Most of us tend to choose a web browser and stick with it for years. It can be hard to break away from your comfort zone – especially when you've become used to its quirks – but trying a different browser can greatly improve your experience on the web.
Whether it's enhanced security, improved speed, or greater flexibility through customizable options and plugins, the right browser can have a huge effect on your online life. Here we've put the biggest browsers through their paces (plus one that you might not be familiar with) to identify the one that does the best job of ticking all those boxes, but if you have a particular concern then read on to see if there's an alternative that might be better suited to your needs.
Firefox has just received its biggest update in 13 years, and it's so impressive, it's propelled the browser to the top of our list.
Firefox has always been known for its flexibility and support for extensions, but in recent years it had started to lag behind the competition in terms of speed. Firefox Quantum, released in late 2017 represented a total overhaul of the browser's code base, with speeds now comparable with Google Chrome. That's not just on top-end computers, either – the new Firefox makes frugal use of RAM, even with masses of tabs open.
Firefox also scores serious points when it comes to privacy. Mozilla is a non-profit organisation, which means it doesn't have the same impetus to sell your data as some other browser developers.
Quantum also introduced a new system for extensions that prevents rogue developers making malicious changes to the browser's internal code.
It's not always the absolute fastest – for some pages Chrome still has the edge, as Mozilla's own video demonstrates – but the new Firefox has come out swinging and is our pick for the best web browser of 2017.
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.
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.
The default 'browsing experience' on Windows 10, and unavailable for older operating systems, Edge is an odd one. Quite why Microsoft needs to be running a pair of browser products in tandem rather than making Edge backwards compatible 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.
Microsoft Internet Explorer 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 this browser is perfect. Google's V8 benchmark sees it struggling, and IE isn't quite as able to handle add-ons 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.
Here's something a bit different. We all spend probably far too much time sitting in front of our web browsers, and up-and-comer Vivaldi wants to make that as pleasant and personal an experience as possible.
The whole style and structure of its interface is entirely up to you. 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.
Vivaldi is built on Chromium, which means you can expand it even further with extensions from the Chrome Web Store. Just pick your preferred plugin and click 'Add to Chrome'. Some extensions might behave slightly differently in Vivaldi, but most work perfectly.
Vivaldi is a refreshing and creative take on web browsing, and one to watch in the next couple of years as more features are added.
Tor Browser is, perhaps unjustly, most regularly associated with the seedy underworld of the dark web. While it's true that you can use this web browser 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.
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 Browser 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.