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Mac and iOS Browsers: Options Galore

Low End Mac Staff - 2012.02.10

A lot of websites publish lists of "12 Applications Every Mac Owner Should Use" or "The 10 Most Useful Mac Apps" or "Freeware That Should Be on Every Mac" - to which our response is, "C'mon, how many people really need an FTP client, a text editor, or whatever. Every Mac user has different needs, and just because we geeks and nerds at Low End Mac, technophiles and writers, love a specific app doesn't mean it's the right one for you.

In coming week's we're going to look at different categories of software, such as writing tools and Photoshop alternatives, and talk about the tools we use on our Macs and our iDevices. Not because we are experts, but because we are real world Mac (and iOS) users with specific needs, work styles, and habits.

This week we're looking at browsers, which is probably the most important software category of all, since so much of what we do takes place on the Web.

Before we begin, a list of current OS X browsers with links, as well as their most recent versions with PowerPC support, sorted by their popularity among visitors to Low End Mac:

Safari is the top choice among Mac users
Safari is the top choice among Mac users.

  1. Safari, 5.0.6 last for PPC and requires OS X 10.5 Leopard, 4.1.3 last for OS X 10.4 Tiger, 32.41% of all visitors in the past month
  2. Firefox, 3.6.26 was the last for PPC, 10.98%
  3. Chrome, Intel only, 8.58%
  4. Camino, 2.1 still supports PPC and OS X 10.4, 0.73%
  5. Opera, 10.6.3 last to support PPC and OS X 10.4, 0.32%
  6. Internet Explorer, 5.2.3 last for Mac, 0.18%
  7. Mozilla Compatible Agent - perhaps TenFourFox, 0.13%
  8. SeaMonkey, 2.0.14 last for PPC, 0.04%
  9. RockMelt, Intel only, social orientation, requires use of a Facebook account, 0.03%
  10. Netscape, long discontinued, 0.02%

Browsers that score less than 0.01% include OmniWeb (5.11 still supports PPC and OS X 10.4), iCab (4.8 still supports PPC, and 4.8a is a 64-bit version with G5 and Intel support), Shiira (last update August 2009), Flock (discontinued Feb. 2011), and Stainless (no update since July 2011).

OmniWeb traces its roots back to NeXT Computers
OmniWeb traces its roots back to NeXT Computers

Simon Royal (Mac Spectrum): Browsers have always been a soft spot of mine, I have been through every Mac browser released for the PowerPC (PPC) platform, from big players such as Firefox, SeaMonkey, iCab, Safari, and Internet Explorer to small ones like Flock, Shiira, and Stainless, and I always come back to the same select few.

Before the world called time on the PowerPC platform, it was a tie up between Firefox, which was the best all Around browser but a bit sluggish on older Macs, and Safari, which from version 4 was perfectly useable as a day-to-day browser and, was lightning quick but still had a few rendering issues.

If you wanted a Gecko-based browser, but Firefox was too slow, then Camino (version 2.1 still supports PPC and OS X 10.4) was great - fast, slick, and exclusive to OS X.

TenFourFox brings Firefox 10 to PowerPC Macs
TenFourFox brings Firefox 10 to PowerPC Macs.

However, all support has been dropped and as the months go on, current browsers will become more and more obsolete. There is only one contender left running, TenFourFox - the PPC port of Firefox by Cameron Kaiser and his team.

With regards to iPhone browsers, my experience is limited. Safari is one of the best mobile browsers I have ever used, pushing aside the mobile versions and trying to create the closest thing to a desktop browser on a mobile device.

I have an original iPhone, and when not in a WiFi area, browsing over 2G can be sluggish. Opera Mini makes a great alternative and has a long history of bringing fast Internet for devices with slower connections or even non-smartphones.

Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): I like Safari on Mac OS X a lot (but don't much care for Safari on Windows - I'm not quite sure why, but it just doesn't look/feel right on that platform - maybe it's because the replacement screen fonts that Apple uses look spindly).

Firefox is the #2 choice among Mac users
Firefox is the #2 choice among Mac users.

But Safari freezes/crashes on my system too often to be a reliable tool - perhaps from my habit of keeping 8 tabs open by default and often adding tabs and windows to that.

