When one talks about web browsers for desktop Linux systems, there are
usually two options on the table: Firefox or Chromium. There are a number
of other browsers out there, though, including
, the GNOME project's
official web browser. In past years, development of Epiphany appears to
have slowed considerably, and it has not drawn much in the way of
attention. Recently, though, there have been indications
of a new burst of activity around Epiphany, so your editor decided to take
a fresh look.
According to its web page, Epiphany "provides an elegant, responsive
and uncomplicated user interface that fits in perfectly with GNOME."
The initial experience is indeed uncomplicated; Epiphany, when it starts
up, presents a single, unadorned, white window with an empty address bar at
the top. No splash screens, no welcome messages, and no home page; indeed,
Epiphany seems to lack the concept of a home page entirely. Actually
getting content into the browser window is a matter of typing something
into the bar at the top or dragging it over from some other application.
Epiphany is meant to be a fast browser. Much of its performance will
naturally be bounded by the speed of the net and by the speed of the Webkit
engine on which Epiphany is based, but your editor's subjective experience
is that its developers have certainly not gotten in the way. Interaction
with the net feels quick in a way that it most certainly does not with some
other browsers. It can be a real pleasure to watch things happen so
For the purposes of simply reading web pages, the simplicity of Epiphany's
design is also quite nice. There has been a clear effort to remove as much
non-content junk from the screen as possible. In particular, the
developers seem to have decided to leave as much vertical space as possible
for web content. In these days when the designers of monitors seem to have
all concluded that widescreen movie watching is the only interesting use
case for their products, it is nice to get some of that vertical real
estate back. More web page and less scrolling is always a good thing.
Interestingly, hovering over a link in Epiphany does not produce any sort
of display showing where the link goes. That is a bit of information that
browsers have provided since the beginning; its absence here is strange and
a bit jarring. It is nice to have some clue of what awaits at the far end
of a link, and there is no real reason not to provide it.
Many of the keyboard and mouse shortcuts that one would expect are there,
so moving to Epiphany is not a huge shock. That said, there are a few
things missing. Your editor misses moving through a page's history with
shift and the mouse scrollwheel; that lack is made worse by Epiphany's
failure to implement the "forward" and "back" buttons (buttons 8
and 9) found on some mice. The address bar pulls up options from the
history like other browsers, but the tab key, which selects an item in
Firefox, just causes them all to disappear with Epiphany. One must,
instead, use the arrow keys, taking the hand out of home position and
slowing the whole process. But these complaints are minor; the
basic operation of the browser is mostly as one would expect.
All the minimalism does come with a bit of a cost, though. The ability to
put a small number of frequently-used bookmarks into a toolbar over the
window itself can
be quite useful, but it is missing from Epiphany. Even the bookmarks
themselves are not directly accessible; instead, they are found in a
second-level menu behind a button with a gear-shaped icon. That button
provides access to a number of other standard functions - open a tab, print
the page, view page source, etc. Some interesting things are missing,
though: this menu lacks any option to set preferences, access help, or even
to quit the application.
This is a GNOME application we're talking about, so your editor was
entirely prepared to believe that the Epiphany developers had concluded
that a simple application like a web browser has no knobs that a user might
actually want to tweak if they knew what was good for them. That turns out
not to be the case, though; Epiphany does allow for the tweaking of
a certain number of preferences, including the download location, font
sizes (though the useful ability to set a minimum font size is missing),
sadly, an indication of where GNOME is going.
GNOME 3 users know that the top of the screen is occupied by a mostly empty
black bar; toward the left end an icon and name for the currently-focused
application appears. Thus far, that icon has been mostly a decorative
feature. But, it seems, the GNOME developers intend it to be for an
application menu. So, to get at Epiphany's preferences window, help
browser, history browser, etc., or to tell it to quit, one must move out of
the application and to that icon (labeled "Web," not "Epiphany") to request
it from the global application
menu. That icon is detached from the window(s) it relates to; indeed, it
is likely, in multi-monitor setups, to be on an entirely different screen.
But running up mileage on the pointer to get to that menu is the
distraction-free computing paradigm of the future, it seems.
It would, of course, be purely gratuitous for your editor to point out that
getting at the global application menu is especially challenging in a
focus-follows-mouse setting, so he would not dream of doing that.
There are a few other settings available to those who are willing to wander
into the dconf registry. If you do not want Google to be the recipient of
any non-URL text typed into the location bar, for example, you'll need to
go into dconf to change the search URL. There's a surprising number of
options for configuring Epiphany to run in a locked-down kiosk mode.
Happily, the minimum font size option - useful for those of us who want
text at the smallest easily-readable size, but no smaller - can also be
There is an extension mechanism for Epiphany, but, seemingly, no way to
obtain extensions from the net. Instead, the few available extensions are
assumed to be available on the local system, usually packaged by the
distributor. The options are limited but they do include useful tools like
Adblock and Greasemonkey. There is also a "subscribe to RSS feed"
extension, but it appears to only work with locally-running feed reader
applications. In general, it would appear that the Epiphany developers
don't expect to see vast numbers of extensions as one might find for other
Epiphany's developers seem to have a number of plans for the near future.
The blank initial page may eventually be replaced by an "overview" that
includes bookmarks and recent history; it seems intended to at least
partially mirror GNOME Shell's overview screen. The planned Queues feature
looks useful; it will let users move those pages they plan to read out of
their bookmarks and/or open tabs. A port to the WebKit2 API is also in the
works; that will allow Epiphany to run different tabs in different
processes. And, of course, there is a data synchronization feature that
will allow users to store history, bookmarks, and more in a central
In summary: the renewed effort has turned Epiphany into a quick and focused
tool that can be quite pleasurable to use if you are willing to accept its
limitations. It sometimes seems like the problem of writing a workable
free web browser has been solved for some time, but there is value in
continued innovation and experimentation in this area. Many of us spend a
lot of time
dinking around working on the web; better
tools for that work can only be welcome. For some people, Epiphany, in its
current or future form, may well be that better tool.
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