The vicious browser wars that defined the early part of the 21st century might be over, but there's still a vibrant web browser scene. Established names elbow for room amongst young upstarts, and some old names are showing that they're not done quite yet.
There are five browser projects that are under active development for the Mac, and we review each of them here. We review and benchmark Safari, Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi and Firefox to find out which is best.
Two options we have included in previous versions of our round up of Mac web browsers - SeaMonkey and OmniWeb - don't work in High Sierra (at time of writing). We intend to update this article if a stable release of those services is issued.
Some old names such as Camino, Flock, Maxthon and Torch are sadly no longer being actively developed. They might still work on macOS High Sierra, but in our modern age running a browser that isn't regularly supplied with security updates is foolish. Also discontinued is Microsoft's Internet Explorer for Mac, but we're not so sad about that one!
Here's how the top 5 browsers compare in our tests:
Safari has been the built-in browser supplied with macOS/Mac OS X for more than a decade now. In that time it's evolved from being notoriously underpowered and painful to use to become one of the top-flight web browsers.
And because Safari is preinstalled on iPhones and iPads - and must remain the default browser on those devices, unless you jailbreak - it's also one of the world's most widely used browsers.
In terms of features, there's a handful of unique tools. For example, Reading List lets you save web pages for offline viewing (a kind of super-powerful bookmarking) while the Shared Links feature lets you monitor social media updates alongside RSS/Atom feeds from websites in a sidebar.
We particularly like Safari's implementation of pinned tabs, which lets you store useful sites at the left of the tab listing. Safari somehow makes it useful and sensible, removing the irks that plague Google Chrome's implementation.
Where Safari excels, and where no other browser even comes close to competing, is in its integration with macOS. No other browser offers access to the Keychain, for example, providing a centralised way to store and sync passwords across your Apple devices. Safari syncs with iCloud Bookmarks and has been optimised for macOS so that it uses the least possible power.
This latter feature really does make a difference if you're using some form of MacBook. We estimate that using Safari can lead to as much as an extra hour or two of browsing on one battery charge compared to using something like Google Chrome, for example.
Performance is pretty excellent too, and the old complaints about a subpar experience are simply no longer true.
When we tested Safari 10, the JetStream benchmark threw out an impressive score of 192.75. Now in Safari 11 that score is an astonishing 237.33 - way ahead of the competition, and while the Octane benchmark score was slightly more average in Safari 10, in Safari 11 the Octane score is 37289 - higher than the other browsers tested!
One way in which Apple is able to speed things up is that it is addressing some of the aspects of the web that slow things down. Sierra 11 will automatically stop auto-playing videos that have sound from running. You can edit your settings to stop all auto-playing videos - here's how.
Safari 11 will also stop cookies from tracking you - which should mean that you don’t see ads everywhere relating to the holiday you were thinking of booking. In practical terms this should speed up what goes on in the background when you visit a page and all the trackers associated with each ad start clambering for your information.
Reader view was introduced a few generations ago - it converts web pages into simple documents, without any of the typical mess of a webpage, such as adverts and arbitrary formatting. In Safari 11 you can set Reader View to be the default on a per-site basis. So if a particular site you use is loaded with ads, you can choose to always see it in Reader view.
All this boils down to an even more power-efficient Safari which Apple promises can deliver an extra two hours of web browsing and four hours of Netflix streaming. Safari really does feel snappy and there's no waiting around for pages to load. Scrolling is smooth.
Safari's main weakness is the fact that sometimes we find that web services run poorly in Safari because they haven't been tested in Apple's web browser. It's also let down by its humble selection of extensions. Anybody who's visited the Google Chrome's Web Store will snigger at the paucity of choice. If you're the kind of browser user whose extensions list reaches the double digits then you might struggle to recreate that experience with Safari.
If you want a taste of what’s to come in Safari look out for the Safari Technology Preview which you can expect to see after Apple announces its plans for the next version of macOS at WWDC in June 2018.
Built into macOS & Mac OS X - no download required
There's a pretty good chance you're reading this via Google Chrome; according to some figures 70 percent of web users rely on it daily.
Releasing a browser was a masterstroke by Google, of course, because it introduces to Macs and PCs a custom-made gateway to all of the company's online services. So strong was this effect, indeed, that up until recently Chrome had a Borg-like tendency to take over the computer on which it was installed, adding its own menu and notification system. This has been removed from recent releases, and Chrome’s Mac developers are attempting to integrate the browser with macOS's built-in systems.
