Boomerang Effect: Firefox 4 is 7x Faster than IE9

There has been an entertaining exchange of claims between Microsoft’s IE team and Mozilla’s Firefox team over the past week, in which the two companies argue who has the better implementation of hardware acceleration. Microsoft seems to be avoiding the whole JavaScript performance topic lately, as it recently explained that JavaScript really does not matter so much anymore, but Mozilla has put some effort into creating a new benchmark that apparently reflects real world applications much better than, for example, Sunspider.

Several months back, both IE8 and Firefox 3.6.x were dead last in the browser JavaScript race and there were doubts whether the two could catch up with Webkit (Chrome, Safari) and Opera without rewriting their entire browser engines. Now we are well into the beta phase of the next generation of their browsers (IE9, Firefox 4) and we know that both of them may not be able to match the very best that is out there today, in terms of JavaScript, but they are light years ahead of their predecessors. 

Over the preview period of IE9, Microsoft has closely documented on a blog what it is doing with IE9, what it is changing and what performance improvements it sees. IE9 is clearly a different breed than IE8: It reflects a different thinking at Microsoft. The proprietary functions are much less and the standards support is finally approaching a level that does not cause so much anger for web developers anymore. If you haven’t tried it, I recommend you do, especially if you enjoy Windows 7. It is the best integrated browser at this time, even if I personally was somewhat disappointed that Microsoft dropped the ball on the integration in Bing. Search is somewhat under-represented in IE9 and needs quite a bit of work. Google’s Chrome is doing much better in this field – especially if you consider the fact that Instant Search is now possible from within the browser.

So let’s look at performance and published claims. 

We have recently witnessed a rather silly blog post / twitter post battle between Microsoft and Mozilla that focused on hardware acceleration. Conceivably, the bystander simply scratches his head over the discussion and wonders if Microsoft does not know when to shut its mouth. You would think that they are very happy with IE9 today. Instead, the IE9 Beta launch was preceded with a slap for Mozilla, explaining to the public that IE9 is the only browser with "full" hardware acceleration today. Full hardware acceleration?

Yes, there are different levels of hardware acceleration and we generally consider support for three levels as full acceleration. Support for only one or two levels will result in less performance, which can be seen, for example in the Chrome 7 Canary and Nightly Builds, which only support one stage. 

To reveal the full potential today, hardware (GPU) acceleration consists of (1) content layering / rendering using Direct 2D on Windows Vista / 7 (Quartz on the Mac) and (2) Direct 3D for layer compositing (OpenGL on the Mac), which has been explained by Mozilla recently. Microsoft added (3) desktop compositing to the equation and claims it is the only one to do so, which Mozilla denies. In Microsoft's words: "After a browser renders content and composes pages, Windows Vista and Windows 7 use the GPU to compose the final screen display via the Desktop Window Manager (DWM). Because IE9 uses DirectX and only DirectX, there is better interaction between IE9 and the DWM, using less GPU memory and resulting in better stability than browsers that mix different subsystems."

Mozilla, however, replied that Microsoft's claim that an additional abstraction layer next to DirectX (such as OpenGL) will hurt the performance of the browser is most likely false. Mozilla shot back and said that their architecture allows them to at least partially integrate GPU acceleration (in content compositing) while Microsoft’s approach does not allow them to support hardware acceleration in Windows XP at all. In the end, the technologies are meaningless if there is no tangible benefit to the user. Citroen cars in Europe have used a fantastic "hydropneumatic" suspension in its cars for nearly three decades that has been, technologically, much more sophisticated than other types. Still today, it is capable of providing a much more comfortable ride than anything else that is on the market. Does the majority of the market care? No.

It is because we are somewhat lost in translation and we simply care about what we get in the end. For IE9, it is a GPU browser performance that is very comparable to Firefox Beta 5/6 in its own tests. Some tests are won by Firefox, some by IE, but all of them put the two browser in the same neighborhood and within the margin of error. Stating today that one browser is better at GPU acceleration than the other is purely a technology discussion that is irrelevant to the user and may even reveal some sort of personal insecurity. While IE9 is a much better browser than IE8, I would wish that Microsoft kept its pride to itself and not feel the need to attack its rivals, especially if hat reveals return fire that exposes IE9’s weaknesses – such as the missing GPU acceleration support for Windows XP, which still represents 60% of the operating system market. The marketing team over at Microsoft just needs to let this one go.

Unfortunately, Mozilla has just launched a second round and is now claiming that its own new "Kraken" benchmark, which is based on scientific benchmark recommendations to reveal real-world scenarios, creams IE9 in JavaScript performance. Mozilla has run both its JaegerMonkey Firefox and IE9 through the benchmark andfound that IE9 is 7.24x slower than Firefox. Apparently, IE9’s weaknesses are in audio and, ironically, image processing – especially in Gaussian blur operations, where Firefox is 26 times faster than IE9, according to Microsoft.

Mozilla has already been accused of unfair comparison and favoring Firefox in this benchmark, which may be very well the case. Interestingly enough, however, the latest Firefox 4 b7-pre nightly builds, which are the first Firefox 4 feature freeze builds, show dramatic JavaScript performance improvements as well. On our test system, Firefox is now completing the Sunspider test in just above 400 ms and is about 10% ahead of IE9. Chrome 7 still leads the ranking with about 300 ms. In Chrome V8, Firefox almost matches the Webkit performance of Apple’s Safari browser, but is still about 60% behind Chrome.

So, what does that mean? Potentially not much. The differences in JavaScript are very subtle and may not matter at all in your real life browsing experience. Both Firefox and IE9 are very responsive and fast browsers and your typing speed or your ability to direct your mouse to a bookmark will impact your browsing speed much more than JavaScript compilers these days.

The bottom line is that we have five very capable browsers available today – five browsers that appeal to very different user groups with different ideas how their browsing should work. IE9 Beta is for those who just prefer their browser to work seamlessly with Windows, Chrome is the browser with the best search engine integration, Firefox is the best compromise and has the edge on next-generation tab browsing, while Safari is for the Apple lovers among us. And if you do not like either one, you can always use Opera and still have a very capable browser

There has never been a better time for choosing a web browser. Realistically, you can’t really make a mistake by picking one.

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  • mikeadelic
    dallaswitsI use chrome primarily, and IE when chrome fails(which happens at least once a day). Firefox's buttons and styling have always felt a bit cartoonish to my mind...

    I'm curious as to how Chrome fails so often? Not flaming just wondering. I haven't had any stability issues with Chrome for months, starting from Chrome 5.
  • Marco925
    Firefox and its capabilities are endless!
  • digitalwitchcraft
    no matter the speed, I wouldn't change Firefox for any other browser. with some plugins, it has everything that one needs
  • Other Comments
  • Anonymous
    CHROME IS THE FASTEST ONE THERE IS!
  • dallaswits
    I use chrome primarily, and IE when chrome fails(which happens at least once a day). Firefox's buttons and styling have always felt a bit cartoonish to my mind...
  • jdamon113
    maybe but it crashes in win 7