Too good to ignore: Six alternative browsers

These relatively unknown browsers are good -- and could be better for some users than the ones they're using now

When Microsoft, Mozilla, or Apple comes out with a new version of Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari, it makes news -- mainly because most of us use one or more of these three Web browsers. In fact, with the exception of Google's Chrome (which made a big splash, mostly because it came from Google), most of the alternative browsers out there tend to get lost in the shuffle.

And it's too bad, because some of these relatively unknown browsers are good -- and could be better for some users than the ones they're using now. We asked three of our writers to take some lesser-known browsers out for a spin and see how they do.

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They chose six candidates: Camino (for the Mac), Maxthon (for the PC), OmniWeb (for the Mac), Opera (both the Mac and the PC versions), and Shiira (for the Mac). Which is the best? It all depends on what you need from a browser.

For example, Camino is for those who want a simple, basic browser, while Maxthon is overflowing with every power feature in the book. OmniWeb offers speed and an interesting approach to tabbing (but, at a base price of $14.95, is the only browser in this roundup that isn't free), while Opera brings with it a number of features it has pioneered over the years, along with a strong fan base. Finally, Shiira has an interface that is more Mac than Apple's own Safari.

It's possible that none of these will do what you need better than the browser you're already using. But as we all know, sometimes you have to step outside of the tried and true in order to find something really great.

Check these browsers out -- one of them may work for you.

Camino 1.6.4
Camino, an open source browser based on Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine, is clearly designed to be a simple, easy-to-use, yet fully functional browser. With a look and feel very similar to Safari and Firefox, almost anyone will find it easy to work with in seconds; I found myself completely at home with Camino from the second I launched it.

One major difference between Camino and Firefox is that Camino was designed and programmed specifically for the Mac instead of ported over as Firefox was (so it's less likely to "feel" like a Windows application). In addition, one gets the impression that the developers of Camino didn't try to duplicate all the features of Firefox and focused on the core browsing functionality, which probably results in leaner code overall and thereby increased performance and stability.

Camino isn't big on flashy features. It does have a few that, while not unique, are nice to have. For example, Camino lets you save the URLs for all pages currently opened in tabs as a set that re-opens all of them -- in the same positions. This is a pretty nifty feature if you repeatedly open the same set of pages every morning when checking sites (or if you use a number of Web-based applications every day).

Beyond that, the features and preferences options are pretty standard browser fare, though I do have to commend Camino's developers for including a Web features tab in the browser's preferences that includes the options to block Flash animations and advertising as well as to prevent Web animations from repeating.

Given that many Web browsers now try to implement too many features, some of which are better left to separate applications (RSS being a common example, which Camino eschews), I found Camino's straightforward focus refreshing. The approach leads to a simple design that implements the core features in an uncluttered fashion. Combined with the Web features options that put a user in control of just how much distracting Web content he wants to see, I couldn't help thinking that this would be the perfect browser for people like my father -- you know, the type of person who wants a cell phone that's nothing more than a phone.

Since Camino keeps its feature set small and targeted, I was not surprised to find it to be very stable; it renders content both well and quickly. As with Shiira, Camino handled Flash, scripting and other complex Web technologies very well. When I compared it to Safari, Firefox, and Shiira on the Mac, it outperformed those other browsers in rendering some pages. Sites heavy with Flash content and animations, in particular, seemed to load, render and function faster when I used Camino.

I should note that some Camino add-ons are available. Like the add-ons available for Firefox, these tools offers various capabilities, from backing up bookmarks to changing the look using themes or skins, though the choices for Camino are more limited.

All in all, Camino is probably not the perfect browser for everyone. If you're looking for a more full-featured browser, you may want to opt for Firefox, Safari, or Shiira. But if you want a stable, simple and no-nonsense Web browser (or one that can easily limit distracting content) Camino is a good choice.

