Unless your work revolves around a single application program. your Web browser might just be the most important piece of software on your computer. Your browser shapes your entire online experience, through its deftness at loading complex pages, playing videos and rendering sometimes-quirky websites faithfully. Four browsers dominate the marketplace, and each has its particular strengths.
Microsoft Internet Explorer
As the default browser provided with Windows, IE is the browser most users encounter first. Although it's no longer the clear market leader -- 2014 statistics put it a second behind Chrome, both in the U.S. and worldwide -- its widespread usage on the desktop means it's still a heavyweight. Although rivals Chrome and Firefox have trumpeted their superior performance for years, IE is now on par with its rivals. IE is tightly integrated with Windows, so you can drag a favorite site right to your Windows taskbar and launch it like a program. However, as of June 2014 it didn't share its competitors' ability to sync favorites and bookmarks between computers.
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Chrome's combined position on the desktop and in mobile devices makes it the top browser worldwide. Its calling cards have always been speed and security, and it consistently delivers on both. Its tight integration with other Google services such as Gmail and its iconic search engine are both a positive and a negative. On the upside, your personalizations can be synced across every device you use; but privacy-minded gadget lovers worry that this tight integration gives Google an uncomfortably close intimacy with their personal lives.
Unlike the other three leading browsers, Firefox is the product of an open-source, community-based development process. These are the people who originally created the Web browser, and their offering remains a superior product. Firefox boasts a stellar "ecosystem" of add-ons and extensions, making it the most customizable of the major browsers. Its performance remains on par with its peers, and its memory usage -- a longtime sore point, as security issues were with IE -- has been corrected in versions 27 and onward. Firefox held 8.7 percent marketshare in the US in early 2014, according to figures from Adobe.
Apple's Safari browser is limited in its marketshare by the fact that it's sold only for the Apple platform. This makes it the leading player in the mobile market, where iPhones and iPads dominate, but an also-ran on the desktop where Macs are a niche player. Safari is a fast and secure browser, comparable in performance and interface to the other leading competitors. Its appearance is especially sleek and stylish, in keeping with Apple's design-centric ethos. Apple's mobile dominance made Safari the number-three browser in the U.S. as of early 2014, with 25 percent market share.
Notable Niche Players
A few other browsers deserve at least passing mention. One is Opera, a longtime fringe player with a solid reputation for innovation. Despite its negligible marketshare, it's powerful and feature-rich on either the desktop or mobile devices. Chromium is an open-source sibling to Google's Chrome browser, closely matching the commercial product's features and capabilities but without the latter's nosy-neighbor intrusiveness. The default Android browser is also a significant player due to its presence on mobile devices using that OS, and has mobile marketshare comparable to Chrome's. There is a possibility that Google might stop development of the separate Android browser, using Chrome as its mobile default instead.