Best Free Web Browser

Introduction

This category for non-mobile web browsers is divided into three sub-categories:

 Mega Browsers 

 

 Lightweight Browsers 

 

 Other Browsers 

includes the most popular general-purpose and heavyweight cross-platform web browsers   includes the general-purpose web browsers that provide the best performance with respect to memory and CPU consumption   includes specialized browsers that use more than one web engine (see below) or specialize in security, privacy, or being child-friendly.

The selection of web browsers has become more bewildering due to the proliferation of browsers and the increased frequency of browser updates. What will make it easier to choose between them is knowing four things:

  • which are most popular
  • that browsers can be grouped according to the software (web engine) that displays web content on your screen.
  • some have key features such as security and privacy enabled by default
  • that most users should not worry about performance comparisons

Your final choice will probably be decided by which one you prefer subjectively rather than by objectively comparing feature by feature. It is relatively easy to switch web browsers provided that you are not dependent upon unique features or specific add-ons. I also suggest that you install more than one web browser so you have a ready alternative if you strike any problems with your preferred browser.

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Selecting a browser

The most popular browsers

The most popular browsers globally are Google Chrome, Internet Explorer (IE), Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Opera with about 95% of the online market share and Chrome has half of that. StatCounter's graph of the top five desktop and tablet web browsers for the last five years or so illustrates the decline of IE and the rise of Chrome.

Chrome and Firefox tend to lead the pack technically for two main reasons: strong application support and compatibility with many platforms (Windows, Apple OS and iOS, Linux and other Unix-like operating systems including Android). These browsers also have a range of variations built on the same engines. For Google Chrome this can be quite confusing because the web browser code which Chrome is based on is called Chromium. You will see that there are several other browsers built from the Chromium code-base.

The most popular web engines

Most web browsers create web pages by using software called a web engine. Many of these web engines or layout and rendering engines, as they are also named, are used by more than one browser. This software combines the mark-up content (HTML, XML, SVG, JPEG, PNG, etc.), the formatting (CSS, XSL, etc.), and the scripting (JavaScript) to display it on your screen. Typically a web engine uses a JavaScript engine to process JavaScript instructions. Taking the WebKit engine as an example, it has two components: the WebCore layout engine and the JavaSciptCore engine.

If you are having problems with the engines in your web browser then one way to resolve this can be to choose another web browser that uses different engines.

The four main web browser layout engines being actively developed are displayed in Table 1 in order of age. I have omitted the fifth major web engine in use, Presto which is used by older versions of Opera. You can also view a more detailed time-line graphic.

Table 1 - Current web engines

Trident
(1997-now)

Gecko
(1998-now)

WebKit
(2003-now)

Blink1
(2013-now)

Microsoft Windows
Internet Explorer
Chrome + IE Tab
Mozilla Firefox + IE Tab
Maxthon
SlimBrowser
Avant Ultimate
Avant Lite
Lunascape
Sleipnir (v.4+)
SeaMonkey + IE Tab
K-Meleon + IE Tab
Mozilla Firefox
Waterfox
Comodo IceDragon
Avant Ultimate
Lunascape
PaleMoon
SeaMonkey
K-Meleon
Chrome (to v.27)
Maxthon
Comodo DragonC
TorchC
SlimBoat
Avant Ultimate
Lunascape
Sleipnir (v.3.5+)
Konqueror (v.4+)
EpicC
SRWare IronC
Midori
QtWeb
QupZilla
rekonq
xombrero
Chrome (v.28+)
Opera2 (v.15+)
Sleipnir (v.4.3+)
[show-hide toggle]

 

The necessary features

Due to modern advances and competitiveness, all of the major web browsers share similar, and what I would call, essential features. Examples of these features are; tabbed browsing, privacy browsing, password manager, download manager, searchable address bar, and cross application syncing. The individual browsers may use different names for their respective features but the functions are basically the same. The reviews will attempt to highlight the key elements of each browser to help you decide which browser may be best for you.

Wiki Comparison of Web Browsers compares web browsers in several categories.  For a web browser to be classified as Mega, it must compare to IE, Chrome and Firefox in all similar categories.

Performance

There are two aspects of performance: compliance with web standards and speed of processing. There are standard tests for benchmarking the performance of your web browser. The best known are benchmarks like html5test, acidtests and Octane but there are several others. They primarily test the compliance of the browser's HTML layout and the processing speed of the JavaScript engine.

