There’s something new on the Web every second, but most people have been using the same old browser for ages. We put the latest versions of five browsers through their paces.

A number of rivals to Internet Explorer are challenging its grip on Web browsing. We tested IE and four of its strongest competitors – the initial Firefox release, Mozilla 1.7.3, Netscape 7.2, and Opera 7.54. Features, ease of use, and Web site compatibility are all key to making a viable alternative to Internet Explorer.

Mozilla Foundation Firefox

The Mozilla Foundation’s new Firefox browser is speedier, trimmer, less cluttered, and more modular than the separated-at-birth Mozilla and Netscape browsers. It’s cleaner than Opera’s free browser, and safer than IE.

Firefox maintains its slimness without forfeiting key features that are available in competing browsers. In addition to offering tabbed browsing, the newcomer blocks pop-ups, and types log-in names and passwords for you. It lets you wipe out your personal browsing history, cookies, and cache to keep snooping roommates, bosses, and kids out of your private business.

It stays lean by spinning off anything that isn’t a core browsing feature into one of tons of optional add-ons that you can get through the Firefox Web site, or into a stand-alone Mozilla Foundation program.

Like the other browsers we tested, Firefox couldn’t automate the log-in process at absolutely every Web site we visited. But although Firefox couldn’t log us in to the Bank of America credit card site (one that also stymied Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Netscape, and Opera), it managed just fine at the bank’s mortgage site. Opera was the only other browser able to log onto the mortgage site.

Firefox, though, was the only browser we tested to make an outright page-rendering error, causing several elements on the Slashdot.org Web site to overlap each other. Like every other alternative browser, Firefox simply won’t work with such IE-only sites as Microsoft’s Windows Update and the MSNBC TV site. But since uninstalling Internet Explorer is either impossible or more trouble than it’s worth, depending on who you ask, that isn’t the end of the world. You can have your Firefox and your Internet Explorer too.

Opera 7.54

Opera Software ASA’s browser is the only one of the Windows Web browsers that isn’t free – you either pay $39 (around £20) or use the ad-supported edition, which places a banner ad at the top of the browser window. The ad doesn’t get in the way of browsing, but many of the ads are animated with flashing or blinking text. Otherwise, Opera is stable, fast, and feature-rich, offering tabbed browsing, password management, form filling, pop-up blocking, an RSS news feed reader, and integrated email and newsgroups.

Finding and enabling Opera’s settings isn’t always easy. Pop-up blocking is listed under Skin/Windows in Opera’s Preferences dialog box, for example. Fortunately the browser stashes its most important settings – including pop-up controls – in a handy Quick Preferences menu off the Tools menu.

Opera managed to log in automatically at several financial Web sites where other browsers could not. However, Opera displayed a serious flaw on two Web sites where it failed to recognize ordinary-looking links that employed JavaScript. You may want to keep another browser close at hand in case you run into similar problems during your Opera browsing.

Mozilla Foundation Mozilla 1.7.3
12.1MB

Mozilla started as a rewrite of a rewrite of Netscape’s venerable Communicator Suite, and it is certainly more capable and less buggy than its predecessors. But somewhere along the way, too many cooks spoiled the browser. Mozilla’s innumerable options, features, and modules may satisfy inveterate tweakers, or people who simply can’t live without fine-grained control over their browser’s AutoComplete behaviour. However, if you are looking for a fast, straightforward, secure alternative to Internet Explorer, choose Firefox instead.

Mozilla is equal to most key Web tasks, including log-in and password management, form filling, pop-up blocking, and cookie crushing. And while the program’s email and Web authoring programs are hardly awe-inspiring, they do the job.

Though Mozilla couldn’t find the log-in and password fields at the Bank of America sites we tested, it fared well at almost every other site we tried (none of the browsers could automate log-ins on the main pages at Fidelity.com or Gmail at Google.com. And while Mozilla can’t impersonate IE at sites that require Microsoft’s browser, fewer and fewer such sites exist.

Microsoft Internet Explorer

Now bogged down in the nearly interminable task of updating Windows, Microsoft has let its seasoned soldier languish behind the lines, where it is presumably out behind the ammo dump, shooting off expired rounds at beer cans. While IE has enjoyed its ubiquity, competitors have added key features like pop-up blocking (now part of IE via Windows XP Service Pack 2) and the ability to open, view, and bookmark multiple Web sites in a single browser window.

More important, the steady increase in Internet-based viruses, worms, browser hijackings, and other attacks has made browser security a daily crisis for millions. Though Microsoft has steadily bricked up the gaping security holes in Internet Explorer (notably via XP’s SP2), the company refuses to abandon its browser’s inherently exploitable ActiveX technology. As Windows users come to realize that the pop-ups, unwanted toolbars, and spyware bogging down their systems are slipping in through ActiveX’s permeable security, they are switching to alternative browsers in significant numbers, something they haven’t done since IE made browsing free nearly ten years ago.

So why stick with IE? Since nine out of ten people browsing use it, Web developers create sites to work well in IE, and some (including Microsoft’s own Windows Update site) work only with that browser. Some big sites – and many company intranets – are designed using proprietary IE extensions, so they may not function properly in another browser.

Still, while size is important, it’s not everything.

Netscape Communications Netscape 7.2

If Mozilla is the home-grown, salt-of-the-earth browser of the people, Netscape is its city cousin, crafted with one primary objective: to steer you toward other Netscape or America Online products and services. Netscape is based on the same basic code as the Mozilla browser but adds elements that serve parent company America Online, including AOL Instant Messenger (in place of Mozilla’s AIM-compatible Chatzilla) and The Weather Channel Enterprises’ Desktop Weather utility. The Netscape toolbar offers links to Netscape online services and some browser settings, and the pop-up blocker comes preconfigured for your inconvenience to allow a list of more than a dozen Netscape and AOL sites to slip through.

Once you disable or remove its unwanted features and settings promoting AOL, Netscape is nearly identical to the Mozilla suite, including both browsers’ Mail & News and Composer modules. They also performed identically in our testing of surfing compatibility. All of the bundled froufrou, however, makes Netscape’s download twice as big as Mozilla’s, topping 24MB. Unless you’re excited about receiving all of the Netscape/AOL special offers, you’re probably better off choosing any one of the other browsers reviewed here.