UPDATE 12.03.09: We've now published a newer version of this article
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On the face of it, all three browsers are excellent - but there are big differences in the way they do things, and even bigger differences in the strain they can put on your system. We benchmarked all three programs on a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo machine packing 2GB of RAM and Windows Vista Ultimate - but as that's a fairly speedy machine we also blew the dust off our trusty and desperately underpowered Acer Aspire to see how they coped on that.
Wherever possible we've compared like with like, and for the sake of clarity we'll avoid terms such as "OmniBox" (Chrome) or "Awesome Bar" (Firefox) when we're comparing different browsers' address bars. We believe in calling a spade a spade, not an OmniShovel or MegaSpade.
There's been a lot of talk about Chrome's minimalist appearance, but it doesn't make that much difference to the amount of space the browser actually takes up. Disable Firefox's and IE's status bars - Chrome doesn't have one - and Chrome's header is a half-tab shorter than IE and the same size as Firefox. Had Google gone for something other than THE WORLD'S BIGGEST FONT in the address bar, the difference would have been more pronounced.
In fact, Chrome's slight space advantage disappears completely when you maximise it. Its address bar and tabs remain at the top of the screen, whereas in full screen mode IE8 and Firefox get rid of absolutely everything.
One thing Chrome has done is simplified the traditional combination of address bar and search bar. Instead, you use the same box to type URLs and search criteria; if it's the latter, Chrome comes up with some helpful suggestions. IE8 does the same but keeps a separate search box just in case, while Firefox sticks with URLs and previously visited pages in the address bar and search suggestions in the search bar.
That doesn't mean Chrome doesn't have some nifty tricks. Click on the spanner icon and choose History to see a Google-style list of the pages you've visited along with a prominent search box for finding exactly what you want, and when you create a new tab there's an Opera-style collection of nine thumbnails to show you your most commonly visited sites along with your most recently added bookmarks. We particularly liked the ability to delete a particular day's browsing history without getting rid of everything else, and the ability to resize on-screen text input boxes is brilliant.
As with Firefox and IE you can re-arrange open tabs by dragging them around, but Chrome also enables you to drag a tab over the desktop. Firefox does this too, but where Firefox then saves the page as a link Chrome opens it as a new browser window. We prefer Chrome's approach.
It's not all good, though. Bookmark management is non-existent, Chrome doesn't appear to know what an RSS feed is let alone offer any features to deal with one, and where IE and Firefox can zoom in and out of entire web pages Chrome merely makes the text bigger or smaller while leaving images intact.
There's no doubt that Firefox is the Swiss Army Knife of the internet, boasting an unrivalled collection of extensions and themes - although to be fair, IE is catching up with a decent collection of Toolbars and Extensions in the Internet Explorer Gallery. With Chrome, expandability is limited to the usual content plugins - Flash, Acrobat, Silverlight and so on. Extensions are on the to-do list.
Although Firefox is king of the extensions, IE8 has a few interesting ideas built into the browser. Its Accelerators are plugins that essentially bring the power of web services to the context menu so, for example, if you right-click on a link you can choose to blog it, email it, translate it and so on. It's context-sensitive, so some content will give you the ability to define text with Encarta or map an address with Live Maps. Firefox gets something similar via the impressive Ubiquity add-on, but with IE the basic features are already in the browser.
IE also gets Web Slices, which enable you to subscribe to part of a web page - designer permitting - and make it pop out of the Favorites bar without actually visiting the page. We're not entirely sure how useful this is, but it does look nice.
Chrome comes with Google Gears built-in, and that's much more interesting than Web Slices. Gears enables web services such as Google Docs to run offline as well as online, and while Gears is available for everything from Windows to mobile phones (as well as Firefox and IE) it's nice to have it in the browser from the get-go. It's not just useful for Google's own services, although of course that's why it's there; platforms such as WordPress can also use Gears to speed things up. With Chrome, you can save web applications as desktop shortcuts and open them without all the browser buttons, making them look much the same as standard desktop applications - although you'll need to enable their offline modes if you want to use them when you're not connected.
For everyday browsing, Chrome feels quicker and snappier - but when we compared each browser's launch times and load times for the same set of web pages there wasn't a substantial difference on our Core 2 Duo machine. On our ancient laptop, however, Chrome was noticeably faster - and we can't wait to try the Mac version, because Firefox on OS X eventually gets so depressed it kills itself.
Sunspider benchmarks (lower numbers are better)
Firefox 3.1 - 1771.4ms
IE8 - 6837.6ms
Chrome - 1923.0ms
There's no doubt that Chrome gave IE8 a spanking, but it actually lagged behind Firefox. We ran the benchmarks again just to make sure.
Second Sunspider benchmarks (lower numbers are better)
Firefox 3.1 - 1942.5ms
IE8 - 6947.0ms
Chrome - 1980.0ms
Then we loaded up a collection of ten different websites - blogs, news sites, YouTube, Google Mail and so on - and measured each browser's memory footprint. The results were:
Memory Footprint (ten tabs)
Firefox 3.1 - 91MB
IE8 - 230MB
Chrome - 141MB
With a single open tab IE was once again the hungriest, but this time we found Chrome's footprint to be positively titchy, with little difference between Firefox and IE.
