The Best Browsers for OS X

Dan Knight - 2004.12.23 - Tip Jar

I haven't been a one-browser man since the days of Netscape 4.7. At my old IS job, we were having a horrid Internet connection day at work, and a little online research explained why: When I tried to print a page in Netscape, it insisted on reloading everything from the Net. Everything. It was sooo slooooooow.

What, the cached information used to display the page wasn't good enough? Well, it was good enough for Internet Explorer, which I began using with version 4.5. (See Surfing Large for more on my switch.)

As an online publisher, I had used various versions of IE and Netscape to see how Low End Mac looked, as well as the then-new iCab browser from Germany. (See iCab Preview 1.7: The Best iCab Yet for our earliest iCab coverage.) iCab remains a neat little browser, but I've never been able to use it as my default browser.

As I migrated to OS X, I used Internet Explorer 5.x as my default browser until Apple shipped Safari, which became my new default. I continued to download and try out other browsers, but until a few months ago Safari was just about the only one I used.

All of that has changed in recent months, ever since the release of Firefox 0.8. Today it's not unusual for me to have two to four different browsers running at once. Each has some advantages over the others.

What follow are subjective opinions. Others may time how quickly a page loads or how compatible a browser is with established standards. I'm more concerned with how well it works - does it display the page nicely, load at a decent speed, block popups, make it easy to fill forms, etc.

I suggest you try all of these browsers, which you can do for free, and see which best suit your needs.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer is not one of the browsers I use unless I absolutely can't get a website to work with any other browser. It's outdated, slow, and doesn't block popups.

On the plus side, it has a great eBay auction tracker, works with just about any website ever made, and . . . and that's about it.

Firefox 1.0

My primary browser over the past few months has been Firefox, which I've followed from version 0.8 through the current 1.0 release. It's free, it's fast, and it works very well. It's not the prettiest browser, but there are plenty of skins (themes in Mozilla-speak) to choose from.

One thing I really like about Firefox is that it's compatible. That means it works with most websites - and it displays things pretty much the same whether you're using a Mac, Windows, or a *nix box.

One feature I miss is the ability to tab from one input field to the next on forms when the next field is a popup menu. That said, Safari misses the boat on this feature as well. In fact, I think every browser except IE does....

Firefox does a great job with form filling and using the Keychain.

Camino 0.8.2

After reading some positive articles about Camino, a Mozilla build tweaked for Mac OS X, I downloaded and began using version 0.8. Camino is based on the same source code as Firefox, but the development team hasn't been able to keep up.

Camino is an attractive browser - much more Mac-like than Mozilla, and it displays pages as nicely as Firefox. In terms of function, Camino 0.8.2 is where Firefox 0.8 was, so there are some limitations, but it's a decent general purpose browser. If it was at the same level as Firefox, I'd probably make it my primary browser.

Camino's biggest drawback is that it can't remember more than a single entry for a field, so if you have two different IDs you use to log into a site, you'll have to type the whole thing for one of them. I'm hoping they'll improve form filling and Keychain support with the next release.

Safari 1.2.4

Depending on your opinion of brushed metal, Safari is either attractive or ugly. Regardless, it does a very competent job displaying pages, and it's probably the most compatible browser available to Mac users. I especially like the bookmark and history management - first class, Apple.

That said, I think Safari is becoming to the Mac as Internet Explorer is to Windows. It's the default browser, it's good enough, but nobody gets excited about it these days. Until the past week, Safari was my second choice browser, the one I used when Firefox had problems.

Safari does a great job supporting forms and the Keychain.

Shiira 0.9.3

What if you could build your own browser that took advantage of the same Web Kit behind Safari? You might end up with Shiira, a browser with the stated goal of creating "a browser that is better and more useful than Safari."

Shiira is a work in progress, but it's progressing nicely. Try it, and I think you'll find it more polished than the pre-1.0 builds of Mozilla. I'm using it as my main second-choice browser - after Firefox - and my primary choice for Yahoo Games, where the Mozillas sometimes have problems.

I really like the use of the Sidebar. I do wonder about the "fishy" icons the author uses, but they definitely show someone is thinking different.

iCab 2.9.8

I used to enjoy using iCab in my classic Mac OS days, but it has never been as up-to-date as any of the alternatives. iCab remains a preview release. It's still small and fast, but no matter which of five included icon sets you choose, it looks like a relic from the 20th century.

That said, iCab has a following, especially among those who like to archive pages for future viewing. I haven't used it in months, and launching it today reminded me how very different iCab is.

OmniWeb 5.0.1

When I launched OmniWeb, version 4.5 came up and asked if I wanted to update, so I downloaded 5.0.1. OmniWeb was the first browser that was really designed for OS X - in good part because it had been designed for NeXTstep to begin with. But it's showing its age.

I've never liked the way OmniWeb displays content at Low End Mac. Our style sheet puts extra space between lines of text, and that works on every browser except for OmniWeb. That extra space makes it easier to track and read a long line of text on the screen, so it's disappointing that OmniWeb won't work with the same style sheet as all the other browsers.

Beyond that, I haven't used OmniWeb enough to have a real feel for it. I have to applaud OmniWeb for trying to sell a $29.95 browser against a field of free competitors, but I haven't found anything special enough about OmniWeb to make me want to use it for free, let alone pay for it.

Opera

How about a $39 browser? That's Opera, which tries to be the fastest browser on the planet. I didn't even have an OS X version on my eMac, so I had to download it - and then discovered that Firefox, Shiira, and Safari wouldn't even download Opera using the default link on their website. Not a good beginning.

After several attempts to download Opera from various servers and using different browsers, I gave up. This is not user friendly. And since I wasn't able to download it, I can't comment on it.

Conclusion

It wasn't long ago that browsers were one size fits all with Internet Explorer. Thanks to Safari, Apple broke Microsoft's stranglehold on Mac browsers with a very competent browser. It's the default browser with newer versions of OS X, it's being updated regularly, and it's a great overall browser.

Keep a copy of Internet Explorer on your hard drive just in case you visit one of those sites that won't work with anything else, but don't plan on using it often, if ever. Safari trumps it in almost every way.

The Mozilla project keeps improving their browsers, and Firefox is good enough to be your primary browser. Try it; you'll like it. Maybe enough to make it your default - maybe not. Camino shows promise, but it's two revisions behind Firefox. Keep an eye on it.

I really like Shiira after using it for about a week. It's right next to Firefox in my Dock, and most of the time I have both running. Again, give it a try.

iCab, OmniWeb, and Opera round out Mac browser choices, but I haven't found a compelling reason to use any of them other than to preview site designs and remain somewhat familiar with the whole spectrum of Mac browsers.

Whatever browser you choose, we've never had a better selection, and you may find one that fits your style better than the one you're using today.

Editor's note: This is the last Mac Musings column of the year. Low End Mac will be closed next week, and new content will resume on January 3, 2005. dk

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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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