Arc Browser

The Neverending Search for a Firefox Replacement

I tried switching to Arc when it was in still in beta back in early 2023, and it didn’t excite me enough to make the switch from my highly customized Firefox setup. It had a few nice features, but most of them have their quirks and are either way too opinionated (see The Border) or only ~80% complete. But let’s start at the beginning.

The Issue with Firefox

I was excited when Firefox Quantum hit the scene in 2017, finally they were back to being a real contender for Chrome. In the following months, Mozilla released many great experiments that extended the core browsing experience. The best one being Multi-Account-Containers.

I’m not the only one who has noticed some decay with the Firefox browser, however. There are numerous posts and videos explaining the issue with Mozilla and it’s funding. Going back to the Multi-Account-Containers add-on, at the time of writing, the latest release is from January 18, 2023. The idea of the plugin is brilliant and would solve many issues concerning privacy and security. You can restrict certain URLs to always open in a container, which means they can’t access any data outside this container. So if you use a container for Facebook sites (Mozilla has an add-on for this specific case), it can’t access any data including cookies outside of its container.

With modern authentication flows, however, this plugin fails. You’d have to hard-code every URL in the chain into the container config because it’s not set up to use some wildcard or RegEx based system. These issues and requests have been a thing from the beginning: #691 or #473.

Over the years, I’ve tried to set up my Firefox browser to leak as little data as possible between services, prevent data-hungry companies and servers from hoovering up much of my browsing data and no other browser has ever been able to fill this void.

Finding a New “Everything”-Browser

I have been on this journey many times, and I’ve always come back to Firefox because the alternatives are so much worse. I simply can’t get myself to use Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Safari. I have been using Brave on the side for many years, yet it contains weird features, like the built-in crypto wallet.

When Arc popped up on the scene in 2022 it provided some nice features, and the UI was in places similar to what I had built with a ton of custom CSS and add-ons in Firefox. The first thing that put me off was giving them an e-mail address to be able to download and use a browser. This is also the reason I refuse to give Warp Terminal a try. Why on earth would I want to sign in to use a terminal on my machine?

Over the past years more browsers took a different angle at web-browsing and modernized their UIs, more companies understood that the browser is becoming the OS of many things we do. That’s why I’m giving Arc another shot. If you want a glowing review of Arc, read this article from The Verge, it’s exhaustive, it shows all the features and highlights a few flaws. Here are my thoughts on Arc’s features, that are important to me, and their short-comings.

Can Arc Fill The Firefox Void?

Spaces

I wished spaces could act like containers in Firefox, but unfortunately, they don’t. Spaces are mainly glorified sidebars, that separate tabs. Pinned tabs are synchronized for all spaces that share a profile. If you open multiple windows of Arc, all tabs are synchronized, which seems like an unintuitive behavior to me and I have not found a use-case.

Profiles

These are profiles like any Chromium browser has them if I’m not mistaken. The thing Arc has going for it, compared to other browsers, is that I can work with multiple profiles in the same window. This means, I have a Google space, but I also need to add a Google profile to separate the storage (history, cookies, active logins, etc.).

Since it’s impossible to use multiple profiles within one space, and assign tabs to profiles, my honest question here is: What good are multiple spaces in one profile? Currently, I have four spaces with four profiles, and I haven’t found a good application for having multiple spaces within one profile.

Extensions

Since Arc is Chromium-based, it can simply leverage the Chrome Extension store, and you’ll have access to countless extensions. As I mentioned above, profiles are the same as profiles in any other Chromium browser, which also means that extensions are installed in the profile and are not shared among profiles. I wish Arc would go a step further here and have a master or blueprint profile that could share extensions and their settings among other profiles. This may be contrary to what I said above, about trying to separate services as much as possible, but I still feel this could be done responsibly.

Even though my “Local Development” profile uses many extensions, I don’t use in my “Personal Browsing” profile and vice versa. There is still a good amount of overlap. 1Password, Language Tool, Readwise Highlighter, and Raindrop.io are a few that come to mind that I’m probably going to install in all or most of my profiles anyway. Since I don’t think, I’ll add profiles on the daily, this is not that big of an issue, it was annoying installing and setting up the same things, however.

Air Traffic Control

Air Traffic Control allows the user to move tabs to certain spaces based on the URL. I was excited when I found the setting but pretty soon after disappointment crept in. The options you have to check if a domain contains or is an exact match and then open it in specific Space or Little Arc. I’m missing one thing, however, which would align this feature with the “exclusive containers” feature in Firefox: Moving a URL to another (the default) space if it doesn’t contain xyz.

