Internet Explorer: The office slave
Microsoft's Internet Explorer, whose slick, yet-to-be-released ninth version is currently being hyped (the beta version lands in September), may lead in market share, but you'll be hard-pressed to find techies singing its praises.
Kevin Purdy, a contributing editor at productivity blog Lifehacker.com, says many corporate offices use Internet Explorer because banks and corporate e-mail providers (such as Novell) still design for that browser. "Even if it still works through your [alternative]browser, you'll get this message 'It's not compatible,' " he says.
Steven Vaughan-Nichols, a tech writer at Computerworld.com, is frank in his assessment: "Honestly, I could not recommend Internet Explorer to anyone. I really can't. Even if you're working in a business that's Microsoft from one end to another … the bottom line is there's no good reason in 2010 - or 2009, 2008 or 2007 - to keep using it."
That blunt judgment is based on Internet Explorer's notoriously weak security and lack of customizability. "Just glance at security news every month and there's a major bug or major malware, and Internet Explorer is a major part of that," he says.
Corporate inertia keeps Internet Explorer alive, Mr. Vaughan-Nichols says, but it can cost businesses in the long run. "This is the kind of stuff that damages companies," he says. "Sometimes your company's secrets or your customers' [social insurance]numbers go walking out the door because someone has let some malware in."
But Mr. Purdy is optimistic about the latest versions of the browser, which he says is great for simple functions.
"If you're still using Internet Explorer 6 or 7, that's unfortunate ... 8 isn't bad and 9 looks pretty nice," he says. "[With]Internet Explorer 8, I'm really impressed with how much-improved it is at getting out of your way and letting you browse and not asking you 30 questions."
Notable feature: InPrivate filter, which allows you to block content, such as ads, that might compromise your personal information
Firefox: The well-accessorized developer
This month, the company reported it had logged a vast two billion add-on downloads. Last week, it announced Tab Candy, a new way to sort and organize tabs when you have several open on your screen, which will be included in an updated version of Firefox.
Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari have hastily tried to catch up with their own add-on offerings, but are far behind Firefox in this department.
"If it can be done with a web browser, chances are you'll find a Firefox extension that will allow you do whatever it is you want done," Mr. Vaughan-Nichols says. And because many of Firefox's most popular add-ons have been around for years and evolved to multiple versions, they're less likely to be buggy or problematic than other browsers' offerings, he says.
But tricking out your browser with multiple add-ons "can be a bit of a double-edged sword," Mr. Purdy warns. "Some complain about memory loss or crashiness … sometimes it can weigh [the browser]down a little bit."
Notable feature: the Xmarks add-on, which loads your bookmarks and encrypted passwords when you launch and log in to Firefox. It keeps them synced and updated so you can access them from multiple devices.
Chrome: Google's speed demon
In the past year, droves of Firefox devotees have cut ties with the trailblazing browser to go to Chrome.
Why? The need for speed. Chrome came out with the highest score among the top five browsers in five different speed tests on both Macs and PCs, conducted by Lifehacker.com in the past month.
Though they test-drive all browsers on the job, both Mr. Purdy and Mr. Vaughan-Nichols confess that Chrome is their browser of choice at home.
For those multi-taskers who dart among 10 or more tabs, another useful Chrome feature is that, if Flash crashes in one tab, "it doesn't take the browser down with it," Mr. Purdy says. You'll only have to close that one unresponsive tab.
But Chrome is also head-and-shoulders above the competition when it comes to security, Mr. Vaughan-Nichols points out. "It's really been the most secure out-of-the-box [browser]that's ever come down the road," he says.
At last spring's Pwn2Own hacking contest at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, participants were challenged to gain access to a computer by targeting the browser. Contestants handily exploited the security holes in Safari, Internet Explorer and Firefox (in that order), leaving Chrome as the last browser standing.
Notable feature: Google Voice extension, which lets you check your Google Voice inbox, send text messages and make calls directly from phone numbers listed on websites.
Safari: The Apple fanboy
Mr. Vaughan-Nichols sums up Safari users thus: "They're Apple users that just want to use all the Apple stuff." (It's available for Windows, too, though very few users on that operating system choose it.)
He adds, though, that you can't really blame people for using Safari when it's pre-loaded onto their computers: "The whole Apple mantra really is that all you need to do is use all the Mac software that comes ready in your Macbook Pro or what have you, and that works and it's very attractive."
Slowly but surely, Safari is taking cues from Chrome and Firefox in the bells and whistles it offers users.
Last week, at long last, it launched its own modest library of add-ons to let users customize their experience. "[The add-ons are]very Chrome-like, in which they mostly fix pages and automate things," says Mr. Purdy, who test-drove many of them soon after their release.
While it was a close second to Chrome in speed tests on Macs, Safari was slug-like in its performance on a PC. It has also set some embarrassing records at the Pwn2Own contest. In 2009 it was compromised within seconds, allowing a contestant to gain access to an otherwise secure computer. This year, it was also the first browser down.
Notable feature: Better Facebook, which sends you notifications of new comments, messages and un-friends, and streamlines the content on the site itself