Best web browsers of 2017: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Opera go head-to-head

Best web browsers of 2017: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Opera go head-to-head

The web browser is by far the most important piece of software on your PC—at least for most users. Unless you’re at a workstation crunching numbers or editing the next Star Wars you probably spend the majority of your computer time staring at a web app or a website.

That’s why it’s important to make sure you’ve always got the best tool for the job, and in 2017 that does not include Internet Explorer. If you still want the built-in option for Windows that would be Edge, but it’s hard to stick strictly with Edge when you’ve got other choices including Google’s Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera.

Let’s take a look at the four major (and modern) browsers to see how they stack up in the latter half of 2017. A few things have changed since we looked at the top browsers just a few short months ago. Microsoft released the Fall Creators Update in October, and in our tests it seemed to have a significant impact on browser results.

The real impetus for this redux, however, is the release of Firefox 57, aka Firefox Quantum. This is an entirely overhauled version of Firefox. The browser switched to using browser extensions instead of add-ons, the interface has been tweaked, and it’s also supposed to be two times faster, and use 30 percent less memory than Chrome.

Let’s dive in.

(If none of these internet browsers strike your fancy, head over to PCWorld’s roundup of 10 intriguing alternative browsers.)

Browsers in brief

Chrome

chromelogo Google

The current people’s champion, Google Chrome tops the metrics charts of both StatCounter and NetMarketShare by a huge margin. Google’s browser has built a dedicated fan base thanks to its massive extensions library, and the fact that it just gets out of your way to put the focus on web content, not the browser’s trimmings.

Chrome isn’t quite as simplistic as it once was, but it’s still very easy to use. There isn’t much to Chrome except a huge URL bar—known as the OmniBar—plus a space for extensions, a bookmarking icon, tabs, and that’s it.

Yet Google still finds a way to hide all kinds of features inside the browser, including deep integration with Google’s services. This allows you to sync your bookmarks, passwords, open tabs, and more across devices. Chrome also has multi-account support if you need it on a family machine, a built-in PDF viewer, built-in Google Translate functionality, a task manager, and the always handy Paste and go context menu item.

If there’s one complaint people have about Chrome it’s that the browser eats up available memory. Our browser testing in 2015 showed that Chrome was definitely a memory beast, but two years later it fared pretty well in our tests.

Firefox

mozilla firefox logo Mozilla

For users who love extensibility but want greater privacy than a Google-made browser can provide, the open source Mozilla Firefox is a great choice. Firefox paved the way for other browsers to become extensible, and Firefox’s new extensions architecture will hopefully mean the catalog will match Chrome’s Web Store soon. Firefox also has a sync feature to see your open and recent tabs, browsing history, and bookmarks across all your devices.

Firefox 57 brings a new and updated design with refreshed icons, and a new library section that houses your history, pocket reading list, downloads, and synced tabs. There’s also a handy screenshot tool.

Where Firefox has really shined in recent years is with the browser’s incognito mode. All browsers have a private mode that lets you browse without any of your activity being logged in your saved history. But most of the time these private modes still allow websites to track your activity for that specific session. Firefox does away with this by including ad and tracker blockers when using incognito mode.

Opera

operabrowser Opera

Before Chrome, Opera was a popular choice among power users—a position former Opera CEO Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner is trying to take back with Vivaldi. Opera today is really one of the more under-rated browsers around. It’s based on the same core technologies as Chrome (the Blink rendering engine and the JavaScript V8 engine), which means it can run many Chrome extensions—there’s even an extension for installing extensions from the Chrome Web Store.

Opera’s also got a few unusual features like Turbo, which saves on load times and bandwidth by compressing webpages on Opera’s servers. It’s also got a nice security feature called domain highlighting that hides most of the URL so that users can see easily and clearly if they’re on Google.com or google.com.scam.com—with scam.com being the actual website.

More recently, Opera introduced its own take on the social sidebar with one-click access to services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram. Like Chrome and Firefox, Opera also has its own cross-device syncing feature.

