Saturday, March 26, 2011

Browsers and the Blogger who Blogs About Them

Spring Break has been a wonderful time for me to relax and a chance to do things I enjoy, but it has left me sadly neglectful of my blog here and of you, my readers. So to make it up to you, today I am going to be writing on something practical, something that may be of use to you. I'm writing about something you're using right now: the web browser you're using to read this post. (If you're not using a browser to read this, you are far beyond me and have no need of my puny wisdom.) With the recent release of new versions of several popular browsers, it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate my judgement of various past versions and take a fresh look.

A lot of people don't really think about their browser much; it came with the computer (especially in the case of Internet Explorer for Windows computers or Safari for Macs), and it works fine, so why bother changing? I'm not arguing in this post that you should necessarily give up your familiar browser, I'm merely trying to show you other options. Expand your horizons, as it were. And if it turns out you really do like the browser you use, wonderful - perhaps you can still learn something useful about customizing it. With that said, here's my personal (more or less balanced) overview of the five most widely used browsers. I'm going to detail the good points individually, and save a discussion of what problems I see for the end, when I'll discuss negatives by the groups of browsers they affect. For your comparison pleasure, I took pictures of my blog as it appears in each browswer.

1. Internet Explorer.
I'm starting with IE because it is still the most widely used browser in the world and comes standard with Windows computers as the default browser, so it's highly probable that at least some of you are using it. It's also the browser I used for quite a few years in the early 2000's.

Internet Explorer 9.
If I had written this post a year ago (and the idea for it actually occurred to me nearly that long ago!), I'd probably have given a recommendation to move away from using Internet Explorer. For many years, Internet Explorer was, in my opinion, a bad influence on the Web. While most other browsers quickly adopted new Web standards as they came out, IE stubbornly hung on to an idiosyncratic way of doing things that to this day is responsible for many sites having a bunch of extra code used to figure out if the viewer is using IE or a different browser and changing the structure of the page accordingly.

However, with Internet Explorer's usage share slowly declining over time, Microsoft finally seems to have decided to stop trying to shape the Web to its wants and with the release of Internet Explorer 9 appears to be embracing emerging web standards such as HTML5 in a compliant manner. It's a big step in the right direction, I think.  And with that, I can once again recommend IE as a browser. It has some real positives: most webpages are still optimized to look best in it, so you'll never have a problem with a webpage not working with it. From my set of comparison pictures, it has the smallest interface of all five I tested, giving it the absolute most space to display the webpage itself. It can be extended with addons, although the interface isn't the friendliest: I had to restart IE when installing one, and then wasn't able to find it afterwards. All that having been said, it will be interesting to see if IE can hold its own against the many alternative browsers out there that have been steadily siphoning off its users. We'll now examine the main user siphon: Firefox.

2. Firefox.
The open-source browser traditionally seen as Internet Explorer's biggest rival, Firefox 4 was recently released with much acclaim. Back in the day when IE didn't have tabbed browsing (IE  6), I came very very close to switching to Firefox because it had tabs and I was (and still am) an inveterate tab user. Then the next version of IE came out with tab support, and I never looked back.

Firefox 4.
While Internet Explorer was trying to mold the Web into its own image, Firefox was embracing open-source culture, a fact that made it popular with a lot of people who liked its customizability. The picture above isn't quite a fresh install; I already made a few changes between installing it and taking the picture. Firefox comes with a whole lot of user-created addons which can be installed to achieve all kinds of effects, from ad-blockers that work silently in the background to more active functions like to-do lists to unlocking new ways of navigating using your mouse (more on that later). There are also tons of user-created skins that change the appearance of the browser, adding another layer of customizability (the one in the picture is called "Outer Space View").

Firefox has traditionally been seen as Internet Explorer's big rival, but it itself is being challenged by other browsers gaining usage share from below. Next, we'll take a look at the newest of the Big Five: Chrome.

3. Chrome.
When Google first announced it was working on a Web browser, there was a lot of speculation as to the result. Could Google, traditionally known for working within existing browsers, actually create a stand-alone browser that would appeal to people? If the past few years are any indication, the answer would seem to be "Yes".

Google Chrome 10.0
 Chrome is the youngest of the Big Five browsers, dating only from 2008, but it has shown an impressive adoption rate, currently the third most-used browser worldwide. When it was released it featured a novel location for tabs at the top of the browser, a decision that proved to be ahead of its time. Like Firefox, Chrome features a large number of skins with which to personalize it; the one I have in the picture is a minimalist metal-looking one from Google called “Brushed”. Chrome also has a Web store with various applications (most of them free, or with free basic version) ranging from games to productivity apps.

