Battle of the Browsers

For most Mac OS X users, the gateway to the Web is Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), which -- not coincidentally -- is the only non-Apple icon in the Dock. Netscape, once IE's only major competitor, is still around, but now other developers are bringing their browsers to OS X. By working hard to avoid the feature bloat and unpredictable display problems of earlier browsers, the makers of these alternative applications are redefining how we access the Web. If you want to speed up your browsing, or if you're just curious about what else is out there, we'll help you explore the possibilities.

Test Elements

We tested final releases of four browsers -- IE 5.2.1, Netscape's Netscape 7, Mozilla.org's Mozilla 1.1, and The Omni Group's OmniWeb 4.1 -- as well as three mature beta versions: iCab's iCab 2.8.2, Opera's Opera 5.0 for OS X, and Mozilla.org's Navigator (also known as Chimera), which was at version 0.5 when we tested.

Site Picks -- To test the browsers' limits, we chose five Web sites with a mix of popular content, complex markup, plug-in media such as Flash, and more-advanced coding such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Extensible HTML (XHTML): CNN.com (www.cnn.com), ESPN (www.espn.com), Quicken (www.quicken.com), The Web Standards Project (www.web standards.org), and the Explore section of the Adobe Studio site (http://studio.adobe.com/explore). As we tested, we asked several questions: Do pages load quickly? Does the browser render content correctly and support Web standards? And does it facilitate repeated use or get in the way when we spend hours accessing the Web? For a quick glance at our findings, see "OS X Web-Browser War."

Loading Speed

It's difficult to accurately judge a browser's speed. Of course, your Internet connection's bandwidth affects how fast a Web page loads. Other considerations include the speed of the Web server and its connection, the amount of data on the page, how quickly a browser can interpret incoming data, and the speed of your Mac. We loaded each site in each browser on a 400MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with 768MB of RAM and OS X 10.2 installed. (We also ran the browsers through Macworld Lab's Speedmark browser test to judge how each browser performed without the unpredictable overhead of the Internet.) For a look at all the numbers, see "Speed Tests: Real World and Macworld."

The results of real-world tests were surprising. Navigator, which clocked the best times for three of the five sites, averaged faster marks than IE on every page except Adobe's. Mozilla and Netscape were slow when launching, drawing new windows, and even bringing up the programs' preferences, but their final scores remained competitive, especially against IE. We attribute the snappier load times of Navigator, Mozilla, and Netscape to the Gecko rendering engine (see "Mozilla at Heart").

Opera bills itself as "the fastest browser on earth," but it eked out a winning score for only one site, the Web Standards Project. However, Opera didn't fall too far behind the rest of the pack.

Rendering Fidelity

Speed is a nice perk, but a browser really shows its mettle when it can display pages correctly. Unfortunately, correctly is a subjective term when it comes to the Web, and we saw quite a bit of variation between browsers.

ESPN Results -- For example, the online edition of ESPN uses fairly complex HTML, JavaScript, and CSS to deliver sports news. Pages like this one make browsers work hard to parse and display multiple nested tables, graphics, Flash animations, and CSS definitions. To get an idea of this process, imagine someone throwing puzzle pieces that you must catch and fit together correctly in midair.

Most of the browsers in our tests displayed the ESPN page consistently, with the exception of iCab, which doesn't fully support the CSS positioning controls that the page relies on. Opera managed to get the basic layout correct, but it suffered from spacing problems at the top of the page and around the ESPN Keyword Search field (see "ESPN Goes to the Opera").

Adobe Results -- We chose Adobe Studio's Explore page for its combination of advanced HTML, JavaScript, CSS positioning, and integration with common plug-ins such as Flash. As expected, the page's CSS underpinnings prevented iCab from correctly drawing it (see "Adobe Hails an iCab"), but the browser had no trouble loading the Flash animation. In contrast, Navigator assembled the page fine, but it didn't completely display the Flash until we ran our cursor over the animation. Opera rendered the page well but couldn't access the JavaScript- and CSS-based pop-up menus at the right side of the screen. The other browsers displayed the page without problems.

Standards Support

One negative consequence of the early competitive evolution of IE and Netscape was the incompatibility of some HTML formatting tags across all browsers. To create consistent-looking pages, Web designers had to explore elaborate workarounds. Now, browser developers are placing a higher priority on supporting the standards dictated by the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C, www.w3.org).

