Selecting a new web browser and feeling BraveWhile I bounce around from one Linux distribution to the next like a hyper-active flea on its sixth cup of coffee, it's not very often I switch from one web browser to another. I used Opera almost exclusively for about a decade (from around 2002-2010), then mostly used QupZilla from then on. The QupZilla browser got rebranded to Falkon shortly before it was put out to pasture. Along the way I've occasionally used other browsers, either for testing purposes or when working with a client, or just to see what "this new Chromium thing is everyone keeps talking about", but I tend to be a creature of habit when it comes to browsers. I might run Firefox or Chrome for a week, but then I'm back to whatever was working for me before, often because I've grown accustomed to shortcut keys or having my bookmarks sorted a certain way.
The Falkon home screen with shortcuts (full image size: 812kB, resolution: 1237x1024 pixels)
Recently I've been drifting a bit in terms of browsers. My previous long-term browser, Falkon, appears to have been discontinued two years ago and I've been casting about to see if there is an alternative which might suit me. Luckily, for me, many Linux distributions ship with different default browsers and this gives me an opportunity to test a range of options.
I'd like to quickly provide a rundown of some of the popular browsers I tried recently and what I liked and didn't like about them. I'd also like to talk about where I ended up and why.
The first and perhaps most obvious choice for someone like me is Firefox. Mozilla's browser has a long track record of being stable, standards compliant, cross-platform, and capable. I use Firefox on my phone and it is shipped as the default browser in most desktop Linux distributions. However, there are two main reasons I've shied away from adopting Firefox. The first is that the browser is quite heavy. Most versions of Firefox (from about version 3 or 4 onward) have run noticeably slower on my equipment than virtually every other browser. This has been consistent across multiple machines (both mine and office machines) and across multiple network locations.
The Firefox browser and menu (full image size: 92kB, resolution: 1326x768 pixels)
I'm also not thrilled with how much functionality Mozilla tries to cram into Firefox. Around 15 years ago I often recommended Firefox because it was "just a web browser". It handled bookmarks and web browsing and little else. Firefox 1.0 was much lighter and faster than many other browsers at the time because it was "just a browser" and didn't cram in an e-mail client, torrent client, sync options, ActiveX support, and so on. These days when I use Firefox I want to disable or remove half the functionality and distractions before I settle into using it. I don't need account syncing, suggested sites, and file sharing tools. This meant Firefox wasn't entirely eliminated from my list of options, but it wasn't my favourite choice.
Chrome, Chromium, and Vivaldi
The current versions of Chrome and Vivaldi, while popular choices and highly powerful browsers, were eliminated due to being closed source platforms. Chromium, Chrome's base and open source sibling, was a contender. However, there were two things working against it. The first was Chromium is also large. It sucks back memory like a hummingbird trying to relieve a bad case of cotton-mouth. My other issue with Chromium is that the interface doesn't suit me at all. To me it always seems awkward and washed-out, hard to read with low-contrast controls. Using Chromium makes me feel like an old man who needs glasses and who doesn't understand these new-fangled interfaces the kids are using these days.
Another issue which worked against Chromium, though wasn't the browser's fault, was that many people offering support for the browser do not seem to be aware that Chromium is not Chrome. The two browsers are closely related, but not identical. Whenever I'd ask on a forum how to do something with Chromium (tweak a setting, disable something, or add an extension) someone would always answer with the steps to perform the task on Chrome, which often didn't work.
GNOME Web (previously known as Epiphany) looked really promising on paper. Despite its name, GNOME Web can run on any Linux distribution with GTK libraries. The browser is relatively small, simple, light, and has some nice security options. There were just two issues I faced with GNOME Web. One is that some distributions are opposed to packaging GTK-based software and this might make using the browser while testing some non-mainstream platforms difficult. The other was that GNOME Web crashed more often than a car driven by a blindfolded monkey.
Another option I looked at was the Otter browser. Otter strives to provide the same style of interface used by Opera and Falkon while being open source. This seemed quite appealing and the browser is small enough I could download its source code and built it with minimal effort. Once I got Otter compiled, I found it could import my bookmarks and did indeed have a familiar interface for people like me who liked the minimal look of Opera with a dashboard of shortcuts. However, Otter would crash immediately when opening almost any website. This quickly eliminated it as a possibility.
The next option on my list was Brave. The Brave browser has a few positive aspects working in its favour. The browser is open source (published under the Mozilla Public License) and uses Chromium as its base. Brave is cross-platform and supplies pre-built binaries for several platforms, including some mainstream Linux distributions. Brave is one of the few modern browsers which blocks ads, pop-ups, and auto-playing media by default. It also offers not only a private browsing mode (which is fairly common these days), it also provides a private browsing mode which uses the Tor network. This feature is built right into the browser and does not require third-party packages.
I soon found Brave has a customizable start page which can be used to display all sorts of information and shortcuts. The interface and shortcuts are not quite as keyboard friendly as Falkon's (causing me to use the mouse more often), but I could set up a shortcut dashboard on Brave's home screen.
