What’s Good About the Arc Browser

I was a little skeptical of Arc, a new web browser from The Browser Company of New York. Ooo la la. Yeah, well, I run the Fart Factory of Bend. A small irony is that the pandemic means they aren’t really even in New York anymore. Joke. Ruined.

I was actually skeptical because I’ve tried the ol’ “fork of popular browser, but with improved UI” browsers before, and they never stick with me. I’ve developed some doubts about how much value a skin over an existing browser engine can actually bring. Like, don’t build me a browser with a built-in crypto wallet or whatever. Don’t want it, don’t need it. I’d rather have the lightest-weight browser I can get and let me change things with proper Web Extensions, or so I thought.

My mind has changed. I’m about a month in on Arc now and feeling pretty good about it. I’m not sure I’ve 100% crossed the never going back threshold, but a month is a long time for me. Arc is showing how some thoughtful UI around a browser really can significantly change the experience and possibly literally just be a better web browser.

Darin Fisher made a 🌶️ spicy comment about Google’s inability to do entirely UX focused product development in a Verge article:

… building a great web browser isn’t Google’s only goal. Chrome exists in large part to put a search engine front and center, which Fisher describes to me as like “a brick wall” for all kinds of browser innovation. “Anything we did that helps you get back to what you were doing, it means you weren’t searching, right?” Fisher says. Better tab management means less searching; sending you straight to the page you want means fewer search results and fewer ad impressions. Making you close your tabs and reopen them all the time isn’t just acceptable for Chrome; it’s a victory. Fisher and his team had lots of UI ideas and new features, but “all these good ideas die on the floor.”

Makes sense. It takes a third-party to do this with no motivation other than good UX around the web. So with no further adieu…

Here is what’s good about the Arc browser

The “Nothing at the Top” Look

The tabs are on the side. Really, most of Arc is on the left side. It’s a strong and opinionated choice. There is no setting; that’s just how it is.

It felt weird at first, but side tabs are probably ultimately where browsers are headed. Computer screens are wider than they are tall, so we have more real natural estate in that direction. Look at how natural websites look, especially those with left-side navigation, which seems to be the way a lot of websites are headed.

I think there is some Fitt’s Law at work with stacking navigations to the left.

The web just looks good on Arc.

Visual Customization

You can re-name a tab. Think how simple that sounds — but I’ve never been able to do that before!

In my screenshots above, you can see a tab at the top (it’s a “Pinned” tab, another idea I like) named “Mastodon”. That’s not what the tab would say by default. That’s a website called Pinafore, and the name would say something like “(1) front-end.social • Home” by default. I don’t hate that, but for my pinned tabs specifically, control over the name of the tab (and icon!) feels great. I use Pinafore as a Mastodon client. When I wanna peak in at Mastodon, my brain goes “Mastodon”, and now the name of the tab matches my brain.

The world’s weirdest color picker. The main idea is: “Don’t pick the color based on what you see in the picker. Play around with the controls while looking at the real interface and keep what you like.”

The purple background look in my screenshots above? That’s just how I have it today. I fiddle with it a lot. It’s just part of what they call the “theme”. You can change the color, the graininess, and the opacity. It reminds me of Notion in that it limits what you can do aesthetically. They are nice options, but you essentially can’t screw up. You can also pick icons/emojis for both tabs and spaces, which is also very Notion-like.

Spaces are groups of pinned and temporary tabs. You can give a space a different theme, so it’s more obvious which space you are in. I tried to make a “social” space to group all that stuff, but it didn’t click for me, and I’m down to one space. Part of it is that I use a mouse at least half the time. Spaces are way better on a trackpad as you can swipe between them.

You can also make “super pinned” tabs that persist across spaces at the very top (you only see the favicon/custom icon). There is another reason those are nice: they do some fancy custom background refreshing of those tabs to ensure when you visit them, the site appears to load instantly. That’s the kind of clever engineering I’m here for.

Boosts

There is a little Plus (+) button in the sidebar of Arc. One of the options in there is New Boost. You aren’t dumb and are probably a web person, so this is what a boost is: User CSS and User JavaScript. Mainstream browsers have totally gotten away from this as a core feature, and browser extensions that do it have a sordid history, so it’s pretty great to see Arc pick up the torch here.

You get a full-blown code editor right in Arc, and it applies what you are doing immediately to the browser (see styling changes as-you-type, like CodePen).

