In the search for the best web browser, many of us will look for performance, security, interface, feature-set and customisability, but today the main players are all strong in all those departments, so how do you choose between them?
Aside from testing out how each browser views web pages (why not try them out on our favourite landing pages?), our take on this is that your choice is likely to be part ideological. It comes down to how you feel about the ethos behind the browser – as well as some features that you especially like or that are suited to your particular situation.
This article therefore focuses on the values and nature of the organisations behind each of the main browsers, plus particular features of interest. We have covered Firefox, Chrome and Opera, as well as the less well-known Brave, which offers an interesting alternative. We haven't looked at Internet Explorer as it has been discontinued, and we have also left out Microsoft Edge as the original Edge is being scrapped in favour of a new re-built version that's currently in beta.
Aside from this, there's also the ultra-customisable browser Vivaldi that you build yourself to suit your preferences – it's more of a niche thing than the others, but definitely check it out if that sounds good to you.
Before we dive in to our top four, we'll take a quick look at the inner workings of web browsers.
Inner workings of web browsers
An interesting thing to know about web browsers is that today most of them are based on Chromium, which is an open source project by Google – most of the source code of Google Chrome is from Chromium, and anyone can make their own version of a Chromium browser. Opera, Brave, Vivaldi, the new Microsoft Edge – and of course Chrome – are all based on Chromium. Opera and Edge used to have their own browser engines but they made the switch.
Firefox is different: it has its own browser engine (and also a huge extension ecosystem). A big consideration for you is that Chrome extensions usually work on Chromium-based browsers, so they all benefit from that massive ecosystem. You can read about why browser engine diversity is a good thing for the future of the web here.
Another difference between Firefox and the rest is that it is made by a non-profit organisation, Mozilla – you may be more comfortable using software made by people who have less incentive to make money out of you. Brave is made by a very "values-driven" company co-founded by one of the co-founders of Mozilla. Opera was bought out by a Chinese consortium in 2016, and became a public company in 2018. Vivaldi is made by a company founded by the co-founder and former CEO of Opera Software.
With this background information in mind, we now look at each browser in more detail.
01. Firefox Quantum
A few years ago Firefox was becoming known as a bit of a memory hog but that's all changed since Mozilla unveiled Firefox Quantum in 2017, a new version with an overhauled browser engine that's twice as fast as the old one. The new Firefox is leaner and quicker than ever, using around 30 per cent less RAM than Chrome in Mozilla's tests.
User privacy is a central concern for Mozilla – it's the first feature-set mentioned on the Firefox website and it doesn't appear at all on the Chrome homepage, which gives you some insight into the relative priorities of these two browser makers.
Firefox's Enhanced Tracking Protection massively reduces the number of cookies that accumulate as you browse the web, and, like Brave (below), the new Firefox reduces data usage by not downloading content from tracking domains, which in turn improves page load times. You can read about this here.
Cookie control in Firefox vs Chrome
Since cookies are used for both good and evil – that is, sometimes they do things that are useful for you, other times they are used to track you – you're always going to be doing a balancing act between convenience and protecting your privacy. Firefox gives you a good deal of control over this. You can take its default settings that balance privacy and performance, or you can choose strong cookie blocking and do the work of manually unblocking any sites that are broken by this.
Chrome always wins brownie points for its minimal interface, but if you're prepared to do some tweaking you can customise Firefox to similar effect. Like Chrome, Firefox will also let you synchronise settings, passwords and bookmarks across devices with a Firefox account.
Overall, Firefox is comparable to Chrome in terms of performance and features, so if you like the idea of a browser made by a non-profit organisation with a privacy-oriented ethos, this is your pick.
Also see our favourite Firefox add-ons.
02. Google Chrome
Google Chrome is the world's most widely used browser with up to two thirds of the market share according to most estimates; Safari is around 10-15 per cent and the rest are all in the single figures.
This dominance sometimes results in certain benefits and conveniences for the end user – in recent years we've started to see "works best in Chrome" messages appearing around the web, even on large sites, and sometimes you'll encounter things that require Chrome to work.
When a website's user base is so dominated by one browser it's likely that it will be prioritised to some extent by the engineers working on that site, so there may be lots of little features around the web – and especially in Google products such as Gmail – that run a bit more smoothly on Chrome. Sometimes people release Chrome extensions and follow up with the Firefox one later, so early adopters may lean towards using Chrome for this reason.
Omnibox and performance in Chrome vs other browsers
If you're a fan of minimal interfaces you'll like Chrome's approach – a single 'omnibox' is for entering both URLs and search terms, and in general all interface elements are as pared down as possible. There's quite an emphasis on reducing the number of clicks or keystrokes to achieve something – when you type in the address bar, answers to your query from Google Search appear as you type, and you can translate an entire foreign language site in a single click. Chrome works in harmony with Gmail and Google Drive – typing in the address bar automatically searches your Drive as well, so you can get straight into things from that omnibar.
