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 2017.
(If none of these internet browsers strike your fancy, head over to PCWorld's roundup of 10 intriguing alternative browsers.)
Browsers in brief
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.
For users who love extensibility but want greater privacy than a Google-made browser can provide, the open source Mozilla Firefox is your best bet. Firefox paved the way for other browsers to become extensible, and while Firefox’s add-on catalog is pretty good, it now pales in comparison to the Chrome Web Store. Like Google, Firefox has a sync feature.
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 an ad and tracker blocker when using incognito mode.
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 is still a work in progress. You'll see below that its performance is getting better, but that’s not all there is to the browser in 2017. The Edge extensions library is tiny, its sync functionality is near nonexistent, and it doesn’t get updates nearly fast enough—though that is expected to change with the Fall Creators Update.
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.
Read on for our benchmark results and our pick for best browser.
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 is that Flash was turned off for each browser—benchmarks were done with and without the plugin in 2015. 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 the web is moving to a Flash-free existence we decided to live the dream right now.
For these tests our rig was an Acer Aspire E15-575-33BM laptop loaded with Windows 10 Home (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 won top marks by a wide margin. SunSpider has been deprecated for some time and is no longer supported, but the result was still surprising. For Octane 2.0, which is also no longer supported, Firefox and Opera vied for top spot, with Chrome the laggard by a wide margin. For this set of benchmark scores higher is better with the exception of SunSpider.
Moving on to the more modern Speedometer test, which quickly iterates through a bunch of HTML 5-based to-do lists, Chrome came out on top. Google’s Blink-based cousin Opera came in second, with Edge and Firefox way behind. 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. Edge came out on top there, while the others were closer together with only a few points separating the back three. Again, higher is better for these tests.
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 certainly going to chew up a good chunk of CPU and memory. These browsers did not disappoint in that respect.
Despite its reputation, however, Chrome was tops here, using less than 40 percent CPU power, followed by Edge. The results were similar for memory with Chrome using the least. Take those impressive Edge numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism, however, as during testing the PC froze, and we couldn’t access task manager as swiftly as with the others. The fact that the whole PC slowed to a crawl suggests Edge’s numbers don’t tell the whole story. Based on that experience, power users with multiple tabs open in Edge would feel some serious pain trying to get work done.
As for Firefox, you may notice that the browser chewed up CPU usage, but was relatively low in memory usage. The reason for that, as Mozilla reminded us, is that Firefox alone is transitioning from one browser process to four. Whereas Chrome and Edge use multiple processes for each tab. The idea behind the latter is that individual tabs running on separate processes won't take down the whole browser if they crash. That approach does use more memory, however. Mozilla is trying to find a middle ground. On the one hand, Firefox helps maintain overall PC performance under heavier workloads, but it's not great if you want dozens of sites to load as quickly as possible.
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 and the ability to sync across devices.
As in our previous showdown, Chrome continues to capitalize on these strengths, and even improves in the performance department by addressing its past resource issues, making it, once again, our first choice.
Opera again earns second place since it performed relatively well in the live stress test, and can be set up to take advantage of nearly all the same conveniences Chrome can.
As for Firefox, it’s also a fine choice. Mozilla’s browser definitely gets the job done, it’s very customizable, and its open source roots puts the browser in a league of its own.