Microsoft

Review: Pale Moon web browser for Windows

Matt Nawrocki takes a look at an optimized web browser that may not be as optimized as advertised.

With the recent news about Google's switch to the Blink engine and Mozilla experimenting with a multi-core optimized Firefox engine called Servo, there is quite a bit of change on the horizon for under-the-hood technologies that power the browsers we love.

We have browser choices in addition to the standard fare of Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Chrome. On a higher level, however, there are projects that are considered offshoots of open source mainline browsers like Firefox and Chrome that apply their own twists and special sauce, all the while keeping a major bulk of the engine underneath mostly the same.

Pale Moon

For instance, a browser I reviewed in April of 2012 called Waterfox is a special 64-bit Windows optimized build of Firefox which is said to improve upon performance and efficiency. Today, we look at competing project called Pale Moon, which is another Firefox derivative.

Although the goals and objectives of Pale Moon are quite similar to an offshoot like Waterfox, developer priorities for features beyond core functionality are different. For example, where Waterfox caters solely to 64-bit operating systems, Pale Moon provides optimized builds for both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows as well as axing unnecessary extras, such as accessibility and parental control capabilities.

Pale Moon is developed to take advantage of newer processors in a very significant manner. If you are still stuck on a pokey Pentium III or other SSE-only x86 processor, Pale Moon will not run and that's a sign that you are due for a hardware upgrade. In such an event, your only recourse is the standard version of Firefox, albeit suffering any potential optimizations that could make your browsing experience, faster, more powerful and elegant.

The user interface looks almost completely identical to Firefox.

Benchmarks

When you install and run Pale Moon for the first time, the user interface strongly resembles that of regular Firefox, with the only superficial difference being a blue-centered theme for the UI. Under that seemingly copy-cat façade lurks a tweaked Gecko engine that, according to the author's website, will render pages up to 30% percent faster than regular Firefox. Of course, as the developer mentions, your mileage may vary. In my initial tests, I found the experience to be nearly the same as Firefox. Still, I felt that synthetic benchmarks were in order, just to ensure that I covered all my bases.

Oddly enough, in my quest to properly benchmark Pale Moon and Firefox, I made a rather startling discovery. Firefox would always seem to outpace Pale Moon in the tests, and sometimes by a significant margin. Take The Real-World Browser Benchmark by ClubCompy for instance. This test pumps sprite collisions, canvas patterns, and a Mandelbrot Set Fractal Zoomer all in one.

When I received my results, my overall iterations score for Pale Moon 64x was around 8,168 out of 50,000 possible points. Firefox in comparison raced past Pale Moon with a 9,344 out of 50,000 score. To say I was confused is an understatement. Thankfully, synthetic benchmarks don't always deliver the full story, and it becomes important to actually use a browser on a daily basis for a short while to see if there are any noticeable gains or losses in performance, so your experiences might turn out positive.

As you can see, Firefox handed Pale Moon its head on a platter.

Honestly, when it comes to these variants of Firefox, I believe it boils down to personal preference. Depending on your configuration, you might benefit from Pale Moon's particular optimizations, whereas vanilla Firefox might edge out more. However, in all of this, there is one important fact to note, and that is that Pale Moon is fully compatible with all of your Firefox extensions, thanks in part to the fact that the code is entirely sourced from the Firefox project. Compiled plugins however could break under Pale Moon, since the binaries are different and Pale Moon could be missing what's required to run them.

Bottom line

If you are ultimately feeling adventurous and would like to try a new "flavor of the week" as it were in Firefox browsers, Pale Moon might be of interest to you. While raw scores from synthetic benchmarks can seem disappointing, if not potentially misleading, your particular hardware and software configuration could be the place where Pale Moon shines in rather than suffers.

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About

An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Cus...

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