Which browser engine powers your web browsing and why is it important?

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When you choose a web browser, you also choose a browser engine and a renderer – sometimes these two terms are used separately and sometimes to mean the same thing. Technically, the renderer renders the pages and the browser engine manages the communications between the renderer and the browser user interface.

As we said, not everyone always makes the distinction, and there is also a Javascript engine in each case to help process the website code, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll follow Wikipedia’s lead and just use the browser engine as the overall term here.

The browser engine, the renderer, and the JavaScript engine are all basically work together to get the raw web code in a form you can see and use in your browser.

There are three main engines to consider: WebKit (powering Safari), Gecko (powering Firefox), and Blink (powering Chrome, Opera, Brave and others).

We don’t go into it in detail here, but make no mistake. Chromium. It’s like a step between Blink and the full Google Chrome (or the new Microsoft Edge): a simple open source browser that others can rely on.

What are browser engines?

Firefox on the desktop. (Image: Firefox)

You now know the names of the top three browsing engines, so what exactly are they? Their job is to take HTML, CSS, and the like from a web page – text that you can see in the page’s source or open in a text editor, defining layouts, page content, and style – and convert it to what you actually see onscreen.

In some ways, the engine is like a translator, turning raw code you can’t understand into a beautifully presented page of text and graphics that you can. The browser engine makes choices about how to interpret what a web developer has typed – how certain lines of code affect what is on the screen.

In fact, you can think of the navigator engine as the most important part of the navigator, just like a car engine is the most important part of your car. Everything else – menus, extensions, smart search, autofill – is pretty redundant if you can’t actually see the sites you’re visiting correctly.

Safari, powered by WebKit. (Image: Apple)

So far so good… so why do we need different ones? Well, different programmers have different ideas on how best to make the job of a browser engine – display colors, optimize code, refresh pages, etc.

Concrete example: Google launched Blink as a separate engine in 2013 to improve on what it saw as failures in WebKit’s handling of multiple processes.

Suppose you want to introduce a new and improved way for web developers to display videos embedded in text on a web page. For this to happen you need browser engine support, if you don’t get it, and a lot of other engineers agree with you, you may want to consider making your own browser engine, which is essentially how we got here today (although the chances of a new engine starting in the future are slim, as Microsoft has proven).

Browser engines are the primary reason web pages sometimes display, load, and function differently in different browsers. It is more likely the variations between Gecko, WebKit and Blink than the variations between Firefox, Safari and Chrome that are at the origin of these differences.

As the web evolves, the variations are less about surface visuals (which are roughly the same across the board) and more about the underlying technologies.

How are browser engines different?

Firefox is developing a faster version of its Gecko engine. (Image: Firefox)

Every part of rendering a page and the way user interactions are handled is done by the browser engine, and while each of the engines does a lot of the processing the same, there are a few differences as well. Take the way web application security is handled, it’s something every browser engine can approach differently.

As the web, and the sites and applications on it, has become more complex, browser engines have had to deal with more code, web pages are no longer static, as they were when browsers were were invented for the first time. The way that this dynamic code is processed and optimized is another way to differentiate engines and has an impact on how quickly a page appears (this is where the JavaScript engine plays a big role).

Firefox engineers are currently working on an upgrade to Gecko called Quantum, which focuses on many of these new considerations for the modern web: how web applications are refreshed, how the browser handles memory and base CPU time, and how it responds to system crashes, for example.

Google is testing new web technologies on its Chrome Experiments site. (Screen capture: Gizmodo)

Should an engine support older web standards and potentially waste milliseconds checking them out (which is why Microsoft created Edge 1.0 in the first place)? Should he return text first and then load into images? How to manage multiple processes in multiple tabs?

It’s more of those high-level questions, and less of the intricacies of web fonts and embedded audio (for example), that differentiate the major browser engines today.

In addition to existing web standards, browser engines must also support new standards as the Internet becomes more and more complex. This is another area where Blink arguably has an advantage – with the creation of so many cutting edge web applications, Google is in a better position to lobby the standards they use.

There are also other issues, which are only of importance to developers: how quickly code can be added and approved, how to fix bugs, how well the browser engine binds to the browser real … end users won’t notice them (unless they count the frequency of update patches), but it’s also important to mention them.

Which browser engine is the best?

Blink, part of the Chromium project. (Screen capture: Gizmodo)

All things considered, should you stick with your current browser engine or should you switch to a different one? Well, like we said, at the surface level, there isn’t a huge difference between them at the moment – Chrome (Blink), Firefox (Gecko), and Safari (WebKit) all render most websites very similarly at very similar speeds.

That’s because they all now largely accept the same basic web standards (which hasn’t always been the case – rest in peace with Internet Explorer). We can’t point out any title functionality that would necessarily cause you to suddenly quit WebKit and switch to Gecko, or vice versa.

At some level, Blink is the best browser engine (Microsoft has moved on, after all). It is fast at rendering pages and applications, updates are released quickly, it is relatively robust, and bugs tend to be fixed quickly.

From Microsoft’s perspective, it’s also the easiest to create a new browser, and it performs best when integrated with desktop apps. At the same time, it continues to monopolize memory in certain situations and has become more and more bloated over the years.

Chrome has its advantages, including quick updates. (Image: Google)

With its Quantum update for Gecko, Firefox continues to impress and makes some serious speed improvements.

The Apple WebKit, meanwhile, to his detractors, but Safari is getting even better on macOS and iOS (mostly thanks to the features built into the browser engine, but still).

The differences between these browser engines usually don’t have a huge impact on end users, so you can continue to use whatever browser you prefer.

Where Blink’s Domination Might have a negative effect over all of us is how browsing technologies will be used in the future and that is falling apart ‘right now Google engineers are deciding how the web works for the majority of people (not entirely, corn enough for that To be a concern).

In other words, the danger is that you will see a lot more of “works better with Chrome”? ? messages.

With Microsoft engineers now contribute chromium also – after the Edge Switch – this should be toned down somewhat, and there’s an argument that it’s in Google’s best interests to keep the web open and ensure its continued development is a collaborative effort. Just be aware that your choice to access the web isn’t just about the browser, it’s also about the engine running underneath.

This article has been updated since its original publication.


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