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Which is the fastest browser?

Software & AppsFeatures
by Michael Muchmore, 04 Jan 2013Features
Which is the fastest browser?

The Internet has always been about getting to the information you need faster than you could in any other way. Now it's also about and working with web-based apps and playing games that you want to be as responsive as your desktop programs.

Google's Chrome browser became a favourite among many primarily because of its speed – speed of installation, startup, page loading, and running web applications. The latter relies primarily on a browser's JavaScript performance, and initially Chrome trounced competing browsers like Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox in JavaScript benchmarks.

But the other browser makers haven't sat idle. They rebuilt, optimised, and generally revved up their JavaScript engines to the point that on the most cited JavaScript benchmark, Webkit's SunSpider, all of the most popular browsers have gotten within spitting distance of each other.

The advances are pretty remarkable if you look back: When I first tested Internet Explorer 7 on Sunspider, it completed the benchmark in a whopping 47,119ms, compared with the contemporary version of Chrome's 749ms. Internet Explorer 8 was much slower, too, at 9015ms. But with IE9 and IE10, this enormous margin has been erased.

But there are now more thorough JavaScript benchmarks, and other important measures of speed deserve consideration, too. With IE9, Microsoft introduced the concept of hardware acceleration – using your PC's graphics card to speed up browser functions. Another important consideration is how long it takes for the browser to get going in the first place. For this speed comparison of browsers, we'll look at performance as measured by four criteria:

  • Startup time, both cold (after a PC reboot) and warm (after the browser has already been running)
  • JavaScript benchmarks (SunSpider, Mozilla Kraken, Google V8)
  • Hardware acceleration tests
  • Independent studies of page loading performance

For the JavaScript benchmarks, I tested on a laptop with a 2.53 GHz dual-core CPU and 3GB of RAM running 32-bit Windows 7 Professional. Each benchmark was run at least five times, with the best and worst score thrown out before averaging results. For all tests, I shut down all non-essential processes from Task Manager.

The Contestants

Google Chrome. This is the one that started the recent speed craze. Google's browser gets a new version number about every two months, and occasionally these include new speed-ups. While initially, Chrome far surpassed the competition in JavaScript speed, others have caught up. Google has also added hardware acceleration support not only for Windows, but for Mac OS X and Linux, too.

Maxthon. This outlier from China has surprised many with its extensive support for HTML5 and performance on benchmark tests (and it did well, scoring an 8/10 when we reviewed it). It can display pages using either Chrome's Webkit page renderer or IE's Trident. Maxthon dolls up the browser with many tools for tasks such as finding and downloading all the media on a page. It even includes a Night Mode that darkens primarily white web pages to save your eyes.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9. For this time around, we'll stick with what most people are using, but we'll be sure to test Microsoft's latest, Internet Explorer 10 on Windows 8, in a future round-up. Yes, IE10 is available for Windows 7, but only as a Release Preview at this point.

Mozilla Firefox. The only browser not coming from a commercial interest, Firefox is a new-standards-embracing, constantly updated, feature-packed browser. Startup speed has been an issue, and Firefox has fallen behind Chrome in some benchmarks. But it was earlier with hardware acceleration, and a new JavaScript engine and faster startup times have gotten it back into the game.

Opera. When it first hit way back in 1996, speed was the main hallmark of Opera. It was notably faster than the competition at the time, but the only problem was that it didn't display all websites correctly. Opera has also been a major innovator. It was the first browser with things we take for granted in all browsers today, including such basics as tabs and built-in search. And the innovation hasn't stopped: Opera recently became the first to implement standards-based access to the webcam and support for paged content.

Astute readers will notice that I've left out Safari. Apple's browser for Windows is no longer promoted on the company's Safari download page, and has not been released in new versions as Safari on the Mac has. With the introductions out of the way, let's move onto the test results, beginning with startup time.

Startup time

One of the most frustrating effects of slow performance in any software is when you have to wait just to start using it. This delay is far more pronounced the first time you start running a browser after booting up the OS – this is called a "cold" startup. Once you've run an application and closed it, the next time you start it, the program is much faster – a warm startup. Startup time has been a bugbear for Firefox for a number of years, but recently things have gotten better for Mozilla's browser in this department.