The Web Standards Project Results To rate browser support of Web standards, we turned to The Web Standards Project, a group that encourages developers to stick to the W3C's recommendations. The site's home page is a minimalist petri dish for CSS text formatting and positioning (which the W3C now favors over using convoluted HTML to position elements or define text attributes).

Opera didn't pick up the font (defined in a linked style sheet as Trebuchet MS) of the navigation links or the sidebar to the right of the main text. OmniWeb displayed the fonts correctly but misunderstood the code that dictated the position of the elements, so navigation elements were pushed off the left edge of the screen and the horizontal divider image was crammed against the top of the window (see "Nonstandard Support in OmniWeb"). iCab didn't display the positioning correctly, either. Navigator, IE, Mozilla, and Netscape rendered the page correctly.

The Web Standards Project page uses XHTML, the W3C's recommended successor to HTML. Web design has traditionally focused on appearance, but HTML was conceived of as a structural language, meaning that an author marks up a page based on its content -- for example, a paragraph here, a heading there -- instead of using formatting tags to design the page. XHTML is a happy blend of structure and appearance. It provides better access to people with disabilities (who may be using text-reading devices, for example) and those running text-only browsers.

We were glad to see that none of the browsers sputtered on The Web Standards Project's page (the only one in our tests that uses XHTML), aside from the CSS-related issues mentioned earlier. In fact, Opera includes a great feature that takes advantage of XHTML: a button on the Address Bar lets you toggle between Document mode, which displays all page and text formatting, and User mode, which simplifies the page to just its structure.

Day-to-Day Use

These programs are called "browsers" for a reason: accessing the Web involves opening and closing windows, entering URLs, clicking on links, and other-wise meandering from one online location to another. In some browsers, performing these actions is a breeze; in others, it's needlessly complicated.

Open URL -- Each program has a command -- for example, Open URL -- that lets you specify a new Web address. And in every browser but iCab and Opera, invoking this command highlights the Address field in the current window so you can type a new URL. (But you can do this in Mozilla and Netscape only by pressing 1-L; no menu item exists for this basic shortcut.) If no window is open in IE, Navigator, or OmniWeb, the browser creates a new one with the field selected. Opera and iCab display an annoying floating dialog box.

Someone who doesn't know the 1-L shortcut in Mozilla and Netscape (we discovered it by accident) can use Open Web Location (1-shift-L) to activate an Aquafied drop-down dialog box. But in addition to an address field, the box contains a pop-up menu that controls whether the new URL is loaded in the existing browser window or a new one. The problem here is that if no window is currently open and the pop-up menu is set to Current Navigator Window, your request will be ignored. Mozilla and Netscape also lost our favor because they had an especially irritating window behavior: when you create a new window, there is a few-second pause during which any part of an address you type is lost.

Cache and Redraw -- Although market dominance and our test results make IE the yardstick that all other browsers are measured against, it's not immune to problems. IE often insists on holding onto cached page data. Even manually clearing the disk cache in IE's preferences doesn't always force the program to load a page's most recent version.

And then there's IE's occasional practice of not displaying most of a page's contents. You can force the browser to redraw (it doesn't require a reload) by pressing 1-B, or by selecting Collapse Toolbars from the View menu; if the page is long enough, hitting the page-up or page-down key can also trigger a redraw.

These may sound like minor quibbles, but they make a difference when you're visiting dozens or even hundreds of sites per day.

Unique Capabilities

Each browser has some unique capabilities meant to draw users in. Here are a few:

Window Tabs -- Mozilla and Navigator take advantage of a new window behavior: tabs. Instead of populating your screen with numerous windows that each contain the same toolbar, you can load multiple sites, each in its own tab, within the same window.

Speech Support -- iCab and OmniWeb include controls that let your Mac speak text on Web pages aloud. Simply select a range of text and choose Edit: Speech: Start Speaking (in OmniWeb), or choose Speak Selection from the contextual menu (in iCab). iCab also offers a Speak All command, though invoking it on some sites can result in your Mac reading all of a page's navigation links, too.

HTML Validator -- To the right of iCab's Address field is an intriguing smiley-face icon whose expression changes from happy to sad, depending on the page you're on. The state of the icon indicates a page's HTML validity. Click on the icon to bring up a list of validation results -- handy for Web designers who are testing their pages.

Link List -- iCab can build a list of the links present in a page. Simply choose Link Manager from the Tools menu to see the links in a separate frame.

