Browsers have a big influence on how users experience the internet, writes Tim Barribeau.
The internet browser is one of the most commonly used softwares on a computer.
It can profoundly influence the way people see the internet, how well certain websites are handled and the control given to users.
Several major browser makers have recently released updates, or are doing so in the near future. This makes for an opportune time to compare what is available and what the relative advantages are of each browser.
The much-removed descendent of Netscape Navigator, Firefox has been making significant inroads into the browser market for several years.
Currently sitting at about 15 per cent to 20% of the market, Firefox does not come bundled with any computer or operating system.
It is a free download, and part of the open source movement, allowing it to be legally modified by anyone wishing to.
This has led to an extensive community of programmers who have created various add-ons to boost the functionality of Firefox.
These range from allowing the download of videos off YouTube to blocking annoying adverts.
Some are highly specific, such as better integration with Gmail, others more broad based, such as download managers. These add-ons allow unprecedented customisability to the browsing experience.
Version 3 of Firefox was released last week, and the non-profit company behind the browser set a Guinness world record for most downloads in 24 hours: more than 8 million, including more than 30,000 in New Zealand. The new release added better download management, better memory management, faster speeds, and the ability to search through the title of websites previously visited, making it far easier to track down sites you have been to.
The default browser associated with Windows, Internet Explorer has often lagged behind the competition in terms of new features and compliancy, as well as being notoriously prone to security problems.
Explorer was the last of the major browsers to add tabbed browsing, and is still not fully W3C compliant. The World Wide Web Consortium standards were set in place as a way of maintaining quality and standards of service between browsers, which Explorer has mostly ignored.
However, with Explorer 8, hopefully to be released later this year, most of these problems will be dealt with.
Explorer 8 is currently in beta for web designers and programmers. Because of this, it is highly unstable, but it shows some interesting new features.
One is the ability to highlight a section of text, and have it dealt with via another webpage. This means being able to select a real world address and have directions to it automatically mapped, or have a section of text sent to your blog.
Produced by Apple, Safari has been available for PC since June 2007. Safari is technically the fastest browser at present, and rapidly gaining market share, partly due to its presence on the iPhone.
Safari 4 was recently announced, with no final release date mentioned.
It has a bookmarking system similar to iTunes, allowing for the easy organisation and sorting of favourite websites; an integrated RSS reader; expandable text boxes to make typing large sections of text easier; and advanced text search that has received positive coverage for being easier to see than the competitors' offerings.
Safari also has the highest level of compliance for several web standards, as measured by the Acid3 test. The Acid3 test is a website that runs a gamut of tests on your browser to make sure it handles standardised functions appropriately.
Currently, none of the browsers is able to achieve a perfect pass, but Safari comes closest out of the big three. See www.acid3.acidtests.org.
Apple recently came under fire for automatically selecting the option for users to download Safari when updating their copy of iTunes. Many industry analysts regarded this as a breach of trust between Apple and their users.
Version 9.5 of Opera was released on June 12. Opera is perhaps the most full-featured of browsers, eschewing simplicity for a highly customisable browsing experience and unifying many tasks into one application.
In addition to browsing the internet, it handles email, an address book, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and BitTorrent. It also supports mouse gestures, allowing you to navigate websites without clicking on buttons in the browser's menu, a high level of personal security and an integrated download manager.
A variation of Firefox, Flock is based around social networking while browsing.
It has integration with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Blogger, Gmail, Yahoo Mail. MySpace is in the works.
All these functions are controlled within the browser, without having to navigate to other websites.
It allows users to save search fields from websites, so you can search through a site without going back to the homepage.
Flock recently won a Webby award (the so-called internet Oscars) for social networking, and has been gaining traction due to its focus on the current trends in social networking.
Firefox is probably the best option for anyone looking to get the best functionality in the easiest package for their browsing experience.
Its features are always up to date, it runs very fast, especially in Firefox 3, and the add-ons provide an immense amount of extra value.
Also recommended is the Adblock Plus add-on for Firefox. This will remove the vast majority of advertisements from webpages, making the browsing experience that much less cluttered and annoying.