Here’s an example of what Pinafore looks like with just a normal built-in theme on the left in Chrome, then I made a Boost to inject my own CSS and override some custom properties and other CSS, giving me a theme I like better:

This is the kind of thing that makes Arc a power-user browser. I’m sure mainstream browsers got away from a native feature to allow the injection of CSS and JavaScript because of security concerns (just follow these instructions to copy and paste this JavaScript into your browser and we’ll send you 100 penguin bucks!!!!). But with a power-user browser… less of a concern.

Of note: Boosts are actually packaged up as honest-to-god Web Extensions. You could pluck them out of the folder they live in and use them in Chrome if you wanted. Clever in how that gets around CORS or CSP concerns.

Syncing

You have to have an Arc account to use Arc. That feels a little forceful, but I get it. At some point, this company is going to have to make money, and I’m sure it’s going to have something to do with having an account. It’s a decent amount of mouths to feed. But you get something for it right away: keeping your Arc browsers in sync. If you have one computer, you won’t care. I happen to have a desktop machine, a laptop, and a second laptop permanently in my recording booth, so the fact that all my tabs are constantly in sync across all of them is a feature I’m finding very satisfying.

I do wish it would sync my Boosts, History, and customized keyboard commands in settings. Maybe that’s the kind of paid feature that’s coming.

Command – T

You’ve got muscle memory for this. You and I have opened 23,482,130 new tabs this month. This is seriously dangerous territory. Do not smurf with my Command – T.

They smurfed with it.

But it’s OK.

Command – T does open a new tab. But it does so gracefully. Maybe, actually, you’re trying to get back to a tab you already have open. This will help with that. Maybe, actually, you’re trying to activate an extension. Maybe, actually, it would be nice to jump back to a page you’ve closed recently but is still in history. These are legit things you might actually want to do, it turns out.

This is tricky tricky tricky stuff. Not only are you taking over one of the most important muscle memory things there is in browsers, you are making the default action a ranking problem. Get that ranking wrong (e.g. go to a tab rather than perform a search) and it’s annoying. But get it right, and you really are doing something new and helpful.

Check out the quote from Fisher at the top of this article. This is rubber hitting the road.

Command – Shift – C

Success Message

This is so silly. It’s a keyboard command to copy the URL. Why do I need that? I can tell you that I’ve used it one billion times now, so apparently, I do need this. If you’re worried about the URL bar being tucked away, I have a hunch that what you actually miss is an easy place to copy and paste the URL, and once you know if you have a keyboard command for it (plus clickable icon), you don’t miss it anymore. If you really do miss the full-width URL bar, you can activate “Developer Mode” and it comes back.

But there is a bonus!

It automatically removes cruft from URLs! I’ve been happily using TrackerZapper to do this for a while, and it’s cool to see it baked into the browser instead. Say you’re at some URL you clicked from a newsletter, which comes with UTM junk at the end. I’m not mad about it — I just don’t want that when I copy the URL. Copy it from Arc, and boom, it’s gone.

All that ?utm stuff is gone after copying

It’s Chrome

Chrome is pretty popular. There is a good chance you like Chrome. Very debatable, as there are great features in all browser DevTools, but I’m of the opinion that Chrome’s are the best. You don’t lose any of that. Ultimately, it’s just Chrome. You deal with the flags the same way. The Chrome settings are accessible. The DevTools are the same.

This is developer mode. Has some clever features like one-click to go into inspect element mode and refreshing while clearing cache.

Split View

I often want to see browser windows side by side. Writing a blog post like this is a great example in which I want to reference something without closing my writing. The muscle memory for Command – N is not your friend, unfortunately, with Arc. A new window in Arc, while they allow you do it, is not with-the-grain. It gives you a whole new copy of the window with all your tabs, meaning it’s easy to change some stuff in one tab (e.g. write words) and have that not reflected in the same tab in the other window. Just awkward.

The fix here is don’t use new windows, use split view. The trick here is “think Option key”. If you’re on a tab that you want to keep open, but share space with another browser tab in split view, option-click the link to do so. The link could be on the page, in the sidebar, from the Command – T bar, whatever.

Two-panel is probably the most common, but you can go up to four.

Little Arc

You can turn this off, but by default, links you click from other applications (assuming you have Arc as your default browser) open in a “Little Arc” window. This is a floating minimal UI window. I think the big idea is that a lot of links you open are quite temporary in nature. You see what you need to see, then close it. I tried it, turned it off, then ended up turning it back on. It’s a weird idea but I think I like it.

You can “promote” it into the main window with Command – O.

