Maxthon MX5 review: Rough-and-ready browser offers paid features for free

Strong performance, plus password management and "shadow email," make the free browser worth a download. A security scandal should give you pause.

maxthon mx5 overall
At a Glance
  • Maxthon International Maxthon MX5

    PCWorld Rating

    Maxthon's MX5 combines ad blocking, password management and email spoofing in a slightly rough but speedy Web browser.

Smaller niche browsers such as Maxthon have to do more than their larger rivals just to be recognized, let alone downloaded. Maxthon’s MX5 browser offers free features that you’d normally pay for, like password management—and that alone makes it worth checking out.

(Editor's Note: We were informed Wednesday, July 14 that Maxthon isn't prepared to release MX5 today as planned, for reasons that were not explained. Our review code was obviously given us before the browser's final release.

After we wrote our review, serious security concerns have also come to light regarding user data sent to Maxthon. You can read the report for yourself, but the bottom line is this: whether or not you agree to participate in the "user experience" (UEIP) program to improve the browser, an earlier version of Maxthon's browser allegedly sends your entire browsing history, a list of all software installed on your machine, and other details of your PC to a Maxthon server in China. Note that we did ask CEO Jeff Chen if data is passed to China, and he denied it. For now, we'd recommend that you hold off from downloading MX5, even when the browser becomes available.

As of Friday, Maxthon issued a statement claiming that the data sent via the user experience program was a bug, dating back to 2007, and it has been fixed. According to Maxthon, if a user opts out of UEIP, the browser should not report any information. Maxthon also confirmed that it does send back the URLs users visit, but does so to check if the Web site is safe or not. The shipping version of MX5 will have an option to turn off the scanner, Maxthon said. We're leaving our review intact, but strongly urge you to consider these caveats when deciding whether or not to download.)

You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Maxthon: The company releases major updates to its browser every two years or so, with an emphasis on cloud data that debuted in conjunction with its 2014 release, Maxthon 4. The company doesn’t register on NetApplications' list of the top browsers, falling somewhere into the last 0.14 percent of the browser market under “other.”

That isn’t stopping Maxthon chief executive Jeff Chen. The goal of the new browser, he said, was to provide an “information assistant” with three key features: an “infobox” to save web pages to the cloud; a Passkeeper password vault; and UUMail, a way of developing email aliases or “shadow email” addresses to insulate you from spam.

As before, Maxthon uses both the Trident and Webkit rendering engines in a bid to render older and newer web pages efficiently. But it’s the additional value-added features that the company wants to make its selling points. 

maxthon mx5 overall article

Maxthon may look a little rough around the edges, but it renders Web pages quick and accurately.

A 1986 Ford Mustang for the Web

Maxthon’s not the most polished of browsers: Spelling errors crop up in various menu and settings pages, and the browser’s homepage when you first launch it provides a rather clunky collection of news and top sites. The alpha version of the browser that Maxthon provided me slyly tried to install itself as my preferred browser by default, and wedged itself into my taskbar. Its terms of service forbid you from blocking its own advertising (which, to be fair, I barely saw, save for a “shopping” box on the home page, plus one banner ad farther down.)

maxthon upper right

Icons for Adblocker Plus, developer tools, the night mode, and Snap hide in the upper right. 

Once you’ve pulled out of Maxthon’s garage and onto the information superhighway, however, Maxthon’s MX5 provides a sturdy, speedy vehicle for navigating web pages, even if it feels a bit hastily put together at times. Maxthon did have problems with some Flash-heavy games I tried to load, crashing once, but otherwise didn’t seem to have any issues.

Overall, the UI feels fairly intuitive. When you dig deeper, things get a little complicated. For one thing, though Google’s Chrome browses with HTTPS enabled, Maxthon doesn’t, and that might worry security-minded users. Importing bookmarks and other data from other browsers isn’t all that intuitive (go to to the three-bar menu icon in the upper right, then Tools > Import User Data, then select the other browser). Private browsing is included, and launched via a new window. As for help, well, you’re sort of on your own, as both the “Help Desk” and “Maxthon Community” take you to a community forum page.

maxthon upper left

You can set a sidebar with some quick actions, if you’d like.

Ad blocking has been a staple of the platform for over five years, and Maxthon built Adblock Plus into the new version. That ensures browsing is just as fast as any other browser's: Web pages were responsive in under two seconds, which is very good—and the browser itself consumed about 528MB of memory with only five tabs. That’s the typical amount of memory consumed by three browser tabs, based on the browsers I tested in conjunction with Vivaldi’s release earlier this year. But those browsers did not have ad-blocking baked in, either.

There’s a wealth of interesting little features under the hood, and that’s even before you start poking around the new stuff. Developer tools let programmers view pages on a number of simulated mobile devices. A night mode dims the display to minimize eyestrain. Click the RSS icon on a web page, and MX5 helpfully directs you to the Feedly RSS reader. You can set a small sidebar column with icons to trigger actions, though Opera or Vivaldi do a better job here. About the only feature I could do without is Snap, which zooms in to an extreme level to allow those with poor eyesight to interact with a small section of the page.

Maxthon even has extensions, which appear to be custom-crafted for the browser itself. The most useful seem to be bundled with the browser, including a translation tool. The Maxthon extensions web page offers dozens more, including ones for Twitter and YouTube. Unfortunately, Maxthon sprinkles in warnings about downloading malicious extensions, and it’s sort of hard to believe that anyone would believe that an Angry Birds Go extension is really just 5KB in size. (In fact, it’s just a spammy ad.)

