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Watch out, Chrome, there are two new browsers in town!

In 2015 Chrome will face off against two newcomers in the browser arena; Spartan and Vivaldi. Vivaldi, by the original developers of Opera, challenges Chrome with an array of features and modern code. Spartan, meanwhile, offers a Chrome-like interface in addition to an entirely new rendering engine (unofficially called EdgeHTML) forked from Internet Explorer’s Trident.

Both browsers owe their existence to Google’s browser, which dominated benchmarks beginning in 2008. From then on, Chrome released cutting-edge features, such as sandboxing, and features derivative of Opera. Its performance and rock-solid security helped it seize 51 percent of the global browser market on desktops in 2014.

Chrome’s greatest achievements are its security features, such as sandboxing and automatic updates. As for browsing speed, Chrome uses its own rendering engines called Blink, a WebKit fork, and V8, which renders JavaScript. Any potential competitor must attack the dominant browser in both features and performance. Do these newcomers impress in both areas?

How to install the challengers

While Spartan browser remains unreleased, users can enable many of its features, including the rendering engine, in the latest build of Windows 10 (build 9926). Just open Internet Explorer and type (without quotation marks) “about:flags” into the address bar.

Users can then enable the new rendering engine by checking the box for enabling experimental features.

Users can download Vivaldi’s technical preview direct from its website. No additional alterations need to be made.

What is Vivaldi?

Vivaldi, like Opera, is built on code open-sourced from Google’s Chromium browser. It uses the same rendering engines offered by Chrome, but the browser’s user interface is coded in modern web-languages, like JavaScript and React. Vivaldi insinuates this improves UI performance.

Most of Vivaldi’s features inhabit the left-pane toolbar. It’s that toolbar which Vivaldi’s developers claim will increase the browser’s speed. Many of the repetitive actions required in browsing, such as taking screenshots, come bundled by default. Users of Chrome (or any other browser) would have to download numerous extensions to enjoy the same functionality.

Because it uses Chromium as a base, it should be able to use many of Chrome’s vast extensions library, as other Chromium-based browsers have. That provides it the best of both worlds; lots of baked-in features, but also plenty of customization.

Vivaldi’s features

Notes: Users can clip notes directly from their browser, without requiring extensions. The notes automatically tag the site that they were clipped from, similar to Evernote’s extension for Chrome and Firefox. The notes feature also permits custom tagging and a tree/branches system of organization.

Speed Dial: Like most browsers, Vivaldi includes a shortcut to frequently visited websites. Users can customize the speed dial by bookmarking a page and adding the link to the speed dial folder.

Extensions: While not implemented yet, Vivaldi’s developers plan on rolling out an extensions library. Many of Chrome’s extensions should be cross-compatible. Considering that Google locked down the extension library for Chrome, users seeking a more open app ecosystem might find Vivaldi worth looking at.

Sandboxing: The same sandboxing technology found in Chromium also extends to Vivaldi. It prevents rogue websites’ malicious code from altering your computer.

Email: Vivaldi will include integration with Vivaldi Mail. This feature will allow users an easier means of interacting with web content via email.

Quick Commands: Users can use a single keyboard short-cut to search through their collection of bookmark links, browsing history and more. It also permits user-created shortcuts. The big advantage is that every bookmark and note is indexed and, thus, searchable.

What is Spartan?

The Spartan browser, reportedly an attempt to emulate the clean design of Chrome and Firefox, hasn’t publicly released its user-interface yet, but early descriptions compare it to Chrome. Spartan dispenses with the cluttered, antiquated design of IE, focusing on a leaner browsing experience. Unlike Vivaldi, Microsoft aims at deploying the browser on both mobile and desktop platforms. Early previews of Spartan’s features hint at four potentially game-changing additions in 2015.

Keep in mind that while users of the Windows 10’s technical preview can experiment with its new rendering engine, the whole package hasn’t been rolled out yet. Even so, some of the upcoming features are jaw-dropping in their ambitiousness.

Spartan’s features

On-screen drawing: Spartan offers a unique means of sharing notes. Users can mark directly on the browser window using MS Paint-like tools. On-screen drawing, direct from a browser window, is a killer feature for students and professionals, particularly combined with tablets. While not released in the Windows 10 technical preview yet, early Windows 10 previews have received favorable commentary. While Chrome does offer screenshot capabilities through extension, it falls short of Microsoft’s offering.

Cortana Integration: As Chrome integrates Google Now, Spartan will include support for the personal assistant software Cortana. Its biggest advantage over Google Now: Cortana can interact with the operating system and thus provides a broader experience compared to Google’s software.