For a while, I was using Firefox as my secondary browser, but somehow Firefox (FF) on my system started being unable to display Gmail (which is one of my key browser tabs) properly; this somehow survived uninstalling/reinstalling/updating/etc. several tines. Moreover, despite keeping FF up to date, several sites persist in claiming I've got an old, unsupported version.

(It's always possible that I manually set an about:config option to report a different browser version and that this has survived over the years despite my totally forgetting!)

Some find Google Chrome uglier than Safari
Some find Google Chrome uglier than Safari.

So instead, I've been switching back and forth between Safari and Chrome. Chrome is uglier, and I don't care for its bookmark manager, but it seems more stable than Safari on my system, and that's worth a lot!

On my iPad, I was looking at several multitab replacements for the default Safari (and planning on writing about them for Low End Mac) until the iOS 5 update added multiple tabs to Safari, making it superior to the replacements I was looking at (iCab and Terra). However, my wife uses Yahoo Mail, and Terra displays that in a mobile version that is much more fingertip friendly for her than how Safari displays it, so we keep that browser for her use. Downside of Terra - it seems to have problems displaying attachments that display fine in Safari.

So nothing's perfect. At least not yet.

Charles Moore (several columns): I'm a browser junkie. I love Web browsers and sort of collect them, although I mainly use three on the Mac - which these days are Opera, Chrome, and Firefox on my Intel machine, a Late 2008 Aluminum Unibody MacBook, and TenFourFox, OmniWeb, and Opera on my old PowerPC Pismos running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. I usually also have a fourth browser up and running on the MacBook, and lately that has been either the indie and innovative Raven, Roccat, or occasionally Stainless.

Raven browser
Raven, in beta, has a social networking orientation.

Stainless is a nice, no-frills lightweight browser, while Raven (beta, OS X 10.6 and newer) and Roccat (Intel, OS X 10.4.5 and newer) are more feature-laden and have very attractive interfaces IMHO. I'm not particularly interested in Raven's social networking orientation, although that may appeal to aficionados of the erstwhile Flock social media browser. However, it's quick, slick, and I like its look. On that topic, I have to say I remain abidingly mystified as to the virtually boilerplate complaining about Chrome's user interface being allegedly "ugly". In the eye of he beholder, I guess. I like the Chrome UI. And I love the no-hassle integration of Google Translate into Chrome.

Roccat browser
Roccat gets its speed by not showing display ads.

I've used Apple's Safari many times in the past but have never been a fan (although I do like the Reader feature), and I dislike having to reboot my computer to install updates. However, Safari on the iPad is another matter, which I will get to in a moment. With OS X 10.5 and later, I can assign each browser it's own Space environment (see Why Spaces Is My Favorite Leopard [and Snow Leopard] Feature), which makes switching back and forth slicker.

Of this bunch, I would be hard-pressed to name my overall favorite. I do love Opera which is a bit of an acquired taste - it has become an addiction for me. I like the way it renders text, and little touches like a zoom slider on the main interface window margin keep me roped in.

Opera is one of the oldest multiplatform browsers.
Opera is one of the oldest multiplatform browsers.

For quick reference and raw speed, I usually turn to Chrome, and I do most of my Web searches with it. However, for workaday stuff - posting content on the Web and when reliable, predictable, compatible performance is the priority, Firefox gets the nod. And by proxy, TenFourFox, an open source port of FireFox to PowerPC, has literally extended the useful production service life of my cherished old Pismos by probably years.

Unfortunately, on the iPad, iOS doesn't support Spaces or, for that matter, real multitasking at all, but I still usually have four or even more browsers "up and running" and populated with open tabs on the iPad as well. I likewise find that different iOS browsers are best suited to various particular tasks.

As I noted above, on the Mac I like Google's Chrome browser a lot more than I do Apple's Safari, but the iOS version of Safari holds up a lot better in comparison with other iOS browsers, like Opera Mini, Dolphin, Diigo, Terra, Mercury, and more than does regular OS X Safari against its competition. Indeed, Safari may be the best of the iOS browser pack, ahead of my other favorites Dolphin, Diigo, and Terra, especially now that the iOS 5 version has real tabs. On the other hand, while I much prefer Opera to Safari in their respective OS X versions, Opera Mini on the iPad has been a disappointment, with a clunky user interface and distinctly less lively performance than any of the aforementioned competitors, and the very speedy Dolphin especially. These are all pretty good Web browsers.

