The humble, ho-hum web browser might be the most important thing on my computer. I use it for everything — from essential communications, shopping and shipping, to financial transactions, social media and games. Cat and cooking videos. Guitar tabs. I mean I really use it; and, if you’re anything like me (why wouldn’t you be?) you’ve probably got nineteen browser tabs open at the top of your screen right now.
If you’re anything like 65 percent of the world, you’re probably using Google Chrome. It’s fast, it has a million useful extensions and developer tools, and it sets the standard for web design everywhere. So, why wouldn’t you use it?
Of course, there may be reasons to be concerned about trusting so many personal details to one of the most powerful advertising companies in the world. Although these days, it does seem like Google is trying to take privacy seriously.
With big tech in the public crosshairs over privacy and security, I’ve decided to try out some Chrome alternatives. And far and away, my favorite one is “Brave.”
What’s the point?
TLDR: Brave is leaner and meaner and quite a bit uglier than Chrome. It seems geared toward crypto enthusiasts, with a built-in wallet and exchange support, though a lot of that functionality seems very much a work in progress for now.
The developers have a unique vision for the future of the internet, one in which the consumer has a spot at the table when it comes to their own privacy and advertising revenue. It’s a compelling vision, but it faces stiff competition from the likes of Google, Apple and Microsoft.
Still, Brave’s “killer” feature is the one thing I don’t believe any other browser on the market offers: they want to pay you to use it. Does Chrome pay you to use it? Does Firefox? No, of course they don’t.
We’ll get back to the dollar signs in a minute, but first: how does she handle?
SPEED AND HANDLING
Brave feels a lot like Chrome. Which makes sense, because it’s built from the same open source “chromium” framework Google uses. Microsoft Edge is also built out of chromium, and so is Amazon Silk, Yandex, Opera and others. As a result, Brave is fast, rock solid and widely compatible with Chrome’s own excellent library of extensions.
Is it really 3x faster than Chrome, as Brave claims? Listen: I’m not some kind of weirdo who sits around in his underwear with a stopwatch to time how many bounces the little icon does before whatever program loads. But, if benchmarks are your thing, Brave tends to do pretty well.
Otherwise, we’re in familiar territory here; it’s got tabs, a little box to type things into, some buttons for going back and forth and reloading pages and saving bookmarks and so on. Nothing you haven’t seen before.
The only noticeable difference from other browsers is over here — a splash of color next to the address bar. Two new little icons, an orange lion and a hot pink triangle, indicate something different might be happening behind the scenes.
SECURITY AND PRIVACY
Clicking on the orange lion icon activates the “Brave Shield.” More precisely, it deactivates it, since the Brave Shield is on by default.
These are the browser’s security controls, and this is where a lot of the extra speed seems to come from. Turns out, webpages load a lot faster when you strip out all the junk code, annoying advertisements and sneaky tracking shit going on in the background.
For search results, Brave encourages the use of more obscure, privacy-focused search engines like Duck Duck Go, Qwant and Ecosia. Google and Bing are also available.
Brave is rolling out its own privacy-focused search engine, aiming to compete directly with Google Search. Talk about courage! Although it’s beyond the scope of this article, preliminary reviews seem positive.
For an additional level of privacy, Brave’s ‘incognito’ mode (less provocatively called ‘private mode’ here) includes industrial-level Tor support.
If you’re not familiar with Tor, it attempts to obfuscate your IP address and causes websites to crawl at 3g cell phone speeds. Although it’s not as secure as setting up a true virtual private network, or as expensive, it might make you feel like an el33t5 hax0r69 if you switch it on while you listen to your pirate music.
ADVERTISING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE ADVERTISING
If you happen to enjoy annoying web ads, turning off the “Brave Shield” merely takes a single click of the lion, and then you can bathe in the lush, radioactive glow of animated banner ads, pop ups and the seedy backdoor scripts permeating every level of the modern internet. (Including this site, probably!)
But, Brave offers another option. After stripping out the third-party ads and trackers from everything you see, Brave can then replace them with its own popup ads (ding!), from its own, allegedly trackless advertising network. Goodbye, Google ads! Hello, Brave ads!