Once I had confirmed I could import bookmarks and passwords from other web browsers on my system, it seemed as though Brave was going to be good enough to keep around for a while. Over the coming days I discovered a few interesting features about the browser I'd like to share.
One of the first characteristics which stood out about Brave was that it is fast. Loading the browser happened at a normal rate, about halfway between Falkon and Firefox in terms of speed. Once up and running Brave performed faster than most of the other browsers I tried. Page load times were notably faster than Falkon, despite the two browsers using the same web engine.
Ad blocking and BAT
Earlier I mentioned Brave blocks advertisements and tracking by default. It actually goes a step further than this. Brave allows the user to right-click on ads they do see to hide them in the future, and it blocks invisible trackers on websites. It then goes even further and randomizes its own fingerprint.
Browser fingerprinting is a way of collecting data a browser leaks, such as its user agent, extension information, version, and supported plugins. This allows websites to uniquely identify most users, even with cookies disabled and the user's IP address changed. Brave works around this by randomizing its fingerprint in a way to mask its users. In theory it should be difficult for a website to tell one Brave user from another. According to Digital Trends, Brave was the first mainstream browser to pass the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cover Your Tracks test.
These features cover my comments on advertising and tracking, but what is BAT? BAT is short for Basic Attention Tokens. While Brave defaults to hiding ads from the user, we have the option of enabling ads from the browser itself. Brave will optionally pop-up a notification in the corner of the window from time to time asking if we wish to see an ad (the frequency of these notifications can be adjusted). If we click the button to see an ad we can earn tokens. These tokens are a form of cryptocurrency which can then be sent to participating websites as donations (or tips) for their content. We can choose which websites get our tokens and the sites can then cash in to pay for hosting or paying contributors.
Learning about BAT rewards (full image size: 273kB, resolution: 1237x1024 pixels)
From the user's point of view this means we see virtually no ads on websites, but can choose to click an unobtrusive button from time to time to see ads and get paid for it. The money we earn can then be passed along to our favourite websites to support them. The BAT ads are disabled by default so we don't need to see the pop-ups at all if we want to avoid them.
Third-party add-ons and extensions
Brave can make use of extensions and bringing up its extension manager offers to connect us to the Chrome extension store. It appears as though Brave is compatible with all (or at least most) Chrome extensions. When visiting websites with DRM-protected media, such as Netflix, Brave offers to automatically download and install the necessary plugins. This worked smoothly for me.
When Brave is first installed its home screen (the screen shown when a fresh tab is opened) displays a collection of information. This home page can display browser stats, including BAT earned, and frequently visited websites. At the bottom of the page is a Customize button which will open a set of options we can use to personalize the home screen.
Customizing the Brave home screen (full image size: 396kB, resolution: 1237x1024 pixels)
The home screen can be adjusted to show various widgets, bookmarks we select (which work a lot like Opera's and Falkon's shortcut screen), and news from the Brave project. This makes the home screen flexible and it is possible to make it look and act similar to the home screens of other browsers. Alternatively we can tell Brave to display a specific web page when a new tab is opened, such as a search engine.
Crashes and recovery
I've been using Brave for around a month at the time of writing. To date I have not experienced the browser crash on any of my devices. The browser has been stable, fast, and smooth. The only time I've had to restart it was when I was testing the process of installing DRM-related plugins.
With that said, I have had one of my computers experience a power interruption while running Brave. When I restarted the machine and opened Brave the browser dutifully reported it must have closed unexpectedly and offered to send a report to the developers. It also offered to restore the tabs I had opened when the system powered off, and then did so successfully. I prefer this approach to automatically opening whatever tabs had been open before as that can be unnecessary and waste time by loading pages I no longer need.
The Brave browser hits most of the points I want from my primary portal to the Internet. It's quick, open source, fairly flexible, and it has been surprisingly stable. It uses a medium level of memory and CPU compared to the other browsers I tried and it's fairly easy to set up on multiple platforms (GNU/Linux desktops, mobile phones, and so on).
I greatly appreciate the browser's privacy defaults, the fact it ships with Tor as a built-in option, its private mode, and randomized browser fingerprint. The ability to right-click on unwanted elements of a web page and hide them is a great bonus and allows the user to hide ads or other items we do not wish to see on a website.
The one complaint I have about Brave is that it tends to make me switch between using the keyboard and mouse occasionally. This is fairly common, it's something I also need to do with Chromium and Firefox. However, I have been spoiled in the past by browsers like Falkon which make it easy to set almost any action, including accessing specific bookmarks, as a keyboard shortcut. Often times I didn't need to touch a mouse when using Falkon and I find the transition back and forth slows me down a little. Over time I've been learning ways to substitute in shortcuts to speed up my work on Brave, but it would be nice if this was a more naturally occurring feature.
One final thing I appreciate about Brave is that it feels like it is intended to be a web browser and just a web browser. While we can add extra extensions and enable BAT ads, by default Brave doesn't try to work with mail, or nag me to set up an account to synchronize my passwords. It just offers a portal to websites and this is primarily what I was looking to find.