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Battle of the Betas - 4-way browser head-to-head

Which is the best browser right now for speeds, features and ease-of-use? We take a look at the latest betas of the four of the big contenders.

Next to these highly visible innovations, Firefox 3.1 seems almost austere, being set apart from its predecessor only by minor changes. The newer version offers a new plug-in manager to make it easier to manage Firefox extensions. That's a sensible evolution, though, as the Firefox approach has always been to keep the main browser relatively conservative and offer a versatile plug-in architecture to enable third parties to add extra features and visual themes. There are hundreds of free extensions available for Firefox, ranging from simple file viewers to advanced networking tools and interface tweakers, and many already work with the latest beta.

When it comes to Chrome, it's harder to speak of new features. While other browser developers launch major releases with a strictly defined feature set, Google prefers to trickle out incremental updates, typically upgrading the software every few weeks without even alerting the user. But the main features that set Chrome apart are the Omnibar and the "most visited" view a grid similar to Safari's top sites view, though rendered more plainly and without the configuration options. Plug-in support is expected to arrive during the first half of this year, opening the door to a limitless feature set.

The last contender, Internet Explorer 8, looks outwardly very similar to IE7, but introduces some interesting new ideas: web accelerators let you send text or a link from one page directly to another web service enabling you, for example, to search, define or translate a word at the click of a button. And with web slices', you can access live snippets of information or graphical content directly from the IE toolbar so long as the web page supports the technology.

IE8 also features a new mode called InPrivate, which enables you to send out a minimum of personal information while browsing, and to cache a minimum of received content to your hard disk - a feature popularly known as "porn mode". In this, though, it's only catching up with Chrome and Safari, which already have comparable browsing modes. Indeed, the only major browser that currently lacks such as feature is Firefox, and Mozilla has announced that one will be implemented in the final release.

Performance

Of course, the choice of browser doesn't just boil down to a checklist of features. As the web becomes progressively more complex and versatile, browser performance takes on an even greater importance. The challenge was laid down by Chrome: at its launch, it was able to render pages with unprecedented speed. And, more importantly, its JavaScript engine (known as V8) was much faster than any other browser's, enabling web applications to become more powerful. On our test machine, Chrome managed to complete the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark suite in just 2.27 seconds, while Firefox 3.0 took 4.57 seconds almost exactly twice as long.

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