Firefox 4 beta 6 (a "small beta")

Internet Explorer 9 beta 1

IE 9 offers quick, easy to access translation.
Which is the better browser? We weigh in with benchmarks and detailed analysis

I. The Launch

Microsoft has followed the lead of a certain fruity competitor and has unveiled one of its star products at a special event in San Francisco.  Dubbed "The Beauty of the Web", Microsoft announced the public availability of a Internet Explorer 9 beta build.

Microsoft's press release describes:

Starting today, tech-savvy consumers can download the beta of IE9 and test drive the new browsing experience at some of the Web’s most popular sites. At the “Beauty of the Web” event in San Francisco, more than 70 top sites and global brands showcased new sites and Web-based applications they have built to take advantage of the new capabilities IE9 offers. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn, and global brands such as Quiksilver, Red Bull, Livestrong and Amazon are showcasing experiences that take advantage of IE9’s ability to tap into the power of the whole PC and modern standards such as HTML5 to offer rich immersive experiences, and to integrate sites seamlessly with Windows 7.

The new browser is not supported for Windows XP.  While Windows Vista support is coming, the initial beta only offers 32-bit and 64-bit Windows 7 version.  It is, however, offered in 33 languages. (Correction: Apparently Microsoft is offering the beta for Vista users as well.  Simply click the appropriate download link, and a Vista-compatible download should start if you're running on Windows Vista.)

The beta is available for download here.

Firefox 4 beta 6 also launched this week.  Some may recall that Firefox 4 beta 5 landed just last week and remember our prediction that beta 6 would land in October.  Well beta 6 isn't a 
full beta; it's what Mozilla calls a "small beta".  Apparently beta 5, which brought hardware rendering to Firefox, had some issues and Mozilla had to rush a fix.  The company writes:

We’ve decided to issue a small beta update in order to fix a stability issue on Windows and some rendering and keyboard/mouse focus issues on OSX related to plugins. This small update should be ready late tomorrow, and will be presented as "Firefox 4 Beta 6".

Beta 6 is replaced by beta 7, which is still expected to land in the timeframe we suggested -- sometime in October.  The final release of the browser is still expected to be November 2010.

You can download the "small beta" Firefox 4 beta 6 here

II. The Benchmarks

There are a lot of various browser benchmarks out there, but only a few good ones.  We wanted to get a variety of tests to compare the speed of the IE 9 beta and the latest Firefox 4 beta, so we included an overall test (Peacekeeper by FutureMark), a CSS Test (How to Create's CSS loading test), two pure Javascript only tests (Sunspider and Celtic Kane's JSBenchmark), and a composite test of various Javascript and DOM tests (Dojo Toolkit's "TaskSpeed").

Additional we have added three new tests -- FishIE Tank, Psychedelic Browser, and Flying Images.  All of these tests focus heavily on rendering, thus give a feel for the speed of hardware acceleration.  Note the heavy edge of Firefox 4 beta 6 and Internet Explorer 9 beta 1 over Google Chrome 6 on these tests (Chrome won't get hardware acceleration until Chrome 7).  Note, Microsoft also makes all of these tests, so there may be some sort of favoritism there -- but we hope not.

Last, but not least, we've added Mozilla's Kraken, a Javascript benchmark.  This rather lengthy benchmark is Mozilla's crack at making a test similar to Sunspider.  Did the home court advantage help Mozilla and Microsoft on their selective tests?  Scroll down to see

The results are below, with benchmark results from Google's recent Chrome 6 stable release for comparison.  Why Chrome 6?  Google Chrome is generally the fastest browser, so its a good index of how truly fast these two browsers are, not just which is faster than the other.

You can download Chrome 6 here.

The results are as follows:

i. PeaceKeeper (Higher is better)

1. Firefox 4 beta 6:                2707 Points
2. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:   1987 Points

Chrome 6 :                              4840 Points

ii. How-to-Create CSS Test (Lower is better)

1. Firefox 4 beta 6:              15.6±4.18 ms
Actual Results: (32,18,10,9,19,17,12,18,12,9)
2. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:  20.4±4.07 ms 
Actual Results: (19,26,20,17,20,18,28,17,22,17)

Chrome 6:                               9.5±1.96 ms
Actual Results: (13,10,9,8,8,8,8,8,9,14)

iii. Sunspider Javascript (Lower is better)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:  629.0ms +/- 6.6%
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:                     773.2ms +/- 0.7%      

Chrome 6:                                  623.0ms +/- 6.8%

iv. Celtic Kane's JSBenchmark (Higher is better)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:
Average Score: 257 ± 15
Last Score: 255
Test iterations: 20
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:
Average Score: 210 ± 38
Last Score: 177
Test iterations: 20

