Browser wars: Is Safari as fast as Apple claims?

If you followed the Apple-dominated tech headlines over the past week, then you know that Apple’s Safari browser is the fastest web browser you can use at this time. That is, of course, if you believe Apple and its claims about its “incredible” browser. But is it really the fastest? We ran the software and its rivals through several benchmarks to find out.

Before you read on, let me remind you that these benchmarks have to be taken with a grain of salt, since we know that, with the exception of Acid 3, they are typically skewed to one or the other browser, while, in aggregate, they should deliver a good idea which browser has advantages in certain disciplines.

Also, don’t expect to achieve the same benchmark numbers on your computer as I did, since these benchmarks heavily depend on the performance of a computer overall. The results are relative and almost certainly will change from time to time you run them. Because of this circumstance, I have run each test ten times on each browser and took the average number for this ranking.

In previous benchmark runs we have found that that the scores and the direct relationship of benchmark are also affected by the number of processing cores. That said, we learned that the overall benchmark score is usually a good indication of the performance provided by each browser in general. So let’s see how the new Safari ranks.

The contenders

I chose the most recent versions of the three major browsers on the market today, as well as Google’s Chrome, which is generally considered to be the benchmark in browser speed today. Here are the browser versions used in this brief test:

Firefox 3.5 RC1 build June 12, 2009
Safari 4.0.530.17
Internet Explorer 8.0.6001.18783

All tests were run with only the browser being active as well as only one open tab. The computer used was an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600-based system with 4 GB of memory.

Round 1: Acid 3

This is a standard test that takes browsers through a web standards compliance test. The focus is focused on the Document Object Model and JavaScript. The compliance is measured in points, whereas a perfect score is 100 of 100. Higher numbers are better.

1. Safari: 100/100
2. Chrome: 100/100, Linktest failed
3. Firefox: 93/100
4. IE: 20/100

No surprises here. Safari and Chrome are ahead of the pack, Firefox is improving and Microsoft is trailing with a significant distance.

Round 2: Google V8

A browser benchmark heavily focused on Javascript performance that favors Webkit framework-based browsers. Higher numbers are better.

1. Chrome: 2709
2. Safari: 2503
3. Firefox: 356
4. IE: 81

Chrome and Safari are both Webkit-based and are close in performance. Safari outruns Chrome in two out of six disciplines in this benchmark. Subjectively, in everyday browsing the performance difference between the browsers does not seem to be as dramatic as indicated by this benchmark.
Round 3: SunSpider

Webkit’s SunSpider benchmark is another JavaScript benchmark that tests the core JavaScript language only, not the DOM or other browser APIs. The result is given in mseconds. Lower numbers are better.

1. Chrome: 628.4
2. Safari: 683.8
3. Firefox: 1162.8
4. IE: 5069.4

Another close race between Chrome and Safari. Since it is a Webkit benchmark, the result should not be a surprise.

Round 4: Celtic Kane

Celtic Kane is an independent benchmark test that focuses on JavaScript performance. The result is given in mseconds. Lower numbers are better.

1. Safari: 84
2. Chrome: 183
3. Firefox: 233
4. IE: 512

This independent test indicates that Firefox’ JavaScript performance much closer to Chrome/Safari than the Webkit-focused benchmarks. IE’s JavaScript performance simply can’t compete at this time.

Read on the next page: Peacekeeper, Le Crabe, Slick Speed, Conclusion

Round 5: Peacekeeper

Peacekeeper is a browser benchmark provided by Futuremark. It is not just JavaScript-focused, but also measures the performance of other features, such as graphics rendering. Higher numbers are better.

1. Safari: 3671
2. Firefox: 1964
3. IE: 804
4. Chrome: Not supported

Unfortunately, the benchmark does not yet support Chrome, which I found to be a rather strange circumstance. However, the overall picture shows Safari as an impressive browser yet again.

Round 6: Crab test

The Le Crabe test is a flash rendering test, during which animated crabs are added to a screen. The test stops when the frame rate drops below 25 fps. Higher numbers are better.

1. Firefox: 356
1. IE: 356
2. Safari: 256
3. Chrome: 241

IE may not be all that bad and it is clear that Safari and Chrome in fact have weaknesses.

Round 7: Slick Speed

Slick Speed is a comprehensive JavaScript test divided in five disciplines: MooTools, JQuery, Prototype, YUI and Dojo. The results are given in mseconds. Lower numbers are better

1. Safari: 38, 31, 149, 124,1
2. Chrome: 42, 23, 209, 144, 44
3. Firefox: 71, 71, 187, 177, 38
4. IE: 205, 183, 739, 497, 193
SlickSpeed confirms the previous performance results of Safari. In common benchmark tests, it is the fastest browser available today. As an interesting side note, Chrome is outpaced by Safari and Firefox in the Prototype benchmark, which is based on a JavaScript framework helping programmers to develop web applications.  

Conclusion: Impressive!

Speed is not everything, but it is the discipline that gets the most attention these days. If we believe the results provided by the most common benchmarks these days, then Safari is the fastest browsers among the top four today. Subjectively, the difference is much less than indicated by these results. The actual browsing performance not only depends on the actual capability of each browser, but also by your PC, your Internet connection and ways a certain destination is accessed. But it is clear that Apple has put a lot of work into Safari and that the browser race has become a lot more interesting.