Linux browser smackdown!

Never before has the once humble browser been so powerful.

These days it's not just basic tasks that can be undertaken without leaving the confines of a Firefox or Konqueror window; some of the jobs that used to require complex desktop applications – database design, video editing, photo manipulation – are now perfectly viable for those with just browser software and web access.

This kind of power makes your choice of browser almost as crucial as your distribution and operating system. If an application is written using standard technologies – such as HTML, JavaScript and CSS – it should run well on anything capable of rendering those technologies, whether the browser launches from Linux or another OS. In fact, a good browser can make your choice of OS largely irrelevant.

There are other more proprietary and equally widespread technologies around, but as these in-browser application frameworks rely on plugins to work correctly, it could be seen as a little unfair to judge them in this Roundup. However, we're concerned with getting things done, so if a favourite site works better in one browser than another – even as result of better support from a developer – then we'll take it into account.

Think of it this way: we could offer a picture of how well each browser does on the Acid 2 test, chuck in a table of features and have done with it. But that would be lazy, because browsers rely on content from other sources and you need to know what really works best for you.

Firefox 3

The most popular piece of end-user open source software, Firefox has managed to grab about 20 per cent of the browser market from Internet Explorer.

One of the problems that really successful software has to deal with is continuing to be revolutionary while keeping the conservative mass user base happy. In this regard Firefox 3 is such a success that users migrating from version 2 may not notice any big changes at all.

However, pare away the surface layer of shiny new gloss and you'll find the bookmarks system has received a massive update. It now uses the SQLite database system to improve performance when searching or managing bookmarks, and to power the demurely named Awesome Bar.

This replacement of the old 'type ahead' address bar takes the process of finding useful past pages a step further – displaying hits for any pages you've visited that contain the string you're typing. For example, we looked at a page about The Killers (film) on Later, we typed 'Killers' into the address bar and an entry for that IMDB page popped up, despite 'The Killers' being absent from the URL.

Firefox 3 has also been the recipient of a hefty increase in speed – both in terms of launching and rendering pages.

At least some of this boost comes courtesy of the latest version of the Gecko rendering engine, which not only makes native SVG rendering possible, but also totally overhauls the way the browser zooms into pages.

Previously, the zoom command (View > Zoom) would have changed only the text size on a page, which made an utter mess of layouts. The new zoom rebuilds the entire page at a new size, leaving the layout and images intact.

The software's memory usage has been optimised as well, with Firefox 3 now consuming somewhere between a half and three quarters of the memory of its predecessor. No big deal for newer systems with plenty of free memory perhaps, but certainly useful on more modest hardware where it can mean the difference between a useable and exasperating web experience.

Aside from the deep changes and new technology we've mentioned, the other advantage Firefox 3 has is that it's already used by many millions of people. It's been such a part of the scene during the web's development that it's rare to come across a site that isn't Firefox-friendly – the same cannot be said of the other browsers here.