Notes on Choosing a New Web Browser

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Partly because a friend told me this topic might be of general interest, I am posting about my process of selecting a new web browser for my news scanning/reading and writing research. It didn't occur to me at the time to ask why he thought the topic could be of general interest, aside from the information I gleaned about alternative web browsers. That said, in considering my thought process, it occurs to me that how one goes about exploring an unfamiliar field might be generally interesting as well, so here goes.

As regulars know here, I blog almost daily. I also am father to two very young children, and hope to expand my writing once again to include longer, more in-depth pieces while continuing to blog near-daily. Writing and research take significant amounts of time, preferably of the uninterrupted variety; Children find ways to gobble up that time and always threaten what's left. Suffice it to say I have major time constraints.

Over the past few months, I have been looking at all aspects of this problem in order to find ways to speed up writing- and research- related tasks that seem like they should take much less time than they do. One area of particular concern was how much time browsing can take. For example, nothing is quite so irritating as having to decide whether to sit on my hands for a few more minutes or reboot my computer when my web browser coughs a hairball. (Were there an award for stupendous achievements in wasting computational power, it would surely go to some web scripter somewhere: I have six gigabytes of RAM, a 2.4 GHz, dual-core processor, yada-yada, and some page I want to load for the sake of reading a short article freezes it up?) This is astonishingly bad and amazingly common. I run Linux and, if I caught the problem in time, would usually kill my browser from the command line, but even then, I'd generally lose some work. Something had to give.

As you might guess from my last few sentences, I am no computer expert, although I probably know more than most people about computers. I also don't have enough time to, say learn all about the inner workings of web browsers and test dozens of candidates or code my own variant of a browser I like. I would need to take an initial stab at what I thought the problem might be and look for help from others. And I would base any testing I might do on that information and my own criteria for what I need, with a mind open to having to dig deeper at the problem if new information indicated I would need to. As I did when testing/learning/deciding to adopt Emacs as my new writing software, I would "learn by doing", with my old, familiar software there as a fall-back if I needed it.

My old browser was Firefox, and when it started gumming up the works, a related process called something like "plugin-container" was usually the culprit. "I don't use plug-ins," was my thought upon seeing this information. (This turned out to be incorrect: I was actually using built-in plug-ins, most notably one for Flash content. More on this later.) Yes, Google's Chrome (and its open-source cousin, Chromium) was an option, which I'd turned to a few times, but I dislike several aspects of the browser, and wanted to find an alternative to either. This immediately led me to set my criteria for an acceptable replacement.

For most writing-related software I use, I demand the following: (1) It runs at least on Linux and Windows, and preferably also Apple platforms; (2) It is under active development and has some critical mass of users; (3) It is capable of fitting in with my usual ways of doing things. In the case of web browsers, the last criterion would entail me being able to enjoy the full functionality of the accounts I have on a small handful of web sites. Oh yeah, and a web browser needs to allow me to have multiple tabs open without completely freezing my computer.

With this in mind, I searched for alternative browsers, filtering for recent articles, and came up with all but the last of the below results. (I looked again when my first candidates fell short.) Here they are, along with my slightly edited notes:

  • 10 Alternative Web Browsers for Ubuntu Linux
    • QupZilla -- Solid, but nothing new. Can it not bring my computer to its knees?
    • Web (formerly Epiphany) -- very simple and fast -- a commenter who uses this and qz rated qz higher.
  • Six Alternative Web Browsers You Should Know About
    1. WhiteHat Aviator (privacy) -- no Linux version [no ads or media autoplay, duckduckgo by default]
    2. Citrio (media junkies) -- faster downloads
    3. Midori (lightweight) -- native to Linux, but Windows version exists, cuts out lots of RAM usage [may crash a lot]
    4. Coowon (gamers) -- Nothing for me here.
    5. SpaceTime3D (visually-oriented research) -- [or is it an extension? may or may not work in Linux possibly try later] This is actually an application that allows easy preview of search results
  • The Best Alternative Browsers -- The Comodo offerings may be worth a look, if they can run on Linux.
    1. Comodo (Ice)Dragon -- more secure versions of Firefox and Chrome
    2. MaxThon Cloud Browser -- see below
    3. Avant Browser -- for people who want MS, but not IE
  • Unhappy With Chrome and Firefox? Here Are Some Alternate Web Browsers -- maybe: Pale Moon, Maxthon, and Opera
    1. Pale Moon -- optimized for speed, native to Windows, ported -- to Linux and Android, like Firefox, but not made to look like Chrome, maybe
    2. Opera -- perhaps worth another look [not supported by default in Ubuntu]
    3. Iron Browser -- a Chrome offshoot that doesn't track your every move
    4. K-Meleon -- Windows-only
    5. Maxthon -- cross-platform, split-screen mode
    6. Chromium -- Chrome, without the built-in Flash player or PDF viewer
    7. Safari -- can't run on Linux
    8. IE -- can't run on Linux
And here are my notes for the browsers I tried, in the order I tried them:
  1. Midori
    • pros: doesn't bring my computer to its knees, good view source
    • cons: crashes often enough to be a deal-breaker, some sites not functional, slow when lots of tabs open
  2. Pale Moon
    • pros: zero learning curve since it's a fork of Firefox, not as Chrome-like as newer versions of FF
    • cons: It happens a lot less, but I still wound up yanking out my battery and rebooting while looking for material.
    • Added Later: Can I solve freeze problem by disabling Flash? It seemed to help with QupZilla, which still gobbled memory more than this. I think this did the trick.
  3. Opera -- WTF? It can't properly render GVH.
  4. QupZilla
    • pro: very good source code viewer
    • con: no text zoom, crappy fonts, GMail doesn't support "this version of Safari"
And the winner is ... Pale Moon. I liked Firefox but for the crippling toll it took on my computers during heavy usage (or, apparently, sometimes just having it open for days at a time), and except for a trend in its development towards becoming more Chrome-like. As you can see above, I may have discovered the problem all along with Firefox when I returned to Pale Moon after I saw it happen again on two other candidate browsers. (It was still less frequent on Pale Moon, which seemed faster overall, anyway, and had the added bonus of being the "Coke Classic" to Firefox's current "New Coke".) The feature list -- See the web site. -- is also a superset of a sort of "best of" from prior versions of the Firefox project, of which Pale Moon is an active fork. It is interesting to consider that, had I known more about browsers, I might have stuck with Firefox (with Flash disabled by default), and never discovered Pale Moon. On the other hand, it is also possible I might have found a better browser for my purposes, but the solution I have found is satisfactory enough for me to move on to other ways of shaving time off web research while being open to a better browser solution, should I happen upon it.

Regarding the process itself, it is interesting to consider the measures I took regarding the fact that my knowledge of this area is limited and I did not have lots of time to increase it. Given my purposes, relying on the knowledge and experience of others, and supplementing my own knowledge when I reached an impasse was sufficient. We live much of our lives in situations like this, so studying them might be fruitful.

-- CAV

P.S. The inability of Opera, a fairly common browser, to render my blog, bothers me. If any regular here finds that he is having to avoid (or use) a certain browser just to read my blog, I would like to know more about it. Please leave a comment about your problem or email me. Thanks!


Today: (1) Fixed some typos. (2) Improved some wording.

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