8 of the best web browsers for Linux
1st Aug 2010 | 09:00
But which is the best Linux web browser of all?
Firefox and Flock
The web browser is becoming the single most important piece of desktop software, if it isn't already. Not only is the web a huge source of information, but also the conduit to a huge world of hosted apps and interconnected cloud services covering a range of new computer-based experiences.
When you're shopping, you want security; when you're working, you want reliability; and when you're being entertained, you want speed and compatibility with many different types of media.
This mainly affects Chrome, Opera and Firefox. The way we chose which applications to include in this Roundup was quite simple – they're the most popular Linux browsers currently developed and in use. We're including only proper versions of the browsers available now, with no pre-alpha or nightly builds allowed.
Once the poster child of the new web revolution, but is Firefox past it?
There is a description of Firefox as a flashy sports car, hampered by all sorts of esoteric hardware welded to the outside. As analogies go, it isn't a bad one. The original impetus for developing Firefox was to create a sleek, fast and efficient browser that didn't carry a lot of complicated UI features and speed-hogging code that only a minority would use.
Of course, the outcome of that is that the browser soon garnered itself a gazillion extensions. The meteoric rise of Firefox (it managed to get around 20% of browser share in the first year, and is now thought to be the client of choice for nearly half of the web traffic in the world) shows that the sleek and unfussy style was a good call on behalf of the authors.
Firefox's popularity was down to more than just speed, though – it innovated too, and strove for real standards compliance, in a world where browsers like Internet Explorer wanted the web to work their way. But that was in the past – what has Firefox done for us lately?
Most of the recent changes seem to be in terms of customisation, but there are also technical innovations. Support for the Web Open Font Format, for example – a recent development that simplifies embedding downloadable typefaces in a way that keeps font developers happy and reduces bandwidth.
Firefox is also pretty hot on the new HTML 5 technologies, with support for OGG containers and Google's WebM format, MathML and more. Certainly there's no sign of Firefox resting on its considerable laurels.
Coupled with an excellent security record and an amazing amount of customisation potential, Firefox makes a solid browser choice.
Solid and reliable, configurable and surprisingly nimble.
The so-called social browser throws up some surprises
Flock began life around the same time as Firefox, but the rationale behind the two is very different. Flock concentrates on what many people actually use the web for, so its world-view is centred around Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace and various webmail services.
The idea was to build in the kind of tools you would need – a blog editor app, a photo uploader – and also to provide a way to consume this media alongside 'normal' websites. At first glance, this gives it the appearance of some sort of multimedia command centre, which isn't too far from the truth.
Unfortunately, running the sidebar to keep track of Twitter or Flickr causes the responsiveness to drop as CPU power (and bandwidth) are drawn off to make sure you're seeing the latest tweets or pictures. Of course, there is no way around the fact that if you want to see web pages and Twitter feeds side by side, the information has to be downloaded and processed.
Maybe the priorities could have been adjusted better, but for a user on a 1Mb link or slower, this is a poor compromise. In terms of its rendering performance and compliance, Flock seems to be at the rear of the pack on many occasions.
Although ostensibly still in development and using the same Mozilla codebase as Firefox, a year of standing still has left it suffering. Flock is neat if you spend your day worrying about what's happening on Facebook, but much of the functionality of Flock can be replaced by add-ons (albeit just as painfully slowly) or perhaps by dedicated apps. It does have some interesting, and even innovative, UI features, but is also more than a little out of date.
It does have a different take on the web, but it's a little sad and neglected.
Midori and Epiphany
It uses WebKit, borrows ideas from everywhere, and is named after a drink
Calling a browser after a liqueur commonly found in holiday tipples might seem a little oddball, but perhaps the unintentional cocktail reference stands up to scrutiny. Midori is a browser designed primarily to be light on resources, but still have plenty of the modern world's essential features.
To this end, some of the headline features of other browsers have been thrown into the mix – Opera's Speed Dial feature is here, the obligatory Google search bar and Firefox-like extensions (although nowhere near as many). Can a melange of borrowed ideas produce the ultimate browser experience?
Well, it does deliver on the lightweight aspect, at least. The memory usage may not be quite minimal, but it's no processor or bandwidth hog.
