Browser wars redux: The top 5 contenders duke it out

With major new versions released this year, Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari vie for the browser crown.

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Internet Explorer 8 (Windows)

Like Microsoft itself, Internet Explorer endures constant criticism, yet it remains the world's dominant browser. According to Net Applications, in September 2009, all versions of IE had 66% share of the market, versus 24% for Firefox, 4% for Safari, 3% for Chrome, and 2% for Opera.

IE8 is a mixed bag of a browser. It's slower than the competition, yet its host of innovative features will make up for its slowness with many users. In the past, Internet Explorer lagged behind the competition when it came to browser features -- for example, Microsoft doggedly refused for years to add tabbed browsing. But those times are long gone, because Internet Explorer 8 is packed with features.

Browser features

If you were to put together a checklist of the most important features a modern browser requires, you'd find that IE8 has just about all of them covered. Its tab-handling capabilities are exemplary, it includes private browsing, it has an excellent anti-phishing tool and pop-up blocker, and its search box is as good and as customizable as any browser's. Its built-in RSS reader is by far the best of any browser.

Its security and privacy tools are excellent as well, including protection against cross-site scripting attacks. Its anti-phishing tool not only protects against phishing attacks, but warns you when you're about to visit a site known to harbor malware. The browser's InPrivate Filtering can prevent Web sites from sharing information about your browsing habits without your knowledge.

IE's cookie-handling capabilities are especially noteworthy. In the past, browsers took an all-or-nothing approach to cookie deletion -- keep them all or kill them all. But IE8 lets you delete cookies and temporary Internet files from all sites except those that you have on your Favorites list.

Although the browser is now up to version 8, Internet Explorer 6 and 7 are still in widespread use, and many Web sites are built for older versions of the browser. (According to Net Applications, there are still more IE6 users than any other version.) To get around problems caused when you try to browse such sites with IE8, IE8 includes a feature called Compatibility View, which automatically changes the way the browser handles the site and displays it properly in Internet Explorer 8.

Internet Explorer 8

Internet Explorer 8 has a straightforward interface, solid security and some nice extras.

Internet Explorer 8 also includes two features designed to deliver information and services from Web pages directly into the browser, without you having to go out and visit those pages -- Accelerators and Web Slices. The more useful of these features, Accelerators, is something like a mini-mashup that delivers information from another Web site, such as map information, directly to your current browser page.

So, for example, when you are on a Web page that has a street address on it, you can highlight the address, and then choose one of the map accelerators -- from, say, Google Maps or Microsoft Live Search -- and you will see a map of the address displayed in either a flyaway pop-up or another tab, depending on how the specific accelerator works. You can interact with the map on the pop-up in the same way as you would if you were on the provider's site.

Web Slices deliver changing information from another site into your browser -- for example, the progress of an eBay auction. They live in your address bar. Click them, and you'll see a portion of the other Web page -- the "slice" -- with the information that has changed.

As useful as Accelerators and Web Slices are, there is a significant problem with them -- there simply aren't very many available, aside from some written by Microsoft itself. So as useful as they are in theory, in practice they're not of much use.

That brings up what is probably Internet Explorer 8's biggest shortcoming -- compared to Firefox, which can be tricked out and pumped up by thousands of add-ons, there are very few add-ons written for IE.

Interface and extras

Internet Explorer 8's interface is simple and straightforward, although because there are no apparent menus, it can take some getting used to. The Page, Safety and Tools icons on the top right of the screen allow you to customize how the browser works, and icons give you access to the RSS reader and to Favorites. For those who miss menus, you can display them by pressing the Alt button.

Internet Explorer 8

IE8 includes innovative features such as Accelerators.

Tab handling is excellent. A small but noteworthy feature is that, when you open a tab from an existing page -- for example, by clicking a link on it and opening that link in a new tab -- the new tab opens just to the right of the originating one, and both tabs are given the same color. This groups and color-codes related tabs for easy perusal. You can also easily move and rearrange tabs, reopen closed tabs and so on.

The address bar does double-duty as a place to type URLs and a place to search the Web, as well as previously visited Web sites, Favorites and RSS feeds. And the search box to the right of the Address Bar is nifty as well -- when you choose a search engine, that search engine can customize the results displayed there. When you search The New York Times from the search box, for example, you'll see full headlines matching your search results, as well as pictures.

The bottom line

Internet Explorer 8 includes some very useful and innovative features such as Accelerators, a straightforward interface, solid security, good tab handling and some very nice extras. That's all to the good. But because there are so few add-ons written for it, you can't do much to extend the browser's capabilities. If you're looking to expand your browser's power, you'll do better with Firefox.

-- Preston Gralla

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