Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The hunt for a good browser

AJ goes to the U of Ottawa in Centretown. He went to China this May and spent a lot of time thinking about browsers.

I've been fooling around these past couple of days with my computer, downloading and installing system utilities and web browsers, and I can't get over the fact that Facebook might be buying Opera. An Opera-Facebook merger would likely be the end of both Opera Software and the Opera desktop browser. Facebook is surely interested in Opera's market-leading mobile browser, not in its market-5th-place desktop browser.

I don't have a smartphone, and I use Opera's desktop browser, so I frantically spent a good part of last Tuesday looking for alternative browsers, should Opera go down. I learned that Webkit is actually an Apple thing, and not independent -- which maybe shouldn't have surprised me so much. Firefox is terrible now, but Pale Moon, which does more 64-bitoptimization than Waterfox, is actually pretty decent. I don't know where else to turn. There's no sense in using Safari for Windows, Chrome is good but Google is scary, and Maxthon just doesn't compare to Chrome.
Save Opera!

I started looking at the "Big 5" browsers by rendering engine:
- Internet Explorer uses Trident.
- Firefox uses Gecko.
- Opera uses Presto.
- Both Google Chrome and Safari use Webkit, which was developed by Apple.

Maxthon (not counted in the Big 5, but still great), uses both Trident and Webkit, as well as Google's V8 Javascript engine. This is the problem I have with Maxthon: it's one of the best alternative browsers -- maybe even 6th overall -- but it's built on borrowed technology. I might want to use Maxthon, but I'd just be better off with Chrome; Maxthon sometimes slips into "retro mode" and uses Trident, while Chrome always functions in the superior Webkit.

Now, among these 6, both Internet Explorer and Firefox are terrible browsers in my opinion. IE is IE, and it has been bad for many years now. I fear, in addition, that because of Firefox's massive community and large extension library, Mozilla has just gotten lazy and left the innovation to extension devs instead of building it into the browser. This is evidenced by Waterfox's latest changelog (at the time of writing):

"Page Source now has line numbers"? Really? That deserves to be up there? Keep in mind that this is not a minor update, but one moving up from Firefox 11.x to Firefox 12.

Furthermore, Mozilla is extremely dependent on Google for money. Before they renewed their contract with Google in November 2011, 90% of Mozilla's income was Google money, and now that Google has their own browser empire, they still don't seem to mind propping up the competition. But even with the new contract, Mozilla is essentially at Google's mercy.

Writing off Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Maxthon, I'm once again only left with Chrome. If I can't do Opera and don't trust Chrome, all that's left for 64-bit operating systems are the Firefox derivatives (Waterfox and Pale Moon). I used to wonder why I used so many browsers, but now, I can't get my hands on enough of them -- especially because stuff like intentional browser blocking means I need access to at least two browser families.

A necessary evil.
I don't feel like using Chrome derivatives, because unlike Firefox, regular Chrome is actually a good browser. As much as I like Opera, Chrome is, in my opinion, objectively the best browser on the market. I plan to download Chrome Canary once I get back to Canada, because downloading and installing it in China yields a Chinese version.

I'll thus have Opera, Opera Next, Pale Moon (x64), and Chrome Canary. That should be enough for now. But if Opera goes down through a hostile takeover by Facebook... *sigh*.

Update: A second look at the browser question

I am biased toward browsers that are updated frequently (at least once a week). This means mostly experimental builds (for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera), but Maxthon also releases the newest version (with minor version numbers and very few changes) about weekly, although it has no developer build. This preference is why I typically don't like browsers derived from others; these derivatives wait for the next major release of the browser before they are ever updated. Browsers that are updated at least once a week, though, contain minor fixes with each iteration, especially bug fixes, and so I don't have to wait months for bug and security updates to the browser I am using. I especially like nightly builds, where they are available. If I am going to use Chrome or Firefox, I will always download Chrome Canary (because Chromium doesn't autoupdate and each new version must be downloaded separately) and Firefox Nightly.

