Is Your Browser a Good Enough Password Manager?

Is Your Browser a Good Enough Password Manager?
Photo: 1Password

Web browsers were once used simply for browsing the web. But now they can perform all kinds of tricks, including managing passwords. With new features like password suggestions and data breach warnings being added all the time, are these built-in password managers ready to take on the dedicated third-party tools? Here’s how they stack up right now.

What your browser can do

With every passing month it seems that browsers get better at managing passwords — no real surprise there, considering how important logging into services is to everyday life online. Every major browser will now remember your sign-in credentials on all of the sites you use, and sync them across multiple devices.

Chrome, Safari, and Firefox can now all suggest strong, random passwords for you when you create a new account online (presumably this is coming to the new Microsoft Edge too, eventually). You don’t need to do anything to enable this feature — you’ll just see a suggestion pop up inside a password entry field when the browser detects you’re signing up for something new.

Screenshot: Google Chrome Screenshot: Google Chrome

Both Chrome and Safari will flag passwords that you use repeatedly, or that are difficult to guess. Go to the password checkup in your Google account, or open up the Passwords tab in Safari preferences on macOS, or the Passwords & Accounts menu in iOS Settings, to look for any potential problems. Google or Apple will tell you what the issue is and give you links to change your passwords where needed.

Firefox, Chrome, and Safari (with the macOS Big Sur and iOS 14 updates) will all tell you if your passwords have been compromised in data breaches right from the built-in password manager screens. Firefox even has a separate tool for this, which you can use with or without Firefox — just plug your email address into Firefox Monitor and you’ll get warnings if your user credentials have leaked out on the web.

Google and Apple have built mobile operating systems in addition to web browsers, so these features are expanding to Android and iOS too. On certain Android apps that Google recognises, it will use credentials you’ve stored in Chrome to sign you in automatically, with your Google account acting as your authorization (it makes setting up apps on a new device much easier). Head to the Google Password Manager online, or choose Google, Manage your Google Account, Security, and Password Manager from Android Settings to see what Google has saved.

Screenshot: iOS Screenshot: iOS

Meanwhile, iOS has been saving your app passwords for years, and linking them to your Apple ID. When you’re signing into an app on iOS, you’ll see the option to use existing credentials appear, if Apple has them on file from Safari or iOS. As we’ve already mentioned, if you open up the Passwords & Accounts menu on the iOS Settings screen, you can see what’s stored and make changes if needed.

It’s a comprehensive set of features, and it’s getting more comprehensive all the time — especially if you take into account the expansion your phone, too. You can definitely get by and keep your various accounts secure using the password manager inside a browser, but dedicated password managers go quite a bit further.

What your password manager can do

There’s no shortage of password managers out there. The likes of 1Password, Bitwarden, Dashlane, Keeper and LastPass have been keeping users safe for years, while new products are appearing on the market all the time. We’re not going to go into a detailed comparison of features or prices between them all here, but broadly speaking there are several advantages that dedicated password managers still have over what you can find in your web browser.

First, and perhaps most importantly, these password managers work everywhere: across all your mobile devices, all your web browsers, and all your computers. If you’re jumping between Windows, macOS, iOS and Android, then your passwords can come with you, and you’re not stuck having to try and pull your credentials from a device other than the one you’re currently using.

Screenshot: Dashlane Screenshot: Dashlane

Secondly, password managers are better at handling passwords for an entire family (many even have separate family plans), and for sharing passwords between people. If your kids need access to a site or your co-worker needs the team login for an app, then this is much easier to manage if you’re using a dedicated tool for the job. You can often store and share other data too, like alarm codes or wifi passwords.

This is another benefit to password managers: Most of them manage a whole host of important information for you, such as addresses, credit card details, or the details of your passports. While web browsers and mobile OSes can do this to an extent using auto-fill, the available options in password managers are usually more comprehensive in terms of what can be saved and how it can be used.

That goes for other features, too — both your browser and your password manager can suggest new, strong passwords, but it’s the dedicated software apps that offer more control over these suggestions (the password length and the types of characters used, for example). Even where there is a feature match between a web browser and a password manager, the password manager typically offers more control and additional options.

Screenshot: 1Password Screenshot: 1Password

It’s worth bearing in mind that password managers are developed to do one job and to do it well — the developers behind Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Edge are working on a whole host of features at once. That’s not to say Google or Apple aren’t taking password management and security seriously, but when it comes to software, it’s usually a good idea to make use of a dedicated tool if one is available.

Password managers may seem like an extra layer of password management that you don’t need — and they may well cost you a few bucks a month, too — but in our experience they’re still very much worth installing, even as built-in browser options continue to improve. If you want the tightest and most complete control over your passwords, then a password manager is still the way to go (and they can usually import login credentials from your browser’s existing database, too).