If I asked the average computer user “What part of a computer makes the biggest difference in speed?”, what do you think the answer would be? Most people would argue that the Central Processing Unit (or CPU) would determine that. And in a lot of cases, this might be correct – the CPU does determine how fast a computer gets basic jobs done… Others might say the amount of memory affects the speed. Once again, this is not bad information – after all, how much Random Access Memory (or RAM) you have influences the workload that your computer can handle. Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, CPU designs were taking huge leaps ahead, and programs, even basic ones, were using more memory with every new version. That computer you bought even a couple years ago would soon feel sluggish and outdated, as technological improvements would continue to drive the market forward.
In the span of twenty years, computers have gone from the steam locomotive to the jet airliner in terms of how powerful and sophisticated they are. However, there is one component that everyone neglects – one that hasn’t grown at the same rate of speed as those above: the hard drive. Most modern hard drives are still very similar in design to their predecessors from the 80’s. Although they have continued to increase in storage space, modern hard drives haven’t gotten a whole lot faster. While most components of a computer are electronic in nature, a hard drive is still mechanical – it relies on physical moving parts and a spinning disk to read and write information. Every time your computer starts up, loads a program, or opens a file, the hard drive is tasked with finding and reading that data. Multiply this by thousands of individual files to be read and you can see where a slowdown occurs. The CPU and RAM don’t have this limitation – they can read similar amounts of data in the tiniest fractions of a second. We call this a bottleneck – where one slow car on the off-ramp leads to an entire traffic jam. Your computer can only go as fast as its slowest part.
So, what’s the solution for this? If manufacturers could make hard drives significantly faster, they would have. Competition drives innovation in the technological market. So, as propeller planes couldn’t go any faster, they invented the jet. A different type of drive altogether, the Solid State Drive (or SSD), has been around for a similar period of time as the Hard Disk Drive. However, they have only recently become inexpensive enough to be practical. Major companies have recently begun to see the advantages of using said types of drives. Apple has been using them as the standard drive of choice in the MacBook lineup for several years now, and Microsoft has been putting out advertising campaigns advising PC buyers to opt for systems with these drives.
For the vast majority of computer users, modern CPUs and RAM have been powerful and plentiful enough for some years now. While technological advancements have come to the these particular parts, the hard drive that supplies critical data has been the limiting factor. Even older systems can feel snappier and more responsive than their brand new counterparts when equipped with these new drives. And when the relic from 2009 can run circles around a computer 10 years newer, there should be no question as to which of your parts should get a face-lift.
As many users of older Macs and PCs are probably aware, there is a rather finite amount of time most companies will continue to support their software products and operating systems. Long term support for older versions of software and operating systems can be hard to find.
In the case of Microsoft, each version of Windows has a sort of “shelf life” that usually lasts around eleven years, during which time Microsoft moves from adding new features to just patching bugs and security problems. Eventually, the version reaches a point called “end of life”, wherein Microsoft releases one final update and then ceases work on the product.
Former Windows XP users are probably the most well aware of this, as XP still had a massive share of users when support for it ended in 2014. It was so widely used, that Microsoft had to extend their deadlines (twice!) to give time for the adoption of newer operating systems by XP users to reach acceptable levels. This has become relevant once again, as Windows Vista is the latest on the chopping block. Thankfully, not many people still use the ill-fated operating system, and most of its users have since moved to the more stable and well-designed 7, 8, and 10. However, there will definitely be some people left behind by this shift. Not to mention, a pretty large sum of people still use 7, which at the time of this writing has less than three years left. As with XP and Vista before it, once this deadline comes around, Windows 7 will stop receiving updates and security patches. These types of patches help keep people safe from major threats and security holes such as those exploited recently by the WannaCryptor Ransomware virus. Thankfully, with the advent of Windows 10, Microsoft has abandoned their previous release strategy, and are simply going to add new features to and update Windows 10 indefinitely.
On the Mac side, things aren’t so cut and dry. Apple does not exactly support older versions of Mac OS X, instead releasing major bug fixes for the current version between major releases. However, versions come out much more frequently than with Windows, with a new Mac OS 10.xx being released almost once a year. Not to mention, upgrades to the new versions are free, which is a move Microsoft has only made once, for users of 7 and 8 to move to Windows 10. Because every system running Mac OS is made by Apple itself, as well as the reasons listed above, Apple decides on update support by the Mac models instead.
Sometimes there’s a very real limitation, either in technology or design, for Apple to cut out support on a new update for certain models. For example, when Apple switched to Intel processors over a decade ago, the new version of OS X released at the time wasn’t compatible with the older Macs running IBM chips. Similarly, several years later, certain Macs weren’t “64-bit” compatible – as a result, they too were left behind. In some cases, certain Macs might be supported by an update, but simply don’t have the specifications to handle it. This time, the decision seems to be a bit more arbitrary in nature. However the line has been drawn pretty clearly – No Mac made before the end of 2009 can update any further than 10.11 El Capitan.
