Best Linux web browser: Interface

Web browser interfaces need to strike a balance between giving the user quick access to tools while not detracting from the main reason we use them - to view websites.

In the past browsers were only too happy to fill most of our screens with extra buttons and toolbars - with each addition taking up valuable screen real estate from the web page display. Since the launch of Chrome with its pared-down interface, other browsers have been removing a lot of the pointless visual fluff that not only got in the way of viewing pages, but also slowed down the browser's responsiveness.

Austerity doesn't have to lead to ugliness however, and an attractive streamlined web browser is a valuable thing - especially when it comes to the all-important front user experience that we've mentioned previously.

Firefox 5 - 4/5

Firefox

Firefox 5 maintains the previous version's GUI and for good reason. Before Firefox 4, the user interface was large and cluttered, making it especially annoying to view web pages on netbooks with small screens.

The reduced interface frees up a lot of screen space, while still allowing easy access to the most used functions. The Forward and Back keys have been shrunk, and the Refresh button is also much smaller, tucked away next to the address bar.

The search bar grants quick access to online searches, with Google as its default. New tabs can be quickly opened with the '+' button and more advanced features and settings can be found in the toolbar. In its default skin, Firefox might not be the most attractive browser, but it's practical and efficient.

Chrome - 4/5

Chrome

In the days when browsers were straining under the weight of oversized icons, useless toolbars and other assorted rubbish, Chrome came along and became a pioneer of stripped-back interfaces. In some senses it's quite similar to Firefox's interface - or we should say, Firefox's newfound evangelism for simplicity is quite similar to Chrome's.

The Forward, Back and Reload buttons are small and unobtrusive, yet easily accessed at the side of the address bar - which also doubles as a search bar, with Google the only choice. There's no Home button - indicative of Google's ruthless culling of buttons.

There's no toolbar either - advanced settings are accessed through a spanner icon. Tidy then, but not quite as easy to use as Firefox - it sometimes feels that the pursuit of a clean interface overrode any ease-of-use goals.

Opera - 3/5

Opera

Opera looks a lot like a more glamorous version of Firefox. Gone are the large buttons and toolbars of previous versions, replaced by much smaller, neater icons.

Something that none of the other browsers have is a small toolbar along the bottom of the window with buttons for Panels - which adds a further toolbar along the left-hand side - Opera Link, Opera Unite and Opera Turbo. While undeniably handy, if you don't use these features then this toolbar just takes up screen space which could be displaying something else.

Far more useful is the small wastepaper basket icon in the top-right of the window that gives quick access to previously closed tabs.

In some ways, Opera's approach to its interface is the opposite of Chrome's - usability is put first, which leaves you with a functional, if still a bit cluttered, interface.

Rekonq - 3/5

Rekonq

In some respects, Rekonq resembles Chrome. When you start the browser you're presented with a page of thumbnails of your most regularly visited sites. Recently closed tabs, bookmarks, history and downloads are also accessed through this page. The address bar also doubles as a search bar and enables you to search your bookmarks and history as well.

Also like Chrome there's no toolbar - just a spanner icon. Rekonq and Chrome are both built on the WebKit engine, so it's not too much of a surprise to see the similarities in their appearance.

It's a shame, then, that Rekonq doesn't quite pull off the interface with as much flair as Chrome. While it's pared-down, too much space is still given over to the buttons and other various features.

Epiphany - 2/5

Epiphany

In some ways, Epiphany feels like a bit of a throwback to the Firefox interfaces of the past. While Mozilla has moved on and closely modelled its browser on Chrome's minimalist design, Epiphany retains the chunky buttons and toolbar. In some ways this is no bad thing - the buttons are easy to find and hit, and extra features are easily accessible, and not hidden away like some dirty secret, as they are in Chrome.

If you're using Epiphany on a desktop, then the extra space taken up by the buttons and toolbar won't be too much of a problem. On netbooks, the reduced screen space for web pages is a tad annoying.

In general, Epiphany's interface is plain and workmanlike - it's not the most attractive, but it's familiar and easy to use.