Browser Extensions: Perhaps the most anticipated addition coming in Spartan is its extensions. Microsoft intends on building an app store, similar to the Chrome Web Store. One might speculate that instead of offering a single shop for browsers, Microsoft will allow browser extensions to be installed from the Microsoft Store. This stands out in contrast against Google’s division between the Google Play Store and the Chrome Web Store. A single, unified source of software seems easier to navigate.

Offline Mode: Spartan can save web content for offline consumption and reformat it for an easier mobile reading experience, similar to services like Pocket. While Google Chrome offers the ability to save webpages in PDF format, Spartan may go further in its attempts to spread across multiple platforms. With the potential for OneDrive syncing, an offline reader might let users to clip content once and share everywhere.

Protected Mode: Microsoft introduced Protected Mode in Internet Explorer 9. Similar to sandboxing, Protected Mode runs browser processes in three security “zones”. Each zone cannot make modifications to the operating system’s registry or file system, even if a browser becomes compromised by a malware-serving website.

Which is the quickest?

I tested each browser using three popular browser benchmarks on two different systems. The systems used for the test were an AMD Athlon 5150 running Windows 10 and a virtualized installation of Windows 10 on a Core i7-4765T. Within the virtualized installation, the testing included both single and dual core configurations, in order to determine the impact of multi-threaded browser performance.

Here’s the benchmarks used.

  • Peacekeeper benches each browser’s performance in a battery of tests, focusing on HTML5. Chrome historically outperforms its rivals in Peacekeeper. Vivaldi, by extension, should perform on par with Chrome, since it shares much of its code with Chrome.
  • Browsermark 2.1 specializes in benching general browser performance, such as 2D and 3D rendering, Javascript, HTML5 and more. It’s the most general test of these three benchmarks.
  • Octane 2.0 tests each browser’s JavaScript rendering engine using a more modern approach than the moldering SunSpider benchmark. Internet Explorer has always fallen behind Chrome in Octane.

Benchmark, Single Core, Core i7-4765T

Benchmark, Dual Core, Core i7-4765T

 

Benchmark, Quad Core, AMD Athlon 5150

What jumps in these three benchmarks is how poorly Spartan performed in all but Octane. However, its performance in that benchmark scaled extremely well when additional cores became available. On the quad core AMD platform, Spartan offers comparable numbers to Chrome.

By adding a single additional core, Spartan’s performance in the Octane benchmark improved by almost 41 percent.

It’s possible that Spartan makes more efficient use of multiple CPU cores. By adding a single additional core, Spartan’s performance in the Octane benchmark improved by almost 41 percent. An additional core resulted in an 18 percent bump for Chrome. It’s logical to speculate that Spartan is designed with multi-threaded performance in mind, which would be a first among browsers.

Vivaldi was on par, or better, than Chrome. That makes sense. Vivaldi uses the same V8 JavaScripting engine and the Blink rendering engine found in Chromium but makes UI changes to further enhance performance. Its user interface feels a lot snappier, perhaps owing to its more sophisticated code-base.

Chrome Alternative 2015: Spartan or Vivaldi?

While Spartan at face appears an attempt to clone Chrome, it delves deeper than emulation. Spartan offers features that Chrome may end up borrowing. On the other hand, Internet Explorer traditionally suffered from security problems, performance issues and more. If Spartan manages to eliminate IE’s weaknesses, then it could compete on equal footing with Chrome. On multi-core systems (which, these days, is almost everything), Spartan might even outperform Chrome.

If Spartan manages to eliminate IE’s weaknesses it could compete on equal footing with Chrome.

Vivaldi takes a different path. Instead of seeking to emulate Chrome, it revamps the user-interface of the modern web-browser with a suite of web-productivity tools. For hardcore web-surfers, Vivaldi focuses on making it faster and easier than ever to interact with web-content. It is a bit quicker at times, but on the whole its performance is similar to Chrome because it relies so heavily on an identical rendering engine.

While Vivaldi offers an excellent alternative to Chrome, Spartan seems the greater threat. It could be quicker on a typical dual-core system, it offers new features, and it’s baked into Windows 10. As is always the case with Microsoft, though, it’ll come down to execution. Clearly the bones of Windows’ new browser are strong, but they’ll need to be skinned with an excellent interface, as well. We won’t know exactly what its final form will be until the release of Windows 10 this fall, but Google will have a fight on its hands if Spartan is anywhere near as attractive as Chrome.