The page rendering is based on WebKit, so it performs as well as other browsers using this engine. There are a selection of add-ons for the browser, to do things like increase customisation options, as well as support for Netscape-style plugins for supporting different media through Totem and Rhythmbox.
One curious thing is that the URL bar has implemented the 'type anything and if it isn't a URL then search for it' behaviour, but there's still a separate web search gadget.
One very handy feature is the trash icon on the main toolbar – this enables you to see tabs you've recently closed and just re-open them by selecting from the list. Many browsers allow you to re-open URLs from the history, but few as easily as this.
While it does perform reasonably well all-round, there is no compelling reason to choose this browser over the default Gnome browser, Epiphany, or indeed any of the bigger boys.
A pretty average performer, though it's light on resources.
The almost anonymous Gnome browser shouldn't be overlooked
Those using a Gnome desktop probably have Epiphany and hadn't even noticed. As the default web browser for this desktop, it usually resides in the menu as 'web browser' and even calling up the 'About' box would give you little clue as to its origins.
Epiphany used to make use of the Gecko rendering engine, but one of the benefits of being open source is that you can switch back-ends if you feel like it.
The main reason for the Midori browser popping up as an alternative to Epiphany for Gnome purists was that it implemented WebKit. Epiphany may have taken a while to catch up, but it now sports WebKit too, and there's little to choose between them in terms of speed or compatibility.
Epiphany very much subscribes to the 'less is more' concept of desktop software, and thus there aren't pages and pages of configuration options or user-tweakable parts. This does make it simpler to use, but also a little more frustrating for those who actually would like to, for example, specify pop-up preferences on a site-by-site basis.
The power of WebKit shines through, and although Epiphany has nowhere near the number of people tweaking and refining its performance as some of the other browsers in this Roundup, it performs admirably well in the tests and by no means feels sluggish when viewing pages.
Although Epiphany occasionally seems to score slightly higher than Midori in certain tests, in effect these two browsers are pretty much the same speed-wise (as you might expect since they're close to identical under the hood) and the results are well within the margins of error.
Just because it's basic doesn't mean it's pointless.
Konqueror and Opera
The only practitioner of the read-write web, Konqueror soldiers on
For a long time, Konqueror was just about the best thing in KDE. Not only was it a capable, standards-compliant browser (although at the time nobody had worked out how to support all those proprietary extensions), but it was also an awesome file manager.
The two functions sat side by side, and the implementation of KParts means that, in Konqueror, pretty much everything is just an object to be rendered and interacted with, whether it's a local directory, a remote FTP site, a Samba share, a website or whatever.
Times change and, although old Konqy is still the default browser for KDE, its filesharing function has been hijacked by Dolphin. Its rendering engine is another story – that was used by Apple to produce the WebKit library, powering Safari and a great number of other browsers.
Konqueror is just about the only browser still sticking to the KHTML renderer, but why not? It may not be the fastest tool in the box anymore, but it still does a reasonable job of supporting standards and supports a great amount of HTML 5 already.
Raw speed in downloading and rendering pages is one thing, the speed at doing the things you want to do is another. Konqueror's KIO and ability to run as a file manager make it much more efficient if you're uploading files to FTP sites or WebDav shares, because the interaction is seamless.
Most browsers are designed as consumers of the web, but Konqueror treats the web as just another resource to be read from or copied to.
Konqueror also has a pretty low footprint on the KDE desktop, because so many of the resources it needs are already loaded, in comparison to the likes of Firefox or Chrome.
Slightly left behind in the speed stakes, but still a versatile tool
Opera stands out with an unusual take on what a browser should be
Opera Turbo is a nifty compression technology that could boost the speed of many websites, for example (though it's impossible to really empirically test this, it does seem to work for some sites).
Opera Unite is another interesting feature, which builds a kind of personal network between the user and friends (who also use Opera) to share files, links and other information. In short, there's plenty of thinking about the user experience going on here.
This is a very able browser with all the security, personalisation and privacy features you would expect. For plugins, it relies on loading your Netscape-style libraries, and features widgets rather than extensions. The difference? Widgets are less like alterations to the browser, and more like specific tools or clients for web services, such as the weather.
