Best web browsers 2021: Google Chrome vs Microsoft Edge vs Firefox

We put the web's three most popular browsers head-to-head

Best browsers

Whatever you use the internet for - be it work, shopping, streaming, or social media - your experience, whether good or bad, will all come down to the web browser you're using.

There's plenty of choice in this area with a number of high profile offerings such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox, along with many more niche browser options like Opera, Vivaldi and Brave.

However, the abundance of choice can be a little overwhelming as each browser offers something different. From data privacy settings to snappy search bars, there is something of interest for seemingly everybody, so it's best to explore other browsers in case you're missing out on the best one for you. 

Security and privacy are quickly becoming the most important factors for browser choice; Chrome recently released a number of updates that promised to fix weak passwords and Mozilla wants to "crackdown" on so-called 'supercookies', which might appeal to other web users who are keen to preserve their privacy. 

If you're using a browser for work you might also want to consider whether it comes with collaboration features - millions of Internet Explorer users were recently locked out of Microsoft Teams, for example. 

To help you make the simplest choice, IT Pro has narrowed down a list of the best contenders and compared them against each other on a range of different criteria. We have highlighted the best features of each, including which application works best on mobile.

Best web browsers 2021: Features

Web browsers have been around for nigh on 30 years, and by now there’s a pretty universal consensus about how one should look and work. Chrome, Edge and Firefox all offer a combined address and search bar at the top of the window, and tabs above it to help you open and switch between multiple sites.

They also all include basic features like bookmarking and password saving, plus private browsing modes that let you temporarily surf in relative anonymity. And in each case, an integrated task manager lets you monitor the performance and resource usage of your various tabs.

Even so, there are a few notable differences between browsers. For one, Chrome and Microsoft Edge both support Google’s casting technology, allowing you to beam web pages and applications directly to a Chromecast device or compatible TV. That’s something the regular Firefox browser can’t do – although the Android edition can, using the casting framework that’s built into the mobile OS.

Microsoft Edge also includes an advanced feature called Collections which is great for managing multiple tabs. You can group individual pages together, and save, synchronise and export Collections of pages as a single item. Chrome has its own tab grouping feature, which can be accessed by right-clicking in a tab header and selecting “Add tab to group”. You can name and colour-code these groups, but they don’t sync across devices like Edge’s Collections. Firefox doesn’t support groups at all, but it does let you shift-click to select multiple tabs and carry out actions on all of them at once.

Another headline feature of Edge is its Immersive Reader mode, which strips out adverts and other distractions from compatible web pages, giving you a clean, easily digestible view of the text and pertinent image. A toolbar lets you tweak the appearance of text, and offers a one-click read-aloud function. There are tools for English improvers too, with options to highlight nouns, verbs and adjectives, and to bring up contextual pictures to illustrate the meanings of certain words.

Chrome’s reader mode feels quite basic by comparison. It’s not even available by default: you need to delve into the advanced settings interface to enable it. Once you’ve done this, a book icon appears in the address bar, just as in Edge, which you can click to see a streamlined version of the current page. The only user control however is a font dialogue that gets inserted at the top of the page.

Arguably the best reader experience is offered by Firefox. Its reader mode includes an elegant floating toolbar, which combines font controls and a text-to-speech button with the free companion Pocket service, which lets you save pages for later review with a single click. You can use this for regular web pages too, allowing you to revisit sites you’ve saved from any device.

Verdict: 

Firefox’s cross-platform “save for later” function is both appealing and practical, but Microsoft deserves credit for its Collections and language-learning features – and the inclusion of Chromecast support clinches the deal.

Best web browsers 2021: Security

When it comes to security, Microsoft has the most to prove: the old Internet Explorer browser was hacked many times over the years, allowing attackers to hijack users’ computers. With Edge, however, the company has learnt its lesson: the new browser runs entirely in a sandbox, and old, vulnerable technologies like ActiveX and “browser helper objects” aren’t implemented at all in the new browser. Indeed, the first release of Edge didn’t even support downloadable add-ons – although, as we’ll discuss below, that’s no longer the case.

Edge also uses Microsoft’s SmartScreen technology, which analyses web pages and warns if you’re trying to visit a suspicious-looking site, or about to download a file that isn’t well known and widely deployed – both potential red flags for malware.

Google Chrome isn’t quite so inherently secure as Edge, but again it runs browser processes in sandboxes and features built-in warnings against dodgy websites. It also aims to steer you away from phishing sites, and untrusted downloads are blocked completely. You can optionally enable a Secure DNS feature too, which prevents attempts to redirect you from legitimate sites to fake ones.

