I spend the majority of my computing time on the MacBook Pro that I use for work. For a very long time, I’ve used Safari as my main browser on it. Unsurprisingly, Safari integrates very nicely with the rest of macOS, and I honestly just really like it as a browser. Lately, though, I’ve been experiencing increased frustration with Safari and the web as a whole that has had me looking for alternatives. I’ll preface this entire post by saying that I could easily work around most of my problems by doing what I’ve historically done and using Safari for most things and a different browser for the remainder that don’t work well in Safari, but I really dislike having multiple browsers open. While I’m not nearly as guilty as most of my colleagues about having an egregious number of tabs open, it’s still a pain to deal with swapping between browser windows and finding what site is open where.
The main issue with Safari is compatibility. As someone who is (mercifully) not a web developer, I don’t know if the problem is with WebKit itself, with the utter dominance of the Blink, or a combination of the two, but the web in 2021 feels much like the web of the early 2000’s. The difference is that instead of everyone developing specifically for Internet Explorer 6, they’re developing for Chrome. Various web conferencing applications, for example, just won’t work in Safari. Some of them like Microsoft Teams will flat-out tell you this if you try, while others will let you make the attempt and then not work as expected. I get that this is commonly done so that developers can offer a “desktop” app via Electron, but it still sucks. My favorite bug from recent memory is that SharePoint will manage to get the selection area mis-aligned with the mouse cursor in Safari, meaning that to click on a particular file or directory I have to just watch the highlighting rather than my cursor and click on something arbitrary; it’s either that or I refresh the page and hope for a better experience.
The lack of configuration options also make Safari periodically difficult to use in a work environment. For example, 3rd party cookies are blocked by default in Safari. This is awesome, in my opinion, since they should be blocked 99% of the time, yet almost no one outside of the technically minded is going to bother going into their settings to make that change. However, sometimes I need to allow 3rd party cookies, and Safari doesn’t seem to offer up options for this. The Microsoft Teams Admin Center is a shining example of this. Without 3rd party cookies, you’ll just get an error page. I’ve historically had to fire up a different browser in order to access it.
The final issue, which is definitely Safari-specific, is the update cadence. Most browsers are providing monthly updates. Safari, much like the Internet Explorer of years past, is still tying its major updates with OS updates. This means that while the release of Safari 14 was awesome, for example, I’ll wait much longer for Safari 15 to bring additional improvements than I would with a competing browser.
On the whole, I still really like Safari, and I think it’s great in a personal context. For work, though, it’s just a bit too inflexible and unsupported.
My primary concern with alternative browsers was simply native support. I have a MacBook Pro running an M1 chip, and while translating x86 applications to ARM via Rosetta 2 has been seamless with plenty of applications, I wanted my browsing experience to be as snappy as possible. Tons of applications feature ARM support under Linux, which I’ve seen firsthand with my Pinebook Pro. I figured it would only be a matter of time before developers made the necessary tweaks for M1 support. Firefox was one of the first browsers I knew of to support M1 chips, but I wasn’t sure if that was the direction I wanted to go. I love Firefox, and I still use it on all of my Linux systems; I’m using it to write this post on my Star Lite Mk III right now. There have been a lot of concerns surrounding the direction of Firefox after Mozilla laid off a large number of staff in 2020, a group that allegedly included most — if not all — of their incident response team. Additionally, I experience many of the same issues with Firefox and the Gecko engine as I do with Safari and WebKit in today’s Chrome-centric web.
Instead, I decided to give Brave a shot. Brave added M1 support at the very end of 2020, and I already had it installed on my machine to use whenever Safari wasn’t an option for all of the aforementioned reasons. I simply swapped it to my default browser and spent the past week using it. Brave is a Chromium fork, meaning it renders pages like Chrome and will experience the same high degree of compatibility across sites. It also can install all of the same extensions as Chrome, though that’s far less important than one might think as I’ll discuss shortly.
Like most Chromium forks, all of the Google junk that gets added to Chrome is absent. In fact, Brave’s main mission is to be a privacy-focused browser. It features a robust advertising and tracking blocker built-in, with tons of options for configuring exceptions, disabling it entirely for certain sites, and more. What really surprised me was the aggression of blocking that it was capable of. I used the tracking blocker in Safari, for example, and the typical reporting from it would block somewhere around 200 trackers per week. After using Brave for a week, my metrics look like this:
To be clear, this is in no way an apples-to-apples (no pun intended) comparison since I have Brave blocking both trackers and ads while Safari can only do trackers. The numbers are still staggering after just a week, though, and I was particularly interested in seeing metrics like how much bandwidth was saved by not loading that content. There are also baseline levels of blocking that can be configured, and I initially attempted to go with the Strict option. I quickly found that too many sites flat out broke, so I switched it to Standard with much better results. Additionally, options exist for allowing things like buttons on sites for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The other bonus is that such robust blocking built in means I didn’t need the array of security extensions I may be inclined to install with other browsers. After a week, the only extension I’ve added to Brave is one for my password manager.
Another nice security feature with Brave is that it offers two different takes on Incognito mode. The first is the traditional Incognito mode where it won’t load any cookies from your main browsing session, and any cookies gathered during that Incognito session are removed once it ends. The other option does the exact same as the first, but it also routes your traffic through Tor.
Brave has seemingly endless customization, and everything discussed thus far can be toggled off and on in the settings. Don’t need Tor with Incognito? You can turn it off so that it doesn’t even show up as an option. In fact, going through the settings to configure Brave is the only real hurdle to using it, and it probably took me about 30 minutes to look through everything and get it set up the way that I wanted. That being said, I found the default configuration to be very good, and for most people who may not care to go through the settings it’ll be more than fine.
Brave seems great on my battery life with no discernible difference from Safari. I haven’t really paid much attention to it, though, because honestly everything seems to scream on an M1 MacBook Pro without using much energy in the first place. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the fan kick on in the months that I’ve used the device, and I literally never pay attention to the battery life. I typically work from various locations around my apartment for the morning and then settle in at my desk with a dock during the afternoon. I’ve worked undocked for an entire day a couple of times before and still ended the day with enough battery life to comfortably return to my normal routine the next day without any problems.
After a week, I’ve been pleased with Brave. As is typically the case, I’m always open to checking out new software, and I’m interested in maybe giving Vivaldi, which I’ve used on Linux previously, a try on my MacBook once they offer M1 support.