Which Browser to Use?

What is this "browser" thing, anyway? A web browser is simply the type of program we use to access web sites. e.g. Just like Microsoft Word and WordPerfect are both word processor programs to edit documents.

Which browser should you use? The big ones for Windows are Microsoft Internet Explorer and Edge, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox.

Which one should you use? The cartoon says it all -- I love that cartoon. Chrome and Firefox, two popular, actively supported, and well-designed browsers are fighting it out. Internet Explorer (IE), on the other hand, lacking active upgrade and improvement, is the browser equivalent of the kid who eats glue.

Why hasn't Microsoft put much energy into developing Internet Explorer? Because it comes preinstalled with Windows and Microsoft knows that a large percent of people will just use it because they don't know any better. And they are right as the numbers below indicate. It's cheaper to let it languish and keep roughly half the market share than to actively develop the product and get maybe a few more points. IE 11 receives security updates but that's it. There's no on-going improvements being made.

Chrome and Firefox, on the other hand, are actively developed and enjoy a huge range of third party add-on support. These two browsers are automatically updated on a regular basis, no need to download and install the latest updates -- it just happens. That's why you see no version numbers for Chrome or Firefox on the pie chart at left. The vast majority of their users are all on the same version.

But IE doesn't do that. IE is more or less tied to the version of Windows you are running and the updates aren't entirely automatic.

Fortunately, a combined share of 35% use either Chrome or Firefox, so web developers are including these browsers in the compatibility tests for their sites.

Although no browser is completely immune from malware exploitation, many security experts consider Chrome to be the most secure of the major browsers. This means Chrome is less likely to be compromised by a drive-by download in the event you visit an infected web site.

Expandability

Chrome and Firefox both have huge libraries of 3rd party extensions that add functionality. The most popular are the various ad-blockers that make browsing the web more tolerable.

For example, I have extensions that block obnoxious and possibly malware-infected advertising (but allows low-key ads), a password manager, Flashblock that prevents Adobe Flash from running unless I approve it, and an extension that unhides passwords as I'm typing them in.

Isolation

With Chrome, every tab (web page in your browser) runs as a separate, isolated process.  This safety feature isolates each web page, reducing the chances of a rouge web site interacting with other open tabs. If a tab crashes, it doesn't take the entire browser and all the other open tabs with it. Just the one tab crashes, that's all, leaving all your other web pages open.

"Process Isolation" explained:

 

Imagine an office building (your browser) with many smaller offices inside (tabs in your browser). Each smaller office has walls and a door that locks. Your locked office prevents other people from coming in without your permission. Your stuff is safe. In this analogy, each locked office is a tab in your browser and is safely isolated from all other offices (tabs) so that even if a bad guy is allowed access to an office (tab) down the hall, he cannot necessarily get into your office.

Now imagine that instead of lockable offices, your office building was full of cubicles. Each person has a cubicle assigned to them but it's still one big open area. There's nothing preventing other people, including bad guys, from coming from other cubicles into your cubicle and rummaging around. This is what can happen when all browser tabs run in the same process.

Process isolation (lockable offices) helps prevent this type of attack. All by itself, isolated processes cannot protect against all types of attacks. It's just another layer in your security armor, that's all.

Firefox does offer some compartmentalization but not to the extent that Chrome does with completely isolated process tabs. For this, and other reasons, I recommend using Chrome.

Unsafe Addons

Adobe Flash and Oracle Java are two widely used add-ons that ideally should be banned. They are both security nightmares, regularly being exploited as a vector for distributing malware. Fortunately, their days are numbered. Chrome and Firefox no longer support Java and support for Flash is nearing the end. IE 11, since it's no longer receiving updates, will likely continue to support Flash and Java till its own end of life, whenever that may be. Since IE 11 is the only legacy browser left and since it supports proprietary Microsoft extensions (Silverlight and ActiveX, to name two) then it'll probably be around for quite some time. 

Chrome has it's own built-in Flash rendering engine and doesn't support Adobe's off the shelf version. Chrome does not support Java.

Few consumer-oriented web sites today use Flash and hardly any use Java so it's possible to have a decent (and superior) Flash and Java-free existence. Oracle is deprecating Java soon so there will be no more official support. Use Java at your peril.

The New Kid in Town

Windows 10 includes a new browser called Edge. It's intended to replace Internet Explorer for most non-corporate users. Edge is far more secure and is a pretty good, lightweight browser. The main detraction with Edge, in my opinion, is that its look and feel matches the chunky tiled interface of Windows 10 which many people don't care for. Plugin support is more limited, too, at least for now. But other than that, it's not a bad browser.

Recommendation

Between Chrome and Firefox, Chrome is presently the better designed browser. It's a lot newer than Firefox. Google engineers learned much from the older browsers that came before, such as Netscape Navigator (Firefox's spiritual predecessor) then from Mozilla Firefox itself, and from Internet Explorer. Building on the pros and avoiding the cons of these groundbreaking browsers, Google built what is considered probably the best widely deployed browser today.

For these reasons, I generally recommend using Google Chrome. And to the extent you use Google's ecosystem of products, such as Gmail, Contacts, Calendar, and Docs, you'll have a better experience with Chrome.

However, you may be forced to use Internet Explorer to access some specialized Business-to-Business (B2B) web pages. Microsoft has a number of proprietary technologies such as ActiveX and Silverlight that don't work well -- or at all -- with other browsers. And if you require Java then you must use Internet Explorer. For these comparatively rare situations, go ahead and use IE. But use Chrome (or Firefox, if you prefer) for everything else.