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The Best Internet Browsers for Old Computers

9-12-19


laptop on Internet This article is a continuation of the one I wrote last week, How to Surf the Internet on a 13-Year-Old Laptop. Based on my brief trials of 15 purported "light and fast" browsers, I will give my impressions of their speed and utility.



Background

Before I present my results, let me explain why I decided to write this article. I have been using, or trying to use, Linux since sometime in the mid-nineties. Back then, I wasn't having much success. Not only could I not get any Linux distribution to connect to the Internet, but nearly every piece of software that ran on Linux was hopelessly riddled with bugs. Every few years, I checked back to see if Linux had improved enough to be useful. Not until around 2007 did I find a distribution of Linux that I considered to be good enough to use every day. However, ever since those early days, I've been stumbling across numerous articles on the Internet praising various Linux distributions and Linux programs that I've tried over the years and found to be, to put it politely, about as useful as a submarine with a screen door. I've wondered if the people writing positive reviews about lesser-known browsers have actually tried to use the browsers they've written about. Thanks to my article last week, I now have the perfect excuse for re-evaluating some of the latest versions of Linux-based Internet browsers that I haven't looked at in twenty years.



The Browser Selection Process

I went through the following selection process for each browser that I reviewed. I only chose browsers that were claimed to be light and fast enough to be used on old computers. I chose the latest version that I could find of each 32-bit, Linux-compatible browser, except for the fairly recent version of Chromium that comes with Zorin 12.4 Lite. Unfortunately, some of the browsers that I would have liked to have reviewed were not Linux compatible. Wherever possible, I took browser binaries directly from the websites of their developers, as I would recommend to every potential user for security reasons. Mostly, I installed Debian packages (.deb files) of each browser binary file in order to maximize their compatibility with Zorin, because Zorin is based on Ubuntu, which is based on Debian Linux. A handful of the browsers I reviewed either came with Zorin or were in the repositories that it uses by default. I did not compile any of the browsers that I tested from their source code, because I felt this is more of a hassle than most people are willing to go through for some random browser that they see reviewed on the Internet.



Testing Details

I tested each browser on the same laptop I used last week, my 13-year-old Dell Latitude E1505 with 1 GB of Ram running the Linux Zorin 12.4 Lite operating system. My Internet connection is a relatively slow 6 megabits/s.

During testing, I looked at three things: memory usage, web page loading speed, and usability. For each browser, I timed the loading of four commonly-visited websites. Since website loading speeds vary over time, due to many factors that are beyond the user's control, the reader should consider the loading times that I present below to be nothing more than very rough approximations. For example, traffic on websites varies throughout the day, which can change the speed at which their servers can download data. It is also sometimes difficult to tell exactly when a web page has finished loading. And, programs running in the background on the user's computer can interfere at random times.

I assigned a usability index to each browser based on how useful I found it to be for things that most people do on the Internet every day. A usability index of 1 means the browser is basically unusable. A usability index of 5 means that the browser appears to me to be as usable as the latest versions of Firefox or Chrome. In my opinion, any browser with a usability index below 3 is probably not worth trying, unless you have a specific need in mind. For example, I've rated Dillo's usability at 2, because it doesn't load most images on a web page, but the latest version of Dillo appears to be stable enough to make a fine text-only browser.



Test Results

Each browser seems to have it's own unique set of bugs that reduces its usability. These are sometimes difficult to describe if you haven't seen them for your yourself. Examples of easier-to-describe bugs are that QupZilla will often not render part of a page correctly, but when you leave the page and come back later, it looks fine. Midori won't let you type http:// onto the URL line, and the "back" arrow sometimes does not work. Dillo will occasionally load some of the pictures on a page and the rest of the page will be text-only. The rest of the time it loads no pictures at all. It is important to remember that the stability and usability of any Linux program may vary with the distribution of Linux that you are running it on, so you may have more or less success running these browsers on your Linux distribution than I did on mine.

A few browsers that I looked at either refused to install or once installed would not run on Zorin 12.4 Lite on my laptop. These were:





I would also have liked to have reviewed the Opera browser, but the lastest 32-bit, Linux-compatible version that I could find was so old that it seemed pointless. Most browsers that haven't been updated in years are essentially unusable. They either crash on websites or render them very strangely.

Table 1, below, shows the results I obtained by testing. The times to load web pages are in seconds.



