Web Browser Review, June 2024

I love the Arc Browser, but every time they add new AI features or refer to me as a "member," I feel like I'm teetering over a cliff, about to plunge to the harsh ground that is our current VC-funded software reality. Instead of waiting around for them to force my hand by starting to send me invoices or getting caught using my personal browsing habits to train some generative AI model, I decided to look for a replacement.

To start, I had a vague notion of the parts of Arc that I really like. I'll try to calcify those into something more than a vague notion right now. Here are a few of the features I definitely want:

It's actually a shorter list than I might have guessed. There are plenty of other things I like though that would be nice to have.

As I was auditioning alternative, though, I discovered other things I wanted. I'll leave those for you to discover as I analyze the alternatives I auditioned, starting with…

Floorp

This is one of the most frequent recommendations I found when investigating Arc alternatives. It's a pretty cool thing. This is a.. fork? mod? of Firefox with support for vertical tabs out-of-the-box along with some other goodies. As a result, it was one of the first alternatives I tried before getting frustrated by some minor annoyances and trying some others.

Having said that, it's pretty good. I started with their vertical tabs, but I found they didn't allow me to switch between containers with the Ctrl-1, Ctrl-2, etcetera keys as I'm accustomed to in Arc. Here's a case where I've built up muscle memory and didn't even realize it until it came time to do the thing again.

This got me to look at Sidebery, a Firefox plugin that implements vertical tabs. At this point though, I figured why not just use Firefox? This led me to sidetrack for a bit to try that. But along with my initial evaluation of Floorp, I was also checking out…

Vivaldi

Vivaldi is an interesting browser that takes a kitchen sink approach to features, but that philosophy lends itself to features not being as well thought out or integrating very well with one another. The thing that really killed it for me was their "workspaces" feature.

Superficially, this sounds like it might be an analog for Arc's "Spaces," but it actually turns out to be very, well… superficial. Where Arc bundles history, bookmarks (as "pinned tabs"), and extensions into spaces, Vivaldi's workspaces are just tab groups. Sure, that's handy, but I wanted better separation between my various browser usage contexts.

This had me discounting Vivaldi pretty early even though it was interesting. While I was exploring Floorp though, I eventually decided I should try…

Firefox + Sidebery

Sidebery was much better than I thought it could be given that it's a third-party plugin to manage browser tabs. I was sure this would be pretty janky, but it worked well. I got cold feet though when I learned the only way to disable the browser's built-in tabs was to hide them with a user stylesheet. I'm pretty sure I could have done this without much trouble, but I smelled trouble ahead. My spidey sense was telling me that I would be punished later for hiding the browser-native tabs and depending on a plugin for this. That brought me back to…

Floorp, Round 2

On the second go-round with Floorp, it looked like it was going to be the one. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good. The only things it lacked from my initial list of features from Arc were the "nice-to-haves."

I did end up switching over to Sidebery because Floorp makes it easy to hide its default tabs and this would allow me to view my bookmarks in the sidebar — not the way Arc does, where they are intermingled with tabs, but in a separate view I can switch to. Ideally, I think I'd like to split the sidebar vertically and have tabs on top and bookmarks on bottom, but I couldn't find a way to do this with any of the tools at my disposal.

Now, I started to discover a few more of my hidden requirements. Not so much requirements, but they ended up being more important to me than my previously listed "nice-to-haves." I wanted to make ⌘-t open a tab in the same container as the current tab. (This should definitely be the default behavior, but it definitely is not.) This is when I discovered it's either really difficult or impossible to change default keymaps in anything based on Firefox. I found plugins that open a tab in the most recent container, but I can't map them to ⌘-t which means they may as well not exist.

The same issue reared its ugly head when I went looking for a plugin to copy the page URL which I do extremely frequently in Arc using ⌘-shift-c: the plugins are out there, but ⌘-shift-c does something else in Firefox. I think it is possible to change this by writing some JavaScript, but again this feels like something I'll ultimately be punished for.

Aside from this, I was finding really weird interactions between containers and existing tabs. If I recall, I was clicking links in tabs that were open in one container and having those open in a different container. I had also set up rules in Sidebery to move tabs to a panel based on their container, and either I didn't understand how those rules worked or they didn't. Either way, it wasn't for me.

This led me to an unexpected candidate that not many people are talking about…

Orion

Plenty of people have talked about Orion, but I didn't see too many recommendations for it as an Arc alternative. Oddly, not as many as Floorp even though I maybe hear more about Orion in general. It's a Webkit-based browser from the makers of the Kagi search engine. I've been a Kagi user since the early days, before they even had an unlimited plan (Those were very dark days. 😅), so it seemed like a natural next choice.

Like Floorp, Orion has a lot of the pieces in place:

and it does much better on some of my hidden requirements and secondary wants:

All that has earned Orion the nod as my current default browser. I'm having a really good experience with it so far. That said, it isn't perfect. Here are some minor annoyances:

Those are the biggest things. I'd love to have more flexibility around my sidebar so that I could split it vertically between tabs and bookmarks as I described earlier and around the toolbar so I could move most of the chrome over to just the sidebar space a la Arc and allow the page to occupy the rest of that vertical space. These are relatively minor things though, and I can live without them. I'd also love to see a Windows and Linux version, although I don't use those OSes very heavily.

For now, Orion is a great way to escape the seemingly imminent transition to a subscription model ("members" 😱) and the incessant march into an AI minefield. I'm happy with my browsing again, and I don't feel like I'm on the precipice of having to switch on someone else's timeline. I'd much prefer to see what's coming and switch on my own. Maybe Arc never jumps the shark… or maybe Orion does instead. If nothing else, I feel like I have a fuller picture of the browser landscape in 2024, and that's got to be worth something.

Right? 😅