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Arc web browser review: a new way of using the internet

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Switching to the Arc browser is hard. You should know that right up front. It’s not that it’s technically difficult: Arc has some simple tools for importing bookmarks, it runs the same underlying engine as Chrome, and the onboarding process is actually thoroughly delightful. It’s just that Arc, the new browser from a startup called The Browser Company, is such a divergent idea about how browsers should work that it takes some time, and some real effort, to get used to.

The Browser Company’s CEO, Josh Miller, talks a lot about operating systems and browsers. The difference is subtle but important. Browsers, traditionally, have mostly just tried to show you the web without getting in your way; they provide tabs and a URL bar and maybe a way to add extensions, but not much more. Operating systems, on the other hand, are deeply involved in how things work. Think of the way Siri and Apple Pay operate across apps on your iPhone or how Google’s Material You changes the look and feel of everything on your phone. Even the share menus or simple drag-and-drop between apps — that’s all operating system stuff.

Arc wants to be the web’s operating system. So it built a bunch of tools that make it easier to control apps and content, turned tabs and bookmarks into something more like an app launcher, and built a few platform-wide apps of its own. The app is much more opinionated and much more complicated than your average browser with its row of same-y tabs at the top of the screen.

Another way to think about it is that Arc treats the web the way TikTok treats video: not as a fixed thing for you to consume but as a set of endlessly remixable components for you to pull apart, play with, and use to create something of your own. Want something to look better or have an idea for what to do with it? Go for it.

Arc treats the web the way TikTok treats video: not as a fixed thing for you to consume but as a set of endlessly remixable components

This is a fun moment in the web browser industry. After more than a decade of total Chrome dominance, users are looking elsewhere for more features, more privacy, and better UI. Vivaldi has some really clever features; SigmaOS is also betting on browsers as operating systems; Brave has smart ideas about privacy; even Edge and Firefox are getting better fast. But Arc is the biggest swing of them all: an attempt to not just improve the browser but reinvent it entirely.

I’ve been using Arc intermittently for more than a year and as my default browser for the last several months. (Right now, Arc is only available for the Mac, but the company has said it’s also working on Windows and mobile versions, both due next year.) It’s still in a waitlisted beta and is still very much a beta app, with some basic features missing, other features still in flux, and a few deeply annoying bugs. But Arc’s big ideas are the right ones. I don’t know if The Browser Company is poised to take on giants and win the next generation of the browser wars, but I’d bet that the future of browsers looks a lot like Arc.

A screenshot of several browser spaces in Arc.

Spaces make it easy to switch contexts and even accounts inside of Arc.
Image: Arc / David Pierce

A new take on tabs

The sidebar is the first thing you have to understand to really make sense of Arc. This is not vertical tabs for the sake of saving space on your ultrawide monitor; this is a totally different way of managing the stuff you’re seeing in your browser. 

The simplest way to understand the sidebar, which lives on the left side of the Arc window, is as a combination of tabs and bookmarks. (I’m just going to call them tabs from now on.) Think of it like the iPhone’s multitasking window, if that window included not just every app but every browser tab you had open. Each item in the sidebar represents an open web page, yes, but some are also an app you can quickly return to and find just as you left it. This makes perfect sense to me: in many browsers, I accidentally open several Gmail tabs because I can’t find the other ones, but in Arc, I just hit Command-T (which opens Arc’s command bar — more on that in a second) and search to get quickly back to Gmail. 

Arc is an absolute organizer’s paradise

Arc is an absolute organizer’s paradise. You can add up to eight apps to a Favorites section at the top of the sidebar for easy access. Below the favorites, you can pin tabs for easy access or make folders of tabs and folders within those folders. You can rename tabs to make them easier to find (sneakily one of Arc’s most useful features). You can change the color and transparency of the sidebar. 

