When asked what browser they use on their Mac, most people will respond with Google Chrome or Apple Safari. Some will mention Firefox and Opera as alternatives to the big two.
It seems each browser has its advocates, with browser features, speed, and user interface being the most often named reasons for a preference. It would be difficult to try to measure the benefits of a browser’s features, or its user interface, but we can test a browser’s speed, and who doesn’t enjoy a good race?
So, let’s line up the competitors and see who gets to the finish line the fastest.
The four most popular Mac browsers are included in our benchmark testing, along with Safari Technology Preview (STP), a browser in beta form designed to showcase new technology that will likely make its way into Safari at some future date. We’re including it just to provide a sneak peek at what will be coming down the line.
Chrome: Google Chrome has become the most used desktop browser, with an estimated 68% share of the desktop market (2018). It was first released in 2008, and made use of the WebKit rendering engine, the same one used by Safari. In 2013, the Chromium project was announced; it included the new Blink rendering engine. Blink was a fork of the WebKit code, and since the two have parted ways, each rendering engine has seen a frantic pace in its development.
Firefox: Could be considered one of the oldest browsers available. Firefox can trace its heritage back to Netscape Navigator, one of the first widely available web browsers. Firefox may have a long history, but it is, in all respects, a modern browser. It includes the newest version of the Quantum rendering engine, designed to bring new technologies to Firefox by building on the foundation of the older, but very stable, Gecko engine.
Opera: Another browser that can follow its heritage back into the dim beginnings of the world wide web. Although Opera has been around for a very long time, its technology is quite new; it’s based on the same Blink rendering engine used in Chrome.
Safari: Apple’s Safari web browser has been the default browser app since 2003 and the release of OS X Panther. Safari makes use of WebKit as its rendering engine.
In choosing benchmarks for measuring the performance of a web browser, two aspects jump out as the most important: how quickly and how accurately a browser can display a web page. This process is known as rendering, and is the responsibility of the browser’s rendering engine.
The rendering engine is concerned with interpreting the HTML elements and CSS styles, as well as the graphics primitives used to display the web page.
Basic is an implementation of ECMA-55 BASIC language. The Basic sub-test runs a number of Basic programs, including finding prime numbers.
ML builds several feedforward neural networks, training them with sample data sets. ML tests how well a browser’s matrix math libraries perform.
MotionMark: This web benchmark focuses on graphics performance by rendering multiple elements designed to stress the graphics system. The benchmark adds additional elements until the browser fails to display the scene at 60 frames per second. Nine test scenes are performed, each stressing different graphics processes.
MotionMark can use one of three screen sizes to target different types of devices:
- Small (568 x 320)
- Medium (900 x 600)
- Large (1600 x 800)
We ran MotionMark using the Medium (900 x 600) dimensions appropriate for non-Retina Macs running a browser at full screen, or a Retina Mac using a browser window.
Speedometer: Designed to test a browser’s performance when used with web apps. Speedometer simulates a user using an interactive web app to make, populate, and manage a To Do list. Speedometer measures the time it takes the browser to execute a number of asynchronous tasks typical for web apps.
How We Tested
Testing was performed using a 2014 Retina 5K 27-inch Mac equipped with:
- 4 GHz Intel Core i7 processor
- 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM
- AMD Radeon R9 M295X graphics
- Stock 1 TB Fusion drive formatted with the HFS+ file system
Each benchmark was performed with only two applications open: the browser being tested, and Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet, used for recording the benchmark results.
Before each benchmark was run, we checked the Mac’s RAM to ensure there was at least 10 GB of free RAM available. If not, the Mac was restarted to free up RAM space. Each browser under test had its cache and history cleared before a test was started.
Results of the Browser Benchmarks
Remember, though, that we’re only looking at performance with these tests, and not comparing features of each browser. And real-world performance isn’t tested with artificial benchmarks.
Still, we’re looking for the best performing browsers, and if it’s only a numeric advantage seen in benchmarks, so be it. Here, then, are our results.
Results from ARES-6 are represented in the number of milliseconds it took to complete all tests in the series. The actual number reported is the geometric mean of all four tests through multiple iterations.
Once ARES completed the benchmark runs, Safari Technology Preview came out on top, with Safari coming in second, Chrome taking third, Opera just slightly behind in fourth, and Firefox coming in a distant fifth.
MotionMark is primarily a graphics-processing test, and measures how many graphical elements can be displayed at 60 frames per second before the browser fails to keep up with the graphical workload. There are nine separate tests, and the final result is the geometric mean of all of the tests.
The final results placed the browsers in the same finish as ARES-6: Safari Technology Preview, Safari, Chrome, Opera, and Firefox in a distant fifth place.
The results shifted the order of the browser finish, placing Chrome first, Safari Technology Preview second, Opera third, Safari fourth, and Firefox in a respectable fifth.
The results saw a minor reorganization of the finish order, with Safari Technology Browser back on top, followed by Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and bringing up the rear, Opera.
What the Benchmark Results Mean
The first thing that I noticed in the results was Firefox’s lagging performance. I mentioned the last time we did a browser benchmark that Firefox needed to improve its performance to stay competitive with the other browsers.
Since then, Firefox has been upgrading its rendering engine with its newer Quantum technology. The Quantum technology is based on Servo, a new rendering system Firefox has planned for future releases. Quantum brings the most stable parts of Servo to Firefox today, which should result in better Firefox performance.
From our benchmark results, Firefox needs more of Servo to keep up and get ahead of the browser pack.
Safari, Chrome, and Opera all looked competitive in the browser benchmarks, indicating that each of the browser developers is putting in a great deal of effort to remain a top choice of users.
Safari Technology Preview was included in our benchmark tests primarily because the Rocket Yard recently included an article about using this beta browser, so we thought our readers would like to see how it performed against the other leading browsers.
All of the browsers in our tests performed well; all were able to complete the benchmarks. While the benchmark results show a wide range of performance between the browsers on some of the tests, it’s not clear to me that these results translate directly to real-world usage.
In the end, if you’re using any of these browsers as your primary way to experience the web, then you’re in good hands. However, there’s nothing wrong with installing all of these browsers, and taking each one for a spin. You may discover that the slow website you’ve been complaining about performs much better with a different browser.