I’ve been doing some comparison shopping since Snow Leopard came out and installed a 64-bit Safari on my MacBook. Browser shopping. There’s both good news and bad news regarding the browser wars.
Wars? Sure. It’s Microsoft against the rest of the browsers. Firefox, Safari, Opera, even Google Chrome. The good news is that we have choices. Good choices. The bad news is, well we have to choose from among the best browsers ever, Mac or Windows.
For the past three days I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Mac browsers, checking out features, looking for similarities, finding differences. If choice is what you’re after, Mac users have plenty when it comes to browsers.
There’s an old saying among our geekier computer friends, “No application is feature complete until it does email.” Uh oh. You can see where this is heading, right?
True to form, Apple’s Safari is lean, elegant, fast, almost spartan when compared with the other two popular Mac browsers, Firefox and Opera. That’s by design. Apple focuses on what’s important to the most number of users, not on loading up on features that most of us never use.
Did I mention that Safari is fast? It’s even faster in Snow Leopard, ostensibly due to the 64-bit nature of the browser. Yet, for all the advancements Apple has pushed into Safari, the feature list is quite small.
Safari launches faster, loads pages faster, and renders more attractive web pages better than any browser I’ve tested on my Macs. For all of Apple’s attention and focus, Safari remains basic. Sure it has a few new developer tools, RSS reader ability, tabs, and decent bookmarking utility.
Compared to Firefox or Opera 10, Safari is feature anemic. That brings me to Firefox, easily the second most popular browser, Mac or Windows. Firefox is fast, too, yet has more add ons that Microsoft has trouble making money on anything but Windows or Office.
Firefox 3.5 is twice as fast as 3.0 in rendering web pages, and is 10 times as fast as Firefox 2. While Safari can hardly be customized at all (beyond moving icons around on the tool bar), Firefox has thousands of add on utilities from which to choose.
Firefox elevates the feature comparison attempts by adding Session Restore (works great after a shutdown or crash), more Anti-Phising and Anti-Malware features than Windows Internet Explorer, and a Private Browsing feature that’s easy to get into and out of.
The only real issue I have with Firefox, and I use it regularly because of the add-ons, is the inability of Mozilla to get the Windows out. Even Firefox Mac looks and behaves like Firefox Windows, less like a real Mac application (it was worse with Firefox 3 and 2).
What of Opera, the little browser that could, but never has died, seems to prosper, and, except for speed, is a whole lot better than ever? Opera lives. I don’t know why, but Opera still has a following, Mac and Windows, and on other platforms, too, despite attempts by Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple to provide a better browser experience.
Opera 10, too, is loaded with features, and fast. Not as many features as Firefox, but more than Safari. Not as fast as, well, anything else of substance on the Mac, but it competes well with Internet Explorer on Windows PCs.
The latest incarnation of Opera improves the speed issues of the past. It’s notably faster, but not in the same league as Safari or Firefox. Pages also render well, with few differences that other Mac browsers, yet far better than Internet Explorer.
Surprisingly, the whole world isn’t using broadband to connect to the internet yet, so Opera has a handy feature called Opera Turbo with some kind of arbitrary compression technology designed to speed up page loads on limited bandwidth connections.
Try as I might, and we have plenty of slow connections in New York, I couldn’t tell the difference. Opera was early in the tabbed window craze of a few years ago, and now has a resizable tab bar. Drag the handle below the tabs and you get thumbnails of your open web sites. It’s ugly eye candy.
Opera’s search field is also resizable, a feature I miss in Safari. Other notable features include Speed Dial, a configurable button that will auto open up to 25 different web sites when you click to open a new tab. That’s handy.
Opera calls their web page rendering engine Presto. It’s faster at opening web pages, better at rendering, and, like Safari, passes the not-too-important but good for bragging rights Acid 3 test.
Other tools include options for developers to edit DOM and inspect web pages. There’s even a Firefox-like auto-update feature so Opera users always have the latest version. These are all nice, useful, almost-table-stakes features.
In Safari and Firefox, when you click on an email address in a web page, it opens Mail (or your default email application). Opera has mail built-in, and it works two ways. First, if you use a web mail application such as Yahoo! or Google, Opera will open their respective compose page. That saves clicks. Nice.
Second, email is built in, which means that Opera must be totally feature complete, as that’s the last requirement for any application—email. Opera Mail is a throwback to the old Netscape Navigator days. The included inline spell checker is good and works when you’re on Facebook, blogging, or in web mail.
There’s plenty more where all that came from. The Mac Opera looks and feels more Mac-like, though not as elegant as Safari, a bit more like Firefox, far more rich than Google Chrome. Unlike the latter, Opera is customizable with skins, features content blocking, and even has a built-in BitTorrent for fast downloads.
If you’re a multi-Mac user, Opera Link synchronizes your searches, bookmarks, Speed Dial sites, and even browser history between different machines.
In other words, Opera is loaded with features for all but the most rowdy feature creatures (those who collect features more than they actually use a browser). What I haven’t fully figured is why? Opera is free. Opera is not widely used, known, or understood. Yet, it’s grown up and works well. If choice is good, and the choices are good, then Opera is a welcome competitor to Firefox and Safari on the Mac.