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Part 3: What a difference a browser makes

Not all browsers let you take full advantage of every Web site. In fact, some Web sites hobble themselves if you’re not using a certain browser. I learned this lesson while using Six Apart’s Web-based application TypePad. TypePad lets you create and remotely host a Weblog without having to install any software on your computer, and it makes entering text, adding images and hyperlinks, and styling text easy.

I first discovered a problem while I was using Safari to write a blog about a house I was building. At the time, Six Apart had announced some new TypePad features that I didn’t seem to have access to. Six Apart’s tech support prompted me to give the application a go in Netscape 7.0; sure enough, I suddenly had access to all of the site’s features.

The reason? The site has been developed for use with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla-based browsers such as Camino, Netscape, and Firefox. Browsers such as Safari can probably handle the JavaScript that gives these pages their application-like features, but when you load the page, the site receives your browser information, sees that you’re not using IE or a Mozilla-based browser, and won’t load the JavaScript. In many cases, this has nothing to do with your browser’s actual ability to fully load the Web site.

Less Is More? Depending on which browser you use, you may not be getting all the features a Web site has to offer. For example, TypePad’s formatting palette in Firefox shows all available options. But in Opera, OmniWeb, and Safari, various features are disabled.
(Click image to open full screenshot)

So if you find that some Web sites are missing features that you think they should have, try using a Mozilla-based browser such as Netscape or Firefox. That simple change may give you access to everything you need. Alternatively, some browsers, such as Opera, allow you to imitate another browser, effectively identifying your browser as either IE or Mozilla. You can also do this in Safari, with Gordon Byrnes’s Safari Enhancer (free), which gives you the option of enabling Safari’s Debug menu. Via the Debug menu, you can select the browser you’d like to imitate.

Sidebar: How we tested

We selected ten different Web sites that represented what users might encounter in a typical day of browsing. We visited these sites to see whether the browsers met several criteria. We also ran a test of common JavaScript actions in each browser. To assess overall user experience, we visited Web sites for the New York Times , Newsweek , and the San Francisco Chronicle , and a banking Web site called M&T Bank. We considered how consistently each browser displayed the pages, making sure that a site’s functionality was the same across browsers. To look at CSS implementation, we checked out the W3C-validated Vivabit and CSS Zen Garden. For our discussion of XMLHTTPRequest, a technology that could be challenging for many browsers, we went to the sites discussed in “Ready for the Revolution.” We ran JavaScript Speed Test 4.0, from Andrew Hedges, to determine not only how each browser handled the widespread JavaScript language, but also how fast each one completed common JavaScript actions. We also looked at various features on these sites, and used a Web-based Weblog-creation application called TypePad. (See “What a difference a browser makes.”)

View New Tech Each browser we tested easily handled sites such as PressDisplay, which uses XMLHTTPRequest technology.

Ready for the revolution

A number of Web sites are beginning to make use of a new technology called XMLHTTPRequest. Developed by Microsoft and supported by most browsers, XMLHTTPRequest allows a Web page to communicate with a server and retrieve data. Combined with a little JavaScript programming—a technique known as Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX)—this technology can dynamically change information on a Web page without reloading it. According to David Sawyer McFarland of Sawyer McFarland Media—the person behind Macworld’ s browser tests and a frequent contributor to the magazine—this technology is now driving sites such as Google Maps, Google Suggest, and PressDisplay. McFarland states that this technology is, “hot, hot, hot” and that “many Web sites are jumping on the bandwagon.”

All the browsers reviewed here stack up evenly when it comes to loading this not-yet-standard code. They all handled these sites without a problem, which means that no matter which browser you use, you’ll be ready for the revolution.

[ Jeffery Battersby is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]

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