-- Ryan Faas

Maxthon 2.1.4
If you're looking for a browser that bristles with power features, and don't mind a somewhat unattractive interface and some confusing configuration, then Maxthon is the browser for you. It's got just about every feature built into competing browsers, and many that you won't find anywhere else -- such as a "file sniffer" that makes it easy to download YouTube videos and a pop-up notepad for pasting or dragging text you want to save. Power users will love it. Those who like sleek design will turn away.

The interface is quite cluttered, with a file menu, Address Bar, Favorites Bar and other toolbars, and stray icons near the top and bottom of the screen. Think of it as the un-Chrome. But there's a reason for the clutter: The browser has so many features, they need to fit somewhere. And you can customize the interface, if you like, to cut down on the clutter.

Maxthon has far too many features to cover in a short review, but among my favorites is its great tab and window handling. You can, for example, create two side-by-side browser instances, each with their own tabs; you can create tab groups; you can "tear off" a tab into a separate browser instance and then recombine it; you can assign a shortcut key to any URL and visit that URL just by pressing the key -- and that's just for a start.

The browser also uses "mouse gestures," so that you can navigate forward, backward and so on by moving your mouse in a certain way. It has a great tool for filling out Web forms, a built-in screen capture tool, and an innovative search screen that lets you do a search and then click on tabs in that screen to see the results from various search engines. And there's a CPU Saver mode that minimizes Maxthon's processor use, freeing up your CPU for other tasks.

All that is to the good, but there are some problems, mostly because Maxthon uses the same Trident rendering engine used by Internet Explorer. For example, click Tools --> Internet Options, and you'll come to a familiar tabbed Internet Options screen. In fact, it looks like the screen for changing Internet Explorer's options -- because that's exactly what it is.

There's far more than all this, and there are plug-ins available as well. You simply won't find a browser with more features.

In fact, when you make a change to the Maxthon Internet Options screen, you'll also make changes to Internet Explorer. And while this screen has an option for setting your home page, it won't work for Maxthon -- you need to select Tools --> Maxthon Setup Center and make your changes there. I contacted Maxthon, and a rep told me that the Options screen is used to control the Trident rendering engine only, and doesn't affect other Maxthon options such as setting the home page.

Still, if you're a power user, you can get used to those eccentricities. If you're looking for the most features in a browser, live with Maxthon a while, and you may learn to love it.

-- Preston Gralla

OmniWeb 5.8
OmniWeb has been around longer than Mac OS X, dating back to the NeXT platform of the 1990s. Throughout its history, OmniWeb has always been an excellent citizen of technologies specific to the NeXT -- and later, OS X -- platform, and the polish shows through in even minor details.

Even though OmniWeb was one of the first native browsers to grace OS X, with an interface that has remained top-notch, it has faced rivals such as Firefox and Camino that are powered by speedy Gecko-based rendering engines -- not to mention Apple's own Safari browser, which has been integrated with OS X since 2003. That's kept OmniWeb's browser share limited to a fairly small audience. However, the advances seen in OmniWeb since its rendering engine revamp in 2004 may mean it's time for surfers to give this browser another serious look.

OmniWeb, now at Version 5.8, is easily one of the best examples of a properly implemented interface on the Mac today. The Omni Group has always taken care to make sure that its products feel like native Mac applications instead of ports from other platforms, and the attention to detail makes using OmniWeb a joy.

Some of OmniWeb's best features include extensive (if not zealous) ad-blocking, auto-saved Web browsing sessions and site-specific preferences. From the unique tab drawer -- more on this later -- to support for browsing Web pages using OS X's built-in Speech Recognition, OmniWeb's embrace of Mac-specific technologies wrapped in a clean and uncluttered interface makes the product a delightful browser alternative.

It renders Web pages quickly, easily on par with the fastest of the competition, right up there with Safari and Firefox. That's significant because rendering speeds used to be a major source of disappointment, something that changed with Omni Group's embrace of Apple's own open-source WebKit frameworks. WebKit is used by Apple itself in several of its software packages -- Mail, Safari and Dashboard, to name a few -- and the Omni Group's adoption of this technology allowed it to focus on designing an elegant user interface instead of worrying about updating its rendering engine with every new Web standard.

