Most PCs dance with the browser they came with: Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But any of the new releases of Firefox, Opera or Safari is a better date. Seriously, folks, IE's not even close.
We spend so much time with our browsers today, their features and add-ins quickly replacing lots of desktop software. IE7's slow, clunky, behind-the-timesness takes little bites out of your productivity every hour--and those little bites add up.
Innovations from past versions of Firefox, Opera and Safari have really turbocharged my workday. If I had waited on the market leader for tabbed browsing, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy it as much as I have. And it's not just about features--it's about overall execution.
When you're looking for both innovation and usability, Apple is never a bad place to start. Apple boasts that Safari 3.1, which just migrated to Windows, is about twice as fast as IE7--even faster than Firefox, which is far and away the most popular IE alternative. Of course, speed depends on many factors, so your results may vary. Firefox starts twice as fast as Safari on my PC. Because it isn't dragging around a whole misshapen OS like IE7, expect spritely performance from Safari as well--especially on a Mac, where you can feel safer knowing that your computer is immune to many of the cyber threats that Windows PCs face.
Firefox 3.1 and Opera 9.51 come in Mac versions, too, and both download and install quickly on any platform. To configure, just import your existing bookmarks and set your homepage. Also download plug-ins like Foxmarks to sync your Firefox bookmarks across all devices on a network, or Apple's Bonjour, which can sync multimedia content.
In case you're a two-handed web surfer, you should know that Safari's look and feel (operation, menus and toolbar placement) are very similar to Firefox. One reason to consider using both is that Safari's private browsing mode doesn't leave tracks in your history or autofill menu. Firefox now has tagging, a search library and other ways to build a granular browsing history so its new smart location bar can pop up sites more quickly. Personally, I don't like to be tracked that closely. On the other hand, Safari is less customizable than Firefox, and neither one matches Opera's feature trailblazing.
Opera's cutting-edge page management and in-browser widgets are endlessly fascinating to geeks like me. But its default look--and most of its skins--probably devote more screen space to icons, pull-downs and panels than the average user wants to look at every day. Author mode, programmable mouse gestures, voice control, support for Google's Gears applications builder--frankly, Opera seems more oriented toward web-page builders than web-page viewers. But everything is extraordinarily customizable, so you can have it your way. And the fast-growing Opera Mobile 9.5 brings many useful features, like pan and zoom, to handhelds--just in case you'd like a familiar face on your smartphone, too.
There are many more aspects of these browsers to explore, each with something unique to offer. Safari excels at security and multimedia; Opera at cutting-edge activities; and Firefox is a responsive, all-around browser with a rich set of core features for daily use. They are all close enough in look and feel to make for a flat learning curve.Mike Hogan has been covering technology issues for magazines with more than a million readers for 25 years.