A year ago we compared memory usage in Firefox to Chrome and IE on a computer with just 1GB memory and were surprised by the results: Firefox emerged as the runaway winner whilst IE struggled to complete the tests and Chrome proved to be something of a memory hog – the opposite of what we had expected.
Over the last year Mozilla and Google have been very busy developing their browsers on a 6 weekly release schedule. IE9 keeps the same version number although it has had incremental updates. Time to test what impact all these changes have had on browser memory usage.
We put all three browsers to the test on Windows 7 to see which browser uses, retains and releases most memory. We tested using the following criteria:
- New installation of W7 with all updates and SP1 applied. Latest browser versions installed – Firefox 15, IE9 and Chrome 21.
- All browsers left at default settings. Adobe Flash Player installed as it is a standard program on most computers and required by so many websites.
- Adobe’s standalone Flash was disabled in Chrome to allow Chrome’s integrated plugin to handle Flash – the default.
- No other plugins, add-ons, themes or extensions were installed. Homepage was set to Google.
Note: Memory usage is not a good indication of how quickly a browser performs – but it is a useful guide, especially for computers with limited (less than 2GB) RAM e.g. netbooks and older XP/Vista systems.
Test 1 – Open the browser (Google homepage only) and check RAM usage:
Chrome – 76 MB
IE – 48 MB
Firefox – 78 MB
This test is to provide a baseline only – it’s of little intrinsic value in a modern multi-tab browser.
Test 2 – Open a sample set of 10 websites (same for all browsers) in separate tabs:
Chrome – 465 MB
IE9 – 388 MB
Firefox – 222 MB
A particularly good result for Firefox which only used around 50% of the memory sucked up by its rivals.
Subjectively, Chrome and Firefox appeared equally quick in opening these tabs – IE struggled to render the pages and took a little longer than the others.
Test 3 – Closed all 10 tabs, leaving just the Google homepage open:
Chrome – 90 MB
IE – 80 MB
Firefox – 100 MB
Very close results which show how well each browser has freed up RAM – although they retain a little more RAM than they used at the start, the results are much better than last year – for all three browsers.
Test 4 – Open a different sample set of 10 websites in separate tabs – this time they were more multimedia-rich and advert heavy sites:
Chrome – 495 MB
IE – failed (got up to 450 MB before a page stopped responding and IE crashed)
Firefox – 217 MB
Chrome peaked at 650MB+ whilst loading the tabs but settled down to a more respectable result – subjectively, sites were a little slow and laggy but still very usable for browsing.
IE failed miserably on this test as one site stopped responding before the test finished. Retesting several times (and on 2 other computers) produced the same results. Recovering the page caused several tabs to disappear and/or IE to crash so we couldn’t complete the test – the same as last year…
Firefox appeared quickest to open the 10 tabs and was also quick to browse with no lag – perhaps not surprising as it used no more RAM than in the previous sample set of websites. Considering that these sites were so full of video and Flash content this is a really impressive result.
Test 5 – Closed all 10 tabs, leaving just the Google homepage open.
Chrome – 93 MB
IE – No result as the previous test failed
Firefox – 106 MB
Good results for Chrome and Firefox – both released most of their memory and are only a little higher than Test 3.
Firefox – for the second year running, a clear winner for systems with limited memory. Only used about half the RAM of rivals when multiple tabs were opened and it handled media-rich sites better.
Although Firefox didn’t free up as much RAM as Chrome in Tests 3 and 5 (when tabs were closed) the difference was minimal. Highly recommended if you have less than 2 GB of RAM.
IE – failed at the same test as last year. A decent showing on the first 3 tests but couldn’t cope with more than a handful of multimedia rich sites so we still can’t recommend it.
Chrome – greatly improved from last year. However, it still uses a lot of RAM because it runs each tab as a separate process. This is good for security and stability but bad for performance on systems with limited memory.
It is noticeable that Firefox and Chrome both improved markedly compared to last year’s tests, especially in freeing up RAM after tabs are closed. This is likely due to the effort put into ongoing development. However IE9 appears to have stagnated – not surprising as updates for it are typically to address security rather than performance issues.