One of the features that attracted me to the new Web browser Arc was the way it organizes tabs vertically in a left-hand sidebar (see “Arc Will Change the Way You Work on the Web,” 1 May 2023). Before Arc, I knew there were extensions for Google Chrome and add-ons for Firefox, but every time I played with them, they were too awkward to use for real. I knew that Microsoft Edge had added vertical tabs at some point, but the only reason I even have Edge on my Mac was so I could try Bing’s AI feature. My real blind spot was Safari, which added vertical tabs some time ago but failed to communicate that fact in the interface in a way I noticed. I’m not alone—when I mentioned this fact to Tonya, who uses Safari as one of her main browsers, she was equally unaware.
But now that I’ve become a complete convert to the wonders of vertical tabs, I’m seeing them everywhere. Or perhaps the industry has hit some sort of intersection between users clamoring for the option and browser makers gaining the gumption to brainstorm better interfaces. Whatever the reason, if you’re not using vertical tabs now, I’d encourage you to try them, either in your current browser or one of the newcomers mentioned below.
What makes Arc’s vertical tabs so compelling for me is how I can create, organize, and rename pinned tabs and then collect them into workspaces, making all the pages I regularly use just a click or two away. Of these other browsers, Vivaldi comes closest to Arc, followed by SigmaOS, though neither has encouraged me to switch. Of the major browsers, Safari stands out because it lets you create tab groups and pin tabs within those groups. All the rest of the browsers support tab groups and pinned tabs, but as soon as you pin a tab, it leaves its group and shrinks from an icon with a name to just a tiny icon. Frustrating, but perhaps these other browser makers will eventually come to their senses and keep pinned tabs in their groups.
Previously my favorite browser, thanks to its privacy focus and helpful features, Brave has just added vertical tabs in version 1.52. To turn them on, navigate to
brave://settings/appearance and select Use Vertical Tabs. Once that’s done, your tabs appear in a left-hand sidebar instead of at the top of the screen.
It’s easy to create tab groups by selecting multiple tabs, Control-clicking them, and choosing Add Tabs to Group > New Group. To populate my tab groups, I Command-clicked my bookmark folders for TidBITS and FLRC to open all their tabs simultaneously, then combined them into tab groups.
Unfortunately, pinning tabs in Brave causes them to jump to the top of the vertical tab sidebar and display as tiny unnamed icons, rendering the feature useless for multiple pages on the same site. Without better pinning, if you navigate within a standard tab in one of Brave’s tab groups, the only way of reverting to the tab’s original URL is by navigating back within it. Brave does remember the tab’s history, even through restarts, but it’s still clumsy.
Although Brave’s implementation of vertical tabs doesn’t make me want to switch back from Arc, I prefer it to the old top-mounted tab bar and plan to keep it active.
Mozilla hasn’t yet seen fit to support vertical tabs within Firefox, but the Vertical Tabs Reloaded add-on gets you part of the way there. It doesn’t replace Firefox’s top-mounted tab bar (and there’s no way I can find to turn that off), so you’ll have to put up with that duplication. Aside from that, Vertical Tabs Reloaded does a decent job of providing a sidebar of your current tabs.
Although Firefox supports pinned tabs, both it and Vertical Tabs Reloaded lack the concept of tab groups, so there’s no way to organize your tabs in the sidebar. Like other browsers, pinned tabs appear only as tiny icons at the top of the sidebar in Vertical Tabs Reloaded, rendering even a manual organization of tabs somewhat pointless.
While Vertical Tabs Reloaded doesn’t come close to replicating the capabilities of Arc, it was worth leaving active in Firefox for my minimal testing and troubleshooting activities.
I’m surprised that Google hasn’t added vertical tabs to Chrome yet, given that Brave and Microsoft Edge—both based on Chrome—have. Nevertheless, the only way to get vertical tabs in Chrome is with an extension like Vertical Tabs. As with the Vertical Tabs Reloaded add-on for Firefox, Vertical Tabs provides an additional sidebar containing tabs along with the usual top-mounted tab bar, which can’t easily be hidden.