You can use these tests yourself but be aware that they won't tell you how well the browser suits the way that you work. That is why I recommend that you select your browser based on the features that you use  because there is not as much difference between the performance of the main browsers. If you decide to test browsers yourself then be aware that your particular combination of hardware, software and browser configuration will affect performance. So your results may be wildly different to other people's benchmark results.

If your hardware is very limited then you should refer to the lightweight web browsers which require less resources.

 

Mega Web Browsers

Google Chrome is the pre-eminent browser of this decade so far. It is generally the most popular, the fastest, the most secure, and the most standards-compliant. It is hard to see it losing its dominance as competitors have failed to gain any real advantage in the market and Chrome continues to be a very good product for users at all levels from novice to advanced.

As an integral part of Google's cloud syncing across multiple hardware platforms, Google uses it to distribute its applications and services to the world. Of course, if you use it, you lose your privacy and confidentiality because of Google's business model which leverages your personal information for commercial advantage. If you don't have a Google account and you don't ever want one then I'd suggest that you consider another browser.

The core of Chrome is its web engine which forms the basis for many alternative web browsers so you can get better privacy without sacrificing many of the other benefits. The Blink rendering engine is developed as part of the Chromium project and is accompanied by V8 a JavaScript Engine. The WebKit engine from which Blink is derived continues to provide the base for the mobile platforms where the Android and iOS versions are popular on tablets and mobile phones.

After installation Chrome opens with two tabs. The first tab provides a login screen in case you have a Google account which you can now create. Otherwise click "skip for now" to proceed. The window will show the New Tab which will provide links to other Google services like YouTube, Gmail and Google Docs. The second tab is called Getting Started. Getting Started is a good resource for learning more about Chrome's features. Simply click "learn more" on the Welcome to Chrome page.

Chrome has a large selection of extensions (like apps on a smart phone) to enhance the browsing experience.  Chrome also has WebApps, programs that run within the browser instead of installing on the computer.  Google has another feature called cloud print.  Essentially if you have a printer that supports cloud printing at home or work, add a cloud printer to Chrome's advanced settings and you can print to the printer from Chrome.  Have you heard of ChromeVox?  An excellent text to speech feature for the visually impaired.  ChromeVox is a Google extension that reads the text in any open tab in Chrome.

Long ago there was an issue with viewing some websites because they would only work correctly with Internet Explorer. Many corporate web developers have traditionally used Internet Explorer compatibility as the standard for developing their websites. That sort of problem is rapidly disappearing as more and more websites move to comply with global public standards. That means Chrome is increasingly a good choice for browsing commercial websites and a 'safe' choice for any user. I always have it installed and available on my systems.

 

Mozilla Firefox is developed by a global team of volunteers under the umbrella of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. It is completely open-source and is very popular amongst open-source proponents particularly Linux distro users. Firefox uses the Gecko engine which is also developed by Mozilla.

In 2011 Mozilla started a program called Rapid Build which intended to release new versions of Firefox every 6 weeks. This was in the main, a response to Chrome's rapid growth in market share and a perceived need to match Chrome's frequent new releases. The move had many critics and it has some significant downsides but it did meet Chrome's challenge. Although it has not been enough to prevent some decline in market share.

Firefox has had several defining features which are generally adopted by other browsers too: being able to pin a tab using the Pinned Tab feature to permanently keep a tab open on the tab bar for e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other sites; Switch-to-Tab attempts to let you know when you already have a website open on a tab - as you type in the Omnibar (address bar) Firefox will check to see if you have that site open; the restore tab feature allows you to reopen tabs that you accidentally close or unexpectedly need after you have closed them. Firefox is also well-known for its add-ons which allow it to be customized with additional features provided by third-party developers. This is one of the main reasons for its popularity, but again Chrome and other browsers have large libraries of add-ons and extensions too.

Firefox does not have its own search engine unlike Internet Explorer and Chrome which default to their own search engines, Bing and Google Search. Instead Firefox provides a mechanism for users to choose their search engine on the fly. Not only can you choose from the big three search engines, you can also search Amazon, Twitter, eBay and Wikipedia.  Additional search engines are available as add-ons. This feature is so useful that it is now widely used by other browsers.

Personally, I use Firefox browsers like Pale Moon and Waterfox more than any others although I hardly install any add-ons except internet safety checks. I generally have a lot of tabs open permanently on systems without a lot of memory so I appreciate Firefox's smaller footprint on my system.

