Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Browsers for everyone!

The browser wars are over!

Or are they? Will they ever be? I certainly hope not. With Opera deciding to bow out of the render wars and move to an in-house-maintained WebKit backend instead of Presto, my heart sank a little. Presto had, in my opionion, been responsible for all of the other browsers dragging themselves, kicking and screaming, to support the latest CSS standards. It was just plain embarrassing to be smashed by the ACID test by one of the "little guys". Microsoft, Mozilla and Google had to step up, had to (at least try to) keep pace.

Competition is good, most especially in the software realm, most especially for the most important player in the software realm. No, not corporations selling you their software and shiny hardware products. Not institutions who run the world of finance and could cause the collapse of life as we know it with a few bad lines of code. The most important person in the software realm is... you. The user. And the most powerful tool at your disposal is choice. As users are free to choose, so they are free to ditch software which is left in the dust by other software. It's this competition which improves software all-round, ultimately for the benefit of the user (and hopefully, for the companies involved, adds something to their bottom line. Somehow).

So enter another contender: Maxthon MxNitro. Maxthon has been in the game for a while, but, as did Opera before them (and they still do), they occupy a small segment of the browser market. You need something really significant to get the average person to bother to not use the system default browser -- hence the anti-competitive lawsuits against Microsoft (but, in their defense, wouldn't it be rather shameful to sell you an operating system without a browser? About as shameful as giving you an OS without an office suite or baked-in programming tools, but I digress...)

I've used Maxthon before and it was more of an exercise in curiosity than anything else. Finding out about MxNitro, I had to see what they were going on about with the speed they claim the browser has. There are a bunch of numbers floating around; information like "30% faster than Chrome 37" and such. Interesting claims, and no explanations for how, except some hand-waving about how hard they worked to lighten it up and optimise it.

My verdict, if you care:

Startup is fast. I mean, not just fast, but zippy-gawrsh-how-the-heck-did-they-do-that fast. A first run of Chrome on my machine (i7, 8Gb RAM, no ssd's so I'm a bit penalised there) takes around 8-10 seconds. Closing (checking that Chrome isn't running) and re-opening brings that down to around 2. MxNitro is available for use the moment, the Start screen has faded from view, as if it were waiting there the whole time. I had to check several times for some sneaky background process or service -- none. The install was the same: I double-clicked the installer and had a working browser up in under a second. I don't even know how they managed to unzip the required files to its install folder (in your roaming profile) that quickly. I'm baffled -- and impressed. I want to know more...

Memory usage on the other hand: terrible, just like Chrome. There are reasons I don't use Chrome as my daily driver, but the largest is simply memory usage. Chrome can happily consume a few gigs of memory where the same tabs in Firefox will be well under a gig. Even 2 or 3 tabs in Chrome starts getting up to the gig mark. Opening the exact same 5 tabs in Firefox and Chrome got me a memory usage of 431Mb in Firefox and just shy of a gig in Chrome (disclaimer: to get Chrome's usage, you have to add up the memory of all processes so I just added roughly; I'm not trying to exaggerate with the "just shy of a gig" comment, but it was in the high 900's). MxNitro also uses a multi-process model. Roughly adding up the memory used for the same tabs came in at around 700mb, which really is where Chrome would probably be if I stripped out all addons and the dev tools (another disclaimer: I have around 10 addons in both Firefox and Chrome). So, just when I was thinking that this might be a good candidate for my aging Core2 Duo laptop (which only has 2Gb of RAM, not upgradeable )': ), I have to think twice. I did give it a spin there -- 700 mb for gmail, facebook and twitter open. Hm.

It has a very minimal look and feel in the standard retina-blasting white of many apps these days. It's also rougher than a badger's arse:

  • No way to search a page for text
  • No dev tools at all -- indeed, I was surprised to find a "view source" option
  • Crashed when I tried to scroll with my touchpad. Every time
  • No spell-checker -- blogging (like this article) just doesn't feel as safe. I'm going to have to save this draft and reload in another browser to check it
  • No control over startup tabs or home page
  • Indeed, no preferences whatsoever
  • Weird window control-box (minimise, maximise, close) which only becomes available when you hover over it, though for no really good reason as the space isn't put to better use. It's just a little bit of "wat?" to overcome
  • No Flash

The bare-bones minimal interface will probably work well for some people -- in fact, for a lot of people. There are a lot of people who are out there on the web and they don't know, need to know, or even care about things like dev tools or extensions. They don't know about ad blockers (though they really should be interested) or sync or many of the shiny features of Firefox and Chrome (and even IE, now that it's been dragged to version 11). The problem is that the people for whom this interface will work are

  • The least likely to actually download another browser
  • The most likely to give up on a browser which doesn't have basic features like in-page search
  • The most likely to give up on a browser which crashes
  • Quite likely to need Flash and unable to understand why their Facebook videos aren't playing

Not that I could be any happier that there's no bundled Flash (indeed, I welcome the long-overdue demise of Flash) -- just that it's going to hamper the people most likely to use this.

So will I use it? Probably not much, if at all. It's a bit novelty for me at the moment -- "oooo, look how fast it is!". But then again, it starts and acts about as fast as FooBrowser, a minimal, keyboard-driven browser I wrote with PyQt ages ago. My browser suffered from the same flash issue, but at least find-in-page worked. I think.

Nope, I'll be sticking with Firefox (Aurora channel). Chrome has better dev tools (so I'll fire it up for dev, especially remote-debugging Cordova apps), but is too much of a memory glut. IE has just lost my trust. But bigger than that, Firefox has the addons I want (some of which I can get elsewhere, sure): an ad-blocker, Stylish and a Youtube downloader. The last one is another big reason why I can't use Chrome for my daily browser, in addition to the silly full-screen view which means that tabs are obscured when I have WinAmp open -- I still don't get why the Chrome team is SO opposed to allowing a small titlebar on Windows; you can work it on Linux because of the WM, but on Windows, it's better to resize the window to fill the screen than use maximise. Daft. And I'm far from alone in this quest. But a Youtube downloader -- that I can't do without. Not because I'm some naughty pirate or video hoarder, but simply because I want to watch unhindered in at least 720p and Youtube

  • insists on picking "the best" resolution for me every time, which I have to toggle off
  • insists on turning captions on with every video -- yet another thing to toggle off
  • has become an ad spawn-point. I understand the site is financed by advertising. I'm ok with an ad here and there. But every 5 minutes in a video? Bugger off
  • still often insists on playing through Flash, which runs terribly and sometimes takes down my browser
So I download, watch, delete. But the path of digression is here again....

The verdict?

Maxthon MxNitro is interesting because of the speed, but nowhere near ready for public consumption yet. With a bit of work, it could become a good replacement browser for mom-and-pop types with older hardware, providing they have enough RAM. The really good part is that hopefully the gauntlet has been thrown down and other browser houses will follow suit. I especially hope that Mozilla does -- Firefox wins the RAM wars but trails a little in the speed department.

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