Vertical Tabs doesn’t acknowledge Chrome’s tabbed groups, and while it does support pinned tabs, Chrome separates all pinned tabs from their tab groups on the left side of the tab bar, and Vertical Tabs mimics that by placing them at the top of its sidebar.
Making it even fussier to use, Vertical Tabs doesn’t display its sidebar when you open a new tab, and it takes a second to appear after loading whatever page is in that tab, causing content to slide right. Plus, as you can see with the TidBITS site below, which should be centered in the window, Vertical Tabs sometimes confuses sites as to the page width.
As with previous times I’ve tested it (or extensions like it), I found Vertical Tabs more trouble than it was worth and turned it off after capturing this screenshot.
The vertical tab implementation in Microsoft Edge is similar to Brave’s from a functionality standpoint. You turn it on by navigating to
edge://settings/appearance and clicking the Turn On button next to “Show vertical tabs for all current browser windows.” That’s an odd interface decision; why not use a toggle switch like the controls above it?
Edge does a slightly better job than Brave in visually connecting the contents of tab groups in the sidebar, but it has the same problem with pinned tabs moving from their group to the top of the sidebar.
As with Brave, I’m not tempted to use Edge as my default browser, but I’ll stick with its vertical tab approach whenever I use it.
I haven’t used Opera in years, and while it continues in active development, even getting it set up enough to take a screenshot felt awkward. That quick impression aside, there is a Vertical Tabs extension available for Opera, and although it hasn’t been updated for over 4 years, it still seems to work.
It’s not particularly easy to set up, but once you install it and activate it from Opera’s sidebar (something that’s also not obvious), it does a decent job of letting you create, group, and access tabs. Although it supports pinned tabs, they’re removed from their groups and displayed as tiny icons like in many other browsers. Be sure to click the pin icon in the upper-right corner of the Vertical Tabs interface to keep it onscreen.
If you’re already a diehard Opera user, the Vertical Tabs extension is a boon, but it’s no reason to switch to Opera from any other browser.
I hadn’t been aware of the beta of the new Orion browser until Kagi, the company behind it, contacted me after my Arc review. (And yes, this Kagi is an entirely different company from the Kagi digital commerce company of yesteryear; the new Kagi purchased the kagi.com domain from the old one. See “Kagi Shuts Down After Falling Prey to Fraud,” 4 August 2016.)
Orion is extremely interesting. It’s built on top of WebKit, like Safari, but it also supports both Chrome and Firefox extensions, albeit with some caveats at the moment. The developers have put significant effort into making it fast and lightweight, and it boasts an impressive set of privacy options, with built-in ad and tracker blocking.
For this article, however, I want to focus on Orion’s vertical, tree-style tabs, which you can turn on by choosing View > Show Vertical Tabs Sidebar. What sets Orion apart is that it’s the first browser I’ve discussed so far that separates its tab groups—which it calls Named Windows—from one another. A pop-up menu at the top of the sidebar lets you switch between named windows, and Orion remembers their contents between restarts. Separating named windows in this way also makes pinned tabs more useful. Yes, they still appear at the top of the sidebar as nothing more than a tiny icon, but at least they’re specific to their named window rather than being all lumped together.
Orion even has a visual tab switcher like Arc, although its beta status was confirmed when I hit a bug that prevented the tab switcher from appearing when I moved Orion to another screen. Still, if you’re intrigued by independent Web browsers, Orion is worth a close look.
Safari needs no introduction, but you may not be aware that it has the most complete vertical tab implementation of any of the major browsers. You won’t find the term used anywhere in its interface or Apple’s documentation, but when you reveal Safari’s sidebar, you’ll see that tabs and tab groups appear there. (Part of the confusion is that the sidebar can also show bookmarks, your reading list, Shared with You links, and iCloud Tabs.) You may have to do a little clicking around to get your tabs groups to look how you want, but the capabilities are solid once you do.
