With the Internet's second big browser war upon us, benchmarks, performance and speed have taken center stage in the fight for online supremacy. Here at Tested, we often discuss numerous technologies, from WebGL to HTML5, in attempt to suss out what browsers work best. But we also realize it's not always easy to understand what purpose these tests serve — and more specifically, the real-world benefits for people like you.
Here's a quick rundown of what all these names and numbers mean, why they matter, and how to run some tests of your own.
The HTML5 standard includes a huge variety of new APIs that range from offline storage capabilities to native multimedia playback. However, the feature most commonly subject to benchmarks is the 2D canvas drawing element. This is the API responsible for all sorts of animations, and also the element which makes HTML5-based games possible. The speed with which a browser can interpret and render canvas elements — especially in large, layered numbers — determines the overall performance of an HTML5-based app, which is why many benchmarks attempt to push a browser to its limits.
You've probably seen a number of popular HTML5-based tests discussed in the past, including Microsoft's popular fishtank demo. You can feel free to test these out on your own to get an idea of your how own browser stacks up, but be warned, lower-powered hardware and machines can often be more of a bottleneck than the browser itself.
For some time now, computer scientists and programmers have been eager to leverage the power of a computer's GPU for the purpose of non-graphical computations. For example, it often makes more sense to execute physics calculations on the GPU, or complex mathematical equations, such as those required by SETI@home. In-browser, a standard called WebCL has promised to offer that same ability to web developers and apps. First conceived by Apple, and released with Snow Leopard last year, a range of manufacturers have since expressed interest, especially where mobile applications are concerned.
Though still in its infancy — especially when compared with WebGL — Both Samsung and Nokia have released the first two WebCL proof of concepts for eager users to test. Concievably Tech's Wolfgang Gruener has the full rundown for those interested. OS X users with Safari can already try Samsung's demo out for themselves, while Windows users will need Nokia's software with an SDK from AMD. For now, these benchmarks won't reveal much, but will eventually give a good indication of how well a browser can run code on low-level hardware — something that will no doubt come in handy for ChromeOS-style scenarios.
Unlike WebCL, these tests utilize your computer's GPU for the purpose of graphical rendering and execution, and is being billed as the basis for the next-generation of online games and applications. Traditionally, web applications, run in a browser-imposed sandbox, without access to lower-level hardware such as the GPU. If a web developer hoped to utilize the GPU or render 3D content in-browser, a plugin was often required, at the cost of precious CPU resources.
WebGL, however, provides access to this hardware. Chrome, for example, has a huge number of WebGL-based "experiments" that we've covered in the past, and give a great indication of the WebGL's potential for everything from games to interactive videos and 3D applications. Even Quake II has been made to run in-browser with GPU-enabled rendering. Just remember, you'll need Firefox, Chrome or Safari to join in the fun, as Internet Explorer will likely be sitting this race out.