2.08.2012

Review of Featherweight Browsers

Browsers, if anything, are the greatest paradox within computer programs. As much as people need them to obtain information (compare clicking a link to using 'wget' or 'curl'), they are the easiest doors to be exploited by attackers, and resource-heavy by comparison. However, browsers do evolve with these issues, and are constantly working on them - except that savvy users are never really satisfied. So one of the key terms for Browsers today is the concept of "lightweight." Every modern browser available for download today refers to itself as lightweight. The only problem is that nobody knows its exact definition.

Firefox and Chrome(-ium) are both decent browsers in my opinion, and call themselves light. In truth, however, they support everything you can think of. The outcome is the standard recipe web-browser which takes a good 100MB off the RAM to run your favorite page, and a couple more to load a full browsing session. This may be adequate to you, provided you have the memory to spend, but it's kind of a waste to burn this much just to view a few tabs of content just to search something in Google. Hence, a lightweight browser isn't enough. It's time to dig for something deeper, a featherweight browser.

For starters, here are the minimum specs through which I define "featherweight" (as to separate them from crap browsers):

  1. Able to load html, images (png, jpg, gif), and render a proper site structure (not stacking columns, making you have to scroll down)
  2. Able to open content in tabs
  3. Memory consumption must stay below 50MB
  4. Javascript/Flash are optional, but welcome if #3 remains valid.
  5. Extensions are optional, again welcome if #3 remains valid.
If you're on a hunt of your on, I recommend heading straight to this site. It has a list of many web browsers for Linux, although most are cross-platform. I did visit it to research on my own, and I now present you the results:

Mozilla Seamonkey
This is Mozilla's all-in-one Internet Suite. The program is a bundle of a browser, e-mail client and IRC, drawn from the same code pool as Firefox and Thunderbird, but with the premises of being a lighter alternative. In reality, I found it to be almost no different than Firefox itself, and that included the memory usage. The browser has a lower footprint than Firefox per tab, but that perk soon goes away when five or more tabs are opened. Just open up YouTube, and watch the consumption go to a whopping 230MB!

Notice that it can use Personas and a variety of extensions, making it almost no different than Firefox itself.
I personally don't consider it lightweight at all. Puppy Linux at some point had a streamlined version of it which was considerably faster than the one in the Ubuntu repositories - which, by the way, is seriously outdated given that the latest Linux release is 2.7 compared to 2.4 in the repos. I think the only perk Seamonkey has is that it supports useful plugins from Firefox, like adblock and personas, so making a transition wouldn't be painful.
Final Score: 4/10

Links2
This browser is the follow-up to the classical Links text-based browser. The difference? It can display images, and therefore can be considered a GUI browser. The graphical interface (activated with the option '-g') resembles a lot of the classics, and is not pretty at all, but who cares. The web, or at least the meaningful parts of it, doesn't get any lighter than this. The browser rests at 6MB, and I doubt if it ever exceeds 10. It's also very stable, never crashing even when unable to load plugins.

Command line just got Graphical.

The only drawback I see with Links2 is that it doesn't feature any kind of tabbed browsing. Which is a pity, seeing that even Elinks - also forked from the original Links, but text-only - can do that. I frankly don't understand what's so hard about implementing tabs, a core feature in browsers today, in Links2.
Final Score: 6/10

Truth is that many other projects were forked from the original Links, and actually implemented the tabbing feature. I'm gonna talk about them below. They're very similar in nature to Links2, so I'll just post the details:



Links-hacked
Russian fork of Links, aimed to merge the good features of Elinks (tabs, SSH, Javascript) into the graphical interface of Links2. Unfortunately, I was unable to install it. The source package did not come with a "configure" script, telling me to produce one from their other scripts. I was unable to generate one, and that was pretty much it. What a pity, this browser sounded pretty kickass.
Final Score: N/A

LinkX
Nice tabs... but where did the images go?

Similar to the above, it implements tabbed browsing into Links2. Installation was also pretty straightforward. Sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately it came with a few bugs that weren't on Links2, like the inability to load JPEG and GIF (only PNG, apparently). What the hell... how can you fork it and forget the very thing that made Links2 good? Gosh.
Final Score: 6/10

Hv3
The Html Viewer 3 is available for Linux and Windows, programmed in TCL and distributed as a binary file of 3MB. Despite its size, it packs a surprising array of features, such as full support for images, caching, SSL and even Javascript (optional through ECMAScript). This one impressed me, especially because of the true rendering of images that makes it resemble Firefox without flash. RAM stayed low. Even with seven tabs open, hv3 took only 40MB to work.

The closest to mainstream that a featherweight can get.
This browser is, however, slightly buggy. It shut down a few times under random circumstances, and after a while, it refused to work with keyboard. But for a featherweight experimental browser, I guess this is acceptable. Should you have the time, feel free to debug it through the terminals.
Final Score: 8/10

The bottom line
You don't need to add more RAM just to surf the web while using another application. These featherweight browsers can display the only things that matter on the internet: text and images. That's about 80% of the internet resumed. Obviously you wouldn't do bank transfers or watch TV shows through these browsers, but they do pack a punch despite their size. Maybe if you give enough time, Hv3 will mature into a stable, yet featherweight surfing machine.

Also, this calls for a lesson to webmasters. Quit designing your pages with that Flash or Java bullshit. You don't need a stupid applet just to present the readers with the information you got. Cut the crap, save bandwidth, and win nonetheless.


February 2012 by K. Zimmermann
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