Chrome has always earned its place on our computers, however, both in terms of its performance and its feature set. In past roundups we've consistently found it one of the fastest browsers available for Mac; this time around its JetStream benchmark score was only 177.79, positively dwarfed by Safari's score of 237.33. It is still the fastest of the other web browsers looked at here though - but by a small margin.. but its Octane benchmark score was very impressive. And in the real world, the speed with which pages appear and subsequently scroll is almost breathtaking.
Safari also pips Google Chrome to the post in terms of its Octane benchmark score - Google Chrome v62 scores 35131 where Safari 11 scores 37289. Last time we ran benchmarks on these browsers Google's Chrome v56 beat Safari 10 (29,719 to 28,905). So Safari has overtaken Google here with a browser test designed by Google... At least for now.
In the real world it may not matter - the speed with which pages appear and subsequently scroll is almost breathtaking.
If there's a price when it comes to using Chrome though. The Chrome browser really does push you towards Google services. You're encouraged to log in with your Google account, for example, in which case all your browsing data will automatically be synced across all your devices (including, of course, Android phones/tablets, and any of those cheap Chromebook laptops you might own). As useful as this might sound, doing so is providing Google with access to yet more of your data. A small but growing number of people refuse to put up with such strategies.
And yet it's so hard to move away from Chrome. For example, the ecosystem comprising the Chrome Web Store is simply unparalleled. There are hundreds if not thousands of extensions to cater to every need, and web apps that can duplicate almost anything that can be done on the desktop. And Chrome's developers keep adding in those genuinely useful features, such as automatic translation - visit a Chinese web page, for example, and it'll be translated automatically for you.
Google has the resources to make Chrome the best browser out there so you can expect it to keep improving. If you're desperately looking to switch away from Chrome to an alternative browser, we can provide just one potential reason: Chrome consumes battery power like a Hungry Hungry Hippo gobbles marbles. It simply doesn't appear to have been optimised for modern Macs, to the extent where we have trouble recommending Chrome for those who use a portable Mac. (See also How to get better MacBook battery life.) Of course, this makes little difference to iMac and Mac Pro users.
Get Google Chrome here.
First impressions of Opera are that it's fast. Rather like when computers are shown in movies and TV shows, pages load in the blink of an eye, and scrolling is smooth and unhindered.
As with Chrome, mind you, Opera's scores in our most recent roundup of testing weren't as impressive as Safari 11: its JetStream benchmark score of 171.43 leaves it some way behind Safari's 237.33. The Octane benchmark of 32,562 places it in third place behind Google's Chrome.
The good performance is entirely understandable because, like Vivaldi, Opera is yet another browser based on the same Blink rendering engine as Google Chrome.
Like Vivaldi (below), Opera can also utilise Chrome extensions although only if you first install a special compatibility extension. Opera has its own extensive library of native extensions in any case, which cover needs such as ad and tracker cookie blocking.
If you've been using computers for more than a decade the start of the previous paragraph might have made you scratch your head. Isn't the whole point of Opera that it uses its own browser engine? Well, it did until a few years ago.
At that point the futility of competing against Google and Microsoft must have finally got to the Opera head honchos and they abandoned it, preferring instead to build an entirely new browser on top of Blink (or WebKit, as it was back then).
And the Opera developers are still in the process of building the new Opera, with features being added in as time goes on, although you still get the basics of syncing, private browsing, and tab management. Unique to Opera is a curated news feed and a useful download manager, both of which are selected from the new tab screen.
Turbo mode attempts to reduce your bandwidth usage by sending any web pages you request compressed direct from Opera's servers, while a complete, free virtual private network (VPN) feature guarantees privacy and security if you're using your computer out and about.
The look and feel is also pleasingly basic, giving Opera a stripped-down and lean feel. Opera has now added themes, and it's possible to change the background image for new tabs.
There a lot to like in Opera but, alas, it suffers from the same battery-eating malaise as Chrome and Vivaldi, both of which are based on the same Blink rendering engine that presumably is the cause. Because of this it's hard for us to recommend Opera for anybody using a portable Mac.
Get Opera here.
There's a chance you'll never have heard of Vivaldi. It's the newest browser in our test, seeing its first major release in the first months of 2016.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking this is some optimistic upstart put together by hobbyists, however. The company's head guy is Jón von Tetzchner, who co-founded Opera back in 1994, and Vivaldi has some very specific goals: namely, to be the browser of choice for the power user generation that lives online, rather than merely visits it occasionally.