Browser Cold Startup Time (seconds) Warm Startup Time (seconds)
Internet Explorer 9 3.0 1.5
Chrome 23 3.3 1.5
Maxthon 3.4 4.0 1.5
Firefox 17 4.0 1.6
Opera 12 10.1 2.9

Occasionally any browser will take much longer to cold start, if it's updating or loading new extensions, for example. As you can see, our old friend Opera is the biggest offender this time around. But after the initial run, with a warm startup all the browsers are acceptably fast. Firefox is no longer trailing by much, and Chrome is predictably fast. But this first round goes to Internet Explorer 9, just.

JavaScript benchmarks

The web no longer consists of simple static pages of information, but web applications such as Google Docs and Office Web Apps. These, and the many casual web games which are now around require interactivity that's usually powered by JavaScript. When the browser speed topic was ignited by the appearance of Google Chrome, the leading JavaScript benchmark was Webkit's SunSpider.

Other more thorough JavaScript benchmarks have subsequently appeared, and we tested using SunSpider plus two of these newer measures, Mozilla's Kraken and Google's V8. As you can see, the tests come from the browser makers themselves, but you might be surprised to find out that this doesn't mean the browser from the benchmark maker always wins.

All of these benchmarks claim to test real-world browser operations, and each of these benchmarks consists of a set of server operations run multiple times. SunSpider's page, for example, states that the benchmark "generates a tagcloud from JSON input, a 3D raytracer, cryptography tests, code decompression, and many more." But in the end, they're all really synthetic tests that only test one slice of browser performance. Here were my results for the software under consideration:

Browser SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms (lower is better)
Google Chrome 23 236
Internet Explorer 9 260
Firefox 17 265
Maxthon 3.4 296
Opera 12 302

Chrome has regained the lead on SunSpider, after trading places with IE and Opera temporarily. But the largest difference is only by a margin of 66ms, where in the past it had been in the thousands of milliseconds.

Browser Google V8 (v.7) Score (higher is better)
Maxthon 3.4 9767
Google Chrome 23 9694
Firefox 17 6512
Firefox 16 5876
Opera 11.61 3498
Internet Explorer 9 2048

This one was a bit of a shocker to me, namely because the relatively little-known Maxthon could beat Google's browser in the company's own benchmark. But the two top performers here, Chrome and Maxthon, are separated by a far smaller margin than the gap seen between them and the rest. IE9 makes a particularly poor showing on this one. For a future article that includes IE10, I'll use Google's newer Octane benchmark suite, which is a superset of V8. But for now, the newer test isn't compatible with IE9.

Browser Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms (lower is better)
Google Chrome 23 3235
Maxthon 3.4 3299
Firefox 17 4133
Opera 12 12336
Internet Explorer 9 16794

On Mozilla's test, you might expect Firefox to have an advantage, but the results show otherwise. As with the V8 benchmark, Chrome and Maxthon take top honours, while IE and Opera finish far behind. For this round, the pioneer in super-fast JavaScript performance, Google Chrome, takes the prize.

Hardware acceleration

The developers of Internet Explorer 9 introduced a number of browser innovations, but perhaps the most significant of these was hardware acceleration. This technique speeds up all kinds of browser functions using the PC's graphics hardware, and is particularly important for 3D visualisations such as those used in some online games. The other browsers, starting with Firefox, have followed suit, implementing hardware acceleration in their code. Notably, with Firefox and Chrome you get the speed boost not only in Windows 7 and 8 as is the case with IE, but in Mac OS X and Linux, too.