An additional neat feature of Chrome is its built-in password checker, which warns you if you log into a site using credentials that are known to be compromised – giving you a chance to change your password before someone else gets into your account. For maximum security, Chrome can generate a new, unguessable password for you (along the lines of “cwS4ras7PtzUZNAq”), and automatically log you in next time you visit the site.

Firefox also has a built-in password checker, but breach warnings don’t appear directly in the browser – you have to check your status in the program’s settings page or visit the company’s Firefox Monitor website to check if your ID has been exposed.

The browser isn’t as thoroughly sandboxed as its rivals either. Mozilla is developing a new sandboxing system, but for now, this is only available on Linux and macOS. Still, unlike Chrome and Edge, Firefox is open-source, so there are plenty of eyes on it, and vulnerabilities can be quickly addressed.

Verdict: 

All of the major browsers are designed with a strong focus on security, and they all receive regular automatic updates to close any newly discovered holes. Overall though Microsoft Edge is probably the safest choice, since it was coded from the ground up to meet the security demands of the modern web, and contains little in the way of legacy code to exploit.

Best web browsers 2021: Privacy

Chrome doesn’t do an awful lot to protect your privacy by default, but it does automatically send websites a “Do Not Track” message, which tells them that you don’t wish your activity to be monitored and recorded. Note that this is only a request, however – it can be completely ignored by unscrupulous operators. The browser also alerts you when a site wants to use your camera or microphone or to access your location. You can grant or deny these permissions on a site-by-site basis so that untrusted servers can’t take advantage of these resources.

If you want to more strictly protect your privacy, Chrome’s incognito mode creates a temporary browsing session, whose cookies and history will be automatically wiped when you close the window. In this mode it can also optionally reject all third-party cookies, ensuring that your activity can’t be tracked across different sites.

Microsoft Edge meanwhile keeps things simple with a three-tier privacy control. The Basic protection setting blocks only the most malicious tracking technologies, while the default Balanced setting also blocks cookies from sites you haven’t visited: this reduces the likelihood of your being spied on by hackers and aggressive advertising networks, without interfering with personalised adverts and links from the websites you frequent. The Strict setting blocks almost all cookies, although Microsoft warns that this might cause problems with some sites; you can choose to apply this only to InPrivate windows (Microsoft’s equivalent of Chrome’s incognito mode).

Like Chrome, Edge also sends “Do Not Track” requests by default, and if a site requests access to your location, camera or microphone, you’ll be prompted to either allow or block it.

Unusually, Firefox ships with “Do Not Track” requests turned off by default, but the browser offers its own Standard and Strict privacy settings. These do much the same as Edge’s, except that the Standard settings block social media trackers by default, and also block “fingerprinting” scripts that try to identify you via technical characteristics such as your computer configuration. Then there’s a Custom plan which lets you configure which features to allow – and a neat touch is that if a site isn’t loading properly with your chosen privacy settings, you can click on the shield icon in the address bar to quickly disable tracking protection for that site only.

Verdict: 

All browsers give you tools to help reduce your online footprint, but the flexibility of Firefox’s privacy controls and the breadth of its default protection make it a winner for us.

Best web browsers 2021: Performance

Today you can watch videos, play games and even edit documents and spreadsheets right in the browser. This means that performance matters – so we’ve used a trio of independent benchmarks to compare the three major desktop browsers (all running on a Huawei Matebook X Pro laptop, powered by an Intel Core i7-10510U CPU with 16GB of RAM).

The first benchmark, JetStream, tests how quickly each browser can complete a set of common calculations in JavaScript and WebAssembly, to give an idea of how efficient each one is at number crunching and running complex applications. Here, the winner was Microsoft Edge, with an absolute score of 127 – although Chrome wasn’t too far behind, with 113. Firefox brought up the rear with a score of 97.

The next test is Speedometer. This measures the responsiveness of each browser by loading a simulated web application and running a variety of back-end tasks, while simultaneously drawing drop-down lists, writing text to the screen and dynamically updating the display. Here again Edge was the winner, achieving 122 runs per minute, while Chrome followed up with 109 and Firefox lagged behind on 93.

