Miscellaneous Ramblings

Browsers.alt

Charles Moore - 2001.09.19 - Tip Jar

For the great majority of computer users, Mac or PC, a Web browser means one of two things: Internet Explorer or Netscape. I've always been fascinated how many people don't even make a distinction between these application programs and the Internet itself.

I act as an occasional local agent for my ISP, and when we from time to time (happily not very frequently) have a system outage, subscribers will phone to report, as often as not, that "my Netscape isn't working," when what they really mean is that they can't get on the Internet.

And in this neck of the woods, it usually is Netscape. Atlantic Canadians, especially in rural areas, tend to be both brand-loyal and brand-conservative, and Netscape is the browser brand most of them initially identified with. They're also, regrettably, inclined to use Wintel PCs, which most still refer to as "IBM-compatibles," the term which is a bit archaic and rarely used anymore in the avant-garde computer community.

I've been personally boycotting Microsoft software for nearly a year, and I don't much like Internet Exploder and its email sidekick Lookout Regress, but Netscape has been a good, solid browser over the years. Some users also prefer Netscape's feature of being a browser and email client in one application, although its Messenger module has never appealed to me as an alternative to Eudora or one of the other more recent Mac email clients like Nisus Email.

However, I haven't used Netscape much, except as a backup browser, for a couple of years now. I am hooked on what might be referred to as alternative browsers. My favorite Mac browser is a iCab, which has been in beta for what seems like nearly forever - but don't let that scare you off. iCab is the most polished, stable, and bug-free browser available for the Mac OS. I also find it mostly the fastest.

Developed by Alexander Clauss and the iCab Company, a small, private software development firm founded by Oliver Joppisch, and based in Braunschweig, Germany.

Joppisch's admiration for Internet Explorer is evident in iCab, which incorporates many of IE's better features, like a persistent History, the ability to download Web pages as complete archives with images or sounds embedded, the ability to autocomplete URLs and forms, cache surfing, convenient Hotlist (bookmark) editing, and a great Download Manager. However, unlike IE, iCab is very small, parsimonious of RAM, and doesn't load up your System folder with shared libraries.

I quite like iCab's clean, understated, un-busy appearance, but if you find it too austere for your tastes, iCab has posted many alternate button "skins" on their download site. Just drop an alternate icon set in the iCab folder, and the program will load it automatically on startup.

iCab instantly copies your Explorer or Netscape Favorites/Bookmarks, so you can get underway with a minimum of hassle. iCab also supports Netscape plug-ins and Apple's Mac Runtime for Java.

iCab's only significant deficiency, at least for my purposes, is that it's JavaScript support is not yet fully implemented, so it doesn't work on some Web sites. I don't run into this very often, but it happens enough that I want to keep a second browser open as a backup.

That browser used to be Netscape 4.7.x, but in recent months in has been Mozilla. Mozilla is the basic browser that underlies Netscape 6.x, but without some of the superfluous gingerbread that AOL insists on adding to the Netscape version.

The latest Mozilla download it is also usually a version or two ahead of the latest Netscape 6 iteration. For example, Netscape 6.1 is based on the Mozilla 0.9.2 build, but the current Mozilla milestone version is 0.9.4.

Like Netscape, Mozilla is a big, RAM-hungry application, and it incorporates an email client and an HTML authoring module as well as a browser, so Netscape fans should feel right at home.

Unfortunately, the first Netscape 6 preview and the pre 0.9.2 builds of Mozilla acquired a nasty, but not inaccurate, reputation for instability and bugginess. However, since the release of Mozilla 0.9.2 (Netscape 6.1), this browser has been a rock of stability.

With the 0.9.2 build, Mozilla became a fully usable browser. Mozilla 0.9.3, and 0.9.4 have proved incremental improvements on that level of refinement. This is now a very nice browser - if you have the RAM and hard drive space to support its heavy demands and a beefy enough processor to run it adequately. The minimum processor specified is a 266 MHz 604e, but I wouldn't suggest bothering with anything slower than my 233 MHz G3.

Mozilla has wonderful drag & drop support, and its JavaScript implementation works well. I prefer the appearance of pages in iCab to Mozilla's renderings in most cases, and Mozilla still has no option to save Web page data as a plain text file, which limits its utility for a lot of the browser work that I do.

Nevertheless, you now could use Mozilla as your only browser, something you cannot yet do with the much more refined and polished iCab or with Opera.

It's also pretty fast, although running some comparison tests, I found it is not quite as fast as iCab or Opera (see below). It actually feels faster than it is loading pages, but starting the program up and doing things like opening windows are still definitely draggy combined with its browser.alt competitors. Nevertheless, if you like the Netscape-style all-in-one solution and prefer to live without the AOL add-ons, Mozilla is for you. It handles JavaScript nicely and has become my favorite Mac browser after iCab.

Opera, which I mentioned in passing a moment ago, is our third Mac browser.alt. Like iCab, it comes from Europe (in this case, Norway, and it also has some Icelandic parentage as well).

Opera is a powerful browser, rich in enhancements and features, and is now available on the Macintosh in two flavors: Carbon and Classic. (All three of these browsers.alt have OS X versions).

Beta 3 of Opera 5.0 for Mac is an initial partial work build. Features presented in the standard Opera version might be missing or only partially included.

Opera is fast, small, secure, configurable, and standards compliant. Opera Software has licensed Macromedia Flash Player technology in the Windows, Linux, and Macintosh versions of Opera. Macromedia Flash Player delivers motion, sound, interactivity, and graphics.

Like iCab, Opera takes care of itself, making little use of shared libraries, which results in increased efficiency and a faster response.

Opera features 128-bit SSL encryption, version 2 and 3. It was the first browser on the market to support TLS 1.0. This means that you can do secure online ordering of goods and services, online banking without any additional security proxy software or modules, ensuring complete security for your online transactions.

Multiple downloads are possible at the same time. Opera features a special download window with your download items listed.

You can choose whether to show menus, buttons, scroll bars, progress information etc. If you don't need it, why show it? If you don't like the UI gadgetry, you can turn it off. If you don't like cookies or referrer logging, frames or multimedia, or if it's just Javascript, one click turns them off. If you'd like to customize the look and feel of your toolbar, Opera is customization friendly

Installation is easy, taking merely a minute. Opera does not hog your hard disk space. Opera for Mac is a mere 2.2 MB download, so updating to the latest version is always fast and easy.

Opera is the most different Mac browser interface and functionality wise, and when they get it finished (the Mac port is still a fairly early beta yet), it could become the Volvo or Saab of browsers.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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