The web browser is becoming the single most important piece of desktop software, if it isn't already. Not only is the web a huge source of information, but also the conduit to a huge world of hosted apps and interconnected cloud services covering a range of new computer-based experiences.
When you're shopping, you want security; when you're working, you want reliability; and when you're being entertained, you want speed and compatibility with many different types of media.
This mainly affects Chrome, Opera and Firefox. The way we chose which applications to include in this Roundup was quite simple – they're the most popular Linux browsers currently developed and in use. We're including only proper versions of the browsers available now, with no pre-alpha or nightly builds allowed.
Once the poster child of the new web revolution, but is Firefox past it?
There is a description of Firefox as a flashy sports car, hampered by all sorts of esoteric hardware welded to the outside. As analogies go, it isn't a bad one. The original impetus for developing Firefox was to create a sleek, fast and efficient browser that didn't carry a lot of complicated UI features and speed-hogging code that only a minority would use.
Of course, the outcome of that is that the browser soon garnered itself a gazillion extensions. The meteoric rise of Firefox (it managed to get around 20% of browser share in the first year, and is now thought to be the client of choice for nearly half of the web traffic in the world) shows that the sleek and unfussy style was a good call on behalf of the authors.
Firefox's popularity was down to more than just speed, though – it innovated too, and strove for real standards compliance, in a world where browsers like Internet Explorer wanted the web to work their way. But that was in the past – what has Firefox done for us lately?
Most of the recent changes seem to be in terms of customisation, but there are also technical innovations. Support for the Web Open Font Format, for example – a recent development that simplifies embedding downloadable typefaces in a way that keeps font developers happy and reduces bandwidth.
Firefox is also pretty hot on the new HTML 5 technologies, with support for OGG containers and Google's WebM format, MathML and more. Certainly there's no sign of Firefox resting on its considerable laurels.
Coupled with an excellent security record and an amazing amount of customisation potential, Firefox makes a solid browser choice.
Solid and reliable, configurable and surprisingly nimble.
The so-called social browser throws up some surprises
Flock began life around the same time as Firefox, but the rationale behind the two is very different. Flock concentrates on what many people actually use the web for, so its world-view is centred around Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace and various webmail services.
The idea was to build in the kind of tools you would need – a blog editor app, a photo uploader – and also to provide a way to consume this media alongside 'normal' websites. At first glance, this gives it the appearance of some sort of multimedia command centre, which isn't too far from the truth.
Unfortunately, running the sidebar to keep track of Twitter or Flickr causes the responsiveness to drop as CPU power (and bandwidth) are drawn off to make sure you're seeing the latest tweets or pictures. Of course, there is no way around the fact that if you want to see web pages and Twitter feeds side by side, the information has to be downloaded and processed.
Maybe the priorities could have been adjusted better, but for a user on a 1Mb link or slower, this is a poor compromise. In terms of its rendering performance and compliance, Flock seems to be at the rear of the pack on many occasions.
Although ostensibly still in development and using the same Mozilla codebase as Firefox, a year of standing still has left it suffering. Flock is neat if you spend your day worrying about what's happening on Facebook, but much of the functionality of Flock can be replaced by add-ons (albeit just as painfully slowly) or perhaps by dedicated apps. It does have some interesting, and even innovative, UI features, but is also more than a little out of date.
It does have a different take on the web, but it's a little sad and neglected.