By Ian Paul, Independent Contributor, PCWorld | February 11, 2019 05:00 AM PT
We take a look at the performance and features of the big four internet browsers to see which one will serve you best.
The web browser is by far the most important piece of software on your PC—at least for most users. Unless you’re at a workstation crunching numbers or editing the next Star Wars you probably spend the majority of your computer time staring at a web app or a website.
That’s why it’s important to make sure you’ve always got the best tool for the job. In 2019 that does not include Internet Explorer. If you still want the built-in option for Windows, that would be Edge, though not for much longer as Microsoft plans to replace Edge (or at least its underlying technology) with a Chromium-based browser. Whatever happens with Edge there are so many other options out there including Google’s Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera.
Let’s take a look at the four major browsers (including Edge) to see how they stack up in early 2019. You might be surprised to find that our favorite overall this year is Opera. Read on to find out why.
(If none of these internet browsers strike your fancy, head over to PCWorld’s roundup of 10 intriguing alternative browsers.)
Browsers in brief
A perennial favorite, Google Chrome tops the metrics charts of both StatCounter and NetMarketShare by a huge margin. Google’s browser has built a dedicated fan base thanks to its massive extensions library, and the fact that it just gets out of your way to put the focus on web content, not the browser’s trimmings.
Chrome isn’t quite as simplistic as it once was, but it’s still very easy to use. There isn’t much to Chrome except a huge URL bar—known as the OmniBar—plus a space for extensions, a bookmarking icon, tabs, and that’s it.
Yet Google still finds a way to hide all kinds of features inside the browser, including deep integration with Google’s services. This allows you to sync your bookmarks, passwords, open tabs, and more across devices. Chrome also has multi-account support if you need it on a family machine, a built-in PDF viewer, built-in Google Translate functionality, a task manager, and the always handy Paste and go context menu item.
If there’s one complaint people have about Chrome it’s that the browser eats up available memory. Our browser testing in 2015 showed that Chrome was definitely a memory beast, but a few years later it fared pretty well in our tests.
For users who love extensibility but want greater privacy than a Google-made browser can provide, the open-source Mozilla Firefox is a great choice. Firefox paved the way for other browsers to become extensible, and Firefox’s relatively new extensions architecture will hopefully help its catalog match Chrome’s Web Store one day. Firefox also has a sync feature to see your open and recent tabs, browsing history, and bookmarks across all your devices.
Firefox 64 continues the strong efforts to update Mozilla’s browser that we saw with Firefox 57, which brought a new and updated design with refreshed icons, and a new library section that houses your history, pocket reading list, downloads, and synced tabs. Firefox 64 adds to that with a new task manager, and the ability to use Windows 10’s native sharing tool—personally, I think the old copy-and-paste method is still superior.
Where Firefox has really stood out in recent years is with the browser’s incognito mode. All browsers have a private mode that lets you browse without any of your activity being logged in your saved history. But most of the time these private modes still allow websites to track your activity for that specific session. Firefox does away with this by including ad and tracker blockers when using incognito mode.
Opera’s also got a few unusual features like Turbo, which saves on load times and bandwidth by compressing webpages on Opera’s servers. It’s also got a nice security feature called domain highlighting that hides most of the URL so that users can see easily and clearly if they’re on Google.com or google.com.scam.com—with scam.com being the actual website.
More recently, Opera introduced its own take on the social sidebar with one-click access to services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram. Like Chrome and Firefox, Opera also has its own cross-device syncing feature.
Microsoft Edge has always been a work in progress and is about to be abandoned in its current form. Microsoft announced in December that Edge would become a Chromium-based browser. Once the switch happens, Edge will have similar underpinnings to Chrome and Opera. It’s not clear exactly when this transition will occur, but it’s expected before the end of 2019 or perhaps early 2020.
You’ll see below that performance for the current version of Edge is pretty good in some respects, but speed is just one important factor for a browser in 2019. The Edge extensions library is small and will likely stagnate now that its underlying technology is going away. Edge’s sync functionality is still restricted to favorites and the reading list, and the browser doesn’t get updates nearly fast enough. All of these issues should improve once Edge becomes a Chromium-based browser.
Despite its current shortcomings, Edge has several helpful features that will appeal to some users. Edge is deeply integrated with Windows 10’s inking capabilities, as well as with OneNote, making it easy to clip a webpage, annotate it, and save it to a notebook. Cortana is also a big part of Edge. You can use Microsoft’s digital assistant to quickly search for information, compare prices, or get a quick calculation.
Like Chrome, Edge has a casting feature. It also has a nifty set-aside tabs feature to stash a collection of websites. Other plusses included the ability to read and annotate ebooks (great for tablets) and PDFs, easily pin websites to the taskbar, edit URLs in your favorites list, browse in full screen, see and manage website permissions, and “read aloud” web content. Perhaps the best recent feature, however, is the “Continue on PC” option that lets you push webpages to your PC from your phone with the appropriate apps installed.
In the April 2018 Update, Edge got some small but significant feature boosts including the ability to mute tabs and automatic form fill, an updated flyout menu, and clutter-free printing that carves out all the web ads and other detritus you really don’t need on the printed page. Edge also boosted the ebook reading experience with support for narration in EPUB files and improved note taking.
The more recent October 2018 Update brought a minor improvement with the addition of blocking autoplaying videos on websites. For more on the current state of Edge check out our Windows 10 April 2018 Update Review and our look at the October 2018 Update.
Read on for our benchmark results and our pick for best browser.