Microsoft Edge

microsotedge Microsoft

Microsoft Edge is still a work in progress. You’ll see below that its performance is really great, but that’s not all there is to the browser in 2017. The Edge extensions library is small but growing, its sync functionality is still restricted to favorites and reading list, and it doesn’t get updates nearly fast enough, though that may change now that Microsoft can update Edge separately from Windows.

Despite its shortcomings, Edge has several helpful features that will appeal to some. Edge is deeply integrated with Windows 10’s inking capabilities, as well as with OneNote, making it easy to clip a webpage, annotate it, and save it to a notebook. Cortana is also a big part of Edge. You can use Microsoft’s digital assistant to quickly search for information, compare prices, or get a quick calculation.

Like Chrome, Edge has a casting feature. There’s also a nifty set-aside tabs feature to stash a collection of websites, the ability to read ebooks (great for tablets), and an MSN.com-ish new-tab page.

In the Fall Creators Update, Edge got a bunch of new features including the ability to annotate PDFs and ebooks, easily pin websites to the taskbar, edit URLs in your favorites, browse in full screen, see and manage website permissions, as well as a “read aloud” accessibility feature for web content.

Perhaps the best feature, however, is the “Continue on PC” option that lets you push webpages to your PC from your phone with the appropriate apps installed—check out our look at the top features of the Fall Creators Update for more details.

Read on for our benchmark results and our pick for best browser.

Benchmarks

That’s enough of an overview of our four contestants, let’s get down to business. To see which browser is worthy of your bandwidth in 2017 we used a variety of testing tools. For judging JavaScript we used JetStream, and the now-unsupported Octane 2.0 and SunSpider 1.0.2 benchmarking tools. Then we turned to WebXPRT 2015 and Speedometer to challenge our browsers under simulated web app workloads.

Finally, we took a look at CPU and RAM usage. Similar to what we did in 2015, we loaded a set of 20 websites in a single window in quick succession using either a batch file or the command line depending on the quirks of the browser in question. Once all tabs began loading, we waited 45 seconds, and then checked the CPU and RAM usage. The idea was to see the amount of system resources the browser would use during a heavy workload.

One difference from 2015 and earlier this year is that we ignored the Flash settings and left each browser in its default state. In recent years, most browser makers have de-emphasized Flash, enabling it as “click-to-play” and blocking nonessential website elements that use Flash. Since Flash is on its way out (and most users are unlikely to mess with Flash settings in the first place) for those that come pre-loaded with the plugin we decided to leave everything as is. No extensions, account sign-ups, or tinkering with settings. Just raw browser action.

For these tests our rig was an Acer Aspire E 15-575-33BM laptop loaded with Windows 10 Home (Fall Creators Update), a 1TB hard drive, 4GB RAM, and an Intel Core i3-7100U. Each browser was tested over a hard-line internet connection.

Edge makes big gains

Looking at both JetStream and SunSpider, Edge 16 still won top marks by a wide margin. SunSpider has been deprecated for some time and is no longer supported, but the result was expected based on our tests from earlier in 2017. Firefox’s SunSpider score improved dramatically, however, from 365.5 in the summer to 290 now—lower is better for SunSpider. Firefox also made a big jump in its performance on JetStream, scoring 125.43 in our tests compared to 108 previously (higher is better here).

jetstream Katherine Stevenson / IDG

The JavaScript tests JetStream and SunSpider continue to favor Microsoft’s Edge browser.

sunspider Katherine Stevenson / IDG

Firefox 57 isn’t nearly as fast as Edge in the SunSpider test, but it showed a 23 percent improvement over Firefox 54.

For Octane 2.0, which is also no longer supported, Edge won top spot this go-round, followed closely by Opera and Chrome in that order. Firefox scored the worst of the bunch, but wasn’t far off from Chrome’s score. Again, higher is better here.

optane Katherine Stevenson / IDG

Again, Edge is triumphant.