Chrome was also the first browser to combine the address bar and search bar into one “Omnibox”, a design decision currently shared only by Internet Explorer. This means that if the address you type in doesn't find a match, Chrome will automatically search the Web for you to try and find what you're looking for. It also has an innovative system whereby you can save certain bookmarks to a bar that appears at the top when you open a new blank tab. All in all, Chrome makes a fine browser, one that I can recommend using.

Having considered Google's browser, we'll now take a look at the browser belonging to Google's rival Apple: Safari.

4. Safari.
Apple's browser Safari comes standard on Macintosh operating systems the way Internet Explorer does on Windows. It runs on Windows as well, though.

Safari 5.0.4
I'll be honest: of the five browsers I'm reviewing here, Safari is the one I know least about. Several years I ago I gave it a whirl, but I was trying other browsers as well at the time, and it just didn't quite hook me. That having been said, I like it a lot more testing it this time. It too has a lot of extensions that can be applied to it, although I wasn't able to find too many I'd be interested in (some of them seem especially geared towards Mac users, but that's hardly surprising). The interface is clean and efficient, although it doesn't support personalizable skins like Firefox and Chrome do. It's the only one of the five that still has the tabs below the address bar, but I don't really find the location of tabs to be a big difference between browsers.

And I really don't have much more to say about Safari. Like Firefox and Chrome, it has generally been very good at supporting new and emerging Web standards, keeping abreast of the latest developments. It has an interesting “Top Sites” feature where, upon opening a new tab, you'll be greeted by a wall of panels each showing one of the sites you frequent most. It appears to be a capable browser from the short time I spent testing it, and one I wouldn't mind using (though not as my main browser).

Now with all of that said, let's look at the last of the Big Five browsers, and (spoiler) my personal favorite: Opera.

5. Opera
Where to begin with Opera? As I mentioned, this is the browser I use the majority of my time. It looks much the same on the surface as the other browsers we've looked at:

Opera 11.01.
Opera actually pioneered many of the features we now take for granted in other browsers. Tabbed browsing, for instance - something you probably never stop to consider - was originally developed by Opera. It's always been a very standards compliant browser, built to keep up with the changing landscape of the Web. One thing it lacked for quite a while was a library of extensions like the other browsers had, but with the latest release (Opera 11) that problem was rectified. And these extensions, unlike in some of the other browsers, are easy to install, and I've been able to find some that are quite helpful. It has many user created skins you can choose from to personalize it, too; that's the “C00” skin with the Sand color scheme in the above picture.

While some of the innovative features Opera came up with have been copied by other browsers, it still has some features the others don't have, and it's these features that keep me coming back to it.

First, Opera was the first browser to implement mouse gestures, and the only browser to have them be available without having to manually activate them. Mouse gestures, if you've never experienced them, are awesome. One thing I do a lot of while browsing is open new tabs in a background window, and with each of the four other browsers reviewed here, that is accomplished by holding the Control key and clicking. Not a major effort I'll grant you, but usually I'm opening new links when I'm reading something interesting and just want to open it and forget about it till later. Having to hold Control breaks my concentration a bit, which pulls me out of the flow of my reading. With mouse gestures, you can right click on a link, hold the button down and move the mouse slightly down and back up to accomplish the same task. Only requires one hand, and doesn't break my concentration as much. (And it gets better: with the new extensions available in Opera 11, I found one that opens new background tabs when you simply click and hold the button for about half a second, which is about as easy as it could possibly get. Call me lazy, but I open a lot of tabs, and this is in all honesty the one extension I would keep if only allowed one).

Second, Opera has something called Speed Dial. It's quite simple in concept: it's a graphical display of a customizable number (4-25) of bookmarks that appears when you open a blank new tab. I don't know about you, but I tend to spend much of my time on the Web on a rather small number of sites, things like email and news, and it's incredibly convenient to be able to access them quickly whenever I want to. You know your home page, the one that loads when you first open your browser? I personally find that there is no one site that I want to see first thing every time I want to get on the Web. With Opera, you can set it to display Speed Dial right away upon start-up, giving you immediate access to any one of the sites you visit frequently. It's like Safari's Top Sites, except that it's not automatic, which I actually like better because it allows you to arrange them the way you want.

One caveat: As the Big Five browser with the smallest usage rate (typically around 2% of global Web traffic), not every webpage maker bothers to ensure that their page works perfectly with Opera. Most of the time you'll have no trouble, but every once in a while it becomes necessary to switch to a different browser to get a certain webpage to work correctly.

