If you’re an old hacker like me (from back when the word “hacker” had good connotations), you may remember the battle of the browsers in the early days of the Internet. It was a time when Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer ruled the roost, and were the dominant platforms for accessing and browsing the World Wide Web.
At the time, the two browsing platforms were continually pitted against each other in magazines and other publications that reviewed performance and features, and would likely name one of them the winner; that is, until the next version was released and the other browser made incremental improvements to take the crown that month.
For the most part, the great battle of the browsers is long over, with both Netscape (and its offspring) and Internet Explorer seeing their star fade from glory long ago.
But even with the battle over, many of us are still asking questions about the browsers we use. Is my favorite browser the fastest? Which browser is best for web-based apps? Should I move on to a different browser? What about that new browser I just heard about?
With those questions and a few others in mind, we’re going to resurrect the battle of the browsers one more time, and pit four of the leading Mac browsers against each other in a straight benchmark comparison. This battle is strictly a performance test; we won’t be considering features, security, ease of use, or other characteristics that, in the long run, may be more important than straight performance. A smoking hot browser will always have its appeal.
Our browser lineup consists of four of the leading browsers used with the Macintosh, plus one red herring.
Safari: This is the browser Apple has included with the Mac since the introduction of OS X 10.2. The version we used for testing is 10.1.1 (12603.2.4).
Google Chrome: Chrome has been available for the Windows OS since 2008; it was later released for Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android devices. Chrome was originally built on WebKit, the same layout engine used by Safari. The current version of Chome (59.0.3071.109) makes use of Blink, a layout engine that is itself a derivative (a fork) of the WebKit engine used by Apple.
Opera: In one form or another, Opera has been around since 1994, making it the most senior of our competitors. Even though it has a long history, it’s built on a modern foundation, using the Blink layout engine. The version we used for our testing was 46.0.2597.26.
Firefox: The Firefox browser is the second oldest competitor in our test. It reaches back to 2002, when the Mozilla Foundation first created the Firefox browser. Although Firefox came into existence in 2002, many consider Mozilla and Firefox the direct offspring of Netscape and the older Navigator browser.
Safari Technology Preview: This last browser is a sneak peek at technology that will likely make it into the next version of Safari, allowing us to look ahead at what will be coming down the road. It may not be fair to include a beta browser, but it’s fun, and as long as we remember that it’s a beta product I think it’s OK to include it as a sneak peek into future browser performance.
Selecting the browser benchmarks to use tends to be a long and troublesome process. Many of my favorite benchmarks are no longer supported, or have evolved into new benchmarks with different names and feature sets. I decided to use four benchmarks for this test; two I’ve used in the past (JetStream and Speedometer), and two are new, at least to me (ARES-6 and MotionMark).
MotionMark: This benchmark focuses on graphics performance. MotionMark draws multiple renderings of graphics elements, adding elements till the browser begins to fail at rendering the images at 60 frames per second. The point at which failure occurs is used as the test score. MotionMark contains 9 tests, and the overall score is the geometric mean of the 9 tests. MotionMark can be run using three different drawing sizes: small (568×320), medium (900×600), and large (1600×800). We chose to run MotionMark using only the large drawing size, to better test browser performance as it would apply to desktops and Retina-equipped laptops.
Speedometer: The Speedometer benchmarks attempt to simulate user interaction in a web-based application. Speedometer measures the time it takes the browser under test to execute asynchronous tasks. Speedometer uses a virtual to-do list, adding, deleting, and modifying to-do tasks.
How We Tested
All tests were run on a Retina 5K 27-inch iMac (2014), equipped with a 4 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM, AMD Radeon R9 M295X graphics with 4GB dedicated graphics RAM, and a 1 TB Fusion drive.
All benchmarks were performed with two applications open on the desktop: an Excel spreadsheet, used for recording the test results, and the web browser under test. During the benchmark process, the web browser was always the front most focused app. The Mac saw no other use while the benchmarks were in process.
Before each benchmark was performed, browser caches were cleared and the Mac was then restarted. After restart, the Excel spreadsheet was launched, followed by the browser to be tested. The browser was then used to launch the benchmark. Once the benchmark was completed, the results were recorded and the process was repeated for the next browser under test.
Battle of the Browsers Results
Remember we said that we included Safari Technology Preview in our benchmark tests? It’s a good thing we only included it for a bit of fun since it did quite well in a number of the benchmarks. But then again, it’s a peek at future versions of Safari, and we certainly hope Safari, and for that matter, all of the browsers, will increase performance with each new version released. With that out of the way, let’s concentrate on our four chief rivals.
We’re going to speak in a great deal of generalities because benchmarks are rarely accurate indicators of real-world performance. Even those benchmarks that try to behave like a real-world web app just don’t get the nuances of how an individual makes use of an app; after all, we all do things just slightly differently. OK, a few of us do things way differently, but you get the idea.
In general, the benchmarks point to the superiority of the Blink layout engine when the benchmark’s focus is on graphics performance. You can see this by how well Google Chrome and Opera performed in the MotionMark tests. Safari (WebKit) came in with a respectable, though well off the mark, third place, while Firefox (Gecko) came in dead last, and we do mean dead. If it was any deader…
Firefox’s best performance was on the JetStream benchmark, but even here its overall performance brought it in last, though it managed to win 10 of the sub-tests.
For overall performance, we’re giving the win to Safari, with two outright wins and one statistical tie.
In second, Google Chrome with one outright win and one statistical tie.
Opera took third place. Although it had no wins, it was always right on the heels of Chrome, close enough that you’d likely not see any difference in real-world use.
Bringing up the rear was Firefox, also with no wins, but unfortunately, never getting close to the performance of the other three. This is likely to be a benchmarking issue rather than a real-world problem seen by end users browsing the web or using web-based apps.
But Safari’s graphics is still lagging behind, with the Blink layout engine used by Chrome and Opera doing a much better job.
So, which browser should you use? As I mentioned at the beginning, these benchmarks strictly measure performance and only performance on artificially created tests that, while helpful for finding out how well certain code segments of the browser engine perform, are not a good indication of how well a browser meets your personal needs. Still, the benchmarks can provide an idea of general performance, as well as what areas each browser developer is targeting for improvement.
If you need the fastest graphics rendering browser, one of the Blink-based browsers, either Google Chrome or Opera, may meet your needs. If your browsing habits are more general in terms, or you make use of a large number of web-based apps, Safari may be a much better choice.
For me, the answer is Safari, Chrome, and Opera. I use Safari as my default browser, and Chrome and Opera for specific tasks during the day. I still have Firefox installed on my Mac, though it no longer gets much use, and that’s a shame given its long history. We’ll see how it fares the next time we do a browser benchmark.
Which browser is your favorite? And do benchmarks like these help you pick a browser to use?
Let us know in the comments below.