Head to head: Firefox vs Internet Explorer

In our latest head to head, we weigh up the web's most popular browsers: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox.

Not many years ago a fight in the browser world between Microsoft and Mozilla would have been a foregone conclusion, with Internet Explorer lagging far behind Firefox in terms of performance, usability and security.

But Microsoft has been working hard to turn the tables. In a recent head to head we pitched Windows 7 against its predecessor Windows Vista and were impressed by improvements in both the user interface and the underlying code. So now it's time to revisit the browser wars and see whether Redmond's latest browser too has matured into a real contender or whether its free rival continues to show the way.

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Installation and updates

If you're running Windows 7, you'll find that Internet Explorer 8 the latest version of the browser, known as IE8 for short is preinstalled along with the OS. For those with older versions of Windows, IE8 downloads automatically through Windows Update. Once the browser is installed, via whatever mechanism, you'll also receive automatic patches from the Windows Update service to ensure maximum stability and security. In terms of convenience you can't do much better than that, especially if you're deploying in a business environment.

Yet Firefox has an impressive try. When you visit the Firefox download site, your operating system and language are automatically detected, so installing the latest version (currently v3.5.5) is a mere matter of clicking a single "download" button and running the installer.

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Once the software is installed, it will automatically carry out its own checks for updates once every day by default, though advanced users can change the schedule if they wish. When a new patch is found it's automatically downloaded, and the updates are applied whenever you next run Firefox.

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For ease of installation IE8 retains a slight edge, because you really don't have to lift a finger to get it installed. And it's worth noting that, for corporate environments, it's far more manageable than Firefox: you can customise your installation package using the free IE8 Administration Kit, and deploy it remotely using either SMS 2003 or SCCM 2007. You can also enforce specific configurations via more than 1,000 group policy settings. Firefox has nothing to compare with this and, for some scenarios, this will end the debate immediately.

But for individual use, or for a small office with less rigorous management, we prefer Firefox simply because of its approach to updates. Since the browser is your gateway to the internet, it makes sense to check for security updates on a daily basis even if Windows Update doesn't run automatically (or if your updates are centrally managed to a different schedule).

What's more, Firefox patches never require you to restart your PC, while those that arrive via Windows Update often do.

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