UPDATED: Finding the best desktop browser in late 2020

Published 09 Nov 2020 in Browsers, Linux, Macintosh, Software by ZigPress

This really ought to be a simple thing:

Find a desktop browser that is stable, fast, accepts commonly-used extensions, and doesn’t abuse your right to privacy.

Spoiler: it’s not simple at all.

Over the last few months I’ve considered and tried a lot of browsers, mainly on macOS but also on Linux which I’m gradually transitioning to, both for work and home.

Testing them out has not been a particularly scientific process, more a case of “let’s try this one for a while and see how things go”. So the findings below are my own experience and your mileage may vary. For a browser to be a contender, it must be available for both macOS and Linux.

The Contenders

Firefox browser iconFirefox

The old stalwart. I used to use Firefox years ago when I still used Windows, and it has a good reputation for preserving privacy.

This time I was trying it on macOS, and one of the first things I found was that it would not let me log in to MXroute’s control panel (this is an email hosting provider). I disabled all extensions, turned off all blocking, and adjusted all settings to be as permissive as possible, but it simply would not log me in. As soon as I switched to a Chromium-based browser, I was in.

Unfortunately a browser that won’t log in to a mission-critical web application is a non-starter, so Firefox was immediately out of the running.

Iron browser iconIron

SRware Iron is a Chromium-based browser that has been completely degoogled. It looks like Chrome, it feels like Chrome, it’s reasonably fast and stable like Chrome, and of course it will run all Chrome extensions. The difference is that any code that sends data to Google has been ripped out.

In daily use, I quite liked Iron, and it didn’t get in the way of my work, but I found that some of its settings weren’t sufficiently customisable (inevitable since the same problem afflicts Chrome).

Bizarrely Iron doesn’t have a way to clear cookies on exit, and I ended up having to install an extension that cleared all local storage (including cookies) on launch. It works but it’s weird and shouldn’t be necessary.

Tor browser iconTor

No worries about privacy with Tor – every window is a private window, traffic is obviously routed through the Tor network, and it simply won’t permit non-https URLs.

Unfortunately it’s built around Firefox, and my troubles with MXroute apply to Tor just as they applied to Firefox, so I’m unable to use it as a daily driver. It’s also pretty slow (to be expected due to the nature of the Tor network).

Brave browser iconBrave

Brave is based on Chromium but has been much more extensively customised than SRware Iron. There are more settings to play with, it feels very fast, and it provides a pleasant user experience. The commercial features (selected ads, BAT tokens, etc) can easily be turned off.

Unfortunately it has a bug (on macOS at least) that as far as I can see has existed for some time without being fixed. What happens is that after about a day (or even a few hours) of normal use, it stops recognising that the mouse is hovering over elements on a page. So, for example, on WordPress admin screens, the submenus don’t show on hover, and the post editing links don’t show when you hover over a post title. Restarting Brave fixes it – for a few more hours.

I really like Brave, but for a web developer this bug is a show-stopper.

Vivaldi browser iconVivaldi

Vivaldi is a tweaker’s paradise. There are so many settings that I got bored of fiddling with them (which for me is quite something). Out of the box, a lot of unnecessary stuff is enabled, making the user experience messy and disjointed, but a little tweaking and it settles down, becoming much more like Brave.

It’s almost as good as Brave at preventing privacy leaks, and the current version seems to be rock-solid stable (when first released it was definitely flaky). Because it’s Chromium-based, extensions are not a problem. I’m not a big fan of the side panels, but you can get them to stay mostly out of the way.

Vivaldi’s only problem is that it’s slow. Not as slow as Tor, but definitely slower than Brave and Iron.

My Winner

My winner, and current daily driver, is Vivaldi. It’s a bit sluggish but it protects my privacy, lets me configure the user interface how I like, and doesn’t frustrate me with rendering bugs.

If I ever get too frustrated with its speed, SRware Iron is a decent enough second choice.

It’s maybe worth mentioning that whether I’m using Vivaldi or any other browser, I always install the following extensions:

  • uBlock Origin
  • uMatrix Developer Build
  • Random User Agent
  • Don’t Add Custom Search Engines

Update, 14th Nov 2020

After four days of living with Vivaldi, I simply couldn’t stand its slowness any more. The more I used it, the more it felt like wading in treacle and I kept thinking it had crashed.

Iron’s inability to set certain cookies to clear on exit is, on reflection, too limiting, so I went back to Brave but the hover bug continued to infuriate me.

Then I had an idea: I knew that Firefox Developer Edition had a codebase that was different in many ways from regular Firefox. Maybe that would make a difference?

With trepidation I installed it and tried to log in to MXroute’s control panel. No joy. Still the endless redirect back to the login screen, as I had seen with every other Firefox-based browser.

Then I tried with a new private window. This hadn’t worked on regular Firefox but, well, you never know. Bingo. Logged in.

So now I have a browser that:

  • Respects my right to privacy
  • Renders sites without problems
  • Is as stable as a rock
  • Lets me customise settings to a large extent
  • Runs all the extensions I need

Ladies and gentlemen, my final winner:

Firefox Developer Edition

And it’s fast. So fast.

Other options that I tried briefly

Ungoogled Chromium

It’s virtually impossible to install extensions. Certainly more trouble than it’s worth.

Iridium

Installing extensions doesn’t work.

Other options that I considered for at least 3 seconds

Safari browser iconSafari

Safari always lags behind on feature support and is only available on macOS.

Chrome browser iconChrome

Sends everything apart from your blood group (and maybe even that) to Google.

Edge browser iconEdge

It’s Microsoft, therefore we can assume its data-slurping is probably on a par with Google.

Opera browser iconOpera

Opera has been Chinese-owned since 2016, and we must assume its privacy features are compromised.

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