If you are choosing MacOS, Windows, or Chrome OS, your choices are mutually exclusive, switching between web browsers isn’t quite so jarring. You can download any one of the current major browsers in the same amount of time used to read this paragraph. But which is the best? Which browser is the safest and most private?
To help you decide, we grabbed the latest browsers on the planet and boiled them down to their bare bones. Even if some of them could use a complete overhaul, these options are your best chance for a great online experience.
The best web browsers at a glance
Chrome is ubiquitous — and for good reason. With a robust feature set, full Google Account integration, a thriving extension ecosystem, and a reliable suite of mobile apps, it’s easy to see why Chrome is the gold standard for web browsers. Chrome even blocks some ads that don’t conform to accepted industry standards.
Chrome boasts some of the best mobile integration available. With a mobile app available on every major platform, it’s easy to keep your data in sync, making browsing between multiple devices a breeze. Sign in to your Google account on one device, and all your Chrome bookmarks, saved data, and preferences come right along. Even your active extensions stay in sync across devices. It’s a standard feature you can find on other platforms, but Chrome’s integration is second to none.
Google released Chrome 69 in 2018 to celebrate the browser’s 10th birthday with a significant visual redesign and some nice new features. The user interface was rounded and smoothed out, losing all of its previous sharper edges and harsh angles for a gentler and more attractive aesthetic. Tabs are easier to identify thanks to more visible favicons, making it perfect for anyone who typically keeps open a large number of tabs. Note that as of Chrome 71, you can no longer go back to the old interface.
In addition, Chrome’s password manager now automatically generates and recommends strong passwords when a user creates a new account on a web page. The search bar, or Omnibox, provides “rich results” comprised of useful answers to questions when they’re typed in, plus calculator results, sporting event scores, and more.
Finally, favorites are more accessible, and they’re manageable on the New Tab page. Other more recent updates include a Dark Mode for Windows and MacOS, better New Tab customization, and tab hover cards.
What’s the bottom line? Chrome is fast, free, light, and even better-looking. With a thriving extension ecosystem, it’s as fully featured or as pared down as you want it to be. Everything is right where it should be, privacy and security controls are laid out in plain English, and the browser just gets out of your way.
If you’re not sure which browser to use, install Chrome now.
Firefox comes in a close second — a very close second. Mozilla takes real strides to make its browser a truly modern way to surf from site to site, thanks to efforts like its upgrade to Firefox Quantum and the virtual reality-focused alternative, Firefox Reality. It wasn’t too long ago that Mozilla rebuilt the familiar old standby browser’s interface, offering a cleaner, more modern take on what a web browser should be, and even introduced a password-free browsing experience.
The changes weren’t just skin deep, however: There’s some impressive engineering going on behind the scenes. Firefox Quantum is designed to leverage multi-core processors in ways that its competitors just aren’t doing. It’s not going to make a huge difference in your day-to-day browsing, but the Mozilla Corporation hopes this design will give it an edge moving forward. By engineering for the future now, Firefox Quantum is in a better position to take advantage of quicker and quicker processors as they emerge year after year.
More recent updates include better privacy protections with anti-tracker support, improved password syncing across devices, improved readability, and integrated breach alerts.
Beneath those changes, it’s still the same Firefox we all know and love. It’s a capable browser, with a deep catalog of extensions and user interface customization. The new Firefox Mobile app also received the Quantum treatment, so it’s quicker and more streamlined than ever before. Grab the mobile Firefox app and you can share bookmarks between devices, but you must sign up for a separate Firefox account. Unfortunately, managing settings across platforms isn’t as seamless as Chrome.
Even with a few major overhauls, Firefox is a comfortable, familiar standby. There’s a bit of a fringe benefit, too. Since it’s been around longer than Chrome, some older web apps — the likes of which you might encounter at your university or workplace — work better on Firefox than they do on Chrome. For that reason, it never hurts to keep it around. The most recent version, Firefox 76, does an even better job than ever of keeping you safe from sites that want to track your activities as you surf the web.
As a primary browser, Firefox is more privacy-centric than Chrome and is comparably fast, but its feature set isn’t quite as expansive elsewhere.
Also a venerable browser and popular alternative, Opera shares much of Chrome’s DNA. Both browsers are built on Google’s open-source Chromium engine, and as a result, they have a very similar user experience. Both feature a hybrid URL/search bar, and both are relatively light and fast.