 

Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) is the oldest of the mega browsers — it was first released with Windows 95 in, you guessed it, 1995 — and it has traditionally been the most popular because it is bundled with Windows.It is currently built on the Trident engine which is used by several other browsers

For several years, thankfully long past, IE fell far behind the other browsers and lost some market share as a result. That decline has continued initially due to gains by Firefox but more lately by the dominance of Chrome. At the same time as IE's influence declines its more recent releases have provided major improvements that keep it competitive with the other browsers in some specific areas. Even so IE would be considered to be in third place in comparison to Chrome and Firefox.

Many think the only reason IE is still competing in the browser wars is because its so widely distributed.  The latest version however has demonstrated that IE is more stable, more secure and much faster then earlier versions.  The interface is clean, Chrome like, with minimal menus, a clean simple appearance and inconspicuous icons for quick access to favorites, settings and the home page.  Press the ALT key to reveal the neatly hidden traditional menus.  If you're a traditionalist, use Alt to access the menu and select View | Toolbars, where you can turn on the hidden traditional toolbar appearance.

IE needs improvements in comparison with Chrome. Tab sandboxing, the ability to control crashes by isolating them to the tab instead of crashing the entire browser.  IE lags behind Chrome and Firefox in the add-on/extension realm but significant improvements have been made. For example, using the tracking protection add-on will help prevent third parties from gleaning information about your browsing habits. IE does offer some useful utilities, like the performance dialog for add-ons.  If the browser speed is being impacted by add-ons, a message pops up.  Open the the Choose Add-ons window to see what is slowing the browser and make changes.  Security is strong with Tracking Protection and SmartScreen Filter. If you read some of the recent free PDF reports on browser security at NSS Labs you will see that IE is strong in this area particularly providing security against socially engineered malware.

My wife uses IE as do many people working in large organizations or those at home who don't realize that they can change. IE's seems to suit her very well as she never asks me for help with it. The only change that I have made is to install some Internet safety checks so she is not blindly accessing risky web-sites.

 

Maxthon was released in 2003 as MyIE. In 2010 Maxthon started the move to being a multi-platform browser first with Android and later with Apple OS X and iOS versions. Maxthon is multi-engine defaulting to WebKit (called Ultra) and using Trident (called Retro) as needed. There is a setting to always use Ultra but Retro modem, which is very slow and limited, can still be engaged on any web page by clicking on the lightning icon to the right of the address. 

Why Maxthon?  This browser is light and fast with a lot of features that don't bloat the browser's performance.  Many features that are add-ons or extensions with the other browsers are developed as part of the browser, so they are better integrated.  Maxthon also has some distinctive features like the split screen view.  With this feature two tabs can be viewed side by side.  The interface has semi transparent skins that blends the edges of the interface so they aren't distracting making the web page being viewed the star of attention.

Maxthon's claim to fame is cloud syncing between devices.  Create a free account with Maxthon and take advantage of it's many features to share data between a computer and cell phone or tablet.  The tabs viewed on the PC can be viewed on a cell phone or tablet.  Files can be downloaded to the cloud to share between devices.  The Cloud Push feature will send a web page to another device.  Using the share with friends a web page can be pushed to others via e-mail.  

Other built in features include Resource Sniffer which downloads video, music and pictures from the web page.  Like downloading YouTube videos?  You don't need a third party utility with Maxthon, you can do it from the browser with Resource Sniffer.  Maxthon has many features, but one of my favorites is Night Mode.  The browser will change to colors that are more suitable for night viewing.  Choose the default or customize from a palate of colors.  Night Mode also has an automated feature that lets you set the time of day or night you want modes to automatically switch.

Whether you use the cloud to share information between devices or simply want a browser packed full of usable features that won't slow the browser performance, Maxthon is worth checking out.

 

Opera, was released in 1996 and for a few years was the most popular mobile browser.  Opera has been credited with originating many features, like their Speed Dial, that other web browsers have adopted under a different name. In more recent times they have been adopting features from other browsers, adding Firefox's Pinned Tabs and the multi-search engine select feature but without a separate search bar. Simply type a search term and the address bar expands by dropping down with suggestions.  At the lower right edge of the drop down list are the optional search engines Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon and Wiki.

Opera started out using their own engine called Presto until version 15 when they began using Google's Blink to provide the browser with more power and options. In the long term it is a smart move to build on Blink because there is so much innovation coming. But in the short term I cannot recommend Opera because it currently lacks so much.