Chrome enables you to synchronise your settings, history, bookmarks, passwords and so on across devices, so that everything is just as you like it whether you're using your laptop, mobile device or desktop machine.
In terms of performance, it's not always easy to say that one browser is better than another because it depends on your operating system, which sites you're visiting, what extensions you have installed and other factors. And it changes over time – run the same tests a few months apart and you get different results. Mozilla has some impressive test results on the Firefox Quantum website, but these independent, fairly recent benchmarks from PC World put Chrome ahead of Firefox overall in performance terms.
However these kinds of tests can't tell you for sure which browser is going to run best for you – the most reliable way is to try out different browsers with the extensions you use installed.
In summary, Chrome's market dominance means that developers tend to prioritise making sure things work perfectly on Chrome. It's fast and secure. It's really good at syncing across devices, and it works in harmony with your Google Account, so you may find that Chrome is the most convenient browser for you.
Also see our favourite Chrome extensions.
Opera has a bunch of fantastic features that the other browsers don't even try to compete with, so the fact that many non-techie people haven't even heard of it – even though it has been around since the mid-nineties – is something of a mystery.
The first thing that might excite you is that there is a free, unlimited VPN built into the browser. At first glance this sounds amazing, but Opera's VPN known for being slow. That said, this is a fairly new feature so it may well improve over the coming years, and it's terrific that a browser is making the move to build this right into the software. (A VPN enhances privacy and security by putting a kind of barrier between you and the rest of the internet – it replaces your IP with a virtual one so websites can't identify you. It's particularly good for shielding your browsing when you're on a public network. See our post on the best VPN service.)
The next special and unique feature is Opera Turbo. When you turn this on, web pages go through Opera's servers where they're compressed – so you receive the same content but download a fraction of the data. This means the data limit on your mobile device goes much further and you can speed up browsing on busy WiFi networks.
Opera has a social sidebar that works with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp so you can keep your conversations going without switching tabs while browsing. There's a built-in ad-blocker, a dark mode that makes websites dark for night-time browsing, and a battery saver mode that reduces activity in background tabs and pauses plugins to save power.
We also love the Flow feature which solves the disconnect between your phone, tablet and computer – instead of emailing yourself links, you can use Flow to make a connection between mobile devices and your desktop machine. Like other browsers on this list, there is a sync feature that works across devices for bookmarks, history and passwords, and Opera's sync works for open tabs, too.
While it's true that a lot of these things can be achieved in other browsers via extensions, Opera has made some very smart decisions about which features ought to be built into the browser – all of this great stuff is ready to go with Opera without any need to research and mess around with extensions. That said, if there are particular add-ons that you like, this is a Chromium browser so they likely will work here and can be installed from the Chrome Web Store.
On top of all this, Opera came out best in those performance tests we mentioned earlier.
Opera has a really thoughtful and also trailblazing feature set that will make a big difference for some people. If you have to deal with a data limit or busy wifi network, Turbo could change your world – and the battery saver mode could also be a big deal for you. If you do a lot of Facebook or WhatsApp chatting, you might choose Opera just for the social sidebar. There's no real downside to picking Opera over Chrome or Firefox, so if the interesting features appeal to you it's an easy decision.
Brave is a very different proposition to most browsers in that it seeks to change our approach to online revenue-generation and privacy. By default, Brave blocks adverts and trackers, and plugins are turned off. Most browsers download a lot of data that doesn't benefit the user at all, and leaving all of this behind makes Brave faster and more secure – on mobile, it can be up to eight times faster than other browsers.
All this ad-blocking is great for the end user but websites need a way to make money, so users are encouraged to support the sites they visit via the Brave Rewards system, an ad exchange platform based on the cryptocurrency Ethereum. There are two ways to get BAT (Basic Attention Token - the rewards currency) in your Brave Wallet: by transferring cryptocurrency (in the future you will be able to use a credit card) or by allowing some non-intrusive adverts. These so-called ‘Private ads' appear as notifications within Brave, separately from the websites you're looking at, and are targeted based on data stored locally on your computer so no information about you is collected.
Once there's BAT in your wallet, either accrued via Private ads or transferred directly, rewards are allocated automatically according to time spent on the sites you visit, and you can remove sites that you don't want to support. Read more here.
This financial model rewards creators without invading the privacy of users or eating up mobile data allowance with adverts, and the people behind Brave are aiming to make the per-user rewards greater under this system than the current advertising model.
Since Brave is based on Chromium almost all browser extensions that work with Chromium will work on Brave, and you install them from the Chrome Web Store – so you're not going to miss out on the extensions ecosystem by switching to Brave.
Unlike other browsers on this list, the sync feature is currently in beta and only syncs your bookmarks across devices.
If you're a web lover who's disillusioned with how things have turned out and still have hope for the utopian ideals of the web's founders, Brave could be the one for you. It's fast, it's secure, and it's making a daring yet realistic proposition for an ethical and efficient online revenue model for creators.