GNOME Web. Has it gotten any better?


Every other year I take a fresh look at GNOME Web, the default GNOME browser. I have been using GNOME on Fedora for many years now so it has always been part of my installation. I like the overall appearance of GNOME applications and Web feels like a natural addition. However, it has always been too frustrating to use. My recent article on Mozilla and Firefox rekindled my interest in Web so I opened my software center and updated it to the latest version: 3.36.4 before firing it up.

Gnome Web version 3.36.4

It launches fairly quickly and continues where one left off previously. As always, I am holding my breath at this point hoping things will go smooth enough to render it useful for occasional use. I first open the Guardian news web site which is fairly heavy but doesn’t have any flashy things going on. I immediately start noticing my laptop’s fans spinning up. CPU usage goes through the roof and stays high even without further interaction. Scrolling through the news site is quite stuttery and not a very pleasant experience. Doing the same on Chromium, Firefox or Vivaldi goes much smoother. Page loading times also seem noticeably longer on Web. Pinch to zoom, while technically present, behaves very poorly too.

Though not a proper scientific experiment: The same article took less than half the time to fully render in both Chromium and Firefox
One can clearly see how CPU load drops when Web is closed (running a static page)

Next I go to YouTube. Here things get really bad. Web struggles switching between full screen and normal view. The video controls react to any input with several seconds of delay. I was only testing a 720p video at the time. Basically unusable and my hopes again completely crushed. At this stage, being realistic, I cannot see much hope for the future as the experience just keeps repeating itself over and over again.

I searched the internet looking for reviews and other people’s experience. I found a number of reviews on Web that mostly described the project and all the functionality of the browser without mentioning any shortcomings.  Really odd. On reddit, however, things got a bit clearer. Many did complain of the sluggishness while scrolling and YouTube being unusable but others were actually happy with it. One user mentioned how it drained his laptop’s battery. That would be consistent with my experience. I could not find the definitive cause for my experience. Web uses WebKit as it’s rendering engine so this is the main part responsible for the app’s performance. It’s only other major user is Apple’s Safari. Many developers nowadays are jumping on Chromium’s engine to power their browsers. A GNOME developer on reddit explained why they didn’t want to change over to Chromium. First of all they are comfortable with WebKit as that is what they have been doing for a long time. Chromium would mean a lot of new things to learn. Their funding also seems to be tied to using WebKit and cannot be used to develop a Chromium based version. With WebKit they only need to coordinate with Apple to get things done while with Chromium they would have very little weight. Also, they would basically need to bundle Chromium with their browser and keep it up to date generating a higher work load. This information is from about a year ago and it seems things are moving along as usual with no major changes in sight.

Interestingly, I’ve learned from my investigation that technically, Web is compatible for use with sites requiring DRM. The required software: Widevine developed by Google, however, is not made available to open source projects and this is why we will probably never see Netflix working on Web and many other browsers. Sad, really. We need an open source DRM standard but that is almost a contradiction in itself.

Somehow I never lose hope and will most likely revisit Web again in a year or two. Will things have changed by then? Probably not, but this is free open source software with a lot of hard work put into it. As long as it has a happy user base it’s all good. We wish the GNOME team the best of luck!



-Reviewed on a Dell E7250, I5-5300, 8GB RAM-



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