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Best browsers 2018: What's the fastest, most secure PC browser?

Robert Irvine
1 Aug 2018
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We compare the 7 best browsers so you know which one is right for you

Some people don’t give much thought to which browser they use – they just pick one and stick with it, which is fair enough if it gets them online. But if you’re the sort of person who wants to know you’ve got the very best browser for you, we’ve taken a closer look at all the best options currently available.

Chrome might seem like an obvious champion, but with Firefox on the rise again – more than 170 million people have already installed its revamped Quantum version – and innovative new browsers such as Vivaldi and Brave introducing smart built-in tools, it might not necessarily be the right one for your needs. Below, we examine what seven leading contenders have to offer in terms of features, customisation options, ease of use and performance.

Best browsers 2018

1. Vivaldi: Best all-round browser

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It was a close race for the top spot in our roundup, but in the end we gave it to a bright new hope. While most browsers now mimic the pared-down design of Chrome, Vivaldi more closely resembles older versions of Opera. Its default interface might not look particularly groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean the browser is derivative or old-fashioned. Dig deeper and you’ll discover manner of clever features, customisation options and time-saving tricks.

When you first run Vivaldi, you’re invited to choose from six attractive themes, decide the position of your tab bar (top, left, right or bottom) and set a background wallpaper. Web pages can be displayed in pull-out panels, navigated using mouse gestures, annotated for future reference, captured with the screenshot tool, grouped into tab "stacks" to save space or tiled to view them side by side.

Most browsers support keyboard shortcuts, but Vivaldi goes one step further by letting you create your own. It also gives you impressive control over your privacy settings, and lets you clear all your private data in one go. In our speed test, it came a close second for page-loading times, and it feels smooth and stable as you browse.

Vivaldi doesn’t have its own extensions site, but instead lets you get them from the Chrome Web Store. This initially feels confusing, as buttons are still labelled "Add to Chrome", but all the addons we tried worked perfectly in Vivaldi. We’d like to see syncing options and a version of Vivaldi for mobile devices – both are apparently "in the works" – and fewer entries preinstalled in the browser’s Bookmarks. Also, some elements seem like works in progress rather than finished features.

2. Chrome: Best for speed & ease of use

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Simplicity is Google Chrome’s greatest strength: rather than overload the browser with features, it lets you choose what to install from the vast Chrome Web Store of extensions and themes. The sheer variety is astounding, although Chrome’s reliance on third-party tools has made the browser itself less innovative in recent years, especially since switching to a "rapid release cycle" that means new versions rarely bring many major changes.

There’s certainly an element of "if ain’t broke, don’t fix it" to this approach, but it also makes Chrome seem unadventurous compared to other browsers including Vivaldi and Opera. In its favour, Chrome has many useful built-in tools that work unobtrusively, including a form filler, spellchecker and password manager, and Google features such as Translate and voice control.

Aside from extensions, Chrome thrives on three S’s: search, sync and security. Being able to search Google from your address bar and easily sync all your bookmarks, history, passwords, tabs and other data across all your devices is incredibly useful, and we like that the browser now warns you about dubious sites changes to your settings and harmful software. A fourth S – speed – is also a given, with Chrome narrowly beating Vivaldi to the top spot in our performance test.

Chrome’s biggest flaw is its memory usage – it uses a separate background process for every tab, plugin and extension, which soon adds up and can lead to pages hanging and crashing. Addons are often the biggest hogs, but it still makes Chrome less stable than other browsers.

3. Opera: Best for innovative features

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Opera has been around for 22 years, but has never claimed more than a 6% share of the browser market. This is a travesty because Opera has introduced more innovations than any other browser, and its latest, 51st version offers such useful features as a built-in ad blocker, a screenshot tool, a sidebar for chatting to friends in WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, a power-saving mode for laptop users and a pop-out video player. There’s also a new collapsible lists tool for tidying up your open and recent tabs.

Best of all, however, is the free VPN, which spoofs your IP address and encrypts your data to keep you safe and anonymous online. No other browser has this excellent feature – even the privacy-focused Brave (see below) and Epic rely on proxy servers rather than VPNs – and it’s easily turned on and off via a tickbox in Opera’s settings.

Opera was second-fastest in our speed test and uses significantly less memory than the two market leaders. Occasionally, you might encounter sites that don’t display properly in Opera because they’re not designed for the browser, but this problem can usually be fixed with an addon. Since Firefox switched to WebExtensions, Opera is second only to Chrome in its choice of addons and since you can install Chrome extensions, it’s arguably in first place.

Opera can seem a little confusing at first, because some of its best features are tucked away, and its interface feels slightly dated. However, there’s the promise of Opera Neon – described as the “future of web browsers” on the horizon – so it’s certainly not resting on its laurels.

