I used to love Google Chrome for its speed and minimalism, but lately our relationship has deteriorated.
Lately, Google’s web browser has seemed sluggish–not just in terms of performance, but in its willingness to try new ideas. While other browsers have introduced features like page annotation, reading view, and improved private browsing, Chrome has stagnated. Its look and feel still have a Windows XP feel, and even its app store is a shambles.
But quitting Chrome wasn’t easy, as the last six years of daily use had left me extremely picky about how a browser should behave. I simply couldn’t find an alternative that gave me enough good reasons to switch.
That changed a few weeks ago, when I downloaded the beta version of Vivaldi. Even though it’s a work in progress, it already fixes some of my long-standing frustrations with Chrome. Even better, it invents lots of new features that make browsing the web more pleasant and efficient. As someone who uses a web browser every day for work, it’s now hard to imagine going back.
Under the hood, Vivaldi is based on the Chromium, the same open-source code that powers Chrome. This might earn some derision from browser snobs, but in practice it allows Vivaldi to borrow some basic Chrome features and even support Chrome extensions, while distinguishing itself with surface-level features.
To that end, Vivaldi is unashamedly bloated. Whereas Chrome made a name for itself by getting out of the user’s way, Vivaldi throws a bunch of ideas at the wall in the hope that users will find one that sticks.
In 2015, it’s an approach that makes a surprising amount of sense. As PCs have pushed further away from casual use and more toward being a tool for getting things done, a browser for power users is becoming more appealing.
My favorite Vivaldi feature by far is called Web Panels. They’re somewhat like bookmarks, but instead of opening a full browser tab, Web Panels slide out next to whatever tab you have open, putting the two pages side-by-side. Visually, it’s similar to the multitasking features in Windows 10 and iOS 9, but contained within a browser.
I’ve mainly been using Web Panels for applications like Gmail, Google Keep, Hipchat, and TweetDeck. I can reference a web page while writing an email, take notes while doing some research, or just peek at messages without opening a full tab. Web Panels are even handy for music sites, staying hidden until you need to change the track.
The concept of Web Panels is not new, having appeared in some versions of the Opera browser. (Vivaldi creator Jon von Tetzchner was one of Opera’s founders.) But in the age of responsive web design, it feels like an idea whose time has finally come. Most websites these days will automatically reflow to fit whatever window size they’re given, so you can easily view the content of two pages at once.
Web Panels aren’t perfect. I wish there was a way to pop one out into a full tab, and assign different window sizes to each Panel. But compared to juggling multiple browser tabs, they’re a more efficient way to access the websites I often use. In a way, they remind me of when I discovered browser tabs in the early 2000s. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine browsing the web without them.
Vivaldi’s other benefits aren’t huge on their own, but add up to a browser that seems more in tune with the state of the web and desktop software compared to Chrome.
In Windows 10, for instance, Vivaldi’s sharp edges and flat design meld better with Microsoft’s operating system. You can choose from light or dark themes, and there’s also a way to have the color of browser tabs correspond with the color scheme of the website you’re on.
Vivaldi’s mouse and trackpad experience also outdoes Chrome, despite being based on the same code. Two-finger scrolling seems to work better with Microsoft’s Precision Trackpad drivers (as seen in the Surface Pro and Surface Book), and smooth scrolling is supported out of the box. (Chrome has third-party extensions to avoid jerky scrolling animations, but they require a lot of tinkering to get the right feel, and often choke on resource-intensive web pages.)
To top it off, Vivaldi is deeply customizable, even letting you disable some of its key features. For instance, I don’t particularly care for Tab Stacks, which let users group multiple pages under a single browser tab, so I went into Vivaldi’s settings and shut them off. Ditto for mouse shortcuts, animations, and thumbnail tab previews. If you want a minimalist browser, you can likely still achieve it through Vivaldi’s settings menu.
Before you get too excited about Vivaldi, keep in mind that it’s still in beta, and has plenty of rough edges. For instance, you can’t drag tabs between separate windows or into a new window, and I sorely miss the ability to pin websites to the Windows taskbar or Start menu.
Vivaldi can be unstable as well. It rarely crashes entirely, but sometimes pages become unresponsive, requiring either a new tab or a full restart. Compared to Chrome or Microsoft’s Edge browser, I’ve also found that Vivaldi can lag on some web pages and PDF documents, and some websites, such as Twitter, inexplicably load the mobile version instead of the desktop site.
In addition to working out those kinks, Vivaldi must do more to build out its browser’s services. Plans for a built-in email client have yet to materialize, and a tool for taking notes on web pages doesn’t include anyway to sync those notes across devices. You also can’t sync bookmarks, tabs, or settings, at least without third-party extensions.
But even in its unfinished state, Vivaldi has proven useful enough for me to stick with it, well past the point where the novelty of a new browser usually wears off.
I don’t blame Google for its conservatism. Chrome’s user base is so huge that any drastic changes in appearance or features could trigger a backlash. At the same time, desktop software isn’t fashionable anymore compared to mobile apps. Why rock the boat?
By comparison, Vivaldi is comfortable in its own skin as a tool for power users. The company has kept its expectations low in terms of usage–Von Tetzchner told me in February that 2 million active users would be enough to break even–and refers to itself as “a web browser for our friends.” As someone who relies on a web browser every day for getting work done, that’s the group I’d rather be part of.