However, for general Web surfing and searching, my favorite iOS browser isn't really a Web browser at all, strictly speaking, but rather the closest approximation of Chrome that's available on the iOS - the Google Search app. In fact, I find Google Search more useful and satisfying than I probably would an iOS port of the Chrome browser, were one available.

Google Search for iOS is simply outstanding - a lovely piece of work, obviously carefully optimized for iOS, and it works with the same speediness, fluidity, and smoothness I've come to expect from the Chrome browser for OS X. Even Chrome's one-click ease of machine translation for other language Web pages is supported. Someone at Google evidently likes the iPad. Within its capabilities, Google Search for iOS lets you search the web faster, easier, and more efficiently than you can with a regular Web browser.

It displays search results and websites side-by-side so you can quickly browse pages and results, and it lets you wipe through its image carousel to see image results in full-size. You can also compare search results as webpage snapshots in Instant Previews mode, and use Google Instant and search suggestions to find you desired search results faster. Revisiting past searches is facilitated with Visual Search History, and you can highlight what you want to see on a webpage with the app's new Find button, easily share pages and +1 sites, and have quick access to other Google apps like Gmail, Calendar, Docs, and more. And if you need the features of a full Web browser, a handy Open In Safari button makes that option just a tap away.

As for actual browsers, after Safari, I'm quite pleased with Dolphin HD, which by my seat of the pants estimation is probably the fastest iOS Web browser, although it's not necessarily faster than Google Search. My most disliked Dolphin HD aspect is that on my poor 16 GB iPad 2, where I tend to keep a couple of dozen apps started up, Dolphin tends to dump loaded Web page content in open tabs when it's running in the background. Page restorations are fast, as long as there aren't too many, which mitigates the aggravation somewhat, but I haven't found this an issue with most other iOS browsers (it is also a problem with Opera Mini).

Diigo (formerly known as iChromy) claims to bring the best of Chrome's interface, speed, and web annotation features to the iPad, and it does a pretty good job of that, although not quite as good as Google Search does for Web search-based surfing. Diigo is also very stable, and like its Chrome inspiration, it's a good, no-nonsense workaday browser with a useful feature set. And once loaded up, tabs stay loaded until you dismiss them.

Terra is another fast browser with unlimited tabs, full screen browsing, text search, and ability to save pages for offline reading. I like Terra too. I find it stable and comparable in speed to Safari, and like Safari (and Diigo), it happily holds on to open tabs when idling in the background. The downside of that with Diigo and Terra is a lag in coming forward as the tab pages refresh, and I'll give Safari the nod as best of the bunch for graceful handling of open tabs, since it's unafflicted by any similar lag on most sites.

As I mentioned, Opera MIni is not my favorite alternative iOS browser, which was a surprise, because its big sibling, Opera for OS X, in many respects is my favorite OS X browser. However, Opera Mini does have one unique advantage - compression. This is handy for times you find yourself on a slow, crowded network, away from WiFi, or when data roaming. Opera's servers compress data by up to 90% before sending the page to your iPhone or iPad, so page loads don't take forever. On the other hand, under normal circumstances, I find Opera Mini consistently slower than Safari, Google Search, Dolphin HD, and the others.

One gripe I have about iOS browsers is really a general complaint about the iOS way of doing things: I really miss having bookmarks in a pull-down menu. None of these iOS browsers has anything as convenient. Also, the absence of Flash is a royal pain and frequent irritant, and I'm amazed that some folks say they're not inconvenienced by it. Seriously?! It's just one of the dismayingly long list of issues that render the iPad a non-contender as an adequate work tool, or even in some instances a satisfactory online shopping platform.

Sleipnir browser
Sleipnir lets you sync bookmarks between Mac and iOS.

While I'm at it, there's a new browser called Sleipnir that looks interesting. It is available in both OS X and iOS versions. I've downloaded both but haven't used either enough yet to form any firm impressions. In brief, Sleipnir has a lot of features and functionality, with an accent on data sharing and syncing among various devices, but with a simple interface.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): It's hard to remember a time when we didn't have the World-Wide Web, but some of us longtime Mac users remember when we had slow dial-up Internet access, or maybe a 56k to 128k connection at work. At that point, how your browser worked could make a big difference.

