Firefox 1.5 & Camino 1.0

Introduction

The Mac is one of the best-served platforms for web browsing. While Safari gets all the attention, the latest versions of Firefox and Camino are set to give Apple a run for its money with speedy page rendering and cutting edge features. Based on the cross-platform Mozilla rendering engine, they can also be a useful alternative for the odd sites that choke on Safari.

Firefox 1.5
With all the security problems and bugs plaguing Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Firefox has attracted a big following in the Windows world since its official 1.0 release a year ago. Mac users, meanwhile, have been left wondering what all the fuss is about. Compared with the stellar achievements of Safari, Firefox just felt like a bad port of a Windows browser.

Acknowledging the problem, the Mozilla Foundation recently employed Josh Aas, one of the volunteer developers behind Camino (see below), to improve Firefox on OS X. The benefits can already be seen in this 1.5 release, which feels faster and has a slightly more Mac-like interface. Even so, don’t be fooled by first appearances. Firefox jettisons OS X’s Aqua interface for its own XUL technology. It may look like Aqua at times, but it’s mostly fake. Bookmark menus are sluggish to appear and form widgets have an ugly, grey appearance all too reminiscent of Windows.

What Firefox lacks in beauty, it makes up for in its range of features and extendibility. You can download and create your own interface themes and add new capabilities to the browser by installing extensions – everything from newsreaders to banner-ad blockers.

Even without these extras, Firefox includes a number of cool features not found in Safari. My favourites include draggable tabs, configurable pop-up ad blocking and find-as-you-type text searching within pages.

Firefox also scores over Safari in its implementation of RSS feeds. Its ‘Live Bookmarks’ let you view RSS news and blog headlines via drop-down menus in the bookmarks toolbar.
If you need any more encouragement to try out Firefox, there’s now an option to import your preferences, bookmarks and passwords from Safari and Internet Explorer – though curiously not from Camino.

Under the hood
Beneath the interface, both Firefox and Camino share the latest Mozilla 1.8 rendering engine. That may not mean much to casual surfers, but for web developers it offers a whole new range of creative possibilities.

There are a number of new CSS 3 additions, including support for true multi-column layouts – a godsend for designers who have long wanted to lay out their web pages like newspaper columns. Firefox is also one of the first browsers to embed support for SVG – an open-source technology for vector graphics. Combined with JavaScript you can do a lot of the stuff Flash does, but for free.

Camino 1.0
After more than three years in development, Camino has at long last reached its official 1.0 release. A popular choice in the days when Microsoft’s ageing Internet Explorer threatened to give OS X a poor name for web browsing, its lightweight size has always given it a reputation as one of the fastest browsers on the Mac.

Safari’s release in 2003 somewhat stole Camino’s thunder, yet it retains a unique selling point: the power of Mozilla, with the style of the Mac. Unlike Firefox, which is a Windows application first and foremost, Camino is a Mac OS X-only affair – it replaces Firefox’s idiosyncratic user interface with a native Cocoa implementation.

What’s new?
Not only does Camino look and feel more like a proper Mac application, it has support for a number of OS X features, including the handy utilities found in the Services menu and Keychain support for storing passwords.

New features include a facility to auto-fill forms using your Address Book; an option to erase your browsing history, cookies and passwords; the ability to pause and resume a download; live searching of history and bookmarks; and Spotlight integration.

The tab bar has been rewritten from scratch. Instead of shrinking to an indecipherable size when there are too many tabs, Camino 1.0 introduces an overflow menu like Safari. Some people prefer the look of Camino’s tabs but, while there’s the option to move a tab to a new window, Camino lacks Firefox’s ability to re-order tabs by drag & drop.

In general Camino struggles at times to keep up with the feature count in other browsers – there’s no support for RSS for example. Nonetheless, Camino is lightning quick to start up and is fast at loading pages. Plus it has some nice touches, such as the option to play annoying animated images only once or completely block advertising on web pages. The ad-blocking isn’t flawless, but in our tests it did manage to suppress the majority of ads which clutter pages.

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