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.

Winner: Firefox

User interface

At first glance, IE8 and Firefox look strikingly similar: both offer an address bar and search bar at the top, with shortcuts and tabs sitting below them, directly above the web page itself.

In fact, they're so similar it's a little suspicious, especially since other browsers such as Opera and Google Chrome arrange things differently. Glance back into history and the explanation becomes clear: while the Firefox front-end has barely changed in five years, Internet Explorer has in that time come to resemble it more and more closely.

But there are still differences between the IE8 and Firefox interfaces. An obvious one is the command bar the collection of icons and drop-down menus at the right-hand side of IE8's tab bar. Clearly, Microsoft wanted to put these controls at the user's fingertips, but this isn't a natural place to look for them, and it's not even obvious what they all do.

And although you can move or hide the command bar if you know what you're doing, in its default location it eats into the tab bar. Once you have just three or four tabs open, their handles and titles become irritatingly narrow.

Another quirk of IE8 is its menu bar, which by default is hidden away until the user presses the "Alt" key. This follows the style of Explorer windows in Vista and Windows 7, but it's still a terrible idea from a usability perspective. A non-expert user might never manage to find the feature they want.

By comparison, the Firefox window looks positively basic, with a standard menu bar and just a handful of buttons on permanent display. But we think this is a more appropriate approach: after all, it's normally the website you're interested in, not the browser. And if you don't like the standard grey appearance, there are hundreds of freely downloadable "skins" to jazz it up as you see fit a nice touch that Microsoft can't match.

Interface

Firefox's simple front end does the job without distracting you from the page you're visiting.

The IE8 interface does have one neat original feature: when you open a link in a new tab, it colour-codes both pages so you can see at a glance which tabs are related. This is really more an aesthetic feature than a practical tool, though.

IE interface

The Internet Explorer front end is a little more complicated than Firefox's.

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