Among the interface niceties is the aforementioned tab drawer. Instead of offering up a layout like its competitors -- with small tabs displayed horizontally near the address field -- OmniWeb shows a resizable window pane attached to the browser. The pane, which can be displayed on the right or left side of the main browser window, previews tabs as mini-Web pages rendered in real time. The real-time page rendering allows you to skip on to other sites when one is loading slowly, while still keeping an eye on the site's progress.

OmniWeb's user experience is top-notch and Mac-like -- something that can't be said about competitors like Firefox -- but that experience comes at a price. At a time when most Web browsers are free, a license for OmniWeb 5.8 costs $14.95, while an upgrade license from earlier versions costs $4.95.

Even if you don't want to pay for a browser, I still recommend downloading the software and taking it for a free 30-day test run. The thought of paying for a browser probably won't sit well with those accustomed to free alternatives -- especially since the alternatives themselves are good -- but after using OmniWeb for a few days, you might decide it's worth the price.

-- Mike DeAgonia

Opera 9.6
Opera is a Windows-based browser that has been ported to many different platforms, including most Unix variants such as Mac OS X and Linux/FreeBSD/Solaris; cell phone operating systems, including Windows Mobile, PalmOS, BlackBerry OS, and even the popular Wii gaming station. But despite its ubiquitous nature, Opera has so far only captured 2 percent of the browser market. That's something of a surprise, because it isn't as though this browser lacks ability or features.

Version 9.6 for Macintosh is a fast, option-laden browser that represents a formidable entry in an extremely competitive product category. Opera uses its own proprietary rendering engine called Presto to display Web content; this engine is almost as capable at rendering code as the Gecko engine used by Firefox and Camino, and nearly as fast as Safari and OmniWeb's WebKit engine. In fact, there were some sites that Gecko had trouble rendering accurately, but Opera displayed most sites properly.

There are many things to like about Opera, including customizable skins, live preview of Web pages when you mouse over tabs and a welcome full-screen mode -- especially useful for recent Windows converts who are accustomed to viewing Web pages using every bit of screen real estate possible.

One of Opera's standout features is the Speed Dial startup page. Speed Dial lets you customize a page with up to nine different sites, with each site's content displayed in miniaturized format. Clicking on the mini-page brings up the site in a full browser window.

Another Opera plus is the extensive search engine support built into the browser. As well as the usual suspects like Google and Yahoo, Opera also supports Ask, Wikipedia, eBay, and Yahoo Shopping. Interestingly enough, Opera also supports Bit Torrent searching and downloads, as this browser doubles as a Bit Torrent client.

Opera also offers support for widgets. Although similar in function to those found in Mac OS X, Opera's widgets are freed from the restraints of the Dashboard, instead floating on the desktop like any application window.

The Opera interface is a little more cluttered than some of the other browsers I've looked at, but skin support in concert with the ability to alter interface details means you can customize to your heart's content. With the addition of Mouse Gestures, it's entirely possible to browse pages without using any of the interface elements at all, relying instead on mouse or trackpad swipes to navigate pages.

The bottom line is that Opera is a good example of healthy competition in the browser market, and the price of admission -- free! -- is certainly worth giving this program a once-over.

-- Mike DeAgonia

Opera 9.6
There was a time, years ago, when Opera seemed to be giving Internet Explorer and Netscape a run for their money. Now it's the great forgotten browser, rarely mentioned or used.

And that's a shame. Opera sports a clean interface with easy access to its innovative capabilities, and is a model of simplicity and elegance, with attractive icons and tabs, and plenty of features within easy reach. If you're looking for a powerful alternative to your existing browser, you won't go wrong with Opera.

Much has been made of browser Address Bar tools such as Chrome's Omnibox and Firefox's Awesome Bar. But no one bothers to mention that Opera has already been there and done that. As with those browsers, type parts of a URL into Opera's address bar, and you'll get a list of likely matches. Better yet, type in search terms, and Opera will do a Google search for them.