Memory Footprint (single tab)
Firefox 3.1 - 50MB
IE8 - 59MB
Chrome - 22MB
Although we didn't find any significant difference in load times or page rendering times on our test machine, that's probably because it has a Windows Experience Index of 5.5 and can run Crysis without bursting into tears. Things are very different on a less powerful machine, as we discovered when we blew the dust off our laptop - a machine with an Experience Index of 2.2 and less horsepower than a badger. This time, the differences were dramatic.
Firefox - 37s
Chrome - 15s
IE8 - n/a
Page load time
Firefox - 8s
Chrome - 11s
IE8 - n/a
From a cold boot Chrome was the fastest to launch, although Firefox was slightly faster to render its first, uncached, page - although quitting the browsers and restarting them erased these differences, with both Chrome and Firefox launching in two to three seconds. We'll come back to IE in a moment.
NB - the benchmark below is a corrected version of the earlier published benchmark. An error in the previously published test showed Chrome outperforming Firefox. TechRadar apologises for the error.
Once again, we ran Sunspider twice, and the gap between Chrome and Firefox was significant.
Firefox - 3144.6ms
Chrome - 4283.6ms
IE8 - n/a
Firefox - 3332.2ms
Chrome - 3761.0ms
IE8 - n/a
As you can see, on our underpowered PC Firefox performed even better than Chrome. And IE? Where Chrome and Firefox installed simply and quickly, IE decided to waste an entire morning mucking us about. After a lengthy installation procedure we were told that the install had failed, and the Microsoft support site told us to run Windows Update. Which we did - again and again and again. Eventually we gave up in disgust.
So what does this all mean in practice? On a machine that isn't struggling to reach Windows' system requirements we found very little difference between the three browsers, although the variations in memory footprint clearly make a big difference on more modest machines. Remember, though, that these are bare browser installations: start stuffing, say, Firefox with add-ons and its footprint will start expanding accordingly.
Another key consideration is stability. With Firefox, all your open tabs are handled in one go, which means a poorly coded web page or a problem in one tab can bring down the entire browser. With Chrome and IE8, each tab is handled independently. That means a crash in one tab shouldn't affect any other tab - particularly important if you're running web applications for serious work and something silly packs up.
Chrome includes a nifty tab manager (press Shift and Esc to get it) that gives you a view of what each tab's up to, and it enables you to shut down anything that's misbehaving. If you're feeling really geeky, typing "about:memory" in the address bar gives you details not just of the memory being used by each tab, but what kind of memory is being used and what each tab had for breakfast.
WINNER: IE8. NO, REALLY
Both IE and Chrome have Safari-style private browsing modes, dubbed InPrivate and Incognito respectively. These stop recording your browsing activities so that, ahem, nobody will know about that special present you've been shopping for. Parents will be delighted to discover that Windows' Parental Controls override InPrivate, which will no doubt really annoy teenage boys. With Firefox, private browsing is only via third-party extensions - which is why it loses to IE8 in this category.
It's worth remembering that while InPrivate and Incognito stop sites adding cookies to your system and prevent members of your family from seeing what you've been up to, they don't stop your browser giving away a certain amount of information about you to the sites and search engines you visit. However, while it's tempting to imagine Google using Chrome to secretly spy on you and give the data to its secret army of Terminators, the reality is duller: Chrome doesn't tell Google any more than any other browser does.
All three browsers promise to protect you from net nasties, with anti-phishing warnings popping up automatically. Chrome and IE also use shading in the address bar to show you exactly what domain you're visiting, greying out the bits of the URL that might otherwise obscure the site's origin. It'll be a while before we know how Chrome stacks up on the security front, though, as it's too new for security researchers (and hackers) to have given it a proper poke to look for holes. It's clearly not bulletproof, though: within hours of release, security researcher Aviv Raff found a vulnerability that Chrome has inherited from the Webkit engine it uses.
For many net users, there's another kind of evil to consider: adverts. All three browsers block pop-ups, but that's as far as Chrome goes. Firefox users can install Adblock Plus to get rid of in-page annoyances, while IE8 users can install Adblock Pro. The lack of ad-blocking is enough to rob Chrome of victory here.
TechRadar's final verdict
WINNER: FIREFOX, JUST
None of these browsers is finished, but we've found them stable and useful enough to use as everyday browsers. So which one should be on your machine?
IE8 is the first to fall. It's a vast improvement over IE7 and has some nice touches, but it's too hungry and too slow compared to its rivals (if you can get it to install in the first place. We're still trying to get it onto our laptop). If your machine isn't blessed with lots of RAM and a speedy processor, it's going to annoy you.
For now, we're sticking with Firefox. For all its flaws, it's still the most expandable and customisable of the three, it doesn't look like Baby's First Browser and the ability to block in-page annoyances without having to muck around with proxies more than makes up for the odd crash. Give Chrome extensions, ad-blocking and skins, though, and we may well change our minds.
UPDATE 12.03.09: We've now published a newer version of this article with new browser versions and Safari 4 benchmarks added in.