Mac Web Browser Shootout!

Remember Netscape vs. Internet Explorer? Lines in the sand were drawn and sides were chosen. We love doing this. Quake vs. Duke Nukem, McCain vs. Obama, Pepsi vs. Coke. We love jumping on a bandwagon and hating the other guy.

With web browsers of course there is mostly a preference for a certain interface, but there are also quantifiable performance yardsticks that we really can whip out and say that A is actually better than B, or more often than not, that the difference between A and B is so negligible in an area that it isn’t a compelling factor in making a choice.

For the first couple of years using a Mac, I used Omniweb. I had been using it for years on my Openstep workstation, and it was even better on my new Mac. Back then Omniweb had it’s own proprietary engine, but it has since switched to Webkit, Apple’s adaptation of the KHTML code behind KDE’s Konqueror. Webkit has become almost as prolific as Mozilla since Apple started the ball rolling with Safari in 2003, being used in several Mac, two Windows, one AmigaOS and one MorphOS web browser that I can think of off the top of my head.

After that first couple years using Omniweb, I ended up going to Camino full time. Camino is basically Firefox, but it is written to use Mac-native cocoa programming libraries, so it looks and acts like a native Mac app to a much greater extent than Firefox on Mac. That kills it’s compatibility with Firefox themes and extensions, but Camino has historically been faster than Firefox on a Mac, and I’ll take speed over some toolbar I don’t need any day.

Occasionally I will get mad at my browser of choice due to some newly introduced bug or memory leak and will abandon them for the competition for a while. That is where I am with Camino right now, and I’ve been back in the Omniweb fold for the last couple of weeks. I had actually been using Camino happily for such a long time, that I hadn’t been paying much attention to the state of the web browser on my platform. My little temper tantrum over Camino’s sometimes inexplicably high memory usage sent me to Safari initially, but while I always have liked Safari’s speed, it didn’t take me long to remember that I don’t like it’s spartan interface.

Which led me to download every Mac web browser worth considering and do some testing of my own to find out if the grass really is ever greener elsewhere.

I tested nine browsers, because I couldn’t find a tenth that wasn’t based on five year old technology. Three html engines are represented; Mozilla, Webkit and Presto (Opera).

    Mozilla based browsers:

  • Camino
  • Firefox
  • Flock
    Webkit based browsers:

  • Safari
  • Omniweb
  • Shiira
  • iCab
  • DEVONagent

No Trident (IE) based browser exists for Mac, afaik. Thank God.

The tests used are:

Click for full size image

Click for full size image

Mozilla-based browsers win on the V8 Suite, with the exception of Camino which came in dead last. Opera performed on par with Firefox and Flock, and the Webkit-based browsers came in a pack not too far behind.

Opera had the best standards compliance on the Acid Test, with Webkit-based browsers coming in second, minus Shiira, which tied for last with Camino.

Flash performance showed Firefox and Flock the clear winners, with Omniweb giving them a good run for their money. Opera failed this test.

Click for full size image

Click for full size image

The Slickspeed suite runs a set of javascript benchmarks. The Mootools, JQuery and Prototype benchmark results are similar enough that we can treat them as one test. For this battery the first thing that comes to the eye is how dismal Camino did compared to the competition. Webkit-based browsers turned in the best scores, followed by Firefox and Flock and Opera trailing.

I also ran a couple of tests of my own concoction to gauge CPU usage, which can be a problem on certain websites. Also, if you’re like me, you open infinite windows and/or tabs while browsing because you have a stream of consciousness approach to web surfing. Or a short attention span. The first, AVE, is my website, has a cpu-intensive Mootools slideshow on the front page. Hopefully this will be representative of content heavy web sites you may encounter on the web. The second, 15 tab, is cpu usage by the browser with 15 tabs open.

Click for full size image

Click for full size image

On the AVE test Webkit browsers slightly edged out Camino, with the remaining Mozilla browsers bringing up the rear and Opera dead last.

The most interesting comparison, 15 tab, shows why I just quit Camino. 83% cpu utilization by the browser. That on a dual 2.0GHz G5. Firefox and Flock weren’t much better at 70% cpu. Opera used only 32% on the same test, but the real performers were the Webkit-based browsers. Safari only managed 27%, bettered by iCab at 22%. Omniweb and DEVONagent turned in the most impressive performance of only 12% cpu utilization with 15 tabs open! This is the most important test to me, because it is a real world benchmark that we’ll all encounter during normal surfing sooner or later.

The end result after all those tests? Numerically, Firefox and Flock turn in the best average, with the Webkit-based browsers just behind. Camino is a clear loser, with Opera next in the fight for last. Ultimately, the difference between the benchmark scores between the Mozilla-based browsers and the Webkit-based browsers is close enough that choosing a browser based on preference for it’s interface is a fine option. Throwing out all the numbers and just looking at the AVE and 15 tab tests, Webkit-based browsers are decisive winners. Pick one whose interface you are happy with and enjoy.

I’m going to stick with Omniweb again for a while, and this time I am going to register it to show my appreciation for the work they’ve done since I’ve been freeloading all these years. One thing I really do like about Omniweb is how it uses a drawer for tabs instead of a tab bar. Drawers were a cocoa interface widget that Apple used early on in the days of OS X but has since abandoned. People didn’t seem to like drawers all that much, but I thought they were a really good way to display things that an application didn’t need to show at all times.

Of course browser evolution is a moving target, so six months from now Camino may have fixed it’s memory usage issues and be in contention for Mac browser king again. The good news for Mac users is that a host of Mozilla and Webkit-based browsers are available for the platform that have great compatibility, zippy rendering and pleasant interfaces compared to their windows counterparts.

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571 Responses to Mac Web Browser Shootout!

  1. Nikhil December 7, 2008 at 9:57 pm #

    WOW! that’s the best browser comparison for mac I’ve ever seen!
    You should have included Internet explorer so we could see just how bad it is. Sunrise is also a good browser. http://www.sunrisebrowser.com/en/
    Thankyou

  2. Nikhil December 7, 2008 at 10:57 pm #

    WOW! that’s the best browser comparison for mac I’ve ever seen!
    You should have included Internet explorer so we could see just how bad it is. Sunrise is also a good browser. http://www.sunrisebrowser.com/en/
    Thankyou

  3. Quintin March 5, 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    Phew! What a test… This is very impressive work indeed, the pity is that now I can´t decide what browser to use. I love Camino and Omniweb and have been put off by the fact that Safari has been at the centre of the hacking community and they predict that it will fall first in the next PWN2OWN hacking contest.

  4. Quintin March 5, 2009 at 11:33 pm #

    Phew! What a test… This is very impressive work indeed, the pity is that now I can´t decide what browser to use. I love Camino and Omniweb and have been put off by the fact that Safari has been at the centre of the hacking community and they predict that it will fall first in the next PWN2OWN hacking contest.