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  • A Fast and Dirty Mac Browser Update

    July 30th, 2005

    To think that, just five years ago, the only Mac browser of note was Internet Explorer, and the rest were also-rans. Today, you can depend on several applications to deliver great online experiences, starting with Apple’s own Safari. Internet Explorer has been relegated to a relic of the past that you need on a rare occasion to access sites designed by people who were mistakenly led to believe it is the only browser on the planet.

    Internet Explorer has even begun to lose momentum on the Windows platform, but that story is beyond the scope of today’s commentary. In addition, I’m not going to address the perception that the Windows browser experience is superior to the one on the Mac OS. I have no complaints and much of what I observe is more dependant on the speed of the online connection rather than the limitations of one platform or the other.

    With recent updates on a number of Mac browsers at hand, it’s fitting to take a look at the state of the art, so to speak. My opinions will, as usual, but quite arbitrary and I expect lots of disagreement. In addition, since Netscape 8 doesn’t exist on the Mac platform, and Mozilla remains a development concept, I won’t cover them here.

    Camino 0.9a2: This is the Mozilla variant developed in Mac OS X’s native Cocoa language. Although Firefox gets the lion’s share of attention, Camino is a worthy alternative. It’s still not quite finished, but, unlike most Mac browsers, it launches fast. Like Firefox, it delivers quick, accurate rendering of most sites. It has the basic features that are required in a modern browser, such as pop-up blocking and tabs. There’s no built-in RSS reader, however, which may or may not be of concern to you.

    Firefox 1.0.6: With 75 million downloads and counting, it is the first credible alternative to the Windows version of Internet Explorer in years. Current estimates put USA market share at near 12%, and it’s approaching 14% in Europe. With simultaneous development for the Mac, Windows and Linux versions, you can jump platforms and still enjoy the same browsing experience. It also has a serviceable RSS reader, plus the usual standbys, such as pop-up blocking and tabs. Alas, it isn’t quite as Mac-like as it could be, and the Privacy preference screen never sizes correctly. Launch times are glacial, although rendering times are as quick as any browser on the planet. One hopes that the forthcoming version 1.5 will be better optimized for the Mac, but it is still the most credible alternative to Safari.

    OmniWeb 5.1.1: It may seem odd to want to pay for a browser, when there are so many free alternatives, but OmniWeb remains as feature-complete as any. Now that it uses Apple’s WebKit, the rendering engine that powers Safari, you can expect reliable and accurate display of most of your favorite online watering holes. You’ll also cherish its Workspace feature, which lets you restore all the pages you had on display whenever the application is reopened. I won’t even try to list the features here, but it has an overwhelming number of capabilities that distinguish it from the competition and is well worth the $29.95 price for a user license. The only downside of note is that it remains slow to launch for some reason, although that may not be a particularly significant factor in the scheme of things.

    Opera 8.0.2: This is the browser that pioneered many of the features that we take for granted, such as pop-up blocking, tabs, and the ability to save sessions or workspaces. Although it has boasted of being the fastest browser out there, that’s not always true, nor is rendering always as accurate as the competition. However, its JavaScript performance is top-notch. Unlike the other browsers listed here, it sports serviceable chat and email clients, although you can find superior alternatives in both categories. I could fill an entire article on its feature set, but one of the most intriguing options is something called Fast Forward, which, says Opera Software, “will detect the most likely ‘next page’ link and greatly simplify navigation in multi-page documents.” But it’s not free. The user license is $39, but if you opt to accept the free version, you’ll simply have to put up with a small, relatively unobtrusive, ad banner.

    Safari 2.0: It may not be as full-featured as some of the others, but it’s your Mac’s default browser nowadays, and it keeps getting better and better. Apple continues to toil away at making it more and more compatible with commerce sites, and to speed up rendering performance. It launches as quick as Camino, if not quicker, but in Apple’s efforts to keep it simple, its pop-up blocker is simply bare bones, either on or off. You can’t, for example, selectively allow pop-ups on certain sites that require them for proper navigation, such as Federal Express. Maybe that’s something I should put in my Leopard wish list. On the other hand, the RSS reader that debuted in Safari 2.0 works pretty well.

    You’ll notice that I no longer list iCab as a credible browser alternative. It remains in eternal preview mode, and its rendering accuracy is sub par. Maybe that’ll change some day, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also going to omit Shiira, a browser that is built on Apple’s WebKit, though I watch its development with interest. It’s marketed as a superior alternative to Safari, it has potential, but it’s not quite there yet.

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