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Revealed: the best browser for netbooks

Your choice of browser on your netbook is important

On netbooks, your choice of browser is crucial. The small screen means you're less tolerant of too-big browser interfaces, and the relatively slow processors mean performance is paramount - especially if, like many netbook users, you're using cloud computing and browser-based apps.

Changing browser isn't an option: Windows XP is an old OS, and you need a modern browser to access modern sites and to keep you safe. So which one is best? We put IE8 RC1, Firefox 3.1b3, Safari 4 beta and Chrome through their paces on our trusty Samsung NC-10.

Winner: Firefox

Chrome and Safari aren't bad looking browsers (and we didn't encounter the font smoothing issues with Safari that spoilt our desktop experience), but the lack of full screen browsing is a big deal on netbooks' little displays. Firefox and IE both have full screen browsing, which means you don't need to get rid of bookmark bars and other goodies, and of the two we prefer Firefox - especially when you start adding themes.

Oh, and don't even think about Safari's iTunes-style Top Sites, history and bookmarks views. Slow, slow, slow.

Winner: Firefox

Google Gears is built into Chrome for easy offline access to web applications, but you can stick it into Firefox, Safari or IE easily enough. As with desktop browsing, Firefox is by far the most expandable.

Fighting evil
Winner: Firefox

Ad-blocking isn't just handy on a netbook: with so little screen space to play with, it's essential. With extensions ranging from AdBlock Plus to Greasemonkey, Firefox wins this by a country mile.

Winner: Safari

To mimic real-world use we unplugged the Samsung and set the battery manager to maximum battery life. We checked each browser's memory footprint - on a machine with 1GB of RAM, every megabyte counts - and then ran two lots of Sunspider benchmarks to test that all-important web application performance. The differences were dramatic. Memory first:

IE8 RC1 61MB
Safari 4 beta 2 53MB
Firefox 3.1b3 40MB
Chrome 1.0.154 25MB

As ever, IE8 grabs the most memory. Now, the benchmarks. Smaller numbers mean better performance.

Safari 4 beta 2 7,021.2ms / 7,578.4ms
Chrome 1.0.154 8,303.0ms / 10,191.4ms
Firefox 3.1b3 11,763.2ms / 12,116.8ms
IE8 RC1 36,423.4ms / 36,264.0ms

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We expected IE8 to have the worst figures, but we didn't think they'd be that bad.

Winner: Firefox

Safari and Chrome are faster, but Firefox has the combination of extensions and the F11 key for full-screen browsing. If all you care about is web application performance then we'd go for Chrome: Safari's slightly faster, but Chrome's 'Create application shortcuts' option enables you to create stand-alone windows without all the browser bits. For everything else, though, Firefox wins by a mile.

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