Reader, I have a confession to make: Despite being a reporter who writes about all the ways our privacy regularly gets exploited by the feds and major tech players alike, I don’t exactly practice what I preach. I’ll download any free app regardless of whether or not it’s sending my data to dubious data brokers overseas, I’ll use my personal email to sign up for shit even when I know there’s a chance it’s going to eventually leak out, and I’ll use browsers that I know are tracking my every move—all in the hope of an occasional discount.
But just because I’ve chosen perks over privacy doesn’t mean that you have to do the same, particularly when it comes to browsing the web. Over the past few years, there’s been a flurry of new browsers bursting onto the scene that promise to prioritize keeping our personal details personal, sometimes at the sake of performance. Others run like a dream, but are owned by tech monoliths like Apple or Google.
Because there are so many browsers (and so little time!) we decided to pit seven of the biggest names against each other and test out their chops when it comes to design, performance, and—of course—respect for our privacy:
While many of these are varying degrees of mobile-friendly, we’re going to run them through the ringer only on desktop this go-around. And just to keep things fair, I’ll be testing each browser on the slightly beat-up MacBook Air that I use daily, along with an Alienware PC as my PC desktop tester.
Let me get this out of the way first: Google might be an evil company with little respect for the people who use their products or build them in the first place, but there’s a reason that Chrome’s the most popular browser by a landslide. It’s got a dirt-simple interface, with nothing up top but the ever-present omnibox to house your URLs, a star for favoriting a given tab, and a little space for any of the third-party widgets you use (in my case, about 10). And if you’re the type that’s into customizing their browsing experience, Chrome’s home screen allows you to slap on anything from Deadpool to the milky way whenever you want.
Safari, on the other hand, has a few features that make it a handy addition to your repertoire if you have, say, an iPhone or an iPad. Aside from sharing bookmarks, you can also save pages for later from your laptop to your phone (or vice versa) using your reading list. Chrome’s browser shares a similar functionality, but needs your Google account in order to do it.
And like Chrome, Safari has oodles of third-party extensions you can install to make Safari your own—to an extent. Like just about every Mac-centric product, Safari’s design is sleek and streamlined, but looks-wise, it’s barely customizable aside from the layout of the top toolbar, which means it gets a pass from me (that will change when macOS Big Sur rolls out this fall).
Meanwhile, the new Microsoft Edge browser that debuted back in January shares Chrome’s open-source Chromium backbone, and some of its customizable chops, too. Edgers (for a lack of better name) can tweak their splash pages to be as bare-bones or busy as they like. “Focused” renders their home screen somewhat minimalistic, “Inspirational” offers what Microsoft calls a “motivating image of the day,” and “Informational” fills it with the day’s headlines courtesy of Microsoft News. When it comes to customization, Edge lets you toggle between light and dark modes, and add on third-party extensions from Microsoft’s own marketplace or from Google’s.
Brave and Firefox share similarly clean and stark interfaces as Safari, but with the added bonus that both come with a built-in ad blocker. In Brave’s case, this also means flipping its “shields” on by default, which not only block the ads themselves, but any stray trackers or cookie-adjacent tech that might come lumped along with them. Brave allows you to toggle off the shields setting if you want, but honestly, with what we know about how creepy the companies behind this tech actually are, I’d suggest leaving these shields raised.
Tor, meanwhile, is built to be a utilitarian web browser and looks the part. The interface is clunky and not customizable at all. While the browser’s been beefed up a bit thanks to the implementation of Firefox Quantum, in a lot of ways, using Tor feels a lot like using a bare-bones browser like Safari, but with the speed of a dial-up connection from the days of yore.
Opera, for better or worse, is the most whimsical browser on the list. While it has the same omnibars we’ve come to know and love from all of the big names we tested, it also has a specialized sidebar baked into its interface so you can, in the company’s words, “do more in one place.” And honestly, I’m...not too mad at it.
Sure, seeing Whatsapp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger icons hanging around the side of my screen (with the options to add Telegram, Twitter, and the Russian social network VK) seemed gimmicky at first. But because Opera lets you shave the sidebar down to just the social networks you want to use (in my case, Whatsapp to keep tabs on my family and Messenger to keep tabs on my college pals), I found that using the sidebar was way more intuitive than I initially thought. Rather than my usual dance of toggling between Whatsapp and Messenger’s respective desktop apps outside of my usual browsing business, I was able to control everything within a single window. Plus, you can customize your splash page, just like with Chrome. Still, Opera Neon might be too unique for the average user, which means there’s one standout winner if you want familiar, clean, and so customizable you can make your eyes bleed (if you want to).
We have a long, storied history of taking web browsers for speed runs, but everyone’s benchmarks are a little different. In my case, I wanted to keep things simple and look at the speed of each browser upon startup, and when under pressure to load one tab at a time followed by a few simultaneously—one that’s relatively light on resources (Wikipedia), one that takes a bit more effort (Facebook, Amazon), and one that’s resource-intensive (Gizmodo dot com). In all cases, the timer starts the second I hit enter, and ends the second the site stops initializing (or their little wheelie-bar stops spinning, if you want to get technical).
