Firefox 1.0.7; Camino 0.8.4; Safari 2.0; Opera 8.5; OmniWeb 5.1.2

Introduction

Conversations about web browsers are like conversations about religion or politics: if you join one, you'll probably hear some strong opinions. But you might also hear questions like “You mean that thing I look at the Web with?”

Perhaps you use a certain browser simply because it came with your Mac, not because it provides you with the best web-browsing experience. And your web browser may not be doing all it can for you - in other words, it may not allow you to efficiently access all the Web has to offer.

This review highlights five browsers that have excellent reputations, have recently been updated, and are widely available: Apple's Safari 2.0, Mozilla's Camino 0.8.4 and Firefox 1.0.7, The Omni Group's OmniWeb 5.1.2, and Opera Software's Opera 8.5. Alexander Clauss's iCab isn't included here because its most recent update, version 3.0, is currently a beta. Also, Microsoft's Internet Explorer isn't included here because its days are numbered - it's no longer being developed for the Mac.

Must-have features
A web browser is simply a vehicle that helps you get around the Web, and a good web browser is one that's unobtrusive. All the browsers in this review have common features: ways to manage bookmarks, cookies, and security options; tabbed browsing; and autofill capabilities for web-based forms. Each browser also loads web pages at roughly the same speed. Firefox used to have a very long program-launch time, but this now seems to be resolved.

While each of these programs implements standard features in a slightly different fashion, the principles tend to be the same across all five browsers, or at least similar enough that you'll quickly get used to the differences. (Only OmniWeb posed a bit of a problem - the program's default home page setting was called Start Page and took us several minutes to locate.) These browsers differ most in the extra features they offer and in the ease with which they let you navigate the Web.

Firefox extends the experience
Mozilla's Firefox and Camino are the most versatile and extensible browsers in this review. They are based on the Mozilla engine, which is compatible with most websites and are designed to accept third-party plug-ins, or extensions, which can add features, functionality and different looks (or skins) to the program. However, there are many more plug-ins available for Firefox than for Camino.
In fact, these extensions are what make Firefox so great. For example, Forecastfox displays a weather forecast at the bottom of your browser window, and my personal favourite, FoxyTunes, lets you control iTunes. There are so many extensions for Firefox that you can have nearly as much fun tricking out the program as you can browsing the Web.

Firefox also includes several less obvious but equally cool tools. It has the best Find tool of all the browsers in this review. While most browsers lay a Find window right on top of the web page you're trying to search, Firefox brings up a little Find box at the bottom of the page. It then highlights the results on the web page and options for how your results are displayed are easily accessible. This feature is nothing short of brilliant.

Firefox has a killer pop-up blocker that can be enhanced with extensions such as Adblock, which also allows you to block other types of ads on websites. Unlike Safari, Firefox doesn't have a built-in RSS reader. Instead, it includes Live Bookmarks that monitor web pages that have RSS feeds and alert you when the websites are updated.

Aside from the fact that it's designed for Mac OS X and built on Mozilla's stellar foundation, Camino is still a little immature. It lacks many features - such as text autofill (except for passwords) and RSS-feed recognition - that are standard in the other browsers but does include a bookmark manager, tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking. Camino works well enough, but if you're a heavy internet user you may want to choose a different day-to-day browser for the moment.

All the news that's fit to read
Safari's most touted new feature is its built-in RSS news reader and aggregator. Many sites on the Web - such as weblogs and news sites (including apple.com and macworld.co.uk) - use RSS feeds to notify site visitors that the website has changed. You used to need specialised software to monitor and alert you to these changes, but now most web browsers include some RSS feed-monitoring capabilities.

Each browser tested, except Camino, monitors sites that have RSS feeds and alerts you when a site has been updated. Safari also lets you read all the latest headlines without having to leave the comfort of your browser, but its news reader is a little awkward. Short of creating a folder for all your favourite news sites, there's no easy way to organise and view all your favourite feeds. So hard-core weblog readers or news junkies who are used to using a dedicated program may not find Safari's RSS feature that useful. However, if you're new to the blog and news-reading game, Safari is certainly a good place to start.

Safari also has a leg up on the competition if you have a .Mac account. Using iSync with .Mac, you can synchronise your bookmarks across several Macs.

Free to enjoy Opera
Until very recently Opera came in both a free and a paid-for version. The free version of Opera sported slightly annoying ads at the top of the browser. When you paid for Opera, the only thing that changed was that the ad banner disappeared. So paying for Opera didn't give you any features that other browsers don't provide.

This was a strategy that appeared to work for many years, but the ad banners must finally have taken their toll on users. Opera is now free to use and ad-free. The company only charges for the mobile version of the software. It has also developed a version for in-flight entertainment systems. There is an opportunity to buy a $29 support contract, though this seems aimed more at its supporters to show goodwill than anything particularly useful as there is free support too.

Opera has several strange interface quirks that kept me guessing. For example, pressing C-T brings up a new tabbed window in the other browsers, but in Opera the same key combination brings up a bookmark window. There is no home button on the main toolbar by default and although you can change this in Preferences, many such oddities that mar the browsing experience appear from time to time.
On a positive note, Opera is highly configurable, even allowing you to create your own shortcuts for search sites. So typing G (the shortcut for Google) and hogwash in the address field will execute a Google search for hogwash and display your search results. It also helps protect you from identity theft and phishing with integrated security features.

A browser with a view
If you didn't have to pay $30 for OmniWeb it would probably pip Firefox to the post to become my favourite browser of this bunch. It provides a unique tabbed-window environment, as well as extensive options for customising your browsing experience.

Unlike the other four browsers, which place tabs at the top of the browser window, OmniWeb places a thumbnail image of each open window in a drawer on one side of the main browser window. The benefit of this thumbnail view is twofold: first, you can see each open web page, which is a useful visual cue; second, OmniWeb constantly monitors the pages in the thumbnail view for changes, and if a change occurs, a small green checkmark appears next to the thumbnail image. This approach is handy, but having several tabs open at a time requires that you scroll up and down in the drawer to see every site. And even if you change the thumbnail tabs to text, the drawer itself takes up quite a bit of space.

OmniWeb also lets you create Workspaces, which are essentially collections of web pages that can be opened at the same time. Further, OmniWeb can save your current browsing state so all the windows open just as you had them when you closed the browser or shut down your computer.

The only problem with OmniWeb is that it may not be compatible with some websites because it's not based on the Mozilla or the Internet Explorer engine. This can be inconvenient (for more details, see “What a difference a browser makes”, above).

Style as well as substance
Over the past several years, web pages have moved from simple HTML that displayed text with a few images to sites that can be as beautiful and elegant as high-end magazines, and that display better animated graphics than you can see in Times Square.

To get that slick look, graphic artists and web designers have come to rely on Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS. By using CSS, designers can be more creative with the graphical elements they use, change the organisation of text on a page, and change typefaces, sizes, and styles.

Most of the sites you visit daily, such as newspaper or magazine sites, take advantage of basic forms of CSS but still rely on older, HTML-driven techniques, such as tables and frames, to provide a consistent look and feel. As expected, all the here browsers handled the test sites without a problem (see “How we tested”, below).

Surprisingly, all the browsers handled cutting-edge CSS technology well, too. So as web designers take greater advantage of CSS, you'll be able to view the content on those pages without a problem and exactly as the designers intended, no matter which of these browsers you choose. The developers of each of these browsers are making a point of embracing powerful technologies, such as XMLHTTPRequest, that aren't currently ubiquitous on the Web but that are certain to shape its future (see “Ready for the revolution”).

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