The Last Word

Microsoft's Internet Explorer effectively controls the Mac OS X browser market -- its overall rendering quality and its support for Web standards made it the browser to beat in our tests. Netscape's fall from grace as IE's main competition has opened the field to newer browsers, such as Opera and The Omni Group's OmniWeb, that focus on speed and standards compliance. But what may turn out to be the biggest surprise is how Mozilla.org and the promising Gecko rendering engine have risen from the ashes of Netscape Communications to mount a credible challenge to IE's dominance. Although Mozilla is still too similar to its Netscape cousin in performance, Navigator's speed and rendering fidelity make it the OS X browser to watch.

Mozilla at Heart

In 1998, Netscape Communications released Netscape Communicator's browser source code to the public, under an open-source license. To coordinate its collaborators, Netscape created the nonprofit organization Mozilla.org, which soon focused its efforts on developing a new, standards-compliant core that would work easily across multiple computer platforms. The result was the Gecko rendering engine.

Developers can build around Gecko to provide interfaces and components specific to any given operating system. This is why Mozilla 1.1 and Netscape 7 are often confused with each other -- they share the same underlying technology. But Netscape adds extra features such as an e-mail client, a chat interface, and licensed plug-ins (for example, Flash and RealPlayer). Navigator is also based on Gecko, but has its own OS X-specific interface and coding, without the extra baggage of Netscape's nonbrowser features.

Blocking Web Ads

Web advertising has become a necessary evil -- it helps pay for the content we access online every day. But the latest generation of aggressive, in-your-face pop-up ads are downright obnoxious. Several utilities and browser features can keep your screen as uncluttered as possible.

Eliminating Pop-Ups -- Ricardo Batista's Pop-Up Zapper (www.batista.org/zap/) is a $10 shareware utility that runs in the background and intercepts pop-up ads as a page is loaded. You'll still see the flash of a new window being created, but that's it: the window is eliminated before its contents can appear. Pop-Up Zapper was quite effective in our testing. But we'd like a log of zapped links (so we could make sure that legitimate windows weren't being nuked in the process) and the ability to specify exceptions. These abilities would've come in handy recently: I was connected to a wireless network in a local cafe, and Pop-Up Zapper killed a small window containing the only link for logging off the network.

To target pop-up windows at a deeper level, try Andrew Merenbach's free AdBlocker Toolkit (in the Mac OS X section of www.versiontracker.com), which has instructions for modifying your OS X hosts file. However, this involves mucking about in Terminal's command-line interface.

Some browsers can now detect and get rid of pop-up windows. The preview version of Navigator offered to turn on the feature when a pop-up window was detected, although no controls existed to enable or disable the feature manually.

Suppressing Ad Images -- Less intrusive but still annoying are ad images themselves, which have morphed from discreet banners into page-hogging behemoths. Fortunately, some browsers now let you choose to not display ads that either match typical banner dimensions or are loaded from a Web server other than that of the Web page you're viewing. In Mozilla's Preferences, click on Images under the Privacy & Security category and select the Accept Images That Come From The Originating Server option. OmniWeb's Privacy preferences include options for denying advertisement-sized images and images coming from a different site, but OmniWeb also lets you enter regular expressions to match specific server names (such as images from www.doubleclick.net). In iCab, open Preferences, and click on the Images, IFrames option under Web Content; then select the Filter Images From Other Servers option. No other Web browser offers this capability.

These features may have unexpected consequences. In many cases, putting up a barricade against images from other servers can mean that you don't see legitimate images.

In Mozilla, for example, Apple's home page comes up blank because that page is populated almost entirely by images fed through Akamai's content distribution servers.

Make the Browser Work for You

If you start your day by visiting a number of Web sites, save yourself some time and let your browser load everything while you're brewing coffee. You can easily create a simple AppleScript that runs after you turn on your computer or when you double-click on the script.

Launch the Script Editor application (located in the Applications: AppleScript folder) and type the following:

To use a browser other than Internet Explorer, enter its name within the quotation marks after tell application. To open more sites in separate windows, add new GetURL commands with the other pages' addresses.

When you're done, you can save the script as an application (an option available in the Save dialog box).

Some browsers use slightly different variables for performing this action. Netscape, Mozilla, iCab, and Opera can use OpenURL instead of GetURL; OpenURL provides more options for controlling window behavior. For example, iCab won't load multiple sites correctly unless you use OpenURL with a toWindow variable, as follows: OpenURL "http://maccentral.macworld.com/" toWindow "0" (or you can go to iCab's preferences, choose Operation: Windows/ Launch, and select the GetURL Event Opens New Window option).

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