Chrome 6:
Average Score: 330 ± 50
Last Score: 350
Test iterations: 20
(These results seem abnormally high, but we retested, and they still stuck in this range.)

v. Dojo Toolkit's "TaskSpeed" Suite
(Lower is better)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:  6933 ms, no errors
Individual test results: 205, 1784, 798, 1042, 747, 418, 469, 434, 1036 ms
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:                     16586 ms, 4 errors
Individual test results:  1600, 2659, 2121, 1981, 232, 1497, 2043, 2392, 2061 ms

Chrome 6:                                  4098 ms, no errors
Individual test results:  229, 1198, 541, 546, 516, 203, 220, 240, 405 ms

vi. Psychedelic Browser (Higher is better)

(all tests were done at 1440x725 pixel window size, 500 fish)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:                    53 Frames per Second
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:                                       34 Frames per Second 

Chrome 6:                                                    N/A (fish do not render properly)

Note/Disclaimer: Microsoft makes this benchmark.

vi. FishIE Tank (Higher is better)

(all tests were done at 1440x725 pixel window size, 500 fish)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:                    53 Frames per Second
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:                                       34 Frames per Second 

Chrome 6:                                                    N/A (fish do not render properly)

Note/Disclaimer: Microsoft makes this benchmark.

vii. Psychedelic Browser (Higher is better)

(all tests were done at 1440x725 pixel window size, 500 fish)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:                    53 Frames per Second (average)
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:                                       34 Frames per Second (average)

Chrome 6:                                                    N/A (fish do not render properly)

Note/Disclaimer: Microsoft makes this benchmark.

viii. Flying Images (Higher is better)

(all tests were done at 1440x725 pixel window size, 196 icons, same zoom/view)

1. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:                    45 Frames per Second (average)
2. Firefox 4 beta 6:                                       42 Frames per Second (average)

Chrome 6:                                                    11 Frames per Second (average)

Note/Disclaimer: Microsoft makes this benchmark.

ix. Kraken (Lower is better)

We'll spare you the "unleash the kraken" humor.  Here are the results...

1. Firefox 4 beta 6:              25434.7ms +/- 10.1%
2. Internet Explorer 9 beta 1:  57042.0ms +/- 7.9%

Chrome 6:                             18409.1ms +/- 1.2%

Note/Disclaimer: Mozilla makes this benchmark.

x. Benchmark Conclusions

After two updates, it now appears that running a broader range of benchmarks that Mozilla's and Microsoft's respective browsers are in a dead heat.  Microsoft wins two of the three javascript tests, but Mozilla takes one of the lengthier independent JS tests (TaskSpeed) and its own Kraken test. 

Likewise Microsoft manages to narrowly take all three of its rendering tests -- but it may have a home court advantage here.

Whether it's a little faster than Firefox 4, or a littler slower, this is still an incredible turnaround given IE 8's slow performance compared to FF 3.  At long last Microsoft has a browser that is no longer painfully slow to use.  Over all Firefox does win a couple of benchmarks, though, likely due to its superior overall standards support.

Of course, if you're looking for pure speed, Chrome 6 blows away both browsers.  But speed isn't everything -- usability is equally, if not more important.  And that brings us to...

III. Features, Functionality, and Looks

i. Tabs and the Address Bar

As previously reported, Internet Explorer 9's beta brings a dramatic new look, which follows Firefox 4's approach of merging menu items and hiding them inside icon drop-down menus.  Except IE 9 takes things a step farther, cutting the taskbar down to a single line.  Whereas Firefox 4 has the tabs above the task bar, Internet Explorer 9 has the address bar to the left of the tabs.

The upside of this approach is that with a small number of tabs (less than 10) you have much more screen real-estate.  Web pages are easier to read and there's less visual distraction.  The downside is that with slightly more tabs open (10 to 20) the line space lost to the address bar is sorely missed, as finding your tab is hard to do.  Ultimately, Microsoft made a tradeoff here, but we feel that it probably picked the better choice for most users.

One additional note is that when you search using CTRL+F, it 
does add another line to your browser bar.

A nice feature in Mozilla worth noting is the quick tab preview, available in the top right, beneath the "x" icon.  This allows you to quickly reach tabs, especially when you have too many tabs open for Aero Peek.

This feature is made even nicer by "tab sets", formerly known as tab candy.  A new feature in Firefox 4, you can click on any tab and assign it to a new group.  To name groups, you must click the quick tab preview.  You can also drag and drop tabs into appropriate groups from the quick tab preview.  You can also make a new group in the quick tab preview by dragging your mouse on an empty area and releasing.

