Product test: Which browser prints best?

Nathan Alderman does a comparative test

Printing from the web can be perilous. Each browser interprets pages differently, and what emerges from your printer can sometimes look nothing like what you saw on the screen.

To find the best browser for printing from the web, I tested Safari 5.0.3, Firefox 3.6.13, and Chrome 8 on a selection of pages with unconventional or complex designs. To save ink and paper, I "printed" each page to a PDF file first. The results? None reproduced every page flawlessly, but one got significantly closer than the others.

Printing from Firefox

Firefox excels in printing flexibility. In addition to being able to choose whether to print background images and colours, you can determine which headers you want printed, and where — top or bottom of the page; left, right, or centre — you would like them to appear. A handy Print Selection Only option, not found in Safari, thriftily prints only what you highlight. You can also print the page in its full resolution, or shrink it to ensure that the page fits within the paper you're printing on.

Unfortunately, more options don't guarantee more accuracy. In shrinking the layout to fit a letter-sized page, Firefox left a whole page of blank space beneath the masthead of the New York Times' site and theCNN site, and it elbowed some sections ofApple's iMac Features page out of alignment. It also wouldn't reproduce the fancy embedded CSS3 fonts used on Zeldman.com or then Lost World's Fairs: El Dorado site, subbing clunky default type instead.

Printing from Safari

With one big exception, Safari's print options are far simpler than Firefox's. You can choose whether to print background images and headers and footers, and that's all. But unlike Firefox, a live preview of your print job shows you exactly what you'll get on the page, which I found quite useful.

Safari's prints weren't perfect, displaying a dislike for Adobe's Flash. Ads and videos using the technology didn't show up on the New York Times' or CNN's front pages.

Despite missing its background colour, Zeldman.com's PDF otherwise looked much like its screen version. However, like all the browsers we tested, Safari bumped one particularly long vertical image there down to the following page, leaving a lot of white space. Safari did reasonably well with most of the iMac Features page, but stumbled at the top and bottom, failing to print two sets of navigation links and leaving odd-looking areas of grey in the background of some of the text. Perhaps because of these missing elements, many of the large images used in the page's design got split up across multiple pages of the printout.

More impressively, Safari reproduced CSS3 embedded fonts flawlessly. Aside from one overlaid image that shifted slightly to the left, Safari's printout of the Lost World's Fairs site looked exactly like it did on the screen.

Printing from Chrome

Google's sleek new browser challenger has no browser-specific print features, giving us little to evaluate. But in limited tests, Chrome 8, the latest stable version, left much to be desired.

Background images don't print, and there is no option to switch them on. That blasted gaping holes in Apple.com's iMac Features, Zeldman.com, and the Lost World's Fairs site. Chrome handled embedded CSS fonts better than Firefox, but the edges of a few blocks of text in the printout of Lost World's Fairs seemed weirdly cut off. However, Chrome did print Flash sections of the New York Times that Safari left blank.

And the winner is...

If you have to print something from Flash, try using Chrome. If you need only excerpts from a series of pages, or want control over page header formatting, Firefox is your best bet. But for design fidelity, Safari seems like the relative champion among this underwhelming group. You won't achieve pixel-perfect printouts, but websites will probably look better from Safari than they would with any other browser.

Nathan Alderman is a writer and editor in Virginia, US

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