The Best Internet Browser Software of 2016
Despite the increasing prevalence of dedicated apps that bypass them, Web browsers are still central to modern life. The browser is not just a container for and viewer of webpages, but also an enabler of truly active and interactive activities such as messaging and gaming. It’s your email reader, your music and video player, and potentially even your video conferencing window. Fortunately, choice in Web browsers is once again growing, after periods of contraction and stagnation.
The New Kids: Edge and Vivaldi
Microsoft’s fast-but-bare-bones Edge browser leapt onto the scene as Windows 10’s included Web software after a series of Internet Explorer versions could no longer cut the mustard. I say bare bones, but the browser includes some nifty, unique features, like Web Notes, which lets you select, annotate, and share webpages, an ad-free Reading view, and integrated search and social sharing. To those abilities its latest version had added tab pinning and extension support.
Privacy and ad-blocking features have made a big showing in the browser world. It makes some sense, since consumers surveyed have overwhelmingly stated that they prefer not to have their Web browsing tracked. The new Brave browser is all about sparing you from Web ads. Maxthon and Opera now ship with built-in ad blockers. And Firefox blocks third-party trackers while in Private Browsing mode—something I wish all browser makers would follow. The one exception to this trend towards greater privacy protections is Google’s Chrome—unsurprisingly, as it comes from a company that makes its money by serving ads based on behavioral ad targeting.
Two features that I consider essential for consuming today’s Web are ad-free reading modes and share buttons. You’ll find these included by default in several browsers, but for those that don’t, you can find extensions that provide the functionality. So many sites are overloaded with ads of all stripes and auto-play videos that browsing the Web unhindered has gotten more and more difficult. And one of today’s most common actions is, when you see an intriguing story online, to share it to your favorite social network. Why shouldn’t the browser make this easier by default?
The move away from content that makes use of Adobe’s Flash technology has been an ongoing issue in Web browser functionality. Firefox is the first to have actually taken action, making Flash content on-demand, rather than auto-playing it. Google has stated that an upcoming release of Chrome will do the same. Meanwhile, Chrome and Edge are the only browsers that come with Flash built in. That may go against the growing tide of distaste for Flash among site developers, but in day-to-day use its inclusion ends up being more convenient.
Another issue is battery usage. Tech news stories claiming that Chrome is a laptop battery killer have been circulating for a few years. Last June, Microsoft published a video showing that using its Edge browser prolonged battery life significantly. And then Opera chimed in saying its browser’s Battery Saver mode is even more efficient than Edge. Despite all this, my testing showed a surprise leader in power efficiency: Firefox.
That Syncing Feeling
There’s an overwhelming chance that anyone who is reading this roundup has not only a desktop computer, but also a smartphone. Several of the desktop browsers offer mobile versions that can be synced with their desktop siblings. What does that mean? It means that you can have all your bookmarks, preferences, tabs, browsing history, add-ons, and passwords available when you move from one device to another.
Of course, what you can sync varies by browser and platform. For example, Firefox on iOS can sync bookmarks, open tabs, history, and passwords from a computer. But bookmarks can only be synced from the phone to the desktop. Firefox’s Android client doesn’t have that restriction. Microsoft Edge does sync with Windows 10 Mobile phones, but not with the two leading mobile platforms. The very new Vivaldi browser has no mobile versions yet, but Opera and Maxthon do.
Syncing is of course useful not only for moving from desktop computer to mobile phone, but also simply between computers. You can have Firefox under Windows at your work PC sync with your home Mac, if you like.
Browser interface customizations continue to be offered by the software houses, but gone are the days of completely skinning the programs, as Firefox used to allow. In place of redesigning every button and control in the interface, most browsers now simply let you set a background color for the menu area, as Firefox does. Vivaldi is a standout when it comes to interface customization. In fact, that’s its raison d’être. At the other end of the spectrum is Edge, which merely gives you a choice between light and dark windows.
**Speed and Standards
The upshot of all this: It’s a perfect time to get out there and try a new browser. I know, we all tend to suffer from browser inertia, but branch out a little. You may find that the one you try has some cool features or performance characteristics that appeal to you more than the one you’ve been using. Read through the summaries below and click through to the full, tested reviews to find out which suits your needs best. And don’t be shy about chiming in in the comments section to voice your browser preferences and dislikes.
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