Also new to Firefox 4 is the ability to make app tabs.  App tabs show up as small icons to the left of your standard tabs -- great for frequently used sites. 

ii.  Windows 7 Polish

IE 9 has the clear edge over Firefox 4 in Windows 7 polish as well.  It offers Aero Peek.  To access this, simply hover your mouse over the IE 9 icon in Windows 7 to see previews of active tabs.  It also offers pinning.  To pin a site, simply drag a tab to your taskbar on the bottom of your screen.  Many pinned sites also have the ability to use jump lists, to jump to commonly used functionality.  Last, but not least, IE 9 allows you to drag tabs to the side of your screen, and they will automatically "snap" -- the proprietary "Aero Snap" feature.

Of these features Firefox 4 only has Aero Peek.  Granted, it also offers OS X and Linux compatibility -- something Microsoft doesn't offer.  And also bear in mind that while the Windows 7 graphical polish with Internet Explorer 9 looks extremely slick, it won't be accessible to Windows Vista users.

Both browsers also have Aero Glass themes -- thus their GUIs look somewhat similar.  Also note that Aero peek fails in both browsers when you have too many tabs open -- the items are reverted to a list.

iii. Extensions

Firefox 4 has some distinct advantages over IE 9.  One is the browsers' prolific extensions community.  Extensions have lots of uses, but for the average user they boil down to a few things -- GUI tweaks, speed tweaks, and ad/javascript blocking.

When you examine the extensions closer, though, you realize that IE 9 doesn't really lose that much by not offering them.  It offers colored tabs in its stock form (child tabs and their parent get a common color) -- you need an extension in Firefox to do this.

Likewise IE 9 offers quick translation of text, without any add-ons.  Just highlight text, click the small square icon that comes up (unless a specific page blocks it), and then hover over "Translate with Bing".

While the speed tweaks (FasterFox) are nice, they don't make that big of a difference.  Ad-blocking can be a bit more contentious topic.  Some users swear by it, and won't use sites with ads.  However, in Firefox, AdBlock alone typically isn't enough to hide all the ads on a page.  You also need a Javascript blocker like NoScript.  But what we've increasing found is that this ends up making a chore out of browsing many pages -- you have to selectively figure out what to block/unblock to hide the ads without hiding/breaking desired content.

At the end of the day if you want to spend extra time to block ads, Firefox's extension may make the crucial difference in your browser choice.  But if you want to simply surf the web without making a chore of ad-blocking, IE 9 is perfectly fine.

iv. Menus

We do have a major complaint with Firefox's new menu system.  Many important items are hidden (e.g. downloads) and you have to press ALT to reach them via the traditional menus.  In IE 9 these kinds of features are slickly integrated into the right most two icons (the star and the gear).  Granted, there are keyboard shortcuts for these things in Firefox 4 (CTRL+J for downloads, for example), but most non-tech-savvy users tend to rely on menus more heavily then keyboard shortcuts.

Note Microsoft's IE 9 also has keyboard shortcuts, so it doesn't force users to choose.

Other major complaints with Firefox 4 include the new "go to tab" feature.  While this might
seem like a good idea, users tend to use a couple of different websites and often like to open multiple copies of the site.  This makes it a real pain if you actually want to open multiple copies of the same page.  And if you have enough tabs to make this worthwhile, you probably have to many tabs open to be efficient in the first place.

v. Sandboxing/Stability

Another gripe is Firefox's lack of sandboxing.  During our benchmarks, two of them crashed in Internet Explorer -- PeaceKeeper and TaskSpeed.  While this may seem like a bad thing, what was great was that the other tabs not only were utterly unaffected, but the affected page automatically reloaded.

When Firefox crashes, it crashes hard.  While the "Restore Session" feature can ease the pain, Mozilla obviously trails in terms of making an error-proof browser.  And where as Mozilla previously seemed to have a memory advantage over Internet Explorer 8 because of sandboxing, quick peeks at our task manager during testing, show IE 9 to have a similar or leaner memory footprint (of its combined processes) than Firefox 4.

vi. Private Browsing

Lastly, Internet Explorer 9 allows you to browse InPrivate side by side with normal browsing.  This is dangerous in that you could accidentally browse in the wrong window and breach your session's privacy.  But on the other hand, it's nice to be able to keep your list of active tabs up, while you have a private session.

Firefox 4, on the other hand, requires you to stop your current browsing when you want to go private.  So there's less risking of accidentally typing in the wrong window -- but you don't have access to your currently open tabs.  Additionally when you exit private mode, all of your tabs reload.

Overall we think Internet Explorer 9 has the superior privacy implementation, though you have to be a bit more careful with it.

vii. Standards Compliance

Firefox has the ability to sync bookmarks, history, passwords, and other user profile items in its stock build.  A common preconception was that Internet Explorer 8 was unable to do this.  It did have the ability, but required certain third party extensions such as Xmarks.  Its safe to assume that Internet Explorer 9 will see third party syncing support, if Microsoft doesn't get its act together and build it in.

viii. Standards Compliance

Firefox 4 and Microsoft both offer support for most of the bleeding edge web standards HTML 5, CSS 3, SVG graphics, DOM L2 and L3, etc.  There are a few less prolific web standards that IE 9 doesn't support and Firefox 4 does.  However, overall IE 9 should be ready for the vast majority of web pages.