The differences appear when you look at Opera’s built-in features. Where Chrome relies on an extension ecosystem to provide functionality users might want, Opera has a few more features baked right into the browser itself. It also introduced a predictive website preload ability, and an Instant Search feature isolates search results in their separate window while the current page fades into the background — letting users more easily focus on the research task at hand.
As of Opera 55, you can install extensions from the Opera Addons store, just like Chrome. Similar to Google’s browser, you’ll find useful tools like Giphy, Amazon Assitant, Avast Online Security, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and more. If Chrome’s wide variety of extensions is important to you, then Opera becomes an intriguing alternative. Now at version 68, Opera might just be one of the best browsers for quickly navigating web pages.
Opera also features a built-in “Stash” for saving pages to read later. There’s no need to sign up for a Pocket or Evernote account to save a page for later reading. Similarly, Opera features a speed dial menu that puts all your most frequently visited pages in one place. Chrome also does this but only on a blank new tab. Finally, Opera has a built-in unlimited VPN service, making it a more secure option.
The biggest changes came with Opera 60 and Reborn 3, a complete revamp of the browser’s design that brought a new borderless design, Web 3 support, and a Crypto Wallet allowing users to prepare for blockchain-based sites. If you’re looking for a feature-packed browser that offers some serious privacy and security, then Opera is a great choice.
You can see that we’re well into hair-splitting territory, which is why it’s important to remember that your choice of browser is, more than any other service or app you use each day, entirely dependent on your personal preferences — what feels most right for you. Opera has a unique look and feel, and it combines some of the best features of Firefox and Chrome.
Microsoft developed an integrated browser for Windows 10, dubbed Edge, that uses an in-house browsing engine and updates along with the operating system. This project is arguably a failure, as Edge remains unable to gain a substantial market share despite it serving as Windows 10’s default web browser.
In response, Microsoft rewrote Edge using the open-source Chromium web browser engine, taking Google’s lead and making something all its own. The new version launched on February 5, 2020, which replaces the legacy version pre-installed in Windows 10. Currently, you must download and install this browser versus upgrading through Windows Update.
At first glance, Microsoft Edge looks and feels like Chrome. It prompts you to import Chrome’s bookmarks toolbar and other settings. This is great if you previously hated Edge and want to give Microsoft’s browser another shot. Even more, it supports Chrome extensions, though the browser leads you to the Microsoft Store for add-ons. You must manually load the Chrome Web Store to install anything not listed in Microsoft’s repository.
The big news here is performance. Microsoft optimized the Chromium-based Edge for Windows 10. As a quick experiment, we loaded six identical pages/tabs in Chrome and Edge. Looking at Task Manager showed Chrome consuming 1.4GB of memory while Microsoft Edge only used 665MB. That’s extremely good news for PCs with low memory amounts.
Microsoft Edge provides simpler privacy settings, too. In Chrome, you merely have a list of toggles for safe browsing, “do not track” requests, page preloads, and more. Microsoft Edge provides a more graphically friendly interface, displaying three security levels: Basic, Balanced, and Strict. With Balanced set as the default, many sites request you to disable your pop-up blocker even though one isn’t manually installed.
At this point, the new Microsoft Edge shows promise, but it won’t gain any real ground serving as a separate download. Microsoft said in January that this version will roll out in a future update. As of May 2020, this version of Edge still remained as an optional download.
While the preceding browsers will meet most users’ needs, other alternatives exist for anyone looking for something different.
If you use MacOS exclusively, Safari is already your default choice. It might not be the fastest browser available — Chrome is significantly quicker — but it’s fast enough that your browser won’t feel sluggish. It’s integrated into MacOS, meaning you feel more at home, and you’ll likely get better battery life thanks to Apple’s in-house optimizations for MacOS and the underlying hardware.
Safari also focuses a great deal on privacy and security. If you want to minimize how you’re tracked and whether Big Brother is looking over your shoulder, then Safari is a good choice. If you also use an iPhone and/or an iPad, then using Safari on your Mac will make for the most seamless transition between platforms.
Safari is not offered outside the Apple ecosystem.
Vivaldi is truly unique. No two Vivaldi users will have the same setup. When you run it for the first time, you’re guided through a setup process that lays out your browser in a way that makes sense for you. You choose where your tabs and address bar goes, and whether you want browser tabs displayed at the top of the page or in a separate side panel. This is a browser built from the ground up to deliver a unique user experience, and for the most part, it succeeds. Vivaldi 2.0 enhanced the customization features and made them easier to access.
This browser excels at customization, and you can choose from a variety of tasteful themes that don’t feel dated or out of place on a modern PC, in addition to the aforementioned UI choices. It also has some standout privacy-enhancing features, like its team-up with DuckDuckGo, to make the non-tracking search tool the default option when in privacy mode.