When you’re in a tab group, creating a new tab puts it in the same tab group, and if it’s a page you want to revisit regularly, you can Control-click it and choose Pin Tab. Pinned tabs display a pin icon to the right of their names—thank goodness they don’t shrink to tiny icons!—and they’re sticky. Closing the window associated with a pinned tab displays Safari’s Start page, so you can’t accidentally close them. Control-clicking and choosing Unpin Tab lets you close it, or you can choose Close Tab to unpin and remove it in one step. To rearrange your pinned tabs in an order that makes sense to you, drag them around. Alas, you can’t rename them. Happily, you can turn off the top-mounted tab bar by choosing View > Always Show Tab Bar.
If you’re using Safari now, as I’m sure many of you are, I strongly encourage you to give vertical tabs a try and make liberal use of pinned tabs in tab groups. Apple did an excellent job with Safari, and if nothing else, its vertical tab support might encourage you to experiment with one of the newer browsers that has support for workspaces and additional interface refinements.
Like Arc (and Vivaldi, as you’ll see next), SigmaOS is a radical rethinking of the Web browser interface, including a switch to vertical tabs collected into proper workspaces. I haven’t used it enough for a serious critique, but I found it quite challenging to wrap my head around and generally funky. For instance, you “mark tabs as done” with D instead of closing them with Command-W, and the File and View menus contain only a single command each (Print and Enter Full Screen). SigmaOS is just odd, but at least you can customize the keyboard shortcuts to bring Command-W back into play.
But, as I said, SigmaOS does let you create workspaces containing related tabs, and you can “lock” any tab to do what seems to be the equivalent of pinning it. You can drag tabs around in the list to arrange them in your desired order, although you can’t rename them, like in Arc, so the list is always a bit hard to read. SigmaOS also supports split-screen views, can open external links in standalone windows, and can sync the contents of workspaces between Macs.
As with Arc and Vivaldi, becoming familiar with SigmaOS would take at least a few days, during which you’d need to create and populate workspaces, configure keyboard shortcuts, and more. If neither of the other two fits with how your brain works, give SigmaOS a try.
I’m embarrassed that I haven’t checked out Vivaldi before. It’s a mind-bendingly flexible Web browser that’s easily on par with Arc’s capabilities. Like Arc, it supports proper workspaces and displays tabs in a vertical sidebar, though you can also put them on the top, bottom, or right. You can pin as many tabs as you want, and they display like standard tabs rather than shrinking to useless little icons. It has a visual tab switcher and can sync your setup between devices.
As impressive as Vivaldi’s feature set is, it lacks Arc’s attention to interface detail. For instance, the sidebar picks up its color from the current site, so it’s purple in the screenshot below because it’s showing the TidBITS site. But when you move to any other site, the entire sidebar changes color, which is visually abrupt. You can switch to a Subtle theme that makes the sidebar gray for all sites, which is less glaring but still doesn’t compare to Arc’s clever approach of colorizing the sidebar differently for each workspace.
Similarly, although you can move pinned tabs within Vivaldi’s sidebar, you have to do it by Control-clicking and choosing Move Tab > Up/Down rather than just dragging. Nor can you drag a regular tab up into the pinned tab area to pin it; you must Control-click it, choose Pin Tab, and then move it. Configuring Vivaldi as you like would be tedious, and there’s no way to rename tabs, as in Arc, so you’re at the mercy of however the pages were named.
Nonetheless, If I weren’t already delighted with Arc, I would seriously consider a switch to Vivaldi right now—it’s that much better than the major browsers but doesn’t venture as far afield as SigmaOS.
In the end, those who seldom open lots of tabs and don’t spend hours per day in a Web browser may see vertical tabs as a distinction without a difference. But if you rely heavily on your browser—particularly if you prefer tabs to be represented by their names rather than just icons—I encourage you to experiment with the vertical tab options now available.