Web browsers are fascinating beasts. They’re pretty much our window on modern computing, facilitating everything from simple communications to complex desktop applications. In general, they’re also pretty shit.
That’s hardly surprising given how much they are expected to do, but I really do feel like we should be doing better. Of the web browsers available today, only a handful actually try to properly integrate into the OS. GNOME Web and Safari spring to mind. The pre-Chromium Microsoft Edge is another good example. Most are happy to stick out like a sore thumb and break OS conventions pretty badly. Firefox and Chrome are the most popular options available today (although there’s really no competition here), and both of these have their issues.
In general, I love Firefox. I love container tabs and the overall flexibility of the browser, but I resent its sluggishness. Chrome may well be faster, but I can’t really abide using it day-to-day due to its Google-ness. Most of the time, I fall back on GNOME Web. What it lacks in speed it makes up for in wonderful integration with the GNOME desktop. The lack of extensions still renders it problematic, but it’s the one I find myself reaching for most.
I have been aware of Brave Browser for a while. It caused quite a stir when it was first launched due to its mission statement. Simply put: Brave was created to provide a private-by-default browser with powerful adblocking built-in. What really set it apart, however, was the vision the developers had for not only blocking ads, but creating an alternative to them.
I work for a company that deals with ad software, so I’m aware of the necessity for advertising online. The web isn’t free, and not everybody has the resources to pay creators directly. But ads have become so intrusive and downright malicious in recent years. So an alternative could well be a good idea.
Brave, as you would expect, is very simple to set up. You get a nice little intro tour which takes you through the browser and introduces you to key concepts. By and large, if you are familiar with any other Chromium browser you’re not going to be too surprised here. There are a few key differences, however.
One of Brave’s greatest strengths (when compared to other browsers such as Firefox or Chrome) is that it enables adblocking and tracker protection out of the box. I’m constantly surprised when I use somebody’s computer and I find that they don’t have an adblocker installed. If you don’t have one, you should absolutely install one.
But Brave doesn’t require an extension to block ads. The adblocking is baked into the browser directly. This means even users without the know-how or savvy to install extensions will benefit from additional privacy features. The same is true of trackers, which Brave blocks pretty aggressively by default. I would describe Brave as one of the only browsers with a sane default state, along with GNOME Web. Ads and trackers are blocked without breaking sites
Syncing on Brave isn’t as intuitive or as convenient as it is on Firefox or Chrome. On Chrome, you simply log in with your Google account on any Chrome instance to sync things immediately. On Firefox, you can set up a Firefox sync profile that you can then log in to from any Firefox session.
Brave, on the other hand, has no remote central server that you can log in to. Instead, you need to create what is called a “sync chain” then add each device to this chain by scanning a QR code or entering a code. I’m guessing this is done for security reasons, so that if your devices are lost the chain goes down with them and is not retrievable by cracking the central server. It’s not terribly inconvenient and, once set up, works well. It may just be a bit of a jarring mechanism for people coming from other browsers.
Even though Brave has a good default setup, there may still be things you want to add. Password managers, CSS changers, and other extensions are just a part of everyday browsing nowadays (and one of the big things a browser needs to succeed, looking at you GNOME Web). So how are extensions on Brave? Well, Brave is essentially just Chrome under the hood, so you can just go to the Chrome web store and install anything you need. It’ll work. Moving on.
So once you’ve got everything set up, you will start browsing the web. What a concept. When it comes to day-to-day operation, people are mostly concerned with two things: the speed of the browser and the system resources it uses.
Brave is pretty nippy. Significantly more so than Firefox and GNOME Web. Websites feel snappier as they have most likely seen more fine-tuning for Blink than any other engine, so the browser feels a lot smoother to use than Firefox.
Brave is slightly heavier than Firefox on my Fedora 34 machine, although this may not be a fair comparison. Both are installed as flatpaks on this machine and the Brave flatpak is currently in the beta repository, so it may be that there is some stuff to be amended there. That being said, it’s not that drastic a difference.
With both browsers open on their new tab page, Firefox idles at about 350MB RAM and 1% of my CPU. Brave takes about 402MB RAM and the same amount of CPU. It could be that there is a difference in how the flatpaks have been set up, but I think it’s more likely that Firefox is just slightly lighter. However, given how much smoother Brave feels I would be very surprised if the average user gave a hoot about this. If you’re really concerned about RAM, you’re probably not using any of these browsers anyway.
The sodding crypto
Okay, so let’s get on to this “advertising alternative” I talked about earlier. Brave blocks ads, so website owners and creators do not receive impressions or clicks from users. This limits their ability to monetise content, so Brave’s decision to block ads by default was met with some considerable concern when it was announced. To resolve this, Brave makes use of something called Basic Attention Tokens (BAT). BAT is a cryptocurrency token that is awarded to users when they interact with ads presented by the browser (not the website). These BAT are stored in a wallet and can then be used to reward or “tip” sites that the user likes.
Now, anybody who knows me knows that I really don’t understand, like, or care about cryptocurrency. I think of it as a very expensive ponzi scheme that just uses fancy sounding technology. Anybody who works in a software company winces at the mere mention of “blockchain” coming from the lips of executives. BAT is another token to add to the mix. It can be traded for actual money or other cryptocurrencies if you are so inclined. As a bit of fun I’ve enabled it in a few places (including this website) to see how it works.
Is BAT the worst idea? Well, no. Rampant advertising is the worst idea. And as mentioned, many people don’t have the means to support creators directly. So is BAT a good compromise? Well, given the hoops I had to go through to set up a centralized wallet I’m going to say that it needs a bit of work at the very least.
If users are installing Brave because they want something that is going to give them a better experience out of the box than the alternatives, they are not going to want to spend their time setting up a crypto exchange account just to make sure their “money” is synced across devices. The process for this is sluggish and frustrating, especially since some things require legal documents to set up. I can see this being good for enthusiasts, but regular users will probably take one look and balk at it.
Clearly, BAT has seen some use in the real world. It remains to be seen, however, if it could actually form a viable alternative to advertising at scale. Given Chrome’s dominant position in the market, I think we’re a long way off any real-world stress testing.