I admit it, I’m somewhat of a geek when it comes to browsers, I find I am compelled to installed every new update that comes along even when I know it will lead to nothing but weeks of pain and misery (like my recent debacle with Firefox 4 beta 1 thru beta 7…). I’m constantly in search of the perfect portal from which to view the Internet, and there is one browser which comes close to being my Opus.

Before I get to that, I’d like to share what’s important to me in a browser (and maybe you too, but I don’t want to be presumptious), and my thoughts on the recent IE9 Beta Update [You’ll need to install then do a Windows Update to get the latest]. So what matters?

Speed. Speed. Speed.

The browser doesn’t just need to be faster than a speeding potato when loading web pages, but needs to be speedy doing pretty much everything. While Microsoft tried (and failed) to convince us that IE8 was faster at loading the most common web pages, I don’t think IEs stutteringly slow javascript performance was the only reason the tech world collectively rolled their eyes at Microsoft’s claims. It’s perceived performance from start to finish, which includes loading the browser, creating new tabs, switching between tabs – loading the web page is just one aspect of overall performance.

The original IE9 beta ground every website to a halt. Gmail became almost unusable. These problems have been fixed in the new update, and overall it seems to perform almost as fast as Chrome 7 – so speed is not a reason to avoid IE9. Though even before it has been released, IE is already a few seconds behind in the speed game of the latest browsers…

The new Chrome instant feature available in the latest beta branch of Chrome takes speed to a whole new level, loading web pages before you’ve even finished typing their URL. You need to opt in to this setting by going to about:flags and enabling instant. It still has a few quirks [Ctrl+Enter doesn’t work as expected for one], but I find I’ve come to relish those extra few seconds saved loading the web page. [Video by lifehacker]

Respect The Cloud

I struggle to understand how a browser can be released without the ability to sync everything with the cloud. Firefox has had a comprehensive sync plugin for a while now and this is built in to Firefox 4. Chrome has been able to sync bookmarks for a while, and syncs almost everything I care about now (themes, extensions, …). IE9 fails dismally on this front. I don’t want to install another piece of software like Windows Live Mesh to sync my bookmarks, and I don’t want to install a toolbar to get this functionality.

Get Out of My Way

Safari pioneered the slimmed down command space among modern browsers, and thankfully Chrome, Firefox 4 and IE9 have all followed suite. In fact IE9 gives a dozen extra pixels to the web page, but at the cost of much reduced space for browser tabs. Light users of the Internet might not be bothered by this, but I tend to have at least 15-20 tabs open at any one time, and managing those tabs on IE9 is painful. So if you use the Internet with any intensity I’d recommend a different browser. While I’m looking at the command bar, the cut off back button in IE9 seems strange but this is just an aesthetic choice others may like. We do a lot more ‘back browsing’ on a web page than forward, so having a larger back button makes sense.

Plugins

No single browser vendor can conceive of all the wonderful features needed in a browser, so a robust plugin marketplace is critical to the long term usefulness of a browser. Here Firefox is light years ahead of everyone else, but I’ve found that most of the plugins I need have an equivalent in Chrome. I don’t use IE enough to know whether all the plugins I want are available, but the plugin market for IE seems robust enough. It will be interesting to see how the Chrome web store takes off. Allowing publishers to easily monetize “web apps” could cause an explosion in interesting apps similar to iPhone or Android app stores.

It’s The Little Things

Since you’ll spend 95% of your PC time in the browser, polish matters. In my opinion Chrome has paid particular attention to detail. There is unexpected goodness lurking all over the place. Close a tab and notice how the close button for the next tab is now right under your mouse pointer. Bookmark a website and notice how easy it is to both bookmark and find the right folder for your bookmark. Drag tabs around or create new windows from tabs (clunky in Firefox, IE9 does a good job with this too). Work with a particular website a lot (like gmail, or Facebook) and you can pin it so it’s always available (not possible in IE9). Right click – notice how short and focused the menu is, it’s not a dumping ground for every imaginable piece of functionality.

What’s My Verdict?

IE9 Beta is worth installing (make sure you get update through Windows Update). I prefer it to Firefox 3.x and the quite buggy Firefox 4 betas, but can’t recommend it over Chrome. Lack of easy sync is a deal breaker for me, and if you are still on Windows XP (like most folks) or on a Mac then IE9 isn’t an option for you.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things Chrome could do better. I’d love to see a better way of saving/restoring pinned tabs, and better integration of web apps into the underlying OS – create application shortcuts is only the most basic integration one could imagine. For now it’s my browser of choice, but I am excited about the tremendous strides IE9 has made already. At the end of the day, I think having many great browsers is better for users than a single winner.