BrowserVersionMemory to Boot (MB)Usability Time to Load Amazon.comTime to Load Walmart.com Time to Load Ebay.comTime to Load Gmail.com
Arora0.11.0 (2014)4404 7045 322
Chromium68.0.3440.75505 1014 44
Conkeror1.0.3N/AN/A N/AN/A N/AN/A
Dillo3.0.5-2102 wouldn't load2 42
Firefox-Gecko69.0N/AN/A N/AN/A N/AN/A
Midori8.0-31401 wouldn't load18 wouldn't load consistently3
Netsurf3.2 (Aug 2014)102 2wouldn't load 3; didn't render correctly2; didn't render correctly
Pale Moon28.7.0505 514 157
QtWeb3.8603 158 207
QupZilla1.8.9702 had to load twicehad to load twice 17wouldn't load
Seamonkey2.49.5705 817 124
Slimjet?N/AN/A N/AN/A N/AN/A
Vivaldi2.7.1628.33011105 1225 185
Web (Codenamed Epihany)3.18.11804 617 153
Xombrero1.6.4102 1716 crashed browser7

Table 1: Web Browser Test Results


Table 1 does not have enough room to show some of the issues with each browser that affect usability. In addition to the problems that I've already described in the first paragraph of this section, the QtWeb browser crashes frequently and inconsistently. At least, it does on my system. I believe it was just good luck that it successfully loaded all four web sites during this particular test. In general, some browsers require more memory to boot up and less for each open tab, and others require less memory to boot up but more for each open tab. Table 1 does show that the "Web" Internet browser requires 120 MB of RAM to load Ebay, as compared to 60 MB for Pale Moon and 70 MB for Seamonkey.

As I explained last week, I believe the apparent 2 second base for page-loading times is due to the fact that, for privacy reasons, I am using a DNS service based in Austria.



Conclusions

It seems a bit difficult to draw detailed conclusions from the data in Table 1, but some generalizations can be made. The more usable browsers (those with usability indexes of 4 or 5) are Arora, Chromium, Pale Moon (a Firefox derivative), Seamonkey, Vivaldi, and Web (codenamed Epiphany). Of those, Chromium is the fastest, followed closely by Pale Moon and Seamonky. Arora is a very distant last. Not only is Arora very slow, but it requires a whopping 440 MB of RAM just to load, meaning to boot up, hardly an appropriate statistic for a browser one is considering running on an old computer. The rest of the most usable browsers require between 50 and 110 MB of RAM to load. I did not try to rate browsers by how much RAM they need to open a large number of tabs, because I felt that would be too complicated for a limited survey like this.

I have to mention that I am very pleased by Seamonky's performance, because this is a browser that I have been hearing good reports about since the 1990's but have never been able to get to run. Now, I have finally been able see it run for myself.

QtWeb earned a usability index of 3, barely usable. Last week, QtWeb crashed so much when trying to load websites that I ignored it. This week, for some reason, it loaded all four of my test websites without crashing. I don't have any idea why, but I decided not to rate it any higher than 3 for last week's behavior. I was hesitant to rate it that highly.

The browsers that I gave usability indexes of 1 or 2, meaning unusable, were Dillo, Midori, Netsurf, QupZilla, and Xombrero. I rated Xombrero at 2 because it crashed while loading one of the test pages. I rated the other three browsers poorly, because they either wouldn't load pages consistently, wouldn't load some pages at all, crashed while loading one or more pages, rendered pages poorly or inconsistently, or some combination of the preceding. Of the members of this group, I would probably be willing to try some as text-only browsers, but that's about it.

I would like to say a few words about Dillo. I first used Dillo with the "Damn Small Linux" (DSL) distribution in 2005. I loved DSL, because it was the first Linux distribution that I found that is totally immune to all malware, because it can be run from a CD. Although it is far too bug-ridden to replace Microsoft Windows, I did use DSL when I needed an especially secure Internet connection. In fact, I still have a DSL CD. However, using Dillo was very frustrating for me back in 2005 through about 2008. So, I was disappointed to see last week that Dillo doesn't seem to have improved much, despite my strong desire for it to be better than it used to be.

I realize that I have not said a word about the privacy of any of the browsers that I've tested. The reason for this is that when you are using an older computer, you can't expect to get everything you want in a browser. It's enough just to find one that works well enough to get you on the Internet and surfing reasonably well.

I assume that if your are reading this, you have an old computer that you are considering using on the Internet. Hopefully, the test results presented in this article have given you a better idea of how to do that.



Related Articles:

How to Surf the Internet on a 13-Year-Old Laptop

Why used Computers can be such Good Deals

My Computer and Me--a Romantic Comedy, or a Tragedy?

Why You should Absolutely be using Linux!

Buy a Computer at the Knee of the Cost Versus Time Curve

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