At its heart, however, Vivaldi is similar to Google Chrome. It uses the same HTML rendering engine, with a built-in Adobe Flash plugin, and you can even use Chrome's plugins.
Rather than focus on the internals, the Vivaldi team decided to pack in features. Indeed, Vivaldi is one of the most feature-packed browsers we've ever seen. It's a little hard to know where to jump in explaining the smorgasbord.
Arguably the most obvious feature, and perhaps the most useful, is the unique tab system. Put simply, Vivaldi tabs can have their own tabs - something referred to as a Stack.
Hover the mouse cursor over a tab with a Stack and you'll see thumbnail previews of the content of each tab in the Stack. Right-click the Stack and you can select to Tile the tabs, which arranges them a little like macOS and iOS's split view, except it's not full-screen and you're not limited to two items.
Four tabs in a Stack are arranged into a 2x2 grid, for example. Notably, the site within each tile works as normal, even if it is now compressed into a smaller space.
Other interesting features include the ability to create notes about any site, which subsequently appear (and can be further edited) when you visit that site. A side panel can be expanded to show bookmarks and downloads.
There's more - much more, in fact. The fly in the ointment is Vivaldi's power usage, which is high. We doubt it's been optimised at all for Mac in this regard. This isn't an issue if you're on a desktop Mac but on a portable Mac you're going to feel it in reduced battery life.
Performance in the JetStream benchmark was respectable at 176.86, as was the Octane benchmark score of 32132. Responsiveness was snappy while browsing, and it's only in complicated web apps that you'll even come close to feeling the strain.
Get Vivaldi here.
A foot soldier in the browser war of the early 21st century, Firefox became hugely popular as the alternative of choice. Since then…? Well, how things have changed.
With the introduction of Chrome, which somehow simultaneously occupies both the mainstream and alternative niches, Firefox dropped to a mere 4% market share.
Put simply, not many people use Firefox any longer. It's a browser that's never been entirely comfortable on the Mac in any event, looking somewhat at odds with macOS's simplicity and elegance. This is still the case today.
The user interface features both a URL field and a separate search field, despite the fact you can search perfectly well by typing queries into the former.
At the right of the URL and search fields are a baffling array of icons - one for adding a bookmark and another to show a bookmarks list, one to show downloads progress, a home button, and an icon to save the page to the Pocket read-later service.
Next to all that is the menu icon, which pops-up a grid of another set of icons, this time to do with configuring or utilising Firefox's features. It just feels like things haven't moved on much since desktop computing in the year 2000.
But what about the actual features - the things that might make one convert to Firefox? Amongst the goodies are Firefox Account, by which you can sync bookmarks, passwords, tabs and more across all your devices.
This includes iPhone and iPad devices now that Mozilla has finally released a version of Firefox for iOS. Then there are the features Firefox introduced and was famous for - the interface can be themed, for example, and there are buckets and buckets of add-ons and extensions that bring new features to the browser.
(While we're talking features, there used to be yet another confusing icon in that bunch on the right, which activated Firefox Hello - which let you create collaborative browsing sessions with friends - but this feature was discontinued as of Firefox 49.).
In our tests the score of 176.50 in JetStream was the lowest score we recorded, and in Octane it scored 29255 - way below the others tested here.
Firefox's power consumption wasn't quite as bad as some browsers reviewed here but still nowhere near Safari's frugality.
We're left wondering exactly what the Firefox folk have been doing for the last decade. Where's the progress or the innovation? Once upon a time it was common for the technically inclined to get people to use Firefox in preference to inferior alternatives.
Sadly, nowadays anybody who's still using Firefox should probably be pitied. There are simply much better options out there, especially on the Mac.
Get Firefox here.
NOTE: Latest version is: 2.48 and doesn't work in macOS High Sierra. Last tested version was 2.46.
Those with grey hair might remember how browsers used to work back when the two mainstream choices were Netscape or Internet Explorer - even on the Mac! A radical faction then split away from the Netscape team to form Firefox, and if you've ever wondered what happened to the venerable Netscape then we've got the answer: it became SeaMonkey
On the top side of the SeaMonkey coin is the browser itself, which is actually just one component of a bundle of apps that come under the SeaMonkey heading.
As with the original Netscape, you also get an email and newsgroup app, news/feed reader, HTML editor, IRC chat and more. Here we're looking only at the browser component.
On the other side of the coin, however, the HTML rendering engine is taken from the latest Firefox release. Thus, we end up with a perfect anachronism - SeaMonkey looks, feels and largely operates like Netscape in the year 2000 but it performs like a totally modern browser, and is fully compatible with modern web technologies.