By default, Arc closes all your open and unpinned tabs — which Arc calls “Today Tabs” —  every 12 hours. (It’s a bold strategy, Cotton!) Any you want to keep, you drag above a line in the sidebar to pin them. The idea is to keep your sidebar clean, and Arc dumps everything it closes into a searchable page so you can find things later. You can also choose to have them auto-archived every 24 hours or every seven or 30 days. Personally, I went into settings and turned the Archive feature off because my tab chaos is my choice, thank you very much. 

A screenshot of Arc’s Archive page.

By default, Arc will close all your tabs periodically and archive them to keep your sidebar clean. It’s aggressive!
Image: Arc / David Pierce

The true power user organizational tool here is Spaces, which lets you quickly flip between modes in Arc. Each space can have a different set of pins and tabs, a different-colored sidebar, even a different set of user accounts. If you want to keep personal and work stuff separate, like the idea of overt context switching, or just can’t deal with Google’s inability to manage multiple accounts in the same browser, spaces are a godsend. Personally, I don’t use them much since I find it easier to just mush everything into one window and let chaos reign. But spaces are a good idea, and Arc executes them really well.

Arc’s overall structural concept feels about right, but the execution is clumsy in spots. It’s still too easy to open a bunch of Gmail tabs, and Arc should do more to let you know it’s already running elsewhere. Adding a lot of pins will clutter up your sidebar really fast, which makes for a lot of scrolling to find your open tabs. There’s really nowhere to put bookmarks you only occasionally need, either, nor is there any real place for bookmarklets if you use those. So everything’s just kind of there in your sidebar all the time. If you switch spaces a lot, it can be hard to remember where things are.

The way around these quirks — and around a lot of the weirdness of Arc — is to get comfortable with the app’s keyboard shortcuts. Hitting Command-T to open the command bar lets you open a new tab or search within your existing ones, activate browser extensions, change settings, and much more. Command plus the number keys takes you to the corresponding pinned tabs, and Control plus the number keys switches between your spaces. It’s slightly annoying that the URL bar is crammed up at the top of the sidebar but really handy to just hit Command-Shift-C and copy the URL of the page you’re on. In general, Arc seems to really want you to close your sidebar (Command-S) and just type your way around the web. 

A screenshot of Arc’s command bar.

Arc’s command bar is really the best way to get around the browser, but it’s kind of a power-user tool.
Image: Arc / David Pierce

In that way and many others, Arc is a power user tool. (One Browser Company employee told me that it’s “for people who make spreadsheets to plan vacations,” which is pretty spot-on.) Luckily I am very much a power browser user, and it took me a while to grok the full concept of Arc, but it really works for me. Except for one thing: Arc’s support for multi-window usage is weird and bad and drives me nuts. You can open a second window, sure, but it mirrors the sidebar such that if you close a tab in one place, it’s gone everywhere. Or you can open a “Little Arc” window, a frameless tab meant to be quickly opened and closed without ever cluttering up your sidebar, but that can only contain one page at a time. There’s also Split View, which opens up to four pages side by side (and apparently vertical splitting is coming, too), but that’s only really useful when you have apps you always want to use together. 

My ultimate windowing solution was to remap the “New Blank Window” shortcut to Command-N, which now opens a new window with an empty sidebar. This works! Except there’s an annoying Arc bug that resets keyboard shortcut customizations every time the app updates, so I get to relive the dumb default setup every couple of weeks. 

Arc doesn’t work cross-platform yet, but it does use iCloud to sync across your Macs, and it does so better than any other browser I’ve tested. I can put my Mac Mini to sleep, walk downstairs, pick up my MacBook Air, and get right back to the same tabs in the same place as I was. Spaces sync, too, but you’ll have to log in to your accounts again on every device. (This is an even bigger deal on mobile, where browsers traditionally don’t communicate with their desktop counterparts well, so here’s hoping Arc gets that right.)