Furthermore, as added evidence of what I see as Firefox laziness, Nightly doesn't really autoupdate. It automatically checks for updates when you go to "About Nightly," then it takes a while to download the latest version, and then a button appears asking to restart Nightly in order to complete the update. You can imagine how my frustration increased having to always wait for the latest download to finish and then restart the browser (because I need the latest version, of course, or else the point of having Nightly becomes moot). I could have finished checking my e-mails and keeping up to date on blogs in that time (and even checking Facebook, if I wasn't in China). In addition, sometimes, the file is downloaded and the update fails, which means I have to go to the website to download the latest version. That was enough to make me turn away FF Nightly, which is a 32-bit browser and turn toward less-updated but 64-bit optimized browsers, namely Pale Moon and Waterfox.

Truly the sleepiest browser.
Thus, when I say that Firefox derivatives are worth using, especially in the case of 64-bit optimized builds, it's because regular Firefox has, in my opinion, indeed fallen that far. My experience with derivatives is limited to these 64-bit browsers, but I can assure you that they are great.

In addition to regular updates, I love a fast browser. I believe that extension installations slow a browser down, no matter how minimally, just as installing programs slows a computer down; I also am a believer that essential features should eventually be built into the browser. I tried running Nightly with some extensions, found that I didn't use them much, and uninstalled them. I don't really use condiments when I eat, and I don't use extensions when I browse, so the massive Firefox extension library doesn't really do anything for me.(Greasemonkey obsessives will probably be shaking their heads as I say this.)

A quick TLDR:
1. Apologies if I insulted your favourite browser.
2a. I am biased toward browsers that are frequently updated, as opposed to those which release once every month (or less).
2b. Among developer builds with multiple channels (i.e. Firefox and Chrome), I prefer nightlies. Frequent updates matter more than everything else.
3. Firefox, in my opinion, actually has derivatives worth using -- the two 64-bit optimized builds, Waterfox and Pale Moon, both do a good job of keeping up with the stable versions. Chrome, being a far superior browser, does not have useful derivatives.
4. I often use browsers without extensions, further removing any need for me to use Firefox.

Why not use Chrome? As far as I can tell, Chrome is objectively the best browser -- and this is coming from not just an Opera user, but a borderline Opera fanboy. However, there are still a couple of things I don't like about it:
- It's from Google. Call me paranoid, but I actually buy into some of the Google privacy rumours. In any case, it's better to be safe than sorry.
- Secondly, now that Chromebooks are out, it won't be long before Google Chrome is just optimized for Chromebooks. If I'm not on a Chromebook, do I really want a Chromebook browser?
- Thirdly, there's a pattern with big corporations -- say, Mozilla and Microsoft -- where each new browser brings very little in the way of new, innovative features. (I read a post recently on which announced the release of Chrome Beta 20, but noted that there were no new features in this beta. Aren't the developer builds the places where features are supposed to be tested, before they are implemented in the final build? At least Chrome's move from 19 to 20 in the stable channel will, as usual, be chock-full of bug fixes, security improvements, and performance enhancements.)

I think this is enough to justify why I'm sticking with Opera Stable, Opera Next, Pale Moon (currently at 12.1), and Google Chrome Canary -- though I anticipate that not everyone will agree with it. Considering my current love/hate relationship with Google Chrome, and that two of my four browsers are Opera, I hope it is clearer now why a Facebook buyout of Opera would worry me.

My advice to you "light surfers" is to think about why you use the browser you do, because there are alternatives out there. I've played with many of them. Off the top of my head, here are all the browsers you could technically be using:

- Internet Explorer
- Firefox (and its developer builds)
- Waterfox
- Pale Moon
Four essential browsers.
- Opera and Opera Next
- Google Chrome (and its developer builds)
- Comodo Dragon
- Rockmelt
- Sleipnir
- Lunascape
- Maxthon (a Chinese browser, and the vast majority of its extensions are Chinese)
- Safari
- Webkit (a browser that requires a Safari install as a prerequisite)
- Chromium
- Seamonkey
- Camino
- Konqueror
- Avant
- Flock (discontinued, but similar in purpose to Rockmelt as a social media browser)
- Cometbird (I think it's a browser?)
- K-Meleon
- SRWare Iron

The "Big 6" list I drew up before (counting Maxthon, because it's actually quite good) turned out to match the leaders in each rendering engine, at least without getting into KDE browsers. The other browsers were all interesting, but they didn't have as much to offer and didn't fill my constant need for browser updates.

AJ would walk long distances uphill for a comfortable user experience. He keeps a faith blog and a faith-keyboard tabs blog.

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