If I take a look at my Google space/profile, I never want it to open a URL that doesn’t “belong to” Google. Ignoring the fact that I can’t map everything that’s “not Google”, I don’t necessarily want to move URL on one host to a different space in any circumstance. Let’s say, someone sent me the link to a medium blog post via Gmail, I would like that URL to open in my personal space, but I can’t add a rule here because if I open the same article in my “Dev”-space, I don’t want to move it.

Air Traffic Control is an important piece of the browser, unfortunately, its feature seems incomplete to me, and I’d want at least a “not” operator in there.

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Little Arc

Alongside the Spaces’ sidebar, this may be the unique feature of Arc. When you open a link from another app, it first opens it in Little Arc. It’s basically the receptionist of the browser. It can either direct links towards a Space or turn them away by closing Little Arc. This is great for Unsubscribe links for example: I click the link in my e-mail application, Little Arc pops up, I might need to confirm the unsubscribing there and I can close the window and continue with my emails. It’s very unintrusive, and even though, I wish, I could close Little Arc with the Escape key—it has to be closed like a browser tab with CMD + w—this is only a small thing, and I’ll eventually get used to it.

The bigger issue, however, is this: Little Arc opens in the space and profile that was last active in the main browser, and this doesn’t make any sense to me. It allows you to change profiles (I haven’t found a keyboard shortcut for it, unfortunately), but by this point, you’re already more clicks deep into the experience that it has, in fact, become obtrusive, and you could’ve opened the link in a regular browser in the first place.

As I’ve mentioned above with the Firefox Multi-Container add-on, the requests are there, and I’m by far not the first one who wishes it would behave differently. To make Little Arc more than a toy, it needs to have the option to be profile-less, i.e., behave like an incognito window. As a second step, it would be nice to have the option to choose a profile for Little Arc in Air Traffic Control, but I’m fine with URLs opening in their designated space.

Another thing I’ve noticed is, opening links from an app that immediately open another app—let’s say Slack or Spotify—keeps a dangling Little Arc window or tab. IMO, these could be closed automatically.

Opinionated UI

Extension UI Elements

As I mentioned above, you can install any Chromium extension, some custom UI behavior won’t work, however. The Raindrop.io extension for example ships with a custom sidebar and I couldn’t get it to show up, neither with the keyboard shortcut nor through any menu options. It can still be used for saving items to Raindrop, but I have to visit the website to see them. Maybe Arc could dedicate some space to third-party sidebars without them interfering with their sidebar.

The Border

This might be the most controversial feature of Arc. It sports a prominent border around its UI which shows the color of the current space and doesn’t do much else. After using Arc for another few days, I hit me, that’s what’s been bothering me the whole time when using Arc. I think I’m very used to using the bottom-right portion of my screen for work and reading, e.g., my focus area. The top shows menu- and title-bars, and most apps I use have a left-handed sidebar.

In previous versions of Arc, you could remove the border—the setting was there, just not exposed through the UI. In—what I consider to be—a sinister move, these settings were removed in version 1.19 in late 2023.

Arc’s fanboys and fangirls call the border essential to the browsing experience and that they’re part of the brand identity and USP. Here’s a workaround though: Put the browser in full-screen mode and hide the sidebar and suddenly the border is gone as well. This could simply be setting and work the same way in windowed mode, but it seems to be a hill “The Browser Company” wishes to die on.

The loading indicator

The loading indicator is a tiny thin bar at the top of the window and in full screen mode with a hidden sidebar, it’s not visible at all.

Conclusion

Overall, Arc has a good take on being the OS for the internet and good ideas on how a browser can interact with the ecosystem at large, and it provides cool features, many of which I haven’t mentioned like Instant Open. The tab organization with two sets of favorites and tab folders (effectively replacing bookmarks, which is a feature missing from Arc), auto-cleanup of tabs etc. that’s all cool. The AI features that are included through Arc Max are very meh. Some of them like Tidy Downloads are outright wrong and annoying—at least for me.

I wish they would give more options in some places and finishing features. Little Arc has so much potential, currently it’s only okay, however. The profile/spaces split doesn’t match my workflow—and you’d have a hard time convincing me anyone has a good use-case for it. At least one that couldn’t be solved if every space was also a profile.

Do you use Arc? What’s your experience with it? Have you recently switched from Firefox to a different browser? Please let me know in the comments.