Finally, the latest version added more powerful tab management, enhancements like Web Panels that make for smarter browsing, and (as mentioned) even more powerful customization options. Version 3 introduced a built-in ad blocker, a built-in tracker blocker, a clock in the Status Bar, and more.
One of the most unusual browsers around is Brave — or, perhaps, its Brave’s business model that’s the strangest. Brave blocks all ads on all web pages by default, which makes it arguably the fastest browser around. Ads are a huge portion of how many websites make money — block these ads, and suddenly the most important web financial tool is eliminated.
That’s where the Brave Rewards program comes in. Users receive Basic Attention Tokens (BATs) when they view alternative ads that Brave places in the browsing stream. Users can pass along a portion of their tokens to publishers. News site Cheddar and Dow Jones Media Group have already signed on for this new platform, but Brave hopes that even more publishers will jump on board and offer premium content in exchange for BATs.
What’s in it for users? Simply put, if you’re not waiting for ads to download along with website content, then your web experience will feel much faster. Brave performs no user tracking, making it a private browser as well.
Tor is software combined with an open network aimed at making you invisible by routing your traffic through several anonymous servers. While it’s not foolproof, it’s very difficult for someone to identify you when you’re properly configured and using something like the Tor Browser to surf the web — especially if combined with a VPN.
There are many legitimate uses of the Tor Browser and the Tor network, such as people who live in countries with repressive governments, as well as journalists and activists. The dark web is also one of the destinations for people using Tor, which includes many nefarious and illegal sites.
In any event, if you want to remain completely anonymous while surfing the web, the Tor Browser and network are for you.
Notice we don’t include Internet Explorer and Safari in our main comparison.
Microsoft’s aging browser received some improvements over the years, but it’s no longer the default browser on Windows 10. It doesn’t offer much beyond the bare minimum either. It only exists today because some companies still need it for legacy applications.
Meanwhile, Apple’s Safari web browser is still used by Apple device owners. However, it’s not available on Windows, Android, or Chrome OS, so we removed it from our primary list as well.
Most browsers are compatible with web standards and handle performance with relative ease. A casual user probably won’t notice a difference in the rendering speed between today’s modern browsers, as all six are much faster and leaner than those of a few years ago.
We ran the following benchmarks on a desktop with an Intel Core i7-4770K processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. All browsers were clean installs of the most current production versions as of early 2019, and all were run at their default settings.
We switched to the latest Jetstream 2 benchmark — which focuses on modern web applications — and Edge has retained its top ranking. There’s a twist, though: The old Edge version wouldn’t complete the test, so the winner is the Chromium version. Opera is in second place, and Chrome is close behind, with Firefox coming in last place with a significantly lower score.
Mozilla’s Kraken benchmark has Firefox in a strong first-place finish, with Edge Chromium coming in second, and Chrome in third. Opera comes in fourth, and the old Edge finishes in dead-last.
Interestingly, Chrome and Edge Chromium fell way behind in the HTML5 compliance test. Opera comes in first, and Firefox comes in second.
Finally, we also tested how much RAM each browser uses, both with no tabs open and then with ten tabs open accessing the same popular sites. We made sure that each browser had no extensions running, and we let each browser settle in before looking at its memory use. For the test with ten tabs open, we averaged memory use when all of the tabs were first opened and then five minutes later to account for any variability.
It’s not a scientific test, but it should be sound enough to give an idea of which browsers are the most and least efficient in terms of taking up your RAM. We found Opera to use the least amount of RAM when first opened, while Firefox used the least with all ten tabs loaded. Chrome was much less efficient with multiple tabs opened, while Edge Chromium was a solid performer in both instances.
Security and privacy
The most valuable tool for secure browsing is user discretion, especially when you consider that every web browser has encountered security breaches in the past. In particular, Internet Explorer and Chrome’s reputation for protecting users’ security and privacy credentials is spotty at best.
Chrome, Safari, Vivaldi, Opera, and Firefox all rely on Google’s Safe Browsing API to detect potentially dangerous sites. Thanks to constant updates, Mozilla, Chrome, and Opera all make constant security improvements.
All browsers offer a private session option, too. Private sessions prevent the storage of history, temporary internet files, and cookies. Browser support for Do Not Track remains spotty.
Mozilla made some strides in differentiating itself from the others with a real focus on privacy in recent years. It even debuted a Facebook Container in 2018 to make it harder for the social network to harvest user information.