Finally, we ran the MotionMark benchmark on each browser. This exercise focuses on graphical performance, animating a variety of scenes using native CSS and HTML code and measuring drawing speed and smoothness. Firefox once again came last, with an overall score of 205, but this time the silver medal went to Edge with a score of 255 – while Google’s browser left both in the dust, turning in a stunning score of 350.

Verdict: 

Edge is the quickest browser for everyday websites and applications – but Chrome isn’t far behind, and its phenomenal graphical power makes it an excellent alternative for anyone who’s interested in browser gaming or visual apps.

Best web browsers 2021: Extendability

Third-party add-ons let you customise the browser’s behaviour, to suit the way you work or to add extra features such as ad-blocking, tab management and live note-taking.

In this arena, Chrome leads the way, with around 200,000 extensions freely downloadable from the Chrome Web Store – including many made by Google itself, which integrate tools such as Google Drive, Hangouts and Translate directly into the browser. Be careful what you install, though, as some Chrome extensions can steal your personal data, or redirect you to dangerous sites or insert unwanted ads into the pages you visit.

Firefox meanwhile has a chequered history when it comes to extensions. A major rewrite in 2017 (codenamed “Quantum”) made the browser faster and more user-friendly, but it also tightened up security in a way that required almost all existing extensions to be rewritten and updated. Today, the browser is a safer choice than it used to be, but the same caveats still apply as with Chrome. Firefox doesn’t publicly reveal how many extensions are available at its Firefox Add-Ons Hub, but there are thousands to explore; if a popular extension exists for Chrome, it’s likely that there’s a port – or at worst an equivalent – for Firefox.

Microsoft Edge is the newest of the three browsers, and when it was originally released it didn’t support extensions at all. Since then, however, Microsoft has opened it up to developers and now hosts the thriving Edge Add-On Store. There’s a lot of content here, and that’s not surprising – since recent versions of Edge use the same underlying engine as Chrome, they can also use extensions designed for Google’s browser. Creators can easily make their extensions available in both stores, and if you want to use an add-on that’s only in the Chrome Web Store, you can install it from there directly – once you’ve activated the “Allow extensions from other stores” option in the Edge settings.

Verdict: 

If there’s a particular extension or capability you want, it’s likely to be available on all three browsers – but we’re slightly inclined to favour Chrome, as it’s the original market leader and is designed for direct integration with Google services.

Best web browsers 2021: Mobile support

Here’s where Chrome has a natural advantage: as well as being the most popular browser on desktop computers, it’s also the default browser on Android. Obviously, it’s not exactly the same programme - it’s optimised for smaller screens and touch input, with different menus and features ­– but it uses the same core rendering technology, and when you sign into an Android phone or tablet, your bookmarks, passwords, payment information and various preferences will be synchronised across the mobile and desktop versions of Chrome. 

You can also install Chrome on an iPhone and iPad, and with the arrival of iOS 14 you can even set it as your default browser. The big limitation of Chrome on mobile is that it doesn’t support extensions, and Google hasn’t revealed any plans to change that.

It’s a similar situation with Microsoft Edge. Mobile versions of the browser are available for Android and iOS, and these will synchronise settings and personal data from your desktop browser – although of course, this will only be useful if you’re using Edge on your main PC or Mac. Again though there’s no extension support, and Microsoft hasn’t made any promises as to when it might be added.

Not to be outdone, Mozilla also offers mobile versions of Firefox for both Android and iOS, and if you’re already using Firefox on the desktop then these apps will automatically pick up and synchronise your settings and stored data. So far, so familiar: what makes Firefox’s mobile editions special is that they work with third-party extensions. For now, only a small, specially curated selection of add-ons is available, focusing on blocking scripts, trackers and adverts, but that’s enough to make a real difference to your browsing experience, and the developers are actively working on expanding the range.

Verdict: 

On its own merits, Firefox is the clear winner, as it’s the only mobile browser to support useful plug-ins. However, if you’re already settled on Chrome or Edge on the desktop then you’ll probably be happiest sticking with the same browser on your phone or tablet, so you get the benefit of synchronised passwords and settings.

Best web browsers 2021: Final verdict

There’s no single browser that wins in every department – so the decision comes down to your personal preferences and priorities. Based on our assessments above, Microsoft Edge gets the gold medal for security, while Firefox has the best privacy credentials and Chrome delivers the best graphical performance. Chrome also has the best extension library for desktop platforms, but on mobile, it’s trumped by Firefox.

One thing’s for sure: all three are powerful and mature web browsers, so if you’re still unsure, feel free to take each one for a spin and see what you think.

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