This is over-simplifying things a bit.  The two browsers do differ in what codecs they use for HTML 5 videos.  We discuss the different codecs in this previous piece.  At the end of the day Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for waking up from its previous state of standards ignorance (in the days of IE 6 and IE 7)

ix. Conclusions

Overall, between the Windows 7 polish, the sandboxing/superior stability, the superior private browsing implementation, more screen real-estate, and the easier to use menu system, we feel Internet Explorer 9 is the better browser in terms of features.  That's not to say Firefox 4 isn't a good browser -- or that it doesn't have some edges on IE 9 (namely, the ability to block ads if you take enough time, the addition of some nice tab improvements (tab sets, app tabs), and the ability to quickly sync your settings across the internet). 

But at the end of the day the annoyances of Firefox 4 combined with the polish of IE 9 is enough to give IE 9 a slight edge in overall features, functionality, and looks.

IV. Final Thoughts

Internet Explorer 9 beta 1 appears to be in a dead heat with Firefox 4 beta 6 in terms of Javascript and rendering speeds.
  And IE 9 beta 1 has a slight edge in looks, features, and functionality.  Ultimately we feel this is enough to recommend IE 9 beta 1 as the superior browser.

There are a few special use scenarios where we would recommend Firefox 4 instead, though:
1.  If you are dead set on blocking ads.
2.  If you are a developer and are aided by certain extensions or need access to be able to load pages with certain less prevalent web standards which IE 9 does not support.

A final note is that Microsoft's Internet Explorer has long held a significant edge over Firefox in manageability in terms of corporate mass deployments.  Most IT folks will confirm this.  Now that Internet Explorer 9 has finally caught up to Firefox in terms of speed, standards compliance, and looks, its almost scary to imagine what it will be capable of.

If the IE 8 was able to hang on to 60 percent market share, IE 9 seems likely to grow Microsoft's share.  And Firefox 4 finds itself in a tough place, as it faces an increasingly popular Google Chrome and has difficulty differentiating itself as the superior offering to Internet Explorer, like it once did.

Update 1 -- Thur. Sept. 16, 2010 11:50 a.m.:

We admittedly left a few odds and ends out of this review.  Namely, we did not explicitly discuss two strong new features of Firefox -- Firefox Sync and Tab Candy.  We will add in discussion of these shortly, but they ultimately don't effect the overall conclusions of the piece.

Also we will try to add the results of the Flying Images, FishIE Tank, and Psychedelic Browser benchmarks, as these are non-Javascript-exclusive benchmarks that look add browser rendering speed and other factors. [ Ed. - Done! ]

As to GPU rendering, the above benchmarks should add a bit of insight into speed of implementation in IE 9 and Firefox 4.  Ultimately, though we haven't come across any major stability issues with hardware rendering in either browser.  And both browser likely implement hardware rendering using the same Direct2D calls, so we're going to call it a draw in this category for now.

Update 2 -- Thur. Sept. 16, 2010 12:50 p.m.:

We fixed the Celtic Kane JSBenchmark section, which we incorrectly labeled as lower being better.  With this fix, IE 9b1 now takes 2/3 of the JS benchmarks.  We also added 3 rendering tests, which IE 9b1 beats FF 4b6 in.  We corrected the conclusions to accurately state that it appears that Microsoft has the slight speed edge, given these findings.

Update 3 -- Thur. Sept. 16, 2010 12:55 p.m.:

We're also working on adding the Kraken benchmark results (made by Mozilla).  This only seems fair since we included the results of Microsoft's rendering/JS benchmarks!

Update 4 -- Thur. Sept. 16, 2010 3:05 p.m.:

After a bit more time we managed to get the Kraken benchmark complete.  Low and behold, Firefox 4 came out on top of that benchmark.  That leaves the two browsers in a 2:2 tie in Javascript tests.  Microsoft still has an edge in rendering tests, but it makes those tests, so we're willing to call it a dead heat.

We added information about syncing features in IE/Firefox into the features section and also added talk of tab sets ("tab candy") and app tabs.  Overall, the base functionality -- menus, screen real estate, graphical polish, etc. still feels a bit better in IE 9 that Firefox 4 -- of course you may have other ideas.

If we missed anything major, please feel free to let us know and we'll try to include it as (yet another) update.


All testing was done on a 64-bit Windows 7 Professional EditionThe hardware used was a MacBook Pro with an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T9600, a NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT GPU, and 4 GB of DDR RAM.

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