Best Linux web browser: Media playback

The web has evolved from sites with a few rudimentary animated GIFs and a looped MIDI cover of a pop song, to truly dynamic and interactive media hosting. If the browser you use is incapable of displaying media correctly then you're going to end up missing out on a lot.

To get an overview of how well a browser will perform when playing different media, we used Futuremark's Peacekeeper benchmark. It's a series of tests that evaluate how well a browser renders images, social networking features and complex graphics, amongst others.

Each browser is then assigned a score - the higher it is, the more robust and dependable the browser is at displaying websites.

At the top of the charts was Chrome with an overall score of 9,537. While it scored particularly well in the data and text parsing tests, it scored 15,841 for complex graphics, 5,839 for social networking and 6,960 in the rendering tests.

Second place went to Opera with an overall score of 8,603. While it scored far lower than Chrome in data tests, it scored an excellent 18,350 in complex graphics, 6,384 in social networking and 9,131 in rendering. While Chrome might be a better day-today browser, Opera is better for media.

Epiphany came in a distant third with a score of 5,636 - a low 7,248 for complex graphics, 3,832 for social networking and just 2,996 for rendering.

Firefox was fourth with a disappointing 5,524 score, although it scored a decent 14,443 in complex graphics, 4,009 in social networking and another low 3,864 in rendering.

Finally, Rekonq scored just 5,066, with complex graphics getting 7,711, social networking 3,809 and rendering just 2,577.

Test results

Chrome - 5/5
Epiphany - 4/5
Firefox - 3/5
Opera - 5/5
Rekonq - 2/5

Speed

Faster pages for itchy mouse fingers.

We pay enough for broadband internet as it is, so using a bloated and buggy browser that slows down your surfing is going to be a waste of money. Thankfully one of the best side effects of the browsers' new slimline interfaces is that they are now far less resource intensive.

Firefox 5 uses the JägerMonkey JavaScript engine, which allows for much faster execution speeds, and it scored a mean time of 240.8 milliseconds, using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark - a big improvement on Firefox 3.6's time of 1106ms.

A relatively new feature of Firefox is that some graphics are now handled by the GPU, which gives a smoother and better-looking web experience as processing complex graphics is now handled by your graphics card. When running, Firefox took 61.4MB of memory - though when add-ons were installed this grew.

The headline feature of Chrome is its speed - and its reputation as the fastest of the main browsers is well deserved. Websites pop open almost instantly, with graphics and animations playing quickly and without trouble. This results in a fast and smooth browsing experience.

Chrome completed the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark in 272.4ms, just slightly longer than Firefox. However it's a much lighter program - using about 30MB of system memory when on one page - so much slimmer than Firefox. It's Chrome's commitment to not hogging resources that makes it feel more sprightly than its competitors.

Opera benefits from a built-in feature known as Opera Turbo - there's a button at the bottom of the window to quickly turn it on and off.

Test results

Chrome - 4/5
Epiphany - 3/5
Firefox - 3/5
Opera - 4/5
Rekonq - 3/5

Synchronising features

Take your bookmarks with you wherever you go.

Sync

Firefox Sync is built into version 4 and above, and is quick and easy to set up. The information is protected not just by a password but is also encrypted - an extra security measure that's missed by Opera. Firefox Sync synchronises passwords, history, bookmarks and open tabs - we were able to continue our browsing session on a different computer.

Opera's integration of its synchronising feature, Opera Link, is well done and it's easy-to-use, although not quite as all-encompassing as Firefox Sync. Rather than going through the Settings pages of the browser, the features can be quickly accessed by clicking the icon in the status bar.

Chrome uses Google Account - you'll have one if you signed up for Gmail or Google+ - to store and synchronise Chrome settings. Like Firefox the information is password protected and encrypted. A cryptographic key is also generated, and Chrome offers a number of options for keeping it protected.

Epiphany doesn't have any bespoke synchronising features built-in, but there are a number of ways to implement syncing, such as the Epilicious add-on, the Ubuntu One service or by using Dropbox.

Rekonq doesn't have synchronisation features, at present, although there are calls in the community for it to be implemented in the future.