For many years, the vast majority of users on the internet have mostly used one or two internet browsers: Internet Explorer or Safari. Those options were always laid out as plainly as the platform they were built on, being Windows or Mac OS, respectively. However, around 2010, that started to change. With the major performance issues of the now-defunct Internet Explorer 10, and the lack of features or real change presented by Safari, more and more users began looking toward alternative web browsers.
We’ll be going over some of those options, and why you should (or shouldn’t!) make a switch, depending on your tastes.
Mainstream Web Browsers
Microsoft Internet Explorer
First off, we have the most historically widely-used internet browser, the mainstay of Windows, and probably one of the longest-running ones on this list, Internet Explorer 11. Because of its long history, it also tends to be compatible with a lot of commercial sites, which tend to be slow to change or update. This makes it a very important asset for corporations and enterprises, especially those whose size make major system changes cost or time prohibitive.
However, Internet Explorer still suffers from a bit of instability when viewing certain content, and has been known to become sluggish or unresponsive in some situations. Also, being one of the historically most popular browsers has made it a target, in the past and present, of malware and adware attacks. Older versions are probably the most vulnerable, so especially for those running 10 and prior, which are no longer supported by Microsoft, it becomes very important to upgrade or, barring that, switch to another alternative.
Next up, we have Safari. Apple’s mainstay internet browser has shown a long history, and like IE has shown considerably wide compatibility with many websites, whether they were made yesterday or fifteen years ago. Safari has also been shown to be more stable than Internet Explorer, and barring the occasional mishap, has had a very strong record of good performance and good security. With the recent integration of Siri, it has also entered the same smart browsing space as Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. Its exclusive presence on the Mac and iOS operating systems makes obtaining and using it prohibitive to anyone not owning an Apple-branded product, but for those that do, it remains a good option.
Naturally though, there’s no such thing as a perfect product, and in a number of places Apple’s Safari web browser falls short. For example, synchronizing settings, bookmarks, and the like is not possible, except between Apple devices. Being so restricted to exactly one brand of products means cross-compatibility is non-existent, and if you find yourself using a Windows, Android, or Chrome OS device (which tend to be far more commonly available), you will have no access to the data on your Safari browser. This was somewhat excusable in the case of Internet Explorer due to its widespread availability, as well as the ability of most other browsers to import settings and favorites from it on request. Even Mac users have the capability of running Internet Explorer via Bootcamp or Virtual Machine software like Parallels, but on such a closed platform, having no presence on other systems is inconvenient.
As far as both Microsoft and Apple’s original offerings go, both offer strong compatibility, good performance, and a simple interface. However, the lack of any real customization or the lack of a centralized location to get a decent selection of addons or extensions leaves them feeling bland and somewhat limited. As mentioned before as well, being the “original” essentially paints a target on your back in regards to security breaches and annoying or less than useful toolbars and hijackers looking to hit the widest number of potential victims.
Alternative Web Browsers
Chrome has a lot of things going for it, and a lot of the changes Google has made have been pretty beneficial. First off, Chrome, especially when it first came out, was the fastest web browser around. Since its inception, it has also expanded to every platform imaginable, and can be used on Windows, Android, Mac OS, iOS, and even Linux. It also takes advantage of its cross-compatibility with its synchronizing capabilities. If you are reading an article on your Android phone, you can pick it up on your iPad or Windows PC, or any other device for that matter, right where you were. If you save a bookmark, add an extension, or save login details for a website, you will find that Chrome will have them handy on whatever device you use. Its connection to everything Google also gives it the interesting ability to allow for voice searches using “Google Now”, in which users can actually talk to the web browser to get answers on different subjects and perform searches. Chrome also has a massive library of extensions, from ad blockers to productivity tools, as well as a huge selection of themes, designs, and other tweaks to personalize it how you see fit.
Once again however, this is not to say Chrome is perfect. Unfortunately, since its now been on top in popularity for a few years, it suffers from the same targeted bloat and malicious software that the previous options have, and its extensibility has also amplified the problem to a degree, causing many Chrome users to unwittingly install such software alongside seemingly benign programs. It also seems that every piece of adware these days has some sort of hijacker or toolbar forcing victims to be annoyingly revisited by such content. Besides this, Chrome has also started picking up a bit of a flaw in its design in more recent versions. It has become very memory demanding, and although it still runs well on higher-end systems, lower-end or older hardware will suffer considerably from its hunger for more and more resources.
Whereas Google Chrome is something of a newcomer to the field of alternative web browsers, there are a couple that have persisted for much longer. One such example is Mozilla’s Firefox web browser.
Firefox is a rather interesting animal in that it stands out from the pack when it comes to a different emphasis on a few of its key features, and has historically been one of the first to develop or adopt a lot of capabilities we take for granted today. Every browser worth its bits these days has tabbed browsing, which is the ability to have multiple pages open simultaneously within the same web browser. Although so many use this feature in the present day, Firefox was the first, and it still has the most refined tab experience. It allows users to efficiently group multiple tabs into organized groups relating to certain subjects, almost akin to how one might organize a set of paper documents in a file folder. Another development is the smart location bar, which allows users to find webpages and information they frequently access or have recently visited simply by typing a related term or even a few letters into the address bar. Besides it features, however, Firefox has probably the greatest emphasis in the group on privacy and security, and tends to be the least vulnerable to phishing attacks looking to steal user information, and even goes so far as to actively block sites that it detects are dangerous or misleading. Firefox seems to focus a lot in areas different from the other browsers here, and to further fill that idea, it has shown to be the most lightweight web browser around – using about half the average memory of Chrome and significantly less than any of the aforementioned options.
