Once upon a time, online browsing was dominated by
Internet Explorer. Then came Firefox ... followed by Chrome and
Safari. It's now a crowded, competitive market. The upside: most of
them provide decent, safe and secure service.
A browser is more than just software for going online. It can replay movies, support games or edit messages.
But people shouldn't waste too much time picking out the perfect one, says Michael Roitzsch of the computer science institute at the Dresden Technical University.
"In general, today's browsers all perform the same," he says, although he notes there are small, but important, differences.
The key is for each user to figure out what he or she wants. Firefox, from Mozilla, allows countless add-ons and plugins, which can be used to block advertisements, improve security or allow web video downloads.
Opera has its own email client and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10 has been designed especially for Windows 8 and its touchscreen interface.
Apple's Safari could be of interest for any PC user who also has an iPhone.
"PC users pick the browser they know from using other devices," says Mike Schnoor of the German Federal Association of the Digital Economy. "It's understandable that nowadays, where everything is defined by digital communications, people want to stick with the same interface on everything."
Google has gone a step further with its Chrome browser. Anyone logging in with it can carry bookmarks and passwords across multiple computers, smartphones and tablets. The drawback is that Google picks up a lot of personal data in the process.
Speed and security are hardly a factor any more.
"One browser or another is always setting a new record with a benchmark," says Roitzsch. "But that's more of a race between the manufacturers."
He says users barely notice the differences in browser speeds. He says the quality of one's internet connection is usually a much bigger factor.
Most browsers employ Sandbox technology for security, which insulates websites from one another and the rest of the computer, meaning one crashed window doesn't affect the rest of the system.
That improves both stability and security, says Roitzsch, since it makes it harder for hackers to smuggle in malware via a website.
Added security comes from regular updates to all the browsers. Roitzsch says the regular improvements are a "positive signal" since they boost security, correct failures and provide new functions. Most browsers update themselves regularly.
Aside from the big five, there are a few more exotic programmes, including Avant and K-Meleon, which is based on Mozilla's work.
Rockmelt focuses on blending YouTube and Twitter.
None of these alternative offerings are particularly different from the major ones, says Roitzsch.
He says they all work quickly and reliably. They might even add an extra layer of security: since they are not widely distributed, most hackers will probably not have bothered to find a way through their security.
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