That's just one of the innovative features you'll find in Opera; there are too many to mention them all. What Opera calls "Speed Dial" is also useful. When you open a new tab, Opera opens a page with space for multiple thumbnails of Web pages. Click on any blank thumbnail and enter a URL, and from then on, when you open a new tab, it will open to a page with those thumbnails. To visit any page, click it.

Opera also features an excellent download manager that lets you pause and resume downloads, and then open any files you've downloaded. For each download, you're also shown information such as where it was downloaded from, where you downloaded it to, file size and so on. There's also a progress indicator showing you current download speed.

Useful for anyone who fills out Web forms (which pretty much means all of us), is the Wand, which not only remembers passwords and fills them in, but also fills in other information, such as name, address, e-mail address and so on.

Opera sports many other features as well, such as a quick way to turn off all images on a Web site with the single click of a button, and a way to view every single link on a Web page.

Opera's main drawback is that it doesn't have add-ins as Firefox does, so you won't be able to extend the browser's features. You can download Opera widgets, but they aren't really add-ins -- they're instead gadgets that live on your desktop.

Apart from the lack of add-ins, though, you'll find Opera an excellent browser. If you're looking for a great blend of simplicity and features, it's well worth the download.

-- Preston Gralla

Shiira 2.2
Shiira is a relatively new entrant to the Mac Web browser market. Like Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, Shiira is based on WebKit.

One of the first unique interface elements that I noticed was Shiira's PageDock. The PageDock provides the same functionality as tabbed browsing, but with complete thumbnails of every page that is opened.

At first, I saw this as something that took up valuable screen real estate, but after a little use, I found it to be an invaluable addition to the browser experience -- making it easy to see not only what each "tab" was (beyond just a name), but also what was happening on each page, which proved particularly nice with any page that sported dynamic content (from Facebook chats to sites featuring animation elements). For those who prefer traditional tabbed browsing, the PageDock can be turned off.

As I explored Shiira, I noticed that many of its features and interfaces took cues from Apple's Mac OS X interface. There's a button that displays all open pages next to each other like Apple's Expos? feature, making it easy to pick one page to work with. Bookmarks, history and RSS feeds can also be browsed from floating translucent pallets reminiscent of Apple's iLife and iWork applications.

The preferences dialog borrows heavily from the look of the Mac's System Preferences application. Even the bookmarking tool that Shiira refers to as the Shelf offers column and list views patterned after the Mac's Finder window (as is the customizable window toolbar).

All of these made Shiira seem more Mac-like to me than Apple's own Safari browser. What I found particularly nice was that, much like the PageDock, these features all served useful functions rather than just being eye candy.

I also found a couple of unusual features that seemed so intuitive that I couldn't believe they weren't more common in other browsers. These include menu items for automatically e-mailing the URL or entire contents of a page with a single click, and a very effective full-screen-mode option that would be perfect for presentations or watching video.

As far as performance, I found Shiira to be very solid. It loaded pages of all kinds, rendered Flash animation with no problems, and even beat out Safari and Firefox in terms of rendering speed on a couple of pages (albeit not by a particularly noteworthy margin). The browser was also very stable. All of this is important because, bells and whistles aside, the most important piece of a browser to me is that it can actually surf the Web painlessly and quickly.

Unfortunately, I did see some unfinished aspects of this open source browser. Some of Shiira's preference options seemed unfinished. For example, the RSS feed preferences pane refused to open at all (even so, the built-in RSS reader functioned fairly well -- though being used to full featured stand-alone RSS readers, I'm not sure it would be my first choice). In addition, the pane in the preferences dialog called Key Mappings, which should allow users to assign keyboard shortcuts to menu items, does not seem to be implemented yet (though I was able to open the pane itself).

Even so, the combination of good features, Apple-inspired interface and overall performance left me convinced that, with a little more development, Shiira could easily give other Mac browsers a run for their money. Without a doubt, Shiira is definitely worth a look, but be prepared to spend a little time getting used to its interface.

-- Ryan Faas

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This story, "Too good to ignore: Six alternative browsers" was originally published by Computerworld.

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