Cutting Edge: Web Browsers
Where can you get the latest web browsers with bleeding-edge features? Roland Waddilove shows how to get them and what to expectWeb browsers are one of the most frequently updated applications, with new versions released every couple of months. Minor updates are even more frequent, with updates often silently installed in the background. This means that browsers slowly evolve over time through the many updates they receive.
In addition to the stable release software that is pushed out to the public, there are beta versions of all the web browsers. These contain new features that are currently being tested before they’re made available to everyone. Beta software is under development and a work in progress, so it might not be as stable the finished product, although web browsers are more stable than you might think. It’s not as if they crash constantly, and a beta can be reliable enough for everyday use.
There are even more cutting-edge browsers, which have special names like Firefox Developer Edition, Chrome Canary, Opera Dev and Spartan. These are straight from the developer the minute they’ve been compiled, and they’re untested. They are still quite stable, but you might experience the occasional problem. These browsers sometimes contain experimental features that may or may not make it to the final public release version, which can be exciting to try.
Google’s Chrome is available in four different versions, each of which is provided on what the company calls a channel <bit.ly/1EdPQjM). The main one is the stable channel, which is the browser that the general public downloads and uses. It is considered to be stable and bug-free, well, as far as is possible with a web browser. Google posts minor updates every three weeks or so, and there are major updates every six weeks. That is a short update cycle and it shows how fast the pace of development is for web browsers.
There is a beta channel (bit.ly/1vXT0qn), and this version is updated more frequently. Minor updates are posted every week, and there’s a major update every six weeks. That will be when the beta is moved to the stable channel and a beta of the next version becomes available. Running the Chrome beta enables you to see and explore the features that are coming up in the next version of the browser before anyone else gets them. Although it’s a beta, it’s a stable program, and it’s really just going through the final stages of testing before it’s released to the general public.
There’s a dev channel, which is just a continuous twice-weekly update of the browser. When Google’s developers add new features, they compile the code twice a week and post the browser in the dev channel. When I tried it, there was nothing available, so maybe Google has abandoned it. Try the link (bit.ly/1EdPQjM) and see what happens. I found that it went to the regular Chrome download page.Canary (bit.ly/1wQ0oPH) is the bleeding edge of Chrome browser development. Like Firefox’s nightly builds, Canary is updated daily, so it’s brand new whenever you download it. It’s released as soon as it’s compiled and before it has been tested. This means that there could well be a bug or two lurking around, so don’t be too surprised if there is the occasional problem. Brand new features that Google is working on appear in the Canary build first, so you can be the first to try them. It’s actually hard to tell what’s new in Canary, and there’s nothing obvious at the moment.
The Canary build of Chrome uses a separate user profile to the stable and beta versions, and you can install it alongside them without it interfering with them. This makes it useful for test purposes, and it will not mess up your account. One thing to bear in mind is that the user profile consisting of your bookmarks, browsing history, cookies and so on, may not be compatible with the older version of Chrome, so it’s best not to use it as your main web browser.
Whatever the current version of Firefox, Firefox Beta (mzl.la/17O0EbZ) is one version higher. So at the time of writing, the release version of Firefox is 36, and the Beta edition is 37. There is also a Developer edition and this is one more than beta, currently 38.Firefox Beta always has some great new features that are not in the regular edition. For example, Heartbeat is a Firefox rating system, in which every day a random selection of people will see a widget appear in their browser. It asks you to rate the browser, which provides feedback to the developers and lets them know if the changes they have made are liked by everyone. It is a great feature, but if you want to opt out and don’t want to be asked your opinion, enter about:config in the address box, find browser.selfsupport.url and delete the value.
Firefox Developer Edition used to be called Aurora, and it’s even more cutting edge than the beta. It contains features and experiments that are not in the regular version of the browser, even the beta. It’s where the Firefox developers test new ideas for the browser, and some will make it to beta, and eventually the stable release version, but some will not.
At the download page is a big green download button, but if you click the Systems & Languages link below it, there are Windows and Windows 64-bit, Linux and Linux 64-bit versions. This enables you to select the version that is installed. The Windows download is 32-bit, and it can be used in all versions of Windows, but Windows 64-bit can only be used with 64-bit versions of the operating system. This is a new feature in Firefox and previously all versions of the browser were 32-bit. The 64-bit version potentially could boost performance to some degree, and 64-bit browsers and operating systems are generally more secure and harder for viruses, spyware and adware to infect.
The time taken to load web pages should be reduced in Firefox Beta due to a feature called speculative connection warmup. This basically means that the browser will guess which link on the page you’re going to click next and get ready. The usual method is to resolve the hostname, which turns URLs into IP addresses using a DNS server and to open a TCP network connection. If you click the link, then part of the work is already done in establishing a connection, so it will be quicker. If you don’t click it, you’re no worse off.
Firefox Developer Edition uses completely separate settings to the standard edition of Firefox, so when it’s started for the first time there are no bookmarks, history, add-ons and so on. It is a fresh start. If you want to transfer everything from the standard edition you should use Firefox Sync (mzl.la/1EJRkTk). This is designed for syncing settings between computers, but it works with two browsers on the same PC too.
