If the purpose of a web browser is to load, view, and interact with the largest percentage of websites on the internet, then the best web browser in the world is Google Chrome, which can handle just about anything you throw at it. But if you like opening more than a couple tabs at once, Google Chrome is not the browser for you.
Over the last few years, I have grown endlessly frustrated with Chrome's resource management, especially on MacOS. Admittedly, I open too many tabs, but I'd wager that a lot of you do, too. With Chrome, my computer crawls to complete unusability multiple times a day. After one too many times of having to go into Activity Monitor to find that one single Chrome tab is using several gigs of RAM, I decided enough was enough.
I switched to Opera, a browser I had previously thought was only for contrarians.
This, after previous dalliances with Safari and Firefox left me frustrated. Chrome has a built-in advantage, because web developers optimize their pages for the most popular browser (Chrome!). And so as Chrome gets more popular, its compatibility continues to get better while Safari's and Firefox's would suffer (at least in theory). Safari uses an engine known as WebKit and Firefox uses Gecko, while Chrome is built on an engine called Blink, which is used in all Chromium-based browsers (Chromium is a fully featured, open source browser that served as the backbone for Chrome).
Safari manages resources well but didn't work great with a lot of streaming video. More importantly, Safari doesn't use favicons (the tiny icons on the tab that tell you what site you're on), which, can I just say, is a WILD design decision and a complete deal breaker for anyone who opens a lot of tabs. I found Firefox to be slow and ran into compatibility issues as well—this experiment was over a year ago so I don't remember the specifics, but I didn't love it. I spent only a couple hours with the upstart Vivaldi browser before getting frustrated with its non-Chrome-ness.
After several months of using Opera, most of my web browsing problems have been solved. Wednesday, Opera released a new version of its browser, called "Reborn," which adds in-browser WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram messaging. For now, this feature is just a gimmick to me: The real appeal of Opera is that it is essentially Chrome but with a better, less disastrous and less time consuming mechanism of failure.
"We thought, if we don't optimize to be careful about resource consumption, we'll crash the devices they're used on."
Because Opera is also based on Blink, I almost never run into a website, plugin, script, or video that doesn't work flawlessly on it. In fact, Opera works almost exactly like Chrome, except without the resource hogging that makes me want to throw my computer against a brick wall.
This is exactly the point, according to Opera spokesperson Jan Standal: "What we're doing is an optimized version of Chrome," he said. "Web developers optimize most for the browser with the biggest market share, which happens to be Chrome. We benefit from the work of that optimization."
Why I can't use Chrome anymore
One of the original draws of Chrome was that it handles each tab as a separate process. This means that if one tab crashes, it doesn't crash the whole browser. This innovation—once the selling point of the browser—is one of the reasons why Chrome is a nightmare to use today. As we started running powerful applications within tabs and as websites became bloated with autoplaying videos, tracking scripts, and ads, each individual tab we open has the potential to be a resource hog. That's how you end up with a couple tabs using multiple gigs of RAM. Though I've tried extensions like the Great Suspender and OneTab, these never felt like full solutions and neither did much to help my problem.
Google has tried to rein in resource-hogging tabs, but in my experience on MacOS, new versions of Chrome haven't solved the problem.
"There's differences in philosophy between us and Chrome."
The result is that at any given moment, your computer can completely seize up as it runs completely out of RAM (and even hard disk space as Chrome begins using up your cache), necessitating various serious force-quitting maneuvers that, depending on how bad you've fucked up, can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a half hour. (Anecdotally and with no real evidence besides my own browsing experience, Chrome on Windows seems to handle resources a little bit better.)
Standal explains that Opera has always had a large following in developing countries with slower internet connections and computing power, and so the development team has always made resource conservation a priority.
"There's differences in philosophy between us and Chrome. The DNA of Opera is to build browsers for limited devices," Standal said. "We made a decision to come up with an architecture to use as little memory and CPU resources as possible. We thought, if we don't optimize to be careful about resource consumption, we'll crash the devices they're used on."
Opera also starts a new process for each tab, but it doesn't suffer from the same problems as Chrome. In my several months of testing, your average Opera tab doesn't use as much RAM as an average Chrome tab does.
Standal says that Opera is quicker to suspend tabs that aren't in use or are using a lot of memory, which makes the whole browser feel a bit snappier. He said the company's internal benchmarks show that laptops can generally last between one and two hours longer on battery power running Opera as opposed to Chrome.
Opera fails better than Chrome
Of course, I still overtax my machine with way too many tabs (I have 65 open right now), and a couple times a week a tab or two will start gobbling tons of RAM.
This is where Opera's best and most important feature comes in: When you've got too many tabs open, Opera stops working but it doesn't fuck up your entire computer. In practice, this means that you get a beachball cursor and can't do anything in the browser. You can then force quit Opera, reopen it, and be on your way within 10 seconds. Mildly annoying, but not day ruining.
Standal told me that the company "doesn't optimize for crashes," but it is designed to start as quickly as possible—when recovering from a crash, the browser doesn't try to load every tab at once.
Other things I like about Opera:
- Its built-in adblocker seems to work fine. Standal says it's built in house and that, because it's built into the browser itself, it uses less resources than extension-based adblockers.
- It has Chrome's "Omnibar," which combines direct URL entering and searching in one box and works exactly the same as it does on Chrome.
- Lastpass, Pocket, and other extensions I use work instantly.
- It ported over my browser history from Chrome without any fuss (Vivaldi doesn't seem to have this option, which is important if you don't want any friction at all when switching browsers). Even though I'm pretty deep into Google's ecosystem, switching to Opera took, at most, a couple minutes.
- It has a built in VPN that I don't use because I personally feel it's safer to pay for one, but it's there if you want it. Worth noting: The VPN is browser-based (duh) and so it doesn't put your entire internet connection behind the VPN, meaning it doesn't work for torrenting and the like.
Things I don't like about Opera:
- It was purchased by a Chinese consortium last year for $600 million, which makes me worry about how or if that consortium will try to monetize user data (Standal says Opera is subject to European Union privacy laws, which are stricter than American ones).
- It doesn't run every single website flawlessly; its compatibility problems are less frequent than Safari and Firefox, but maybe once or twice a month I'm forced to open Chrome to operate some weird form or play some type of media I don't run into often.
Since I've switched, Opera feels like the only logical web browsing option. It's not perfect, but no browser is going to be when you regularly open 30, 40, 50 tabs. If you're at all frustrated with Chrome, I'd recommend you switch and never think about it again.
Update: This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between Blink, Chrome, Chromium, and Opera.