Iron Browser – Why I’m Using Opera

There are already two posts on this blog about Iron Browser. The original “The Iron Browser“, and the follow-up “Iron Browser: Still the Champ?“. For over three years now Iron has been the default browser on this reviewer’s home computer. That is no longer the case.

To recap what Iron browser is, it’s essentially Google’s popular Chrome browser with all the nasty bits removed that track your activities, searches, and so on. I don’t like those features because Google uses that information to edit your browsing experience, and I don’t want my browser to put me in a filter bubble.

Another quick explanation for the uninitiated – Google’s browser is called Chrome, but the engine behind it – the software that makes the browser work – is called “Chromium”. Google has made Chromium available to whoever wants to use it for their own projects. This has spawned several Chromium-based web browsers, including Iron and other browsers like the long-established Opera changed to use the Chromium engine.

Back to Iron. The privacy and tracking concerns gave Iron a distinct advantage over any other Chromium-based browser, but you can now tweak Google’s Chrome browser and the Chromium-based Opera browser to have the same blocking. The always-amazing people at DuckDuckGo tell you how to most effectively block tracking for each major browser. This ability to adjust the privacy settings means that Iron offers no advantage here over a properly configured Chromium-based browser.

Iron’s other advantage was a built-in Adblocker, but again, with the proper (and better) extensions involved in any other browser, this advantage disappears.

My biggest gripes with Iron:

Iron STILL has no updater. You still have to go find and download the latest version of Iron whenever it crosses your mind to do so. It doesn’t auto-update like most browsers, heck it doesn’t even let you know there IS a new version available. This, to me, is simply because of inattention from the developers and is inexcusable. By now, Iron should at the very least have the ability to check for updates from the browser’s “Help” menu.

Plugins and extensions are often a hassle. Since your computer thinks Iron is Chrome (Iron appears in your task manager as “chrome.exe”), it will often start up a Chrome browser when you attempt to install extensions. For example, one of my favourite extensions is LastPass password manager. I could never get it to install in Iron. Iron would download the extension, and start the installer, but then the installer would fire up Chrome to complete the install. Frustrating.

It’s not that Iron browser is bad, it’s just not as useful as it used to be, and the few shortcomings it had are no longer a minor thing that I can overlook. I haven’t uninstalled Iron and it will remain installed for the foreseeable future. I still use it occasionally, often when I am required to do things with multiple accounts, but Iron is not my go-to browser any more.

Why I like Opera:

My first big reason for liking Opera is a simple one. It’s not Chrome. There are other reasons as well. In terms of ease of use and extensions, Opera is on par with Chrome. Opera utilizes the Chromium engine with little modification and I have found it to be well-integrated with Google’s products and services like YouTube, GMail, Google+ and so on. (Internet Explorer chokes horribly on GMail and Blogger on my Windows 7 machine).

Browser makers often brag about their browser’s speed. To the layperson this means that they can download stuff faster. This is a misconception. When a browser says it is “faster”, they are referring to the time that a browser to render and display any given web page, including all the elements from the HTML code that displays the basic page, to playing video or audio, and to any Javascript that runs the special features on that page. We’ll test probably the two most important aspects of a browser’s speed: How well it handles HTML, and how efficiently it processes Javascript.

I will use three benchmark tests to check the browser’s efficiency. One test will measure how well the browsers comply with the latest HTML Spec, and the other two will provide differing measurements of how efficiently the browsers process Javascript.

I will test three Chromium-based browsers: Opera, Iron and Chrome, as well as Firefox and Internet Explorer to demonstrate both how well the Chromium engine renders and how miserable the IE browser is (which is probably why Microsoft is widely rumoured to be dumping it in the upcoming release of Windows 10). The versions tested are Chrome 39, Opera 26, Iron 39, Firefox 35 and IE 11, all the most updated versions of each browser as of this writing.

HTML renders very quickly. Speed here is not really a concern. What is important is whether or not your browser processes HTML5 the way it is supposed to be processed. The web site html5test.org gives us a tool to measure that. It’s a simple point test scored out of a total of 555 that indicates how compliant a browser is to the standard. Opera came in at a very respectable 497, just a few points behind Chrome and Iron both at 501. Firefox lagged behind, and Internet Explorer proved to be quite bad at it.

Secondly, Google has a developer’s tool named Octane that fires a battery of Javascript tests at a browser to measure the browser’s speed and efficiency of handling javascript. Octane tries to emulate a real-world application, what your browser might normally perform when in actual use. Octane scores its benchmarks inversely – the faster a test takes to execute, the higher the score. All of the Chromium-based browsers performed extremely well, but Opera outperformed Chrome to take the top mark.

Finally, SunSpider will also measure the Javascript functionality of each browser, but in a different way. Instead of firing a bunch of tests at the browser like Octane, SunSpider exercises the core, or the “engine”. To compare the two Javascript tests, think of a race car engine. Octane is the car being tested out on the track, measuring lap times. SunSpider is the car in the garage, sitting on the dynamometer and testing under ideal conditions. The measurements you are seeing in the graph is the mean time in milliseconds that each browser took to complete a round of testing. What we find (suprisingly), is that under ideal conditions, Explorer scorches the competition. The fact that it performs horribly in the Octane test shows us how poorly built the IE browser is. However, keep in mind, these measurements are in milliseconds. There is less than 200 milliseconds between the speedy IE and the sluggish Chrome. It takes you longer that that to blink an eye. The performance difference would be hard to notice.

The last test I ran was to measure the memory load of each of the five browsers. For some users, this can be an issue. There are two things you want to test with memory: How much RAM it uses while active with multiple tabs, and how well it “releases” that memory when a tab is closed. I recorded the memory usage for each browser in each of the following situations: Opened to its start page (idle); 5 tabs opened with web pages loaded; 15 tabs; 5 tabs; back to idle. The numbers given in the chart are in Megabytes. Click any of the charts to see the numbers better. Of the Chromium browsers, Opera was the clear best. Firefox was the best at managing open tabs, while IE was the best at “releasing” the memory. One final thing to note from the memory test – all three Chromium browsers left behind a 340kB GoogleCrashHandler service when they shut down.

So after all that, Opera is my new default browser, with the privacy settings properly adjusted. Iron will probably always be a favourite. If it wasn’t for Iron, the other browsers might not have developed the security tweaks. Chrome, I use if I have to.

Opera also offers a mini browser for mobile devices that is remarkably well done (not tested here, but I have it on my ancient Android smartphone). It is very light on resources, something that is important on devices like smartphones and tablets, but very slick in its operation.

Happy browsing!

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