What's the fastest browser? Maybe you're measuring wrong

Why the usual browser benchmarks are useless

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The results

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Figure 1. Stable versions of browsers compared

In their official stable versions, IE9 and Chrome used the most memory in the 15-tab scenario. (Expect that number increase drastically if you're the type who swiches between 40 or more tabs.) Firefox 10, however, beat them all: It consumed around half (!) of the memory that the others needed in this scenario. Although its basic resource usage ran at 68 MB, it scaled quite well up to 218 MB when loading five tabs.

How does this translate to real-world performance? Both IE9 and Chrome felt sluggish, with noticeable delays in switching between tabs. Also, overall system performance and responsiveness degraded. Firefox had no discernible effect on performance whatsoever.

Now let's move on to the beta releases of Opera, Firefox, and Chrome.

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Figure 2. Beta versions of browsers compared

Firefox's beta did not achieve a significant improvement over the production version when opening one or or five tabs, tough it did shave another 70 MB off on the 15-tab test. Google Chrome, too, improved things a tad when only a handful of tabs were running, but it failed miserably with a usage of 1,084 MB at just 15 tabs -- unnacceptable! The beta version of Opera had a difficulty with one of our websites as its memory increased to 789 MB at five tabs. At 15 tabs, over 1,112 MB of memory was consumed, which shows that the beta version needs to go a long, long way to match the memory consumption of version 10. All browsers, with the exception of Firefox, showed visible lags -- it was no fun surfing the web or trying to work with other programs.

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Figure 3. Dev versions of browsers compared

Looking at the dev versions of the browsers, Firefox again took the crown, improving its memory usage still further. It's unbelievable. Even though the browser froze up for five seconds during our 15-tab test, it still achieved the best overall performance.

Chrome came in the heaviest this time yet again, with a combined memory utilization of 1,118 MB, followed closely by the alpha version of Opera 12. The screenshot below shows Chrome eating up memory in Process Explorer.

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Look at all that Chrome!

Now, I completely realize that these benchmarks do not necessarily represent your real-life usage. Everyone has their own browsing behavior, which may or may not exceed what I've tested here. Also, factors such as third-party plug-ins, operating systems, background tasks, and many of the other variables mentioned above may result a slightly different picture. But this test should at least give you a general picture of the browsers that tend to use the least and most memory.

Conclusion

If you never open more than five or ten content-heavy websites at the same time, you should never base your browser choice on memory consumption. It simply doesn't matter a lot if your browser consumes 50, 200, or 400 MB of RAM, even on lower-end machines. However, heavy tab multitaskers should steer clear of IE9, Chrome (in all its incarnations), and Opera (Beta). Just go with Firefox. With RAM levels quickly reaching 1 GB with just 15 tabs, you'll encounter sluggishness even on faster machines. Again, it simply doesn't matter if you've got 4, 8, or 16 GB of RAM -- a browser taking up 1 to 1.5 GB of RAM quickly reaches the limits of both the Windows' and its own memory management capabilities. Threads and handles run wild, paging starts kicking in, and overall reliability goes down with responsiveness.

Firefox is the clear winner of the bunch. It was the only browser that did not slow things down and I recommended it for both lower-end mobile devices and high-end desktops.

This article, "What's the fastest browser? Maybe you're measuring wrong," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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