I recently took over the category Best Free Web Browser for Windows here at Gizmo's Freeware. We have three categories of Windows web browser, as shown below, and I have been running many tests and benchmarks which can be used to rate each web browser. The purpose of this article is to keep you updated with some of the key results and conclusions that will help you to understand the differences between those web browsers.
The purpose of this article is not to recommend particular web browsers or to provide detailed results of benchmarks and other tests. I am instead trying to describe more general principles and trends that can be used to help you to make your own choices.
These tests were run on a low-end system because I was primarily testing for lightweight browsers. To get an idea of how each browser is likely to perform on your system, you can either run benchmarks yourself or you can refer to comparative reviews on systems that have closer specifications to your own system.
The typical price-performance curve shows how the price or cost of an item increases to achieve higher performance. Here's a link to a real-life example of a classic price-performance chart for high-end audio speakers. As you get better performance (on the vertical y axis) the price increases (on the horizontal x axis). Initially, there is a wide range of performance within a narrow band of prices. Then additional performance becomes more expensive to provide and the price increases at a higher rate. This illustrates a common feature of such curves. The cost of an incremental improvement in performance keeps increasing to the point where it does not make any economic sense to continue.
You might be saying "How does this relate to free web browsers? They are free so they don't have a price!" Actually there is a price. But is not the purchase price of the software. Instead the price that I am considering is the cost of the computer resources (disk, memory, CPU) needed to run the web browser.
I have found that there is a clear trade-off between the browser performance, as measured by various benchmarks, and the resources required to achieve it. This relationship is illustrated in Diagram 1. There are many benchmarks that can be used so I also tried this with different groups of benchmarks and the underlying relationship did not change.
What this means is that the worst performing browsers are usually the least resource-hungry and the best performing browsers are usually the most resource-hungry. The browsers also fall into bands of performance consistent with the underlying web (layout and rendering) engine that they are built on.
Diagram 1 — Web browser performance versus resources used to achieve that performance
How this curve was constructed
The performance that I was measuring consists of an average of the speed of rendering and the browser's conformance to web standards such as HTML5 and CSS3. The resources that I measured are primarily CPU time and memory used (working set private memory). The trend line is drawn in to make it easier to observe the relationship and compare the three charts.
For each benchmark score that I recorded, I normalized all data in the range 0% to 100% where the best score represented 100% and all other values were calculated in relation to that. The normalized scores went down as low as zero if the benchmark failed to run to the end.
- Resource use is the average of the normalised CPU and memory usage. For example, resource usage of 4 means four times the lowest usage. This is shown on the x-axis at the bottom of the chart, where "1.0" is the least amount of CPU and memory used by any of the web browsers and "10.0" is ten times that minimum. No web browsers have a resource usage of one because two different browsers had the lowest memory usage and the lowest CPU time.
These price-performance curves only cover 32-bit web browsers running in Windows. Similar curves could also be produced for 64-bit web browsers but there are far fewer so the trends are not as clear.
There are also a couple of unusual results. I removed one outlier for Maxthon which normally uses the Blink engine but can use the Trident engine for compatibility. I was unable to run the Trident engine by itself so I removed that result. The Sleipnir result is also unusual but I have not yet identified exactly why that is.
Note 1: These are examples not general recommendations
You need to be aware that my results are specific to the low-end computer they were tested on. Different combinations of CPU and graphics processor can produce much different results and the relative performance of browsers can change. While the engine averages and the overall trends should be consistent, the results for each specific browser will change.
Note 2: There are other factors to consider when choosing a web browser
The results that I am illustrating here do not say anything about many browser features such as security, add-ons and extensions, bookmarking, menus, and settings. As an example of this you can see In Diagram 2 that Opera uses less resources than Chrome to provide similar performance. One reason for this is that Opera lacks many important features. So my preference would be to use Chrome because some of those features are really important to me.
Comparing the major web engines and web browsers
If you are considering a major web browser then other browsers using the same engine are more likely to be perform better by running faster and being compatible with more up-to-date website features. This is the case for Firefox and Chrome, at least, as Diagram 2 shows. I have indicated the more popular browsers using each engine and the average for each engine. Much of the reason for the difference appears to be that the other browsers do not implement the same features.
Diagram 2 — Web engine averages and the major web browsers
Some other browsers stand out
Outside of the major web browsers, four other web browsers stood out because they provided greater performance using fewer resources than their companions. While this result is likely to apply more generally, you would have to run benchmarks on your own system to confirm that they would be faster for you too. You should also take note that a performance improvement can be achieved by removing features that are not measured by the benchmarks which is another reason to evaluate browsers yourself to ensure that they have the features you rely upon.
- Maxthon and 360 Browser were the fastest.
- Lunascape with the Gecko engine uses the least resources.
- For the Trident engines, SlimBrowser is almost competitive with Internet Explorer.
Diagram 3 — Some stand-out web browsers
Do you have Windows 64-bit?
"Should I use a 64-bit web browser?" depends upon what is most important to you.
What is your priority?
- Maximize security? 64-bit web browsers can use enhanced security features available on your 64-bit CPU that are not available to 32-bit processes.
- Minimize CPU processing? 64-bit web browsers can perform better on your 64-bit CPU for two reasons. First, some native 64-bit features are faster. The more important reason is that your programs don't have to run under emulation which is slower. But of course, 64-bit values take up more space on disk and in memory than 32-bit values so 64-bit programs start at a significant disadvantage.
- Minimize memory used? 64-bit web browsers have larger programs and data simply because 64-bit values are twice the size of 32-bit values. However, Windows can more easily manage memory because 64-bit memory pointers are not limited to 32-bit addresses. Plus Windows allows larger 64-bit processes, 8GB instead of 2GB. This is particularly important for Firefox which does not run separate processes for each tab or group of tabs.
Comparing the major web browsers
The 64-bit version of Chrome was released in August 2014. One month later Guy McDowell at makeuseof.com has published some useful comparisons between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Chrome. Although I have run the same benchmarks and others, the startup time is meaning less to me because my web browser runs all the time. What is more useful to me is how much memory and CPU time is used to load web pages. So I compared the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox (Waterfox is the 64-bit version).
32-bit web browsers use less memory
The following graphs show memory use for 1, 20 and 50 tabs open to the top website list at Alexa - I did exclude sites that were red in WOT, flagged by my antivirus, or not good for kids. The lower numbers are after all but one tab are closed and the web browser has had time to release the memory that no longer needs to be used.
Diagram 4 — 32-bit web browser memory use
If you compare Diagrams 4 and 5, you will notice that the 32-bit versions use less memory both when the tabs are all open and after they have closed. If I had continued testing to a 100 tabs then Chrome and Firefox might have their 64-bit versions using less memory.
Diagram 5 — 64-bit web browser memory use
64-bit web browsers use less CPU time
64-bit web browsers use less CPU time to load the web pages. The improvement is greater for Chrome and least for Internet Explorer which appears to be more efficient with fewer tabs open.
Diagram 6 — 64-bit web browser memory use
What you use depends upon what is more important to you
Clearly, my results are similar to Guy McDowell's: there are trade-offs in swapping out your 32-bit web browser for a 64-bit version. In my tests, CPU times are less but more memory is used.
Personally, I like 64-bit browsers because they have better security. They also seem more responsive when I use them which makes sense if they require less CPU power.
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