The 10.50 release for Linux has been a long time coming, but you can download a beta version for testing now.
Great web experience, though the speed claims are unfounded.
Chrome and SeaMonkey
It isn't without flaws, but is it close enough to awesome?
Sometimes these are not all-round benefits – pre-fetching DNS is a good example. In this case, the browser sees what links are on the page and pops out a process to request a DNS lookup. When you come to click on such a link, it means that the result should already be in the cache. No lookups is good, but it also results in a bit of wasted internet traffic and bandwidth. Generally though, most users aren't worried about this, or just don't know that it's happening.
Anyone who has had 250 tabs open and had Firefox crash on the very last one will know how painful it is to get everything back. That's why Chrome spawns a new process for each tab, so when something goes wrong, you don't lose everything. It's a system that works well, and avoids catastrophes when it does struggle.
Chrome is not the greatest ever browser. There are times when tabs seem to fail for no adequate reason. There are issues with ease of use. The scope of plugins is not as vast as Firefox, and you could argue that it is wasteful with resources.
It does deliver on being a slick, fast, secure and usable browsing tool. And when we say fast, we mean very fast. It may have been optimised to do well in most of the tests, but in everyday use, it is also very, very fast.
The minimalist interface maximises your useable web viewing area, and while it does take a bit of getting used to – with the menus being many times more fiddly to deal with – that's a fair compromise for many users.
Version: 5.0.375.55 beta
It isn't perfect, but it is moving towards it.
The idea that just wouldn't lie down and die.
The original Netscape browser was an 'internet suite', which combined the functions of web browser, mail client and HTML editor. SeaMonkey continues that ambition, and adds more in the form of IRC chat, news reader, feed reader and additional development tools.
As it's built largely from the Mozilla codebase, it does benefit from the same technical and performance advances. As with Flock, there is a theoretical compatibility with Firefox for extensions, but the same limitations apply – many extensions target specific Firefox functionality or UI features that SeaMonkey doesn't have.
SeaMonkey's performance results should be viewed with the caveat that, as we write this, a 2.1 version is nearing release, which is likely to include more up-to-date Mozilla code, with increases in speed and compatibility.
The user interface is chunky, but very workable, and all the features are easy to find. In some ways it's like stepping back a few generations in terms of design, but many people liked the easy-to-understand large icons and the simplicity of tab handling, so that may not be a disadvantage.
The strategy behind SeaMonkey does seem to be sound, though. For many people, using the internet is a functional thing rather than a form of entertainment. Gluing together all the tools you'll need in one package is actually a pretty good idea.
A great all-rounder – looks dated, but works fine.
The best Linux web browser is...
Like most software categories, there will never be any one browser that suits absolutely everyone. Some may demand the flexibility of Konqueror and its excellent KIO system. Some will no doubt prefer something simple, like Midori and Epiphany, while others will want something all-inclusive, like SeaMonkey.
Opera has been running on Linux since version 4.0 back in 2000. It's probably the most different of the browsers on test simply because it has been in closed development since then. There was a time when Opera offered the best browser experience, but the Linux versions lag behind a little, which makes it hard for it to compete.
Firefox is obviously a great browser and still the most popular choice for Linux users. If you're completely happy with Firefox and would find it a wrench to leave all your favourite add-ons, then there is no great need to change.
The outright winner has to be Chrome. Not only did it blitz everything else in the speed tests, but it holds up in the compatibility stakes too. Although we were amazed by the speed of Chrome, we shouldn't forget the wonderful array of developer tools that are also embedded.
They may not be a sellable feature to mainstream users, but for anyone developing complex websites, the timing graphs and profiling tools are a real help. The really interesting thing will be, considering the Chromium project is open source, whether any of these technologies will be assimilated into other projects.
What we have seen in the last few years is that the battle of the browsers is probably more intense now than it has been for a few years. With the transition to HTML5 and the explosive appearance of Chrome on the scene with its aggressive speed increases, the pace of innovation and change in browser technology won't be slowing down any time soon.
First published in Linux Format Issue 134
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