My trick so far is to adjust the keyboard shortcuts so that Command – N opens a new Little Arc window rather than a “main” window. Not sure if that will stick. There is a lot of getting used to new ways of doing things. That’s dangerous for my abandon-ometer, so I gotta keep new things that threaten muscle memory low.

Super fast, element-cropped screenshots

This is just a wonderful little feature:

The only trouble is that I’m such a fanboy of CleanShot X for Mac I don’t know how much I’ll use it. Time shall tell!

Dialog Aesthetics

Chill look, right? alert() and confirm() and all that is still largely the same in-your-face over everything, but these permission-style browser popups are pleasantly out of the way.

Conclusion

It’s pretty good. I like it.

I’m sure different people will like and dislike very different things than I do. For example, I know people love the idea of “auto archiving tabs”, meaning Arc will close tabs that have been inactive after a certain amount of time (12 hours default!). I don’t care for that, as I very manually manage my tabs. Maybe that’s why I don’t really need the Library feature either, as someone who hand-manages my files in my own specific way.

The weirdest feature is Easels to me. They are little drag-anything-anywhere drawing surfaces that I don’t really understand how are supposed to fit in with any particular workflow. But I don’t dislike them either. It’s like Fig Jams or shared Notion docs, I suppose, as they can be editable-by-many, and clearly those have found tons of users.

What I like most is that it’s obvious they are just trying stuff. The software is moving hot and fast, and it’s fun to watch.

It’s undeniable that we’ve lost browser engine diversity in the last decade with the loss of Opera and Microsoft’s engines. But all the engines left are open source, and so we’re seeing a new kind of browser diversity: browser experience diversity.


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5 responses to “What’s Good About the Arc Browser”

  1. Michael C. says:

    It’s undeniable that we’ve lost browser engine diversity in the last decade with the loss of Opera and Microsoft’s engines. But all the engines left are open source, and so we’re seeing a new kind of browser diversity: browser experience diversity.

    This reminds me of the good old pioneering days when IE was king (v4 and 5), and all of the “alternatives” were just wrappers. I have many fond memories of NetCaptor (which I still think had tabs before even Opera).

  2. iain says:

    Maybe they’ve changed it, but when I used it a little while ago, you couldn’t install a PWA using Arc, and you couldn’t set up custom search engines, which are two features I didn’t think I could do without.

    I have lots of search engines set up for documentation (csst for CSS Tricks search for example!) and I really need the Google Meet PWA in my life instead of a browser tab. I tried opening Meet always in a Little Arc window, but that often crashed the browser.

    I’m sticking with Vivaldi at the moment (also with vertical/side tabs), because I love the amount of customisation I can do, but I expect I will keep reinstalling Arc every now and then to see how it’s going and see whether I want to switch over/back.

    Good idea with the shortcut for Little Arc, I think that would help me a lot. I think it has its own session right? Because that’s the main thing I open new windows for (normally Incognito/Private Browsing).

    I liked the multiple profiles/spaces (I used 2 profiles across 4 spaces, 2 of which were specific work projects), and found it to be nice and quick with keyboard shortcuts rather than mouse clicks.

  3. John Frazier says:

    The things you listed as positives are the things I generally dislike about Arc.
    1. HARD disagree on the sidebar. My bookmarks are grouped into descriptive categories that get cut off in that 200-pixel-wide sidebar. On the top menu bar, I can see the full description and only use 50 pixels. I’m not going to get more webpage in those 50 pixels that’ll be more useful than my bookmarks bar.
    2. Split-View. My window-manager already has an incredibly robust split view. I don’t need another.
    3. Command-Shift-C to copy the URL. I’m an internet. marketer by trade. I need those UTM codes. What’s more, tucking all the URL attributes into that tiny little sidebar now takes me so much longer to extract usable info out of them. Setting my tab into “Developer Mode” is super helpful, but I now have to do that for every tab I open. I’d rather just leave developer mode open full-time.
    On top of all this, profiles is cumbersome and actually more distracting implemented this way than the way Chrome does. Tab auto-archival doesn’t work if you’re already disciplined in tab-management. Keystrokes for switching between tabs (CMD-1, CMD-[, CMD-]) are broken. Everything Arc does for me breaks literal decades of muscle-memory I’ve developed without establishing a compelling problem statement.

  4. Harkanwal says:

    Enjoyed the read as I have been using Arc browser for past few months and it is good to see another perspective on how to approach it after years of using similar browser interface. I dearly hope they succeed and would happily pay for a browser that evolves rapidly while focusing on the user needs.

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