Like most people who cut their teeth on the Net in the 1990s, I started with Netscape Navigator, which was technically a commercial application with an educational use clause that meant that most of us used it without ever paying for it. I used Netscape faithfully until one day when we had a horribly slow Internet connection at work.

In those days, I would often print out an article for future reference or to share, and that day I learned that Netscape could not print without reloading the entire page from the Internet. When your connection is slow, that gets frustrating very quickly. I ended up switching to Internet Explorer, Microsoft's free-for-all browser, which was not afflicted by this bone-headed printing issue, and I never went back to Netscape except for testing purposes. I believe this was around the time of Netscape 4 and IE 4.5.

Like Charles Moore, I'm a bit of a browser junkie, and I have a wide range of browsers and browser versions on all three of my production Macs (one running OS X 10.4 Tiger, another 10.5 Leopard, and the only Intel-based one running 10.6 Snow Leopard). I like to try new browsers, see if there's some reason to switch or go back to it on occasion, and then get back to work.

iCab is a Mac-only browser
iCab is a Mac-only browser with Atari roots.

I remember the excitement when iCab first arrived, a whole different browser with some unique features, like archiving pages for future viewing. iCab was a one-man project, always quirky and different, and unfortunately shareware, which it makes clear every time you launch it. With so many free options, no surprise that iCab is almost unknown.

iCab reminds you that is it shareware
iCab is shareware, as this notice makes clear.

I used Internet Explorer for the longest time, and I can report that version 5.2.3 still works with OS X 10.6, although with its lack of support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and other modern conveniences, it's not particularly useful any longer. I used Safari and Firefox, but neither really clicked with me.

Camino tunes Mozilla specifically for Mac OS X
Camino tunes Mozilla specifically for Mac OS X.

And then came Camino. Starting with the Mozilla code underlying Firefox, the Camino team developed a more Mac-like browser. It felt faster and more like a Mac app than Firefox, and its wasn't weighted down with Safari's ugly brushed metal interface. Something about it just felt right, and I've been using it through versions 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, and 2.1. The latest version still supports PowerPC and OS X 10.4.

Unfortunately, the future of Camino is uncertain. Camino has always been based on the same Gecko rendering engine as Firefox, although often a version or more behind. Camino 2.1 uses the same rendering engine used in Firefox 3.6, and without support for embedding, it won't be possible to use a more up-to-date version of Gecko in Camino. One possibility is that Camino will move to the same WebKit rendering engine used by Safari and Chrome, although nothing official has yet been announced.

Here's hoping Camino, an open source project with no paid staff, continues under development for those of us who prefer it to Safari, Firefox, and Chrome.

RockMelt is a successor to Flock, an early social browser
RockMelt is a successor to Flock, an early social browser.

I have the latest version of Safari that each version of OS X supports, and I use them regularly. I have TenFourFox on my G4 Power Macs and use them even more frequently. I have genuine Firefox 10 on my Intel Mac mini, and I use it fairly regularly as well.

One excuse for buying this 2007 Mac mini last March was so I could become familiar with Intel-only software, particularly the free Google Chrome browser. I have it installed, but I don't use it very often - but still often enough that it's my #4 browser after Camino, Safari, and Firefox/TenFourFox. Opera holds fifth place, mostly because I use it with Google Docs, which isn't very often. I couldn't even rank the other browsers on my Macs. Some of them I launched for the first time in a year or more to create the screen shots with this article, and some I had to download for the first time so I could make screen shots.

On my iPhone, Safari is my most frequently used browser. Like Charles Moore, I gave Opera Mini a good try, but it just never displaced Safari for me. Kudos to Apple for creating a browser that's good enough for default use (unlike, say, IE on Windows, where for years it was such a security hole and so noncompliant with Web standards that Firefox ate it for lunch).

I've been using the Dolphin browser on my iPhone, and I like it. It may displace Safari as my top choice. I will have to give Google Search a try, but for the little browsing I do on my iPhone, I think Safari and Dolphin are going to do the trick. LEM

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