Your Browser Is The Most Important App You Have

The most important thing your computer does is run a web browser. Whether you use Chrome or Firefox or some hopelessly outdated version of Internet Explorer, it’s probably the most-used app on your machine. Heck, Google made a whole operating system out of a browser, because it’s all you need. So why don’t we think about browsers more? We upgrade our phones regularly, frequently perform maintenance on our computers, but rarely consider the app we use most. It’s kind of like regularly cleaning the outside of your house … but never scrubbing the toilets or doing the dishes. Years ago, Chrome was practically the only good browser available, and it’s still the dominant force on the market. I’ve been using it for years, largely because it seemed unnecessary and annoying to switch. Recently, though, Firefox and Apple ’s Safari have seen huge upgrades, and Microsoft replaced Internet Explorer with Edge, a much better way to use the web. There’s even a cottage industry of hyper-specific browsers for the power user or the privacy-conscious. All these new options presented the perfect reason to make sure—for the first time in too long—that I was using the best possible browser. And to test what a modern browser can do.

Keeping tabs

For most people, there are five browsers worth considering: Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge and Opera. (Remember Opera?!) It’s easy to assume every browser is the same—it’s just a box for getting to the internet, right? All are free to download and easy to use. They can be hard to tell apart, each with similar rows of tabs, bookmarks and search boxes. In my testing, I found surprising differences. To test how much each browser taxes my system, I loaded the same ten sites on each browser and watched them gorge on my MacBook’s RAM. Chrome, a notorious resource hog, took up the most memory, with Safari and Opera close behind. Firefox, though, required 30% less RAM than Chrome to run the same stuff. When it came to performance testing, both industry benchmarks and playing web-based games like Slither, the built-in browsers—Edge on Windows 10 and Safari on MacOS—outperformed all others, but Chrome was always close behind. Firefox and Opera performed worse, especially in more graphics-heavy tests. Among mobile browsers (which I tested on an iPhone XS and a Google Pixel 2 XL), the differences were smaller. Surprisingly, in every single case, mobile browsers outperformed their desktop counterparts. They’re faster to load pages, able to crunch through more intense web apps and generally just better browsers.

If you’re only using a single device, you’re best off using the built-in browser. On the Mac, I’m particularly impressed with the latest version of Safari, which offers an eye-saving dark mode and finally, at long last (seriously, what was Apple waiting for?), uses favicons—those little square pictures denoting what site you’re on—to help you sort through tabs more quickly. The catch: To upgrade Safari, you must upgrade your whole MacOS to the new Mojave when it comes out on Sept. 24. But in this massively mobile world, you’re probably not using a single device. That’s why your browser should follow you around, syncing your bookmarks, settings and history so you can always pick up where you left off. There’s no Edge for Mac or Safari for Windows or Android, so unless you’re all in on Microsoft or Apple products, I recommend casting your lot elsewhere.

Window shopping

Choosing between Chrome, Opera and Firefox is largely a matter of personal taste. Chrome is a delightfully simple app, especially after a recent update: It has a space for tabs and the big box into which you type URLs and searches, and that’s pretty much the whole interface. Firefox, on the other hand, is a fountain of features. Virtually every pixel can be customised, and even the layout can be changed. With Firefox I can send a page from my computer to my phone with two clicks; I can save something to read later in the Pocket app with one. You can search ten sites with one query and easily take full-page screenshots. Firefox even has a night mode. Other browsers require extensions to do these things, which don’t work on mobile and often request access to a huge amount of your data. It’s better built into the browser. As a result of all these features, though, I found Firefox messy. It took 10 minutes of customising the toolbar and picking a theme to get it looking like, well, Chrome. Only way more functional. Opera’s appeal centres on two talents: saving your battery and data cap (especially if you’re on a mobile connection), and automatically protecting your privacy. It will block ads and trackers that nab your data. Opera even has a VPN built in, so you can browse in more secrecy. Unfortunately, it has only a small library of extensions. And I got tired of the endless website pop-ups telling me I wasn’t using an officially supported browser. Firefox has some of Opera’s privacy and security features, but not all. Same with the updated Safari. You can’t easily use Chrome without at least Google knowing what you’re up to, though. (Google says its privacy settings give you control over your data, but most sharing options are on by default.) I’m not sure I’m comfortable with any company knowing about the entirety of my web activity, which at this point amounts to huge chunks of every single day.

I thought I’d end my experiment all-in on a single browser, but I’ve instead begun to split my time. I use Firefox most, because even though it’s a bit slower at least it doesn’t slow down my computer, and it’s so useful to quickly send stuff back and forth between my devices. Chrome I use for Google apps, both because they seem to run better there and because it’s helpful to have my mail and calendar out of the morass of other tabs. Whichever you pick, I recommend downloading it on all your devices and creating an account so you can sync data between them. You should take a few minutes to tweak the look and add extensions. Websites might look the same in all browsers—trust me, I checked—but your web-browsing experience can be tailored to you. You should think of browsers, not as interchangeable widgets, but as tools every bit as important as your phone or keyboard. With the right one in place, the whole system works better. Just don’t open too many tabs.

Credit: David Pierce for The Wall Street Journal, 23 September 2018.