4. Brave: Best for tracker- and ad-blocking

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Created by the former CEO of Mozilla, Brave is the perfect browser for anyone concerned about staying safe online. Its powerful set of "shields" blocks all ads, cookies and scripts that compromise your privacy and security, and it automatically redirects you to the secure versions of websites to safeguard your personal data. Whereas the private mode in Chrome and Firefox merely stops your browsing history being stored on your computer, Brave’s private-tab mode prevents all tracking cookies from following you around the web.

Statistics about the content the browser has blocked so far are usefully displayed on your New Tab page, along with photos, the current time and shortcuts to your favourite sites. None of these welcome features come at the expense of speed – with Brave doing respectfully in our performance test. It’s very easy to use, with a streamlined design and the useful option to preview the content of tabs.

Brave eschews the extension-based model of Chrome and Firefox in favour of nine preselected tools. These include discount-finder Honey, a torrent client and (rather unnecessarily) four different password managers. It’s a pity Brave doesn’t offer more extras, but we understand its desire to lock down settings and prevent slowdown. We should also point out that Brave isn’t actually adverse to advertising, but has an opt-in system called Basic Attention Tokens that lets you earn cryptocoins for viewing its partners’ ads.

5. Firefox Quantum: The best Mozilla browser in years

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To say that the "reborn" version of Firefox, Quantum, is an improvement on previous releases is an understatement: it’s a much smarter browser with several useful new tools and it’s much faster – although it was beaten by four other browsers in our speed test.

Quantum is actually the name of the web engine that powers the browser, which uses multiple processor cores and a new CSS engine to reduce memory (and battery) usage – around 30% less than the old version – and load pages faster. Tweaks have also been made to ensure the tab you’re currently viewing is given priority over background tabs, and to deliver smoother video playback.

Firefox now offers a built-in screenshot tool, a handy sidebar displaying your bookmarks, history and synced tabs, and a unified address and search bar. Although not as instantly customisable as Vivaldi, Firefox Quantum lets you personalise your New Tab page and of course install thousands of extra tools from the Addons site.

Now called WebExtensions, these more secure addons theoretically work across others browsers, but you may find that some of your favourites haven’t made the transition and no longer load. Rather presumptuously, Mozilla has also integrated its read-it-later tool Pocket with the browser, but you can disable it through "about:config".

Although we’d like to see some of the security tools offered by Brave and Opera built into the browser, you can at least be reassured that Firefox has privacy settings such as Tracking Protection enabled by default, and is transparent about how and why it collects user data.

6. Tor Browser: Best for anonymity

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Tor Browser’s biggest benefit is the reliable protection it offers against hackers, identity thieves and nosy parkers, including government agencies. Tor comes with two powerful security tools preinstalled – NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere – and routes your web traffic through a series of "nodes" (other computers) to conceal your real IP address and location.

It’s based on an older, pre-Quantum version of Firefox (52, to be precise), so will feel instantly familiar to users of Mozilla’s browser, and uses the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo as its default search engine, to prevent your searches from being tracked, stored and targeted with ads.

On the downside, Tor is noticeably slower than other browsers if you have all its security settings whacked up to the max, because of the roundabout way it connects you to the web. However, they’re easy to disable on sites that don’t pose any threat, either temporarily or by whitelisting the relevant URLs.

Some people worry that using Tor will expose them to the horrors and dangers of the so-called dark web, but this isn’t the case at all. Sites that can only be accessed through Tor have convoluted ".onion’ addresses that you won’t just stumble across, although you should be as vigilant as usual about opening suspicious links.

7. Maxthon Cloud Browser: Great for customisation

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Maxthon Cloud Browser’s homepage boasts of 670 million users, yet most people have never heard of it. That’s a shame, because Maxthon is packed with innovative features you won’t find elsewhere, supporting more than 800 extensions – ten times as many as Edge – and is available for both desktop and mobile.

Notable tools include cloud sync across devices, a built-in ad blocker (Adblock Plus), video downloader and screen-capture tool, a night mode to protect your eyes, customisable skins, as well as optional extras such as password manager, note-taking tool and virtual mailbox. In fact, Maxthon’s biggest flaw is that it tries to cram in too much, which means its interface lacks the simplicity of Vivaldi, Chrome and Firefox, particularly when you delve into its menus and settings.

This surfeit of features also makes the browser slower to start and load pages than many of its rivals. We also found that many of its extensions looked slightly dodgy or hadn’t been translated from Chinese (Maxthon’s country of origin), and that the ad blocker didn’t work on Maxthon’s own homepage.

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