Back when the earliest programs for viewing web content simply browsed flat pages of images and text, the name 'browser' truly fit the software. But yesterday's amateur pages have evolved into dynamic, content-rich portals and powerful online programs. For many online habitués, the do-it-all browser has become a PC's single most important program.

Recognising that fact, Apple's Safari, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and Mozilla's Firefox are battling to win the nod as your browser of choice.

So which one should you use; Safari 3.1, Firefox 3.0, or Internet Explorer 8.0?

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Apple's latest offering, Safari 3.1, preserves the company's signature focus on clean design and smooth usability, but it lacks any phishing or malware filters.

For its part, Mozilla should have applied the finishing touches to Firefox 3 by the time you read this (we tested the feature-complete beta 5 release). From under-the-hood memory improvements to a major reworking for bookmarks, version 3.0 represents a big step forward.

Whereas the new Firefox and Safari browsers are ready to roll, Microsoft's early beta of Internet Explorer 8.0 remains a work in progress.

Bugs and rough edges are to be expected in a first beta intended for developers and testers. But IE 8 beta 1 provides a glimpse of new features such as WebSlices (which let sites create widgety snippets of information that you can view by clicking a bookmark button) and Activities (which add right-click menu options for looking up selected text and pages on map, translation and other sites) that will distinguish the browser Microsoft eventually releases.

Firefox, IE, and Safari are the three most popular browsers, according to internet usage statistics, but they aren't the only ones available. So we also took a separate look at two worthwhile, free programs; Flock and Opera.

Safari pushes on to PCs

Here's a shocker: Safari, an Apple product now being pushed out to the world via iTunes updates, looks good. The minimalist metallic theme has clean lines and uses space well.

Tabs smoothly link to the bookmarks bar above them, and pop-up notices, such as the one for adding a new bookmark, use animation to flow in and out of the title bar.

Try Safari, and you'll soon notice such nice design touches as a clear load progress indicator (which fills in the address bar) and a helpful blue outline around the currently selected text box on a page. The browser also handles RSS feeds smoothly and can show all of the posts from RSS feed bookmarks gathered in the same bookmark folder in a customisable display.

On the other hand, Safari's use of Mac OS X font technology makes text look slightly fuzzy, as if a faint shadow surrounded each letter. On our monitor, pages looked better when we changed the Font Smoothing setting to Light.

NEXT PAGE: How Safari complies with standards

  1. IE, Safari and Firefox put to the test
  2. How Safari complies with web standards
  3. Firefox's functions and features
  4. Internet Explorer 8: a work in progress
  5. Our expert opinion on which browser is best
  6. Flock, and Opera