Go Beyond Safari

It’s easy to see why, in the two years since it was introduced, Safari (   , November 2003 has quickly become the dominant browser for OS X: It’s sleek, fast, and free, and it beats the pants off of former champion Microsoft Internet Explorer.

But that doesn’t mean Safari is right for every person and occasion. Sometimes you might want a lean, mean browser that does little but render Web pages quickly and accurately. Other times, you might want a full-blown Web-application suite, with e-mail, chat, and HTML-editing tools. Whatever you need, there are plenty of Safari alternatives to choose from.

I looked at nine alternative browsers: Firefox 1.0 Preview Release, Camino 0.8.1, and Mozilla 1.8, all from Mozilla; America Online’s Netscape 7.2; Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) X 5.2.3; The Omni Group’s OmniWeb 5.01; Freeverse Software’s BumperCar 1.0; Opera Software’s Opera 7.54; and Alexander Clauss’s iCab X 2.9.8.

(When testing these Web browsers, we checked the following sites: Amazon.com, Backupbrain.com, CSS Zen Garden, css/edge, Discovery.com, Electoral Vote Predictor, and ESPN.com.)

The first thing I noticed when taking these browsers for a spin was that they’re all pretty much equal when it comes to speed. With the exception of IE, which is noticeably slower, rendering performance is roughly equal.

I also found that most have good if not excellent support for Web standards. In that respect, they’re all superior to the most widely used browser on the Internet, IE 6 for Windows. The one exception I found was iCab, which simply failed to display most test pages correctly. As a result, I eliminated it from further consideration.

Under the Hood

One reason for the uniformity of performance is that these browsers are based on just five different rendering engines. (The rendering engine is the software core of a browser. It’s responsible for interpreting the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images, and other components of a Web page.) OmniWeb, BumperCar, and Safari all rely on Apple’s WebCore engine. Firefox, Camino, Mozilla, and Netscape use Mozilla’s Gecko engine. (Both WebCore and Gecko are open source.) Only Opera, IE, and iCab use proprietary engines.

Broadly speaking, browsers that use the same engine will perform almost identically in terms of speed, and the pages they render will look the same. What really separates the browsers are the features they do (or don’t) have on top of those rendering engines.

Mozilla’s Different Flavors Take, for example, the various Mozilla browsers. They’re all based on Gecko, but they vary widely. At the one end is Mozilla itself, which includes tools for everything from e-mail and chat to HTML editing. At the other is Firefox, which removes everything extraneous, leaving only an excellent, uncluttered browsing tool.

For pure browsing, Firefox is hard to beat. My only complaint is that it lacks the Mac OS look-and-feel. For that, you need Camino, which melds the Mozilla code to Cocoa, so it looks and feels more Mac-like. But Camino has been updated sporadically over the past year, and it still lacks essentials such as automatic forms. Still, it’s a browser to watch.

Then there’s Netscape 7.2, which is just the Mozilla suite with the addition of annoying advertisements for America Online and an integrated AOL Instant Messenger client that isn’t compatible with iChat. It’s the weakest browser of the Mozilla bunch.

Making Mozilla Yours One great thing about the Mozilla browsers is that people have written plug-ins that let you add new features. There are hundreds of these extensions, and they range from improved ad blocking to tools for Web developers. If Firefox and Mozilla lack a feature you want, you’ll probably find an extension that has it.

Apple at the Core

The one browser that really stands out is OmniWeb. It reimagines the whole idea of tabbed browsing, it gives you detailed control over your browsing experience, and it has a slew of other innovations that power users will love.

In some browsers, including Safari, the horizontal tab bar is too thin to handle many tabs; the names of each tab shorten to become unreadable and then spill off the edge of the window. OmniWeb fixes that by putting thumbnail pictures of your tabs in a drawer on the side of the window, making it easy for you to switch between tabs. The Workspaces feature saves collections of windows you’ve browsed (including their position and size on your screen), so if you have a particular set of sites you browse often, you can bring them all back up with a click. If your Mac crashes, OmniWeb automatically restores and reloads all the pages you were browsing.

Other features are equally well thought out. Some sites use annoyingly small fonts or are otherwise hard to read. OmniWeb’s per-site preferences solve that problem; you can change the text zoom, fonts, and page colors for the site, and those changes remain the next time you visit. In addition to blocking pop-up windows, OmniWeb blocks ads on pages.

The bad news about OmniWeb is that, unlike most other browsers here, it isn’t free. (There is a free 30-day trial.) I think the innovative features and terrific interface are worth the $30—but not everyone will.

The Rest of the Pack IE still performs reasonably well, but its time has passed. One IE feature I long for is the Scrapbook, which saves copies of Web pages—perfect for saving maps and receipts from online purchases. Opera is fast but not free; a version without annoying ads will cost $39. It has integrated e-mail and IRC chat support but doesn’t look or feel like a native Mac program. And iCab would have been a good browser in 1998, but you can skip it today.

If you’re a parent concerned about where your kids are going online, you might consider BumperCar. Based on OmniWeb, it focuses on protecting children from objectionable Web content; its excellent filters let you control your kids’ browsing experience.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

For regular browsing, there’s no reason not to stick with Safari; it will serve you well. If you need to work with Macs and Windows machines, and want the same browsing experience on both platforms, then Firefox is an excellent choice. For Mac power users, OmniWeb should be the first alternative choice. l

[ Tom Negrino is the author of Macromedia Contribute 3 for Windows andMacintosh:Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2004). ]

If you’re looking for a lean, austere browsing experience, Firefox delivers.OmniWeb puts thumbnails of tabbed pages in a drawer on the side of the browser window. If you have too many tabs open, you can switch to a text list.
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