However, it’s the small user icon at the upper left that hides the new features in MX5: Infobox, PassKeeper, and UUMail.

Infobox: Way too many options for saving web pages

When Chen first told me about the Infobox feature, my first reaction was that this was just another version of the Reading View feature already in Edge: Strip out the ads, format it neatly on a gray background, and so on. Nope! Maxthon has Reader Mode already enabled, by clicking the book icon next to the URL.

maxthon infobox

You can save Web pages or snippets of information in all sorts of formats to your Infobox.

Infobox goes it one better—well, make that several better. Right-click a web page, and you can choose to save it to Infobox. You then have several options: You can bookmark the page, of course. But you can also save the web content, creating a static HTML page with live links and embedded pictures (but not video). Or you can take a snapshot of it as an image, zoom in on a block of text and annotate it, complete with thought bubbles and even a blur feature for anonymizing data. Or you can copy a “selection” of the text. Or you can take a snapshot of the whole web page and save it as an image. Or—whew!—if that’s not enough, you can save the entire page as an HTML page, just like you can do with other browsers.

Once you’ve saved it—well, Maxthon wants to make sure you don’t lose it. So while the file can be saved to your hard drive, it’s stored to the Maxthon cloud as well, and synced with other instances of the browser. (An Android version is also available.) You’ll end up with a long list of stored web pages and snippets, enough to keep you occupied on the commute home.

Passkeeper’s password management falls a bit short

Passkeeper is Maxthon’s answer to services like LastPass, which generate complex, unique passwords for various web sites and then store them so you’ll never have to remember what they are. Passkeeper does the same, relying on you to choose a strong master password to secure the browser itself, including passwords and the Infobox records you’ve cached there.

Maxthon passkeeper 1 password generation

Passkeeper automatically generates passwords for Web services, then stores them.

Once you sign up for a web service like Yahoo Mail, Passkeeper will generate a password to your specifications, including the number of characters, numerals, upper and lower case, and so on. It will then offer to save it as an encrypted password in its digital storehouse. Unfortunately, MX5 doesn’t suggest special characters, which are becoming a staple of more and more web sites. (It does, though, include an “underscore” option, which seems to randomly insert an underscore every few new passwords.) You can also manually create an encrypted entry with your own site name, password, and notes, although this is kind of a pain.

The more important question, though, is whether you trust Maxthon with those passwords. Passwords will sync with the cloud, and “Passkeeper uses multiple encryption techniques including AES256 and multiple verification techniques,” according to the company. Data stored in the cloud has been double-encrypted and can’t be seen by Maxthon’s own staff, the company claims. 

Maxthon passkeeper password options

You can set a custom length for your passwords, as well as other options.

Maxthon was originally a Chinese company, and incorporated in Beijing. But Chen says the company is now based in San Francisco, with a San Francisco-based server, and your data does not enter China.

UUmail: your last mailbox?

We all hate spam. Email services like Outlook.com or Gmail.com do a good job of filtering it, but spam tends to creep through. Maxthon set up UUmail both to block spam as well as provide some anonymity online.

UUmail sets up one or more “shadow mails” as a way to protect your actual email address. You may know that if you add “+” to your Outlook or Gmail address, it creates a sort of alias. If you give a web site “jcruz+eagle@gmail.com" as your email address, you know that any spam you receive originated from the site, or the site sold your email to a spammer.

MAxthon uumail2 email alias

UUmail allows you to set up your own email alias.

With UUmail, you can set up actual dead-drop email forwarding services, which is a slightly better option. Maxthon provides a host server (uu.me), but you provide part of the domain: pleasenospam.uu.me, for example. You then can set up various disposable email addresses on that domain. Mail sent to justme@pleasenospam.uu.me, for example, will be routed to whatever real email inbox you’d like.

The idea is that you can surreptitiously sign up for a web site, while still using a fake name; Maxthon suggests adult web sites as one example. A toggle switch also allows you to turn off that disposable email address for any reason.

Maxthon uumail 4

You can turn “off” shadow emails whenever you’d like.

I didn’t have a chance to extensively use UUmail, so it’s not clear whether outbound email will be routed back through UUmail to the third-party web site. But the idea seems to be that UUMail provides an address to receive and filter potentially unwanted email, not an alias to email back and forth.

Web browsers are perhaps the best value of all PC software, given the amount of time a typical user spends online, and all facilitated by a number of free browsers. That makes them easy to try out and evaluate, though users tend to land on a favorite and remain there. 

Maxthon MX5 is certainly competent, with some value-added features that are worthy of checking out. Will it usurp Chrome or Edge? Probably not. But there are no obvious flaws, and some handy features in the latest MX5 edition just might lure a few new users away from the big players.

Updated at 11:23 AM on July 23 with additional details from Maxthon on the browser's release, and then at 1:22 PM with details about a potential security breach.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Maxthon's MX5 combines ad blocking, password management and email spoofing in a slightly rough but speedy Web browser.

    Pros

    • Built-in ad blocking contributes to speedy performance
    • Password management/generation is usually a paid feature
    • "Shadow email" addresses can help eliminate spam

    Cons

    • A little rough around the edges
    • Help/ support isn't that easy to find
    • Password, email spoofing features requires you to trust company
Related:
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.