The JetStream benchmark score for version 2.46 was 154.27, and 27074 in Octane. We were unable to test version 2.48 as it crashed when we tried to use it in High Sierra.
When we did use SeaMonkey, scrolling was less than silky smooth, but not quite as jerky as when using older versions of Firefox.
Battery power consumption was also on a par with Firefox, if a little worse.
It's not hard to see the age-related wrinkles, though. For starters, SeaMonkey doesn't appear to be compatible with Retina displays. This is probably because it uses its own text rendering system that simply hasn't been updated.
The result is that fonts look blurry. And the interface really does look like Netscape from the early years of this century. There's even the same progress icon at the top right. It's no longer the Netscape logo but that of a small bird (canary?). However, it animates in much the same way while a page is loading.
Rather irritatingly, gestures don't work, so you can't swipe left or right on a trackpad or Magic Mouse in order to move back or forward in your browsing history.
Other than what's mentioned earlier, in terms of features things are fairly standard: syncing of bookmarks and other browsing data (via SeaMonkey's own server), regular tabbed browsing, support for extensions (again, SeaMonkey's own rather than Firefox), and some useful older features long-since lost from most modern browsers, such as the ability to block images from a particular site.
If ever you've been faced with a new "modern" look and feel in an updated app, and then wondered why things can't just stay the same as they ever were, SeaMonkey is for you. However, it's pretty hard to recommend for anybody else - especially if your Mac has a Retina screen or you are running High Sierra.
Get SeaMonkey here.
NOTE: Latest version is an unstable and untested build that are “snapshots of our development”. Last tested version was build 8C1002, 2017-03-03 17:42:15 -0800, Revision 280911.
It might sound incredible but 15 years ago, when Mac OS X was young, there wasn't a lot of choice when it came to web browsers. OmniWeb was one of them and, although it again sounds incredible, it was sold to avid Mac users for $40.
Needless to say, entire oceans have flowed under the bridge since then and nowadays OmniWeb is free, just like virtually every other web browser.
Being virtually the only kid in town wasn't OmniWeb's only virtue in those early days. The designers behind it also strictly followed Apple's Cocoa user interface guidelines.
Put simply, this means that OmniWeb was a shining example of how a Mac app should look and feel. Open new browser tabs, for example, and a drawer slides out at the left to display them as thumbnail previews. In the somewhat spare and flat world of UI design nowadays this kind of thing looks a little twee and even nostalgic if you're a long-time Mac user.
OmniWeb offers a curiously idiosyncratic set of features. For example, Workspaces lets you create configurations of browser tabs. You can switch between each Workspace, hiding any others, and save them so that you can load up that array of tabs in future. Clearly, this was made with serious research tasks in mind.
OmniWeb allows you to create settings for individual sites too. Don't like the font used at BBC News? Just open the site preferences using the icon at the top right, and choose a different one. OmniWeb will remember your choice in future.
Ad-blocking is built in, although this is not done via a huge sites blacklist, as with most ad-blockers, but by blocking images that match ad sizes and other characteristics.
There's no way to expand OmniWeb's functionality using plugins or extensions, and as mentioned the interface is old-fashioned, with both a URL field and Google search box. The interface can't be themed. There's no private browsing mode, either.
We tested performance of this somewhat unstable version in JetStream and Octane. In Jetstream it scored 190.82 and in Octane the score was a measly 24282 (in fact the first time we ran the test, it failed to complete the process, although the test rated this incomplete run at 28247.)
The last time we ran these tests, OmniWeb made our MacBook Pro's fans spin up during the benchmark testing procedure, something that didn't happen while testing the other browsers. Power consumption was higher than Safari, but not too bad compared to the others on test here.
It's all a little peculiar but, if OmniWeb was indeed one of only a few choices when it came to web browsing, we could imagine ourselves using it happily, and even coming to respect it. People did, and there's a hardcore of users that still do. For the rest of us, times have changed.
Get OmniWeb here.
How we test - speed scores
Latest version tested: 11.0
Latest version tested: 62.0.3202.62 (64-bit)
Latest version tested: 48
Latest version tested: 1.12
Latest version tested: 56
Latest version tested: 2.46
(Note: Latest version is: 2.48 but that version doesn't work as of October 2017)
Latest version tested: build 8C1002, 2017-03-03 17:42:15 -0800, Revision 280911
(Latest version is only for Macs running OS X 10.9 and below. Otherwise, test builds are available that are unstable and untested, described as a “snapshots of our development”, as of October 2017).