6. Final Thoughts.
Now, in the above sections, I've tried to be fair to each browser, pointing out the good points, while down-playing the negatives. Here I'm going to explain exactly what I like and don't like about each browser, using categories of things that are either the same or different across browsers.
  1. Speed Dial. This is one of the biggest draws for me. It's amazing how quickly it becomes part of your routine, and how jarring its absence feels when you use another browser without it. Firefox has an extension that does pretty much the same thing, though it's slightly harder to customize than Opera's native functionality. Safari's Top Sites does somewhat the same thing (I surmise; I haven't actually used it enough for it to start automatically filling in my frequent sites, a minor quibble I have with it; I prefer to be able to do these things manually). Internet Explorer has a feature similar to Top Sites, but doesn't show an actual thumbnail, using the webpage's icon instead. Finally, Chrome has a neat system similar in nature whereby you can add bookmarks to a bar that appears in new blank tabs. I had to be told of this because I've never bothered to bookmark anything in Chrome before, but I have to say it's a nice touch, and definitely raises my opinion of Chrome.
  2. Mouse Gestures. This feels like an incredibly minor point when I talk about it, but having used Opera almost exclusively for a few years, it really bugs me to have to coordinate hitting a specific key while simultaneously clicking a link when all I want is for it to open up in the background silently until I'm ready to read it. No other browser has mouse gestures by default, and only Firefox has an extension that mimics this behavior (one that works quite well, though). There's also no extension in any of the other browsers listed here that mimics the slightly-extended-click-to-open-a-new-background-tab functionality of the one in Opera.
  3. Tabs at the top. Most programs in Windows have a small bar at the top that you can click to focus on the window when switching from another window. Firefox and Chrome have an unusual structure where the tabs now overlap this bar and extend all the way to the top of the window (or screen, if you're using them in full-screen mode). It's a small point, but this means that when you click back in to Firefox or Chrome, you have to click on one of the open tabs, possibly taking you away from the tab you were looking at. With the other browsers, you can just sort of point and click blindly without having to worry about changing (or accidentally closing) tabs. A small point, but it often bothers me. 
And with that, I think I've said pretty much all I have to say about browsers. I'm struck by how petty most of my considerations seem when I actually list them, but they really do make the difference between a browser that does its job well by fading out of view and letting you focus on surfing the World Wide Web, and a frustrating experience trying to get your browser to do what you want it to. If I haven't touched on the reasons you personally prefer your favorite browser, forgive me...I give you my reasons and feelings, which may have little or no relevance for some people.

One thought on appearance: there really isn't that much to say about the graphical differences between browsers, as it appears they are all changing to look more like each other. Opera, Chrome, and Safari look pretty much the same as they did a few years ago (with minor tweaks), while Internet Explorer and Firefox have had some major changes to free up screen real estate for use by the page, rather than the user interface. It's gotten to the point where I can no longer tell at a glance which browser I'm using if I have multiple open and happen to forget, as happened more than once while writing this blog. The use of distinctive skins can lessen this to some extent, though IE and Safari don't let you change their appearance (as far as I can tell).

Finally, if you've tried all five browsers listed here, and didn't like any of them, I can almost guarantee you'll find one to you liking at this comprehensive list of browsers in existence. Not for the faint of heart!

A hui hou!

Edit 3/28/11: It has been brought to my attention that there was more to Chrome than meets the eye in terms of Speed Dial functionality (actually, it was right there to be seen all along, I'd just never bookmarked anything in Chrome before to discover it.)


    1. Wow. Very interesting! I'm a Chrome fan myself, but I'd never even heard of Opera. Where did you get it?

      It's not surprising that you've never heard of it. I only learned of it when I took an HTML class at WCC, where it was casually mentioned in the textbook. It has a pretty small usage share in the U.S. (although in some Eastern European countries it makes up nearly 50% of browser usage).

      It's funny in retrospect how I can write almost 3,000 words for my blog, and procrastinate writing a tenth that much for my English class...

    3. This was really interesting! I have IE, Firefox and Chrome on my computer at the moment, but I use Firefox mainly because I'm lazy and don't like changing things. I am used to Firefox, however, so any shortcomings it has don't bother me enough to really notice them. (Yet.)

      I am also rather computer-illiterate. So maybe it doesn't apply to me very much.


    Think I said something interesting or insightful? Let me know what you thought! Or even just drop in and say "hi" once in a while - I always enjoy reading comments.