Are browser-based password managers worth it?

A close-up image of a keyboard, with a key marked "Password".
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There’s no escaping the need for passwords and, thanks to an ever-growing requirement for new ones, we’ve all got more than we know what to do with. That can be a big problem, because making sure they’re all good whilst being easy to remember, is tricky to say the least. This scenario can tend to get worse the more password and log-in details you have. Eventually, many folks just give up, get lazy and start to fall back on their original and easily hackable passwords. Often, people will use the same easy-to-crack password in multiple locations.

Clearly, going down this route is not a good idea. In fact, if you’ve got any desire to keep your online activities safe and secure, it’s downright madness. Thankfully, many up-to-date web browsers can assist you with your password problems. The likes of Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox can usefully store passwords for you. It’s an extra touch of functionality that delivers added convenience within an experience that’s free to begin with. However, just because something is free doesn’t always make it the best bet.

If you’re aiming to stay safe and secure online, or if you make use of the best cloud storage options so have lots of files stored remotely, ensuring your passwords are optimised is vital. So, does the browser-based password manager option have merit? Or should you make use of one of the best password managers out there, which are app-based and generally need to be paid for if you want a good one.

Password manager benefits

While there’s no doubt that any kind of password manager can be beneficial, especially if you’ve got multiple log-ins to handle, there are pros and cons for the browser-based route. If you’ve got a browser with an integrated password manager, it can certainly offer up a simple-but-effective way to control log-in procedures. One of the neat aspects about them is the way they invariably feature a password generator, which does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to arming yourself with a new log-in whenever it’s needed.

Another really useful aspect of the browser-based password manager is the way that it will allow you much easier log-ins across multiple devices. If you regularly use a variety of computers and devices, such as a desktop or laptop along with a tablet or smartphone, a browser-based password manager makes life much easier. This is because passwords are stored in the cloud and can be updated in one go should you need to change them. If you’ve got something like a Chromebook, password management becomes a doddle.

Simplifying passwords

Password management should never be taken lightly, but a browser-based setup is also undeniably easy to use. If you tend to visit multiple sites over a period of time, or have many different accounts to manage, then remembering all those passwords can be a chore. At worst, it can result in getting locked out of seldom used accounts if you’ve mislaid the information. A browser-based password manager, on the other hand, can retain every log-in you need, even those occasional dip-in-and-out accounts that are only visited occasionally.

An additional bonus in all this is that, generally speaking, browser-based password managers are completely free to use, so there’s no annual subscription or one-off charge that is often called for with password manager apps. Another feature of the browser-based approach is that there’s rarely any additional software that needs to be installed. If you’ve selected a browser with this tool as part of the feature set it can be used right away, and often with little in the way of configuration needing to be done.

Browser-based downsides

There’s no doubt that browser-based password managers are therefore worth it, mainly because they probably won’t cost you anything to use in the first place. However, there are some downsides by sidestepping password manager software apps. For starters, a standalone password manager doesn’t require you to stick with one web browser, which might be the case if you want to have the convenience of multiple log-ins via one application.

Many people enjoy having more than one browser, which is where having multiple log-in credentials can get problematical and a little bit messy into the bargain. A standalone password manager, from a reputable supplier, should also be better able to fend of evolving security issues due to the way that they are updated more dynamically than browser-based solutions. In fact, if you have a paid-for password manager app, it should be constantly up to date, whereby many browsers don’t get updated nearly as frequently and sometimes security updates can come as part of a general overview update.

Security issues

Crucially, the standalone password manager that comes in app form will probably provide you with a more rounded security solution too. With web-based password managers, that sit within the framework of an everyday browser, your password information could be more at risk. While the best examples, such as Google Chrome, will come with plenty of security features, including AES 256-bit SSL/TLS encryption for looking after your prized passwords, there could still be holes in the arrangement somewhere.

There are, simply, everyday use situations whereby your password could be comprised or used without your knowledge too. Just supposing someone manages to get onto your laptop or desktop machine, without you knowing about it? Plenty of people leave their computing kit lying about, and it’s often easy enough for others to jump on and snoop around. It might sound lazy, but it does happen and if your log-in access is automatically granted within a web browser environment, instead of sitting behind the secure wall of a password manager package, you could be at risk.

Granted, both routes require users to be diligent with their devices and there’s always the risk of compromise, no matter what your password security solution happens to be. While browser-based password managers certainly have their uses, it’s hard to see how they can produce the best solution, particularly when there are so many standalone password manager packages out there that function just as conveniently. Crucially though, they also keep your log-in data locked up much more securely.

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Rob Clymo

Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital he has run the Innovation channel during a few years at Microsoft as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working he's usually out and about on one of numerous e-bikes in his collection.