With the overview of our four contestants out of the way, let’s get down to business. To see which browser is worthy of your bandwidth in 2019 we used a variety of testing
Finally, we took a look at CPU and RAM usage by loading a set of 20 websites in a single window in quick succession. Once all tabs began loading, we waited 45 seconds, and then checked the CPU and RAM usage. The idea was to see the amount of system resources the browser would use during a heavy workload.
For this test we ignored the Flash settings and left each browser in its default state. In recent years, most browser makers have de-emphasized Flash, enabling it as “click-to-play” and blocking nonessential website elements that use Flash. Since Flash is on its way out (and most users are unlikely to mess with Flash settings in the first place) we decided to leave everything as is. During the tests there are no extensions running, account sign-ups, or deliberate tinkering with settings: Just raw browser action.
Our test rig was an Acer Aspire E 15-575-33BM laptop loaded with Windows 10 Home. The October 2018 update hadn’t rolled out to this machine yet so it’s still rocking the April 2018 Update. The laptop also has a 1TB hard drive, 4GB RAM, and an Intel Core i3-7100U. Each browser was tested over an ethernet connection.
The performance picture
Looking at both JetStream and SunSpider, Edge 17 won top marks again just like in May 2018, and again by a wide margin. SunSpider has been deprecated for some time and is no longer supported, but the result was expected based on previous tests.
Firefox’s JetStream score (higher is better) keeps getting worse, dropping from 125.43 in November 2017 to 120.31 in May 2018 to 112.39 in January 2019. Its SunSpider score stayed within the margin of error at 331 in January compared to 330.4 last May. Lower is better for SunSpider, and Firefox’s recent scores are much worse compared to the 290 it scored in November 2017.
For Octane 2.0, which is also no longer supported, Firefox won the top spot this go-round, followed closely by Chrome and and then Opera, with Edge coming in at the bottom. That’s quite a difference from May 2018 when Opera was in the top spot with Firefox taking third place.
Moving on to the more modern Speedometer test, which quickly iterates through a bunch of HTML 5-based to-do lists, Chrome came out on top, with Google’s Blink-based cousin Opera a close second, the same as we saw in May 2018; however, the numbers were noticeably worse in this test for all browsers. Last time Chrome and Opera scored 110 and 106.7, respectively, while this time around the scores were 51.5 and 50.2. Firefox took third place at 42.8 and Edge was in the bottom at 30.2.
The numbers were much closer for WebXPRT 2015, and once again things stayed about the same as May 2018. WebXPRT 2015 uses a wide number of web apps, from photo collections to online note-taking to data sets. This test is kind of like a PCMark for browsers, and to my mind, one of the most significant tests. Firefox came out on top here, with Chrome and Opera quite close to each other, followed by a trailing Edge. Again, higher is better.
Finally, we come to the memory and CPU tests. Slamming an average PC with 20 tabs of mostly media-rich sites all at once is going to chew up a good chunk of CPU and memory. Most of these browsers did not disappoint in that respect. That said, most of the browsers scored better than just a few months ago in terms of CPU usage, and memory use was about the same. The exception to memory would be Chrome, which had an unusually low memory score in May 2018 but returned to its memory-munching antics in January.
Opera was the best performer in terms of CPU usage by quite a bit, with Chrome coming in second, followed by Edge, while Firefox was the biggest hog of them all this time around. That’s not to say that Firefox got worse. In fact, its CPU percentage isn’t that far off from the 86 percent it had in June 2018. All the other browsers, however, made noticeable improvements over their previous scores.
Second place went to Chrome, followed by Edge, and Firefox a little further out in the CPU stratosphere.
The results were a little different for memory. This time around Edge was kicking butt with the lowest score yet for Microsoft’s browser of death. Don’t get too excited, however, as Edge’s scores are always a little tricky to get. We had similar problems to last time, where the PC often froze from overloaded system resources once the tabs were loading. We managed to get the task manager front and center quick enough to jot down the scores, but the screenshot we took didn’t go off for a noticeably long time. The bottom line here is that power users with multiple tabs open in Edge are still going to feel some serious pain trying to get work done. The next lowest memory hog was Opera, followed closely by Chrome, with Firefox at the back, but with results not that far off from Opera and Chrome.
And the winner is…
So who wins? Here’s the way we see it.
Opera wins our top spot for a good showing in the stress test and winning out in a few other key measures.
Chrome earns second place this time. It performed well in the live stress test, and was close to Opera in many respects. Many people love Chrome, and don’t get us wrong, it’s a great browser. But if you want to get away from Chrome without losing all of its advantages, Opera is a great choice since it can support nearly all the same conveniences Chrome can. Plus the social sidebar is a unique feature that you won’t find in the other browsers.
As in May 2018, we had to give Mozilla’s browser the bronze. Performance scores for Firefox 64 weren’t all that different from last time, while the others had noticeable improvements. The new Quantum versions of Firefox are dramatically better than their predecessors, but the goods just weren’t there to move up in the rankings. The fact that Firefox is a top performer in WebXPRT is a great sign, and if the stress test had gone better it might have taken the top spot or at least second place.
As for Microsoft’s browser…well, this time around Edge doesn’t even get an honorable mention. These days Edge is more of a “well, who cares?” It has always been the lesser browser and while we’ve seen some performance improvements, they’re really unimportant at this point. Edge is serviceable at best as a day-to-day browser, and it’s doubtful anything will change now that Edge as we know it is headed for the dustbin. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Microsoft Edge (assuming the name stays the same) should be a dramatically different beast before the end of the year.
To sum up: Give Opera a try and see if it performs as well for you as it did for us. If you love Chrome too much to give it up, then stick with it. Firefox, meanwhile, is still a solid option if you want something that isn’t built with Chrome DNA. That’s no small matter either, because once Edge gets its overhaul in the coming months, a non-Chromium browser will be a rare thing to find.