Let’s start with the losers first. As some of you might’ve guessed, Tor came dead last—and this is by design. Tor anonymizes its browser by relaying any given connection to a server multiple times, and sometimes through multiple countries. As you might expect, this back-and-forth takes some time: On my end, loading up a resource-intensive page took anywhere from 20ish seconds (on PC) to more than 40 (on Mac). And that’s on top of the 10 or so seconds of lag every time you boot up the browser while it forms a brand new “circuit” to relay your traffic through. Chrome was the second most sluggish, sometimes taking more than 25 seconds(!) to boot up multiple tabs at once, and that goes for both Mac and Windows. No matter how you slice it, this browser’s a memory hog, even without any extensions installed.
Brave, Opera, and Firefox were neck-and-neck, but Mozilla’s browser fell behind the other two by about a half-second on average—not too noticeable for most web-surfing, but still worth noting. In particular, Firefox seemed to struggle with any site that implemented a lot of third-party tracking goodies or was loaded up with ads, possibly because the browser is specifically built to curb that tech from functioning.
For Windows, Edge’s native browser fell behind Brave by just 0.1 seconds on average, but that lil margin of error could be due to the fact that I was timing by hand. Light- and medium-lift Edge tabs loaded in well under a second, but ultimately, the multi-tab loading is what dragged its overall performance down.
Winner: Safari on Mac, Edge or Brave on Windows
Ah, the privacy debate. I know this section is why a lot of you clicked on this article in the first place, because privacy-preserving browsers are kinda trendy at the moment. The bad news here is that privacy—and tech privacy specifically—can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The murky definition of what it means for a browser, an app, or a company to care about “privacy” is something that each of these characters regularly exploit, so I’m going to be crystal clear about the way each of these companies define it, and whether their definition actually means a damn thing in the grand scheme of it all (spoiler: it usually doesn’t).
First, it’s worth noting that both the latest editions of Chrome and Safari default to letting its users eschew the sorts of dreaded third-party tracking tech we were talking about earlier. But in Chrome’s case, this comes with the baggage of knowing that while you might be able to block out those other actors, you’re still using Google’s own browser, and as such, it can still track you however it damn well pleases, even if you try clearing your browsing history or sliding into Incognito mode. Meanwhile, researchers from Google found that Apple’s own tracking prevention tech could be theoretically abused to find the sorts of private information it’s promising to stomp out—though the research came from one of the company’s rivals, so it might be worth taking with a grain of salt.
Opera promises privacy by clocking ads and trackers natively—and even giving users the option to use the Opera VPN. But it lacks transparency about whether any of the data from Opera is handed off to third parties behind the scenes, so it’s a pass from me. Edge, meanwhile, has been critiqued in the past for mandating that your browser details be literally hooked up to your device’s hardware, which means you can’t shake any tracking on Microsoft’s part, no matter how hard you try.
And while Firefox and Brave are both browsers that purport to carry privacy at their core, the two aren’t perfect. Back in June, Brave was caught sneaking affiliate links—which could be used for tracking and targeting by third parties later down the line—onto the tail end of certain URLs. In Firefox’s case, a trove of security researchers found some (arguably) more damning evidence earlier this year. As they put it, Firefox’s browser, by default, stores a certain amount of telemetry data in order to monitor its platform for any bugs that might crop up—the same way that just about every browser does. And while this telemetry data isn’t “personal,” per se, the researchers found that just like other pieces of anonymous data that tech companies collect on the regular, it can be de-anonymized pretty dang quickly. And on mobile, these already-sticky privacy issues were compounded by Firefox sharing these details with a third-party ad tech and data broker. Yeesh.
Unsurprisingly, the best privacy-protective browser is the one all of our paranoid friends use: Tor. While the browser doesn’t block cookies and trackers by default, there is an option to literally get a whole new identity with every browsing session. As the company explains it, toggling this feature:
- Closes all tabs
- Clears the session state including cache, history, and most cookies
- Runs your browser through a new set of relays, with new IP addresses
And while the new identity feature might not kill every cookie, the browser gives you the option to do that yourself through its “privacy and security” module.
Winner: Tor, hands down.
Unfortunately, you’re never going to find a browser that checks all the boxes, but you can usually find one that appeals to what you prioritize most. Chrome is soul-sucking, but I think it’s awfully pretty too. Tor can be clunky and slow, but also much more privacy-preserving. However, Brave was one of the best-looking browsers, and one of the most thoughtful when it comes to privacy. It also actually tied Edge for speed in Windows. That means it might be the closest you’re gonna get to any sort of ideal for Windows, and the same can be said of Safari on the Mac. While there are still some concerns regarding privacy when it comes to Apple’s browser, and it does mean tying yourself closer to a large corporation, it’s pretty and fast. But with any browser, even our favorites Brave and Safari, don’t expect perfection. Browser developers still have a long way to go to give us something that works perfectly for everyone.