Particle Acceleration

The IE team has posted a raft of demos that test this performance at IETestdrive.com. I used two of these to compare hardware acceleration. I also used a different test PC with this group, one with a beefier graphics card. The first test, Psychedelic Browsing, spins a colour wheel and plays spacy sounds, reporting RPM as a result. The test clearly separates browsers with hardware acceleration from those without. Opera hasn't yet implemented hardware acceleration by default, and Maxthon, which up to now has looked great, shows its Achilles' heel. Here are my results, using a 3.4GHz quad-core desktop with an ATI Radeon HD4290 graphics card:

Browser Psychedelic Browsing RPM (higher is better)
Google Chrome 23 3390 (correct sound)
Internet Explorer 9 3303 (correct sound)
Firefox 17 3157 (no sound)
Opera 12 782 (no sound)
Maxthon 3.4 57 (correct sound)

The second IETestdrive benchmark I used was HTML5 Particle Acceleration. This benchmark spins a globe composed of small spheres and reports draw time (in milliseconds, lower is better) and frames per second or fps (higher is better). Fps tops out at 60, the maximum for a standard LCD monitor. The test also reports a score, but that fluctuates too drastically to accurately report. Below are my results for the current crop of browsers on the 3.4GHz quad-core desktop with an ATI Radeon HD4290 graphics card:

HTML5 Particle Acceleration Benchmark Draw Time (milliseconds, lower is better) FPS (higher is better)
Firefox 17 5 60
Internet Explorer 9 6 60
Chrome 23 7 60
Opera 12 18 55
Maxthon 3.4 26 41

Chalk one up for Firefox! Even though this test seemed a little unfair to Microsoft, which has designed the test for IE10 (which gets TKms and TKFPS), IE9 acquits itself with aplomb. Again, we see that Maxthon and Opera lag in hardware acceleration.

I had one final test of hardware acceleration (which comes from Mozilla), and that's the Hardware Acceleration Stress test, which spins a spiral of photos in the browser window and reports a score in frames per second. This test showed the browsers furthest along in implementing hardware acceleration (particularly for CSS) to good advantage. Note that the benchmark doesn't report frame rates over 60 fps, since that's the limit of standard LCDs. Because of that, it's pretty much a pass/fail test, where anything under 60 is a fail:

Browser Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test FPS (higher is better)
Firefox 17 60+
Internet Explorer 9 60+
Google Chrome 23 60+
Opera 12 42
Maxthon 3.4 19

Again, this hardware acceleration benchmark reveals the losers more clearly than the winners. Firefox, IE9, and Chrome all pass with flying colours, while Opera and Maxthon trail. With a three-way tie in this one, and the previous test results too close between the top three finishers, I have to declare a draw between Chrome, Firefox, and IE9 on this one.

Page load reports

While benchmarks show one side of browser speed, performance measuring services get to see literally billions of actual page load times for actual websites. One such organisation is New Relic, which periodically publishes reports of how fast each browser loads pages it's monitoring. The latest report came out just this past November, and here's how the browsers pan out running in Windows:

new relic

Surprisingly, IE9 and Firefox both beat out the perceived speed champion, Google Chrome, though only by a fraction of a second. One aspect of concern to note here is that the more recent version of Chrome, 22, came out slower than the earlier version 21, and by a considerable gap.

Another page load performance measurement comes from Strangeloop Networks, which provides front-end optimisation (FEO) solutions to global ecommerce websites. In a February test, the firm used the WebPageTest tool to measure the performance of the Alexa-ranked top 2,000 ecommerce sites. Here's a summary of their findings:

strangeloop

StrangeLoop found that IE9 and Firefox 7 were each about 5 per cent faster than Chrome in this study, with IE9 winning by a tiny margin of 0.038ms. So IE9 takes this round.

The Fastest Browser

So here are the winners for each category:

Startup: Internet Explorer

JavaScript: Google Chrome

Hardware acceleration: Three-way Tie; Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer

Page load reports: Internet Explorer

Overall winner: Internet Explorer

Yes, it will be a shocker to many, but this isn't your grandpa's Internet Explorer. The team behind Microsoft's browser has been hard at work making the much-derided browser more "performant." But I hope that the criteria above show that speed can be measured in multiple ways. There are all sorts of ways you could weight the results to get a different answer, depending on what you think is the most important component of speed. In any case it's a very tight race between the top three, with IE winning by the shortest of noses.

Remember also that speed isn't the only thing you should base your browser decision on: Support for standards like HTML5 and CSS3 are equally important – in fact, one standard supported by Chrome and Firefox, SPDY, can actually mean much faster performance for certain sites. And don't forget features like tab implementation, syncing, security, and extensibility. All these factors should be considered when you're picking your browser – but of course, speed never hurts.

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