Arc runs on the same Chromium engine that powers Google’s browser, which is mostly good news

Underlying all this UI work is… well, it’s Chrome. Arc runs on the same Chromium engine that powers Google’s browser, which is mostly good news: the internet is so Chrome-optimized at this point that some pages are just broken in any browser that doesn’t use Chromium. Arc also currently uses Chrome’s history page, borrows its Autofill tech, and supports Chrome extensions. It also, unfortunately, gets some of Chrome’s performance issues. I don’t find my computer beachballing under the weight of my browser tabs too often, in part because Arc makes them much easier to organize, but I’ve definitely had a few freezes and crashes.

But Arc has steadily gotten better in the time I’ve been using it, and while I wouldn’t recommend everyone immediately drop their browser and take the time to figure out Arc, it does improve on a lot of the browsing interface. And where the app gets really interesting is in the ways it interacts with the web itself.

A screenshot of Arc with a Wikipedia page and a video overlaid.

Picture-in-picture and the built-in media controls are some of the smartest things about Arc.
Image: Arc / David Pierce

The internet computer

The built-in media controls were the first thing I really loved about Arc. You start playing a Twitch stream or a Spotify song, then switch to another tab, and a tiny player shows up at the bottom of the sidebar, letting you pause or skip tracks. Click on the player, and it takes you right back to the tab. Switching away from Google Meet puts microphone and speaker controls in the sidebar. So simple! So helpful! So much better than the buried menu in Chrome I frequently forget exists!

I feel the same way about Arc’s picture-in-picture mode, which pops whatever you’re watching out into a small overlaid window when you switch tabs or move to a different app. (It even will carry the window over to another macOS Space if you switch to it.) Right now, it’s a really basic tool — it grabs the video player and puts it over other tabs — but The Browser Company has big plans for the feature. What if picture-in-picture also included the chat, so you could watch and talk in the overlay? What if it worked for video chats? What if it could be for more than just video?

Features like these are where Arc becomes more like an operating system than a browser and where its TikTok-for-the-web vision most reveals itself. In the near future, the company imagines, everything you do will be connected to the web. Even most native apps are now just wrappers around web apps. So why would you manage it all on your desktop? That’s why Arc thinks of the sidebar as an app launcher, and that’s why it has a place to store and browse all your screenshots and downloads so that you can do more without ever leaving the app.

A screenshot of an Arc easel featuring baby gear

Easels are one of the most powerful features of Arc and one of the ways it tries to remix the web.
Image: Arc / David Pierce

The Browser Company even built two new apps into Arc: Notes and Easels. Notes is really simple, just a way to quickly open a blank page and write stuff down. Every page gets its own URL, so you can save it or share it with others. Easels are much more powerful and a glimpse at Arc’s true ambitions. An easel is essentially a whiteboard, an empty space on which you can write, draw, or add pictures or videos. You can even replace a screenshot with a live version of any webpage, turning an easel into a real-time view of many websites at once. Every easel is shareable and collaborative, too.

Arc also makes it easy to edit and tweak any website you use. Its Boosts feature works kind of like browser extensions, only much simpler: you can just write a few lines of CSS and quickly change how a site looks or works. I have one that removes the Trending sidebar from Twitter and another that cleans up my Gmail page. Eventually, it sounds like there will be a Boosts store a la the App Store or Chrome Web Store, but even now, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to tweak sites to your liking.

In a way, Arc is more like ChromeOS than Chrome. It tries to expand the browser to become the only app you need because, in a world where all your apps are web apps and all your files are URLs, who really needs more than a browser? For the moment, I do, if only because Arc’s bad window management makes it too hard to quickly move amongst all my stuff. 

But I think Arc is right: we do need an operating system for the web, a tool that makes it easier for us to work across apps, helps us organize everything, and adds some platform-wide tools to make it all better. The app will be vastly more useful when it’s available on mobile and Windows, but it has already cemented its place as my default browser. Tabs are dead. Long live sidebars.

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