I had not used any of the Blink-based versions of Opera so it was a considerable surprise to find that latest version 24 has stripped the features right back and lost many useful and, in my case, essential functions: no ability to import bookmarks, no bookmark manager, more limited support of HTML5 standards including character entity support, no print preview and no page setup, difficulty changing search engine, plug-in problems, and many other smaller issues. Apparently, many Opera users are sticking with an older version until the features they rely on are restored.

I agree with previous editor who said, "I feel Opera is a refreshing browser.  It's fast and efficient, providing tools to optimize a true web "browsing" experience.  Using the Speed Dial and Stash features provides a different yet unique prospective.  After the initial installation Opera opens with two tabs, Speed Dial and Welcome to Opera.  The welcome does not provide any guidance as such.  It's more of a road map to the essential icons and features of the browser.  For additional detail click the "help is here" hyperlink."

Of all the browsers, Opera is the one that I have found easiest to use in the past and even today with the current failings. That is a subjective assessment but it does make a difference when you feel comfortable using a browser. That's why I am looking forward to a new release of Opera that resolves the issues that prevent me using it.

 

Related Products and Links

 

Quick Selection Guide

Google Chrome
5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Supports multiple operating systems, frequent & silent updates, built-in flash and pdf viewer, large selection of extensions, cloud printing, now has a 64-bit Windows version
Getting slower, newer version has some backward software compatibility
37.0
875 KB online installer
32 and 64 bit versions available
Open source freeware
A portable version of this product is available but not from the developer.
Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8; Linux; Mac OS X

Tested version 37.0.2062.103
Download Windows 64-bit Chrome

Mozilla Firefox
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Simplified interface, competitively fast, broad cross platform support, very secure, sync & panoramas, thousands of add-ons, excellent website compatibility, large developer community
Doesn't play well with Adobe Flash Player.
http://www.mozilla.org/
32.0
33.6 MB offline; 238 KB online
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Open source freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows XP SP2, 2003 SP1, Vista, 7, 8; Mac OS X 10.6+; GNU/Linux

Offline installers
The Portable edition is downloaded from Portable Apps: 31 MB download, 77 MB installed.
64-bit editions are unsupported test versions so instead try Mozilla Waterfox.

Internet Explorer
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Amazing speed, minimalistic interface, pinned sites, improved web standard compliance, download manager with malware protection, tracking protection, H/W acceleration, good OS integration
Tab handling not as good as others, limited extension support, not as cloud friendly, no cross platform syncing, Windows only.
11.0
28.3 MB offline; 2.0 MB online
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 7, 2008, 8

Tested version 11.0.9600.17239

Offline installers area available: IE 11 28.3MB 32-bit; 53.3MB 64-bit

Windows XP and Vista users have to use outdated versions of Internet Explorer:
Windows Vista users can install Internet Explorer 9: 17.3 MB
Windows XP users cannot install Internet Explorer 8 from Microsoft: 16.1 MB

Opera
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Fast, feature rich, cross platform support, tab stacking, web standard compliant, built in mail & torrent client, extension & themes support, visual tabs & mouse gestures, Opera turbo, account syncing
Limited Extension gallery, key features layered in extensive menus
http://www.opera.com/
24.0
26.6 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows XP or later; OS X 10.6 or later; Linux e.g. Ubuntu 14.04 or later

Tested version 24.0.1558.53

Maxthon
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Small footprint, fast, true cloud sync across devices, split screen view, custom skins, cloud push, cloud download, resource sniffer, dual engine (but only useful for compatibility).
Inadequate tab functions. The core is still lagging some technologies of bigger browsers.
http://www.maxthon.com/
http://www.maxthon.com/
4.1.3.2000
1.74 MB online; 37.4 MB offline installer
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available but not from the developer.
Windows 7, 8, OSX

Editor

This software review is maintained by volunteer editor Remah. Registered members can contact the editor with any comments or questions they might have by clicking here.

You are welcome to join the discussion in our web and networking forum

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 Mega Browsers 

 

 Lightweight Browsers 

 

 Other Browsers 

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Comments

by damien76 on 1. September 2014 - 18:30  (118333)

I use Maxthon portable but whenever I print in PDF I cannot edit it or just plain copy or highlight anything. This is the same as of Google Chrome. Dragon, Ice Dragon, Firefox, Iron are not like that.

by pjpw on 5. September 2014 - 22:14  (118409)

I can endorse the Slimjet browser. I use a number of browsers as each one seems more adept for certain functions and uses. They are Slimjet, Opera, Maxthon and sometimes Firefox and Google Chrome. I have tried many others over the years but never found one to consistently offer what the mainstream ones do.