Moving on to the more modern Speedometer test, which quickly iterates through a bunch of HTML 5-based to-do lists, Chrome was way out on top. Google’s Blink-based cousin Opera came in second, with Firefox and then Edge way behind. This was similar to our results in the summer.

speedometer Katherine Stevenson / IDG

Chrome and Opera hang onto the two top spots in the HTML-based Speedometer, just like the last time we tested browsers.

The numbers were much closer for WebXPRT 2015, which uses a wide number of web apps, from photo collections to online note-taking to data sets. This test is kind of like a PCMark for browsers, and to my mind one of the most significant tests. Firefox came out on top here, with Edge a distant second, followed by Opera and Chrome. Again, higher is better.

webxprt Katherine Stevenson / IDG

Firefox went from last place to a decisive first place in this test of web-app performance.

Finally, we come to the memory and CPU test. Slamming an average PC with 20 tabs of mostly media-rich sites all at once is going to chew up a good chunk of CPU and memory. These browsers did not disappoint in that respect. In fact, they all scored worse than just a few short months ago. It’s unlikely that all four browsers suddenly became data hogs, so the best guess—and it’s just that—is that some change in the Fall Creators Update influenced the results. One might think the change in our Flash approach was the cause of this, but Firefox was also affected and it doesn’t come with Flash built-in.

Chrome was once again tops in CPU usage for the torture test, followed somewhat closely by Opera, and then Firefox and Edge way out in the CPU stratosphere. That said, Firefox dropped way down to nearly nothing after all the sites were loaded. All browsers reduced their usage but Firefox’s drop was one of the most dramatic. We weren’t scoring for that so there are no numbers to provide just a casual observation.

cpu Katherine Stevenson / IDG

While this test reflects CPU activity while pages are being loaded, once the pages were loaded, the processor barely broke a sweat on any of the browsers.

The results were similar for memory, with Chrome using the least, followed by Opera, Firefox, and then Edge. As with last time, Edge’s numbers were problematic in this test as the PC froze during the test, and we couldn’t capture a task manager screen shot as swiftly as with the others, thus manually jotted down the numbers instead. The bottom line here is that power users with multiple tabs open in Edge are still going to feel some serious pain trying to get work done.

memory Katherine Stevenson / IDG

Like last time, it’s hard for us to recommend Edge to people who browse with many tabs open.

As for Firefox, we didn’t see any savings that Mozilla said Firefox 57 provides, at least not in the torture test. Interestingly, Firefox takes a slightly different approach to employing multiple browser processes than the other browsers. Every other browser started opening all 20 tabs at once, while Firefox staggered them over time.

And the winner is...

So who wins? Here’s the way we see it.

Once again, Edge gets honorable mention for making some serious gains in performance and earning some truly impressive scores. But when you factor in customizability and how Edge fared in the live-site stress test, it still has some work to do—like offering a wider extension library (that is growing) and the ability to automatically sync open tabs across devices.

As in our previous showdown, Chrome continues to capitalize on its strengths and improve in the performance department by managing resource issues very well. That makes it, once again, one of our top choices.

But we are going to call this one a tie with Firefox 57. This new version of Firefox is dramatically better than its predecessors. The performance scores for Firefox 57 were impressive, save for the torture test, with the WebXPRT test being Firefox’s standout match-up where it won hands down. The new version of the browser is also nicer to look at and use, and we hope to see its extensions catalog rival that of Chrome’s. Even in its current state, Firefox should have all the extensions you’ll need unless you use something particularly obscure or specific to Chrome.

Opera earns third place this time around. It performed very well in the live stress test, with results behind, yet still close to, its cousin’s, Chrome. If you want to get away from Chrome but aren’t willing to try Firefox, Opera is a great alternative since it can be set up to take advantage of nearly all the same conveniences Chrome can. Plus the new social sidebar is a unique feature that some users may appreciate.

To sum up: If you love Chrome, keep sticking with it, but if you’ve been wishing for a Mozilla-crafted browser equal to Chrome then now is the time to give Firefox another try.

IDG Insider

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