If the Developer Edition of Firefox is not sufficiently cutting edge for you, there is a not-so-well-known nightly build. Programmers work on Firefox every day, and they compile a version with the very latest updates and post it on the web for anyone to download. Go to nightly.mozilla.org and you can grab a copy of the latest daily build of Firefox in 32-bit and 64-bit editions for Windows and for Linux. Mozilla says that they are for testing purposes only, and it’s interesting to see where the browser is heading over the coming months.
Opera has always struggled to gain market share and compete against the big three of Microsoft, Mozilla and Google. The browser was around long before Chrome was released and it found it hard to have any serious impact even when there was only Internet Explorer and Firefox, despite having pretty good reviews.The developers originally built their own web browser from scratch, but the most recent versions of the browser have been based on Chromium. Opera takes the Chromium browser core code, tweaks it and wraps it in its own interface to produce its own browser. This is exactly how Google produces Chrome. Opera and Chrome are therefore very alike at a low level and have similar performance. It’s just the interface, menus and extras that differentiate the browser. If you’re an Internet Explorer user and want the performance of Chrome but without Google, then Opera is worth considering.To see what Opera has planned for its next version of the web browser, you can download and run the beta (opera.com/beta). Whatever the current version number is, the beta is one higher. At the time of writing the version available to the public is 27, and the beta is 28. The latest version of Opera is always based on the same Chromium engine that Chrome uses.Just as with Firefox and Chrome, there’s an even more advanced version of the browser called Opera Developer (opera.com/developer). This is updated several times a week, so whenever you download it, it’s no more than a few days old and has the latest features.
The best place to find out what features are coming up in the beta and developer versions is the Opera blog (blogs.opera.com/desktop). Opera beta, for example, has easy bookmark syncing between different computers, phones and tablets, which is great when you have opera everywhere. All you need to do is to click or tap the Opera account button at the right of the address box, sign in and the job’s done. The beta includes more themes for the Opera start page too.In Opera dev is an easy way to view the web pages that are open on other devices that are running Opera. The browser is available for the Apple Mac, Android and iOS phones and tablets, and it can sync your account. This makes it easy to start browsing on one computer or device, such as your phone, and continue on another, like your desktop computer. The feature is accessed via the Opera start page.Another useful feature is the ability to see and reopen tabs that were closed, not just in the current web browser, but on other devices too. If you’re browsing on another computer or mobile device, you don’t need to bookmark a tab to view it later. You can go to the Opera menu on the PC, select Recent tabs and open one that was closed on the device.Opera dev edition now displays tabs that are playing audio. It can be irritating when you open lots of tabs, and then some music, video or advert starts playing. Now you can see which tab is responsible from the little media icon on it.
There are new mouse gestures in Opera dev, and if you right-click on a link and pull down, the link is opened in a new tab. Hold down the Ctrl key as you do this, and the link is opened in a new background tab. In other words, you stay on the same page when the new tab is created. The way images are displayed has been changed, because they are now centred. This is when you click a link to open it in a page on its own. Images that are too big to fit in the window are scaled to fit, and clicking them zooms in on the point you clicked.
You may not have realised it, but beta versions of web browsers are available for phones and tablets too. Go to the Google Play store on an Android device, for example, and search for ‘beta’. Betas of both Chrome and Opera mobile browsers can be installed. There are, in fact, two Opera mobile browsers: the full fat version, Opera, and the slimmer and lighter Opera Mini. Betas are available of both of them. These apps can be installed alongside the standard browsers, and they work independently.There isn’t any information in the store about beat features, but you can discover new features as they’re added to Opera beta by following the developer’s blog (blogs.opera.com/mobile). There is a new start page for Opera Mini, and it has bookmarks and top stories in one continuous stream that you can swipe up the screen. There’s also a full-screen mode that hides the top bar with the usual status symbols, providing more screen space for web pages.A recent update to the Chrome beta adds the standard pull-to-refresh feature to the browser to reload web pages. There are lots of bug fixes too.
Opera was originally created by a couple of developers in the 1990s, and it was designed to be small, fast and run on limited hardware. A small community of enthusiasts loved it, but it has grown and changed over the years, and according to some, it has lost its way. Vivaldi is an attempt by a group of developers to get back to Opera’s roots and build a browser that is small, fast and feature packed.The download is called a technical preview, and it’s a work in progress. It’s usable, but some features have not yet been finished or even added yet. Looking at the Chromium credit on the About page, this appears to be another Chromium-based web browser. This means that its performance should be as good as any other Chromium-based browser like Chrome and Opera, but the difference is in the menus and extras.Some features look similar to Opera and Vivaldi as Speed Dial, for example, which shows thumbnails of commonly accessed sites on a new tab. It will come with Vivaldi Mail, and Opera also has a mail client too. It has a side bar for accessing bookmarks, downloads and for writing notes. Opera had that at one time.It seems that Internet Explorer’s days are numbered and sooner or later the browser will be retired – at least with the latest version of Windows. Those that are keeping up with the latest public betas of Windows 10 should look out for Microsoft’s new Spartan browser. Spartan has a clean and simple interface that is unlike Internet Explorer. It will include the ability to annotate web pages, which is a bit of an odd thing to do and surely isn’t the killer feature everyone wants in a browser. The addition of Cortana for searches and performing actions is more interesting, although Google lets you say your searches already.Spartan fits in with Microsoft’s new vision of software that works everywhere, and it supports the mouse and touch gestures, desktop and mobile devices, large and small screens. The browser will have an Internet Explorer 11 compatibility mode to ensure it works with as many old websites, web applications and online services as possible.