Brave 1.0 review: Browse faster and safer while ticking off advertisers

A long period of beta incubation has come to an end with the release of Brave 1.0, the privacy-focused speed demon of a browser that's been turning heads with its cavalier approach to ad-blocking and its promises of cryptocurrency payouts. The open source brainchild of Javascript creator and Mozilla project co-founder Brendan Eich, Brave now touts more than 8 million users worldwide, while promising to automatically block trackers and invasive ads to improve speed, privacy and battery life.

Here's what makes Brave stand out from the browser pack for us.

The 'security vs. speed' tradeoff is over

Brave is hands-down the fastest browser I've used this year on any operating system, for both mobile and desktop. Memory usage by the browser is far below most others, while website loading is far faster (Brave claims a 3-6x faster browsing experience than others on the market). With less strain on resources comes less strain on your device's battery life as well.

The core of Brave's speed is its suite of security and privacy features. Websites loaded with flashing banners, pop-ups and advertising trackers can slow browsers to a crawl as your device struggles to chew through a heap of extraneous data. While ad-blocking and antitracking plugins are available for Firefox and Chrome, Brave is built to run these features by default.

One of the most pervasive online privacy concerns is "fingerprinting," an especially sneaky method that advertisers use to track your activity cross-site, letting them build a uniquely identifiable profile of you without using cookies. Most browsers are now starting to fight back against this type of tracking, and Brave is no exception. Along with fingerprinting, Brave's Shields feature blocks a wide swath of tracking cookies and invasive ads.

The problem with some browser security features is that they can interfere with a website to such a degree that you can't access the content you came to the site for. For security-minded users, that means we may have to go through an often obnoxious process of disabling each of our security plugins or on-board features, one at a time, until we figure out which one is causing the hiccup.

The best part of Brave's privacy suite is that it eliminates this game of broken website whack-a-mole, and makes it faster and less annoying to have a secure browsing experience. A single click on the Brave icon on your address bar allows you to see a small menu with simplified toggles that underlie the extensive, customizable security panel in the browser's settings pages.

Since it's built on Chromium -- the same engine that powers Google Chrome -- you can beef up privacy by adding your choice of extensions to Brave just as easily, and via the same process, as you would Chrome. Being built on Chromium doesn't mean Brave is putting your data back in Google's pocket, however.

Brave earns a garland here for stripping Google-specific code out of its own Chromium engine. In simpler terms, it goes beyond blocking outside data from getting in, and also blocks inside data from getting out. This means you can use Brave without worrying about background functions quietly whispering your browsing history to Google.

BAT-ery power

Which brings us to the feature offered by Brave that attempts to strike a balance between user privacy from advertising trackers and the ad-based revenue that websites rely on. Brave's pitch is that users who want to support websites with revenue while still shielding their privacy can opt into Brave Rewards.

Brave swaps ads on a website with ads of its own, shown as operating system notifications, that don't track you. If you view what Brave calls its "privacy-respecting ads" or engage with them, you're not generating revenue for a publisher as you normally would with other browsers. Instead, you earn Brave's basic attention tokens (BAT), a kind of cryptocurrency that can turn into real dollars.

Every month you earn 70% of the BAT revenue that advertisers spend on the ads you see, while Brave receives the remaining 30%. As the BAT stacks up in your account, you can make contributions to websites you love, and tip users on Twitter, Github, YouTube and other sites. Publishers receive the contributions in the form of cryptocurrencies if they opt into the system.

According to Brave, a typical user earns around $5 a month, but that this figure will vary based on region and "other factors." When CNET test-drove Brave's BAT feature earlier this year, the end total in our reporter's account after a good bout of tooling around was around $27, though not all of that was from viewing ads.

Previously, Brave struggled to get its currency to cross the threshold from crypto to cash. That's possible now through the cryptocurrency exchange Uphold, and Brave said by early next year it'll also be possible for users to redeem BAT for subscriptions, gift cards, discounts and more.

Since its inception, Brave's BAT proposition has stirred a hornets' nest of controversy from advertisers who aren't happy about having their content covered. But from the perspective of a well-meaning internet denizen fed up with corporate surveillance, Brave's BAT currency model is a bargain worth striking. And hundreds of advertisers have signed up for ad campaigns on Brave, though some of that is still just dipping their toes in the water.

The browser will need more users, however, to truly build out its new ad system: While 8 million people is a good start, it will still need to compete with Google Chrome's billion-plus users, and Mozilla Firefox's 250 million-plus users.

Full disclosure: In the hypercapitalist dystopia of our attention-driven online economy, anything that makes advertisers uncomfortable gets a thumbs-up from this reviewer. It's not a high bar to reach, of course, but Brave seems to be getting there faster than everyone else.