When it comes to web browsers, we have often relied on the tried-and-true, Firefox or Chrome or Chromium, as the go-to choice in the Linux ecosystem.
As per the latest StatCounter data, Google Chrome has the highest user base across platforms worldwide, followed by Safari, Edge and Firefox. This is quite an expected metric because of the mobile market share of Android devices and iPhones.
However, when it comes to the Linux ecosystem, often the common browser we seek is Firefox, and it is featured in almost all major distributions. And some prefer Chrome or Chromium-based browsers. A few use Safari and Edge.
However, it’s time to shine the spotlight on a lesser-known contender that has been quietly evolving in the background – GNOME Web, formerly known as Epiphany. This open-source web browser, developed by the GNOME project for Unix-like systems, is shaping up to be a formidable competitor in the world of web browsing. It is also a “non-Firefox”, “non-Chromium” open-source browser based on WebKitGTK.
But how well is it equipped with the features and needs of the modern web? Let’s find out.
Table of Contents
The Evolution of GNOME Web
GNOME Web, once known as Epiphany until 2012 and still affectionately referred to as such by many, is built on the foundation of the GTK port of Apple’s WebKit rendering engine – WebKitGTK. As a critical component of the GNOME ecosystem, it’s the default and official web browser of GNOME (i.e. GNOME OS) and a core application of the platform.
What sets it apart is its independence from other GNOME components. This means that you can easily install it on any system supporting GTK and WebKitGTK, making it accessible to a broader audience.
GNOME Web: Status update as of 2023
Modern web standards
Here is a quick list of supported web dev components as of 2023:
- HTML 4
- HTML 5
- CSS 1, 2
- CSS 3
Speed and efficiency
Leveraging the power of the WebKit rendering engine, the same engine used by Safari and other popular browsers, it delivers fast performance. Hardware acceleration further enhances its speed, ensuring that it runs seamlessly on even the most modern devices.
As of the Web 45 version, the hardware acceleration is enabled by default. You can also check using the below property from the terminal.
gsettings get org.gnome.Epiphany.web:/ hardware-acceleration-policy
However, it may feel a little slow to load websites, and YouTube might be a little slow as well. Most of it is due to the fact that it primarily uses CPU instead of GPU. It requires many tweaking to achieve faster rendering, which might be difficult for the average user. However, you can browse normal websites easily.
Privacy controls, blocking and ads
In an age where online security and privacy are paramount, GNOME Web doesn’t fall short. It incorporates built-in defences against the lurking threats of the web:
- Ad Blocker: Your browsing experience starts with protection. GNOME Web comes equipped with an ad blocker enabled by default, shielding you from malware and phishing attempts. You can access it from the preferences.
- Content Blocking: You have the power to block specific content types such as images, scripts, and cookies, not only enhancing performance but also safeguarding your privacy.
- Tracking Protection: GNOME Web offers built-in tracking protection, preventing websites from tracing your online footsteps.
For content filters, it uses adblockplus.org’s JSON file by default.
$ gsettings get org.gnome.Epiphany content-filters
gsettings set org.gnome.Epiphany content-filters "['URL-for-JSON', 'URL2-for-JSON']"
GNOME Web doesn’t just cater to the average user but makes an earnest effort to be inclusive:
- Text size and spacing: For those with vision impairments, you can adjust text size and spacing to make web pages more accessible. You can also change the custom font and CSS. The zoom controls are available in the toolbar.
- Keyboard Navigation: Full keyboard navigation support simplifies the browsing experience for those with mobility impairments.
- Touchpad gestures: Web is fully capable of standard two-finger gestures via touchpad. You can use two-finger left/right to go back or forward in your browsing history. Also, a two-finger swipe up/down gives you scrolling while browsing.
UI, Search, Tab and bookmark management
GNOME Web integrates well with the GNOME desktop environment. Looks wise, it is very clean and neat. Thanks to the recent version ported to GTK4 and libadwaita, you can enjoy the fancy look of this browser.
- Tabs: The tab overview feature allows you to swiftly view and switch between all your open tabs. This is implemented as part of the new libadwaita controls. In addition, you can Pin a tab and Mute a tab as well.
- Smart Search: You can search for websites and web pages directly from the address bar. If you enable “suggestions”, you can get the keywords from Google at the address bar.
- Customize search engines: By default, it searches with DuckDuckGo, with options available for Google search and Bing. However, you can add your custom search engine as well.
- Bookmark: Easy bookmarking is available from the address bar and a well-designed bookmark management module. You can also import & bookmarks from Firefox as well.
Extensions and interoperability
But there’s more. GNOME Web offers some additional features that set it apart:
- Firefox Sync: Synchronize your bookmarks, history, and settings across multiple devices seamlessly. If you have a Firefox sync account, you can log in using the same and get all your Firefox items synced up.
- Extensions: Enhance your browsing experience with the help of extensions that add new features and functionality. A limited number of WebExtensions API support is available, which enables you to use the Firefox extensions in GNOME Web directly. However, it is only available for GNOME Web nightly.
Playing DRM content (Netflix, etc.)
As per the current Web version (45), YouTube works, including up to 4K video playback. However, you might feel high power consumption if used in a Laptop due to CPU usage. Basic online streaming of audio and video works great.
However, it may not be able to play Netflix or any DRM content due to the developers are unable to get a Widevine license from Google for DRM playbacks. So, if you want to watch Netflix and other DRM content, you should use Firefox.
Web dev features
If you are a web developer, you can easily use the “inspect element” feature built-in like other browsers. You can browse the underlying CSS, and HTML, get the web console, see the network traffic for each HTML element and so on.
So, you are good in this aspect of GNOME Web update.
Here is a table that summarizes the key features of Epiphany web browser of GNOME version 45 against the features I listed:
|Features||Supported as of Web 45|
|Support for modern web standards||Yes|
|Fast and efficient performance||Good (can be better)|
|Security and privacy features (adblock, tracking, etc)||Yes|
|Ease of use||Yes|
|Support for Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)||Yes|
|Support for WebAssembly||Yes|
|Support for WebRTC||Yes|
|Extensions||Yes (limited in dev version)|
|4K video playback||Yes|
|Netflix or DRM contents||No|
|Integration of password manager||No|
Having said all this, GNOME Web still lacks critical improvements and features which are common in any standard browser. For example, there are reports about scrolling problems, high CPU usage while playing videos on YouTube, WebSpeech API support, fewer password manager integrations and so on.
The development of GNOME Web gets less contributions/attention (it seems) from the community since Firefox is already a compelling choice for GNU/Linux. Firefox is improving very fast with monthly releases.
However, another WebKit-based browser is still a good alternative which is not dependent on Firefox or Chromium.
The state of GNOME Web today is basic to moderate usage. It’s easy to use, secure, and packed with features that cater to users of all skill levels.
We hope it continues its velocity to become a formidable contender in the near future.
What are your thoughts on GNOME Web? Let me know in the comment box.