Another browser, K-Meleon is actually THE lightest browser of all on system resources but sadly lacks the compatibility necessary to be useful across the board. There are independent developer versions of it still being released from time to time but for the average user these require a fair degree of computer knowledge and are a no go for most people.

My issue was with just having a basic 4GB laptop I was experiencing memory and CPU usage issues when using sites like Facebook and Youtube. So I started using a separate browser just to have Facebook open in (Opera.) Then I would use either Maxthon or Google Chrome or Firefox for everyday browsing. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages.

I have been using Slimjet for the past couple of months now and am very happy with it. It uses the same Chromium engine used by Google and Opera but has added some built in features that are only provided by way of extensions in the others. Also it is not Google so I have reduced concerns of there being any backdoor into the browser.

Google Chrome used to regularly eat up a lot of memory and CPU resources and I was often having to restart the browser. I recommend Slimjet to anyone. I am sure you won't be disappointed. Also, it comes from Flashpeak which has been around for a long time with their SlimBrowser and more recently SlimBoat browsers.

by crombierob on 6. September 2014 - 7:52  (118412)

I have three problems with Chrome -
- I don't like the minimalistic rubbish young programmers (not Analysts) are foisting on us.
- Chrome does not have NoScript
- Google do not give a toss about MS conventions, and as pjpw has noticed it can slow your PC to a crawl
On that latter, the first time it happened to me, everything was freezing, and I was sure I had a virus. I went back to my most recent image (Seagate DiscWizard), which unfortunately was a week old (TCH! TCH!). Thus much time was spent trying to copy my last weeks activities, before I went back to that earlier image (Cost me many, many hours).
The next time this happened, I investigated, and found it was Google's flippin updater freezing my PC.
I removed it all (and that is not an easy process), and Google will never darken my PC doorstep again. (I will still use the Google Search engine, which ain't as good as it used to be)

I will give Slimjet a try as I can -
- Breath easy, as it looks like it does not have the Google updater disaster.
- Only use it for web sites, where I don't need NoScript
- Try to make it as non minimalistic as I can.
Rob
PS
Watch out if you are elderly and feeble minded, as you may download SlimBrowser by mistake.
I did, and I love it.
Fast, and NOT minimalistic
PPS
SlimBrowser crashes (within Tab) way to often.
May be to do with inherited extensions, but I cannot find out how to get rid of them, OR how to run in safe mode (Add-Ins disabled).
So looks like I have to suppress my hatred of Chrome, and try SlimJet

by Remah on 6. September 2014 - 5:15  (118413)

Hi all. I have just taken over as editor of the three web browser articles so expect an update soon.

Remah

by stephench on 6. September 2014 - 16:23  (118421)

One of the biggest reasons that we start the Slimjet project is we don't like the minimalist design of Chrome. Slimjet doesn't auto-update like Chrome. Slimjet includes a download control button which allow you to easily allow/disallow script on selected domains. That is similar to what NoScript offers. It has a fully customizable toolbar where you can add more buttons to gain quick access to various functions. Slimjet uses slightly more memory than SlimBrowser but is more stable and responsive. Give it a few days and you will like it.

by pjpw on 6. September 2014 - 19:31  (118424)

Crombierob, apart from the issue you mentioned with No Script and the minimalistic interface of the Chromium browsers (which I have come to like) I think you will find Slimjet an enjoyable experience compared to Google Chrome.

I too had the freezing issue on updating with Chrome, not all the time but more often than not, and that plus the memory and CPU issue with Chrome were the main reasons I looked for an alternative. At the same time Firefox (still a resource hog too) was having a lot of issues with Update 29 I think it was so I avoided going back to FF for those reasons.

Please post your thoughts on Slimjet back here as I for one would certainly be interested in your experience with it.

Cheers
Peter

by CASD on 7. September 2014 - 4:17  (118430)

It's good to have a new monitor on this.. I love trying new browsers and I've tried a lot...
So far Opera even being chrome connected now works and feels like the old opera..
In fact I think it works better then most of the webkit browsers out there.. Low ram uses on my win 8.1 8gb, Athon 2 Acer computer.
always staying around 25% ram usage or less
Even one of my other favorites Qupzilla can't compare..in fact it freezes up and so does Midori
Slim jet ..another one that crashes and is a slug on my system.
Keep the new ideas coming and I'll gladly try them :)

by Remah on 13. September 2014 - 3:04  (118555)

The updated article was released a little bit early - my own mistake. So I'll be making further changes over the next week.

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