Where Firefox excels in some ways over other options, it also has some weaknesses in comparison. Partially as a caveat to its low memory usage, Firefox has one of the slowest startup times on this list, and does not reload recently closed pages or tabs nearly as quickly as some others. In addition to this, with how its (admittedly plentiful) addons work, running multiple instances of Firefox or mutliple addons can cause a significant slowdown or instability. Finally, it is still somewhat less compatible with some websites than other options, and it can be almost overprotective in some cases, occasionally blocking perfectly legitimate websites or services it believes are harmful in some way.
Over the years, Opera has accumulated quite a troupe of interesting capabilities, most of which have remained to the present day. First and foremost, there’s Opera Turbo: a function that compresses website data before sending it, decompressing it on arrival. This provides the benefit of loading pages more quickly on a slow internet connection, as well as saving data on a metered or limited internet connection, for example on airline flights or with mobile hotspots and smartphone networks. Furthering the idea of getting to the pages you want quickly, Opera also has a feature called “Speed Dial”, which, in the same vein as a telephone, is a fully customizable menu which Opera opens to by default that can store links to frequently used or important websites.
There are also a variety of other handy features built right into the web browser, many of which often exist as dedicated programs elsewhere. For example, it has a built in Email client which can handle multiple accounts, an RSS reader, a note manager similar to Evernote, and even a Torrent downloading client. Other minor features involve the ability to preview tabs by hovering over them, reload webpages automatically on a set schedule (for those bloggers and bidders out there), and control common browser functions (Back, Forward, Refresh, New Tab, Etc.) with mouse gestures. It’s also built on Chromium just like Google Chrome, but it lacks a lot of the vulnerability to bloat with a tighter sense of security and, partially thanks to its uncommonness, much less of a focus by malicious software writers. It also manages to be one of the lightest on memory usage, trailing only behind Firefox on its lack of resource demand.
Opera is an interesting project in that it rectifies a lot of the flaws in some of the other browsers on this list, but it doesn’t particularly excel at any one thing. It’s features are numerous and different, and it comes with a lot of capabilities pre-packaged, but also because of its uncommonness, it doesn’t have a strong following in the extension development community. On the performance side, it doesn’t really stand out from the others either. It’s not the fastest, nor the lightest-weight, nor the most secure, nor the most extensible, nor even the most widely compatible browser on this list. It gets good scores on average where a lot of the others will flop in at least one area, but it never tops the charts. As they say: jack of all trades, master of none.
But wait! You didn’t mention this browser under the mainstream browsers section. It’s a Microsoft product, and it’s meant to replace Internet Explorer! Doesn’t that automatically make it a mainstream browser?
Well… Not quite. Microsoft Edge may be the “powerful new web browser” built from the ground up to serve as the heir apparent to Internet Explorer, but it’s not quite mainstream yet. For one thing, Edge was in experimental stages as early as six months ago. All things considered, it’s very young. Secondly, it is not backwards compatible with versions of Windows before Windows 10. That’s right, it’s a Windows 10 exclusive. However, that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. In fact, if you’ve bought a computer in the last few months, you more than likely have Edge already, and if your current computer is from within the last six years, you probably have the chance to get Windows 10 for free. But this isn’t news, as everyone has seen the upgrade option at some point or another.
Regarding Edge though, it definitely lives up to the hype regarding its performance over Internet Explorer. Pages load faster, its more secure, it launches more quickly, and it is designed more intelligently. From my article regarding changes in Windows 10, “It has a very clean aesthetic, and most of the menus and settings are laid out in a very straight forward manner. In terms of integration, it works quite well with Cortana, allowing her to learn about the user’s needs over time, as well as allowing her to assist you and carry out functions within the browser.” It also has the unique feature of allowing users to capture entire web pages, even space outside the boundary of the screen (which alone functions better than any screenshot software I’ve ever seen), and write on them or edit them for collaborative projects or presentations. It also appears to be far less vulnerable to intrusion or exploitation than most browsers currently, and it has solid security.
It uses a good deal of memory, but it actually relinquishes it when closing tabs much better than Google Chrome seems to want to, and that’s alright with it being part of only the latest iteration of Windows. It doesn’t have support for extensions at the present time, but it’s planning on having them in the future. It’s still somewhat buggy, though, and that’s its greatest weakness: its age. Tabs don’t always close, some websites don’t display completely, and occasionally it lags for a second or so when loading new webpages. However, it’s solid otherwise and should improve on its deficiencies in time. Remember when I said that Microsoft Edge is Internet Explorer’s “heir apparent”? It hasn’t deposed Internet Explorer or anything. IE is still present, even in Windows 10, for “compatibility purposes”. This simply means that Microsoft acknowledges that Edge is not yet fully matured, and some things might not yet work with it. For those things that don’t, users have something to fall back on.