So, what kind of idiot would install a new browser to block ads, just to turn around and turn the ads back on again? A greedy idiot, that’s who. Because Brave promises to share its advertising revenue with you, using its Brave Rewards system.
That’s what the hot pink triangle’s for. Once you turn it on and activate your crypto wallet, you’ll be ready to begin swimming in all that well-deserved cash.
If you turn Brave ads on, you will gradually begin seeing browser notifications pop up (ding!). Each view is tallied up behind the scenes, with an estimate visible on on the rewards screen. Then, at the end of the month, you’re paid out by some robot accountant in the cloud, via a cryptocurrency that is disappointingly not called “Brave Bucks.” Instead, they’re called “Brave Attention Tokens,” or BATs for short. But, if you get enough of them together, they’re worth real money. About $0.59 per BAT, as of July 2021. ($0.79 in August!)
For example, last month my eyeballs soaked up enough pop-up ads to earn around 5 BAT, which comes out to about $3.50 American. I could absolutely cash out my BAT stipend for a couple George Washingtons every month and just go nuts with a small drip coffee from Jo’s with cream and sugar. But, that’s not really the point.
Because I always use an ad-blocker, removing ads from the webpages I visit, I’m also removing revenue from the publisher or blogger who created those pages. I don’t want publishers and bloggers to starve — nobody wants that. We just don’t want to watch car commercials all the time.
And, that’s the real point of Brave Rewards. They’re not for me. I’m not supposed to set up some kind of browser farm to collect billions of Brave Bucks (I’ve decided to call them Brave Bucks anyway) like some kind of unshaven, low rent Jeff Bezos. The Brave Bucks are for the publishers, for the bloggers. If we don’t like the way advertising works on the internet, here’s something different.
So, if I like something I see, I can “tip” the content creator. Or, if I spend a lot of time on a particular knitting website, Brave can automatically tip them a percentage of my BAT stack, based on how much time I spend there. Isn’t that a nice way to tell publishers and bloggers their work is appreciated?
“Sorry about thwarting your income stream,” I’m saying to them, every time I tip them a BAT. “Here’s $0.59.”
And Now, SOME COLD WATER
I like Brave enough to make it my default browser. I appreciate the extra security safeguards, the encryption and the overall vision, and I like the idea of tipping websites and content creators directly. Which brings me to my first quibble; see, it’s not all root beer and jelly doughnuts. There are glitches.
For a browser so intertwined with the crypto world, the actual integration seems a little confusing. Because although earning BATs for viewing Brave Ads is easy as Sunday morning, actually receiving those precious little tasty snacks is an altogether different matter. Before I can withdraw anything from the built in Rewards wallet, I need to verify it. And, I can’t do that until I accumulate 15 BAT. So, I guess I’ll be back in two months to update this, and we’ll see how it goes.
Update September 5: A few days after I finished this article, Brave announced new partnerships that expanded the wallet integration for Brave, which has apparently streamlined this process, but I haven’t tested this yet.
The password manager is annoying. It mostly works the same way as Chrome’s password manager, so the real problem is that passwords are annoying. But, Brave seems to make it worse by actively trying to manage my online presence like some kind of helicopter parent.
“Save this new password?” it keeps asking, over and over again, after I’ve just entered my telephone number into a form. “No,” I click back.
If I don’t pay close enough attention, I’m likely to change my bank’s password to my checking account’s routing number at a moment’s notice. “Save this new password?”
Brave’s security measures seem pretty robust, but I’m a sucker for convenience. I wish Brave could use my Macbook Pro’s fingerprint doohickey or the iPhone’s FaceLasers(tm) like Safari does, but that might be an Apple restriction.
For a final bit of ice water to the face:
This summer, a story broke about a scam Brave advertisement. People apparently clicked on this seemingly legitimate Google Ad for Brave, thinking they were about to enter a whole new world of online safety and security. Instead they downloaded a fake package full of poisonous computer viruses. (The fraudulent web address was “bráve.com” with a little accent over the a, instead of “brave.com” — pretty devious!)
This is not Brave’s fault of course, but it does highlight the importance of online security, and how little Brave or any other piece of software can really do to protect us from our biggest vulnerability: human nature.