apple’s flagship browser, but you don’t need to own an Apple device to use it, at least technically. There’s an abandoned Windows version out there if you can find it, which you can also run on Linux through Wine – only Android (predictably) misses out. Don’t expect it to interpret many modern pages well, but it’s at least super-fast.
But do you really want to use it? On iOS, almost certainly. It’s the most efficient browser on the platform, and far kinder to your battery life than the likes of Chrome. Surprisingly the same is true on macOS, at least if you’re using a MacBook running on battery; its low impact on your system could save a huge wedge of battery life over the likes of Chrome and Firefox.
Everywhere else, though? If you’re after speed, perhaps; Safari certainly zips along, and its reading list – recently aped by Microsoft Edge – makes saving articles for later consumption rather easy. We’d usually plump for an alternative, but Safari is good enough to warrant a try.
An open source browser that’s essentially Chrome sans Google
Fancy running Google Chrome without the ‘Google’ bit of it? Chromium is its open source fork, and it’s the software from which Google gets the code that makes up Chrome itself. You’ll often find it bundled with Linux installations because it avoids proprietary technologies and trademarks which would otherwise breach their licenses.
Install and run Chromium and you will lose a few of Chrome’s default features. There’s limited media codec support due to Chromium’s open source license requirement, for example, and no automatic updater. But those are the negative losses; you may regard losing Google’s crash reporting and usage tracking function as a positive, or the part of Chrome that prevents it running extensions from outside the walled garden of the Chrome Web Store.
Stability-wise we’d plump for Chrome itself every time, but if you really want to stay on the cutting edge then Chromium is the right choice – nightly builds are available, so you can always try the most up-to-date (and potentially catastrophically broken) version.
Build your own interface with unique docking and tab-stacking features
There’s a built-in note-taking system, you can dock websites as side panels while using the main window to do your main browsing, and we love its innovative tab stacking tech, which allows you to group up tabs and move them around to avoid the crowding that so often plagues other browsers.
It’s not the fastest and it’s not the most fully featured, lacking any official support for extensions, but Vivaldi is relatively new and we don’t doubt it’ll receive further expansion as time goes on. It’s a refreshing and creative take on web browsing, and one to watch in the next couple of years.
8. Microsoft Internet Explorer 11
Fast and efficient, but less expandable than Firefox and Chrome
Microsoft’s browser has seen some ups and downs in its long tenure, from dominating the browser charts to languishing behind its main two competitors. This is partly an issue of choice – particularly the browser choice that Microsoft was forced to give customers after a court ruling – and partially because older versions fell behind the rendering and compatibility curve.
There are no such issues with Internet Explorer 11. It’s clean, powerful, highly compatible, and it demands less of your RAM and CPU than equivalent pages would on Chrome or Firefox. Plus it one-ups both of them on WebKit’s Sunspider benchmark.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Google’s V8 benchmark sees it struggling, and IE isn’t quite as able to handle addons and extensions as many of its competitors. So while there’s no reason to avoid IE like there might once have been, if you’re looking for a more customised browsing experience you’re out of luck.
9. Tor Browser
A package of browsing tools with security at their heart
Tor is, perhaps unjustly, most regularly associated with the seedy underworld of the dark web. While it’s true that you can use it to access otherwise unlisted sites, Tor’s privacy aspects – where your traffic is routed through random nodes the world over, making it very hard to track – are its real asset.
The Tor Browser is really a package of tools; Tor itself, a heavily modified version of the Firefox extended support release, and a number of other privacy packages that combine to make it the most secure browsing experience you’re likely to find. Nothing is tracked, nothing is stored, and you can forget about bookmarks and cookies.
You’ll need to alter your browsing habits to ensure that you don’t perform actions online that reveal your identity – Tor is just a tool, after all – but for a secondary browser useful for those private moments it’s a great choice. Run it from a USB stick and nobody need even know you have it at all.
10. Baidu Browser
Still commonly used, but now out of date
Chinese search giant Baidu is beginning to make waves outside its home country, and like main western rival Google, it has its own browser. A lot like Google, as it turns out: Baidu Browser – formerly known as Spark – seems to be the company’s own re-skin of Chromium, complete with Google sign-in options, support for Chrome extensions, and use of the Blink rendering engine.
So why choose to use a slightly hacky spin on already quality technology? Once upon a time it might have been for the integrated streaming video downloader and torrent client, but these appear to have been removed from most recent versions, although the improved download manager remains. Is it the automatic integration with Facebook and WhatsApp? Considering these are just pre-installed Chrome extensions, we’d suggest not. Is it the fact that it hasn’t been updated in about a year? Ah.
Yes, sadly – despite its popularity – we can’t recommend Baidu Browser. Perhaps if you can get hold of an older version you might make some (entirely legal) use of its download tools, but we wouldn’t ever recommend using an out-of-date browser.