Test results

Chrome - 4/5
Epiphany - 3/5
Firefox - 4/5
Opera - 5/5
Rekonq - 1/5

Standards compatibility

How does each browser cope with the various web standards?

Standards

In order to display websites correctly, browsers need to be able to cope with the various technologies and standards that are used on the web. One of the best ways to test a browser's standards compatibility is with the Acid3 test (found at http://acid3.acidtests.org). It tests a browser's compliance with various web standards, with an emphasis on the Document Object Model (DOM) and JavaScript. To pass the test the browser needs to score 100 out of 100.

Firefox just missed out on the Acid3 web standards test, scoring 97 out of 100 - not bad, but still lacking complete compatibility with some website technology. The previous release also scored 97, so the lack of improvement does feel like a missed opportunity.

Due to Chrome's relative newness, and its fast rise to the top, it has trouble displaying some sites properly. This is more down to developers, and it's only really a problem with older sites. As Chrome continues to grow in popularity, and developers embrace it, these problems will decrease. There certainly isn't any excuse as in the Acid3 compatibility test Chrome passed with a score of 100 out of 100.

Like Chrome, Opera passed the Acid3 test, and with added HTML5 support, the compatibility issues of previous releases are greatly reduced with 11.10.

Epiphany did well with 99 out of 100 - making it more compatible than Firefox. As Rekonq uses the same rendering engine as Chrome it was not much of a surprise to find it also scored 100 - though the final image differed slightly to the reference rendering - a problem Chrome didn't have.

Test results

Chrome - 5/5
Epiphany - 4/5
Firefox - 3/5
Opera - 5/5
Rekonq - 4/5

The web browser for Linux is...

Chome win

None of the browsers tested here are in any way bad and each has its own strengths. What has been surprising, though, is how Firefox - once considered the de facto browser for the open source community - has been found to be lacking in quite a few areas. Considering its position, this shouldn't be the case, but our tests found even the smaller Epiphany browser to be better than Firefox in areas such as media playback and security.

While Firefox failed to meet our expectations, the relative newcomer Chrome exceeded them. In almost every test Google's browser came top or very near the top. It's quick and secure, compatible with all the major web standards and handles media playback. Even in the arena where Firefox is undoubtedly top dog - addons - Chrome is closing in fast.

Opera's results were solid but uninspiring. While this might be fine for most browsers, with Opera's legacy of being an innovator in the browser market, it's frustrating to witness a product that appears to be resting on its laurels - happy to follow where others lead. Its slight edge over Chrome when it comes to digital entertainment does make this veteran browser a better choice for media-heavy websites.

While Epiphany feels a bit like the underdog when it's pitched against the big three, it manages to hold its own in many areas. In security and standards compatibility it does very well, and though it lags behind some of the other browsers when it comes to speed, it's still a quick and snappy performer and well worth considering if you're looking for an alternative browser.

Finally, Rekonq might have failed to keep up with the other browsers in some of these tests but that doesn't necessarily mean that it should be completely dismissed. It's relatively early days for the browser, and its creators have already demonstrated that they are keen to listen to the community and add features and bugfixes when possible. With new features regularly promised, this browser might not be quite there just yet, but it's worth keeping an eye on. What is clear is that Firefox has lost its crown - long live Chrome!

1st: Chrome - 5/5
Web: www.google.co.uk/chrome
Engine: WebKit
Version: 13.0.782.112

In most of our tests Chrome came out on top.

2nd: Opera - 4/5
Web: www.opera.com
Engine: Presto
Version: 11.50

It was a close run between Firefox and Opera for second place.

3rd: Firefox - 4/5
Web: www.mozilla.com
Engine: Gecko
Version: 5.0.1

A slight fall from grace for the previous number one.

4th: Epiphany - 3/5
Web: http://projects.gnome.org/epiphany/
Engine: WebKit
Version: 3.0.4

A solid web browser that needs a bit more polish.

5th: Rekonq - 1/5
Web: http://rekonq.kde.org
Engine: WebKit
Version: 0.7.0

It might not the best browser out there, but it does show some promise.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 150

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