Mac Musings

Netscape 4.x Revisited

Dan Knight - 2002.08.19 - Tip Jar

I noticed over the weekend that the venerable "classic" version of Netscape had inched forward from version 4.7.9 to 4.8. Something to check out later.

I downloaded and installed Netscape Communicator 4.8 this morning. Like too many "classic" apps and too many OS X ones, it wants you to reboot after installation. That's so 20th century.

But I know that some people still use the old Netscape to visit Low End Mac, so I need to have it installed, see how the site looks, and see how well or poorly it fares for surfing the Web.

Speed

I've been using Internet Explorer since version 4.5. I made the switch when we had some Internet problems at work. I made the switch because Netscape refused to print a displayed page without reloading the whole darned thing from the Internet. When your connection crawls, as ours did that day, you look for alternatives.

I'd forgotten how fast Netscape browses. Netscape 4.8 makes Internet Explorer feel sluggish. As Charles Moore often notes, Netscape and iCab often vie for the fastest browser on the Mac label. (Despite Opera's claims, they must be referring to the Windows version. Their browser is not fast on any Mac I've tried.)

Appearance

The first question you should ask about a browser: How well does it display Web content? For most of us, that question has been reduced to, "How much does it look like Internet Explorer," but that's hardly fair.

When I redesigned the Low End Mac home page a few weeks ago, I tested it in Netscape 4.0.8 and 4.7.9, Internet Explorer 5.1, and iCab 2.8 under Mac OS 9, as well as Mozilla (whatever is current), IE 5.2, iCab 2.8, Opera 5.something, and OmniWeb. Each browser displays things differently.

The top of our home page is a table. The gradient background is used as fill for the entire table, our home page logo goes in the upper left corner, the search box in the upper right corner, and the text links into the second row. It should look approximately like this (default font size on my browsers is 14 point):

iCab on OS 9

iCab on OS X

IE on OS9

IE on OS X

OmniWeb

iCab, OmniWeb, and Internet Explorer display this very similarly - and very much in keeping with the way I want the header to look. (I love the "aquafied" button in OmniWeb.) And Mozilla isn't bad; although I don't like the way the button and the search box run together.

Mozilla on OS X

Opera on OS9

Opera on OS 9 isn't bad. I kinda like the effect of the search box, but I don't like how small it's made all of the text links. The OS X version is a step down, putting the search button (nicely "aquafied") over a white box and making the link text smaller and uglier than necessary.

Opera on OS X

All of the above images pretty much get things right. There are some visual differences - notably the placement of the search box - but they display the effect we're after.

But then we come to Netscape 4.0.8 and 4.8. Just look at what they've done to my design:

Netscape 4.0.8

Netscape 4.8

There's a serious flaw in every 4.x version of Netscape. If you define a background graphic for a table, for some inexplicable reason Netscape uses it for each individual cell. That's fine in the logo cell, doesn't really look terrible in the text link cell, but is kinda weirdly offset in the cell with our search box. (We've also found that our search box works in some browsers but not others, but that's a subject for another time.)

Netscape's rendering here isn't merely different, it's simply wrong. Designers need to be aware of this kind of anomaly, should try to work around it, and would do well to recommend any browser but Netscape 4.

Overall, I'm happiest with the way OmniWeb, IE, and iCab display my design. Mozilla and Opera on the classic Mac OS also do a nice job. Opera under OS X is deficient, and Netscape 4.x is plain wrong.

Other Problems

Beyond appearance, I do a fair bit of cutting and pasting text between my browser and either a form or Claris Home Page, the program I use to design and publish Low End Mac. The process works very nicely in both Internet Explorer and iCab, but Netscape inserts all sorts of extra spaces and line feeds, creating a lot more work when quoting text than the other browsers.

As always, Netscape wants you to use its own email program. I prefer Claris Emailer and will probably switch to Apple's Mail when I move to Jaguar, but I'd have to hack Netscape to get it to let me use another email client. Bad form, Netscape.

Conclusion

If you're still using Netscape 4.x, you should recognize that it's been left behind. The price is right, but you can also use iCab or Internet Explorer for free, and both do a better job of displaying things as the page designer intended. Still, at least download the latest version so you can see how differently it displays your favorite pages compared with browsers which are more current - including Netscape 7 and Mozilla.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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