Mac Skeptic: The State of Mac Browsing--An Embarrassment of Riches

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Up to now, I've chosen my browser based mostly on which one shows up on my desktop by default. Since Apple's Safari is preloaded in the Mac OS X Dock, that's what I've been using. But once I started digging into the capabilities of the big three browsers for the Mac--Safari 1.2, Internet Explorer 5.2, and Mozilla Navigator 1.7.2--I found that there really are differences.

While evaluating the speed, security, and navigation features of each browser, I found that all three browsers render complex Web pages well, and none had any problems displaying secure or encrypted Web pages. Earlier versions of Safari had various display problems, including a sporadic inability to display secure sites. In my informal examination, Java and JavaScript ran fine on each browser, though they differed in loading time. For example, when I timed how long it took each browser to load the graphics and JavaScript-loaded Nike Running USA page, I got the following results: Safari won my informal race, loading the page in 14.0 seconds; Mozilla Navigator came in last, at 21.7 seconds; and IE 5 took 19.4 seconds.

Browser History

If you used Netscape Navigator for browsing back in the nineties, you'll recognize the icons in Mozilla Navigator--in fact, Mozilla is the name of the suite, and Navigator is its Web browser, the descendant of Netscape's once-ubiquitous browser. Mozilla is an open-source project, developed partly by volunteers and managed by a nonprofit foundation. And though its interface looks a little last-century, Navigator's features are up to the minute. I love its extensive Preferences options, which even let you modify how your mouse wheel behaves in the browser.

The logic of which Navigator commands live under which menus is a little baffling, however. Navigator is the only one of the three browsers I evaluated that has a Tools menu (which all Windows browsers have, and which I reach for often). It's handy to have the Autofill Manager, Password Manager, and such in the Tools menu, just one level down--but I don't understand why some of these commands are accessible from Tools, and others can be accessed only from the Preferences menu.

Internet Explorer for OS X, however, really is frozen in time. Last June Microsoft announced that version 5.2.3 of IE for the Mac would be the last released, though the company still supports its browser. This should not be confused with Office for the Mac, which just underwent a major upgrade.

Privacy and Security Features

Safari makes it the easiest to cover your tracks, with the Reset Safari command. With one click, it clears your cache and history, plus cleans up your cookie file. A warning dialog box requires that you confirm that you want to reset--that's a good thing because you also lose anything you've opted to autofill, like saved log-ins and passwords.

Safari's Security settings.
Safari's Security settings.
On all three browsers, you can drill down into the Preferences menu to clear your history and cache, and determine how you want to manage your privacy. Unfortunately, with Mozilla and IE, that's the only way to clear the cache and history. Having those functions readily available in Safari is extremely convenient.

Navigator's cookie managment options.
Navigator's cookie managment options.
Spyware that infects Macs is rare, but beacon cookies (or Web bugs) are one form of spyware that does. Vigilant monitoring of cookies is a good way to protect your privacy while surfing. Navigator's cookie handling is the most full-featured and customizable of the three browsers': You can accept cookies only for your current browser session, which limits how long the cookie can track your browsing actions. You can also always deny or always allow individual cookies, as well as inspect their properties.

Though Safari's options for individual cookie management aren't as extensive, it has many of the same tools, including the option to accept cookies "only from sites you navigate to" which blocks third-party cookies. Annoyingly, Safari doesn't let you allow session cookies.

IE has the sparsest set of tools, lacking the option to deny third-party cookies, and lacking a button that removes all cookies in one pass. Compared with the fine-tuning available in newer browsers, IE's management tools are rather blunt instruments.

Both Safari and Navigator let you block pop-ups, and Navigator also lets you allow pop-ups from sites that you choose (known as "whitelisting"). IE 5 doesn't include pop-up blocking.

Filling Out Forms

Safari lets you pick an address card from your Address Book to autofill forms, while IE asks you to complete an Autofill Profile that's saved in your Preferences. If you want IE to autocomplete words and phrases, you can type those in as well. Navigator also provides a profile to fill out, and lets you choose which sites will use that profile.

When you save log-ins and passwords in Navigator, it warns you that this information is not saved securely.

Navigation Tools

I've never felt it was a terrible burden to browse through pages sequentially and use the Back button or History to revisit pages, but if you switch frequently between multiple pages, tabs could be the way to go.

Safari's tabbed view.
Safari's tabbed view.
Both Navigator and Safari provide tabbed browsing. However, tabs are turned off by default in both browsers: You have to use a key combination to open a page in a tab, rather than switching pages within the same window. Safari provides four different keyboard shortcuts that let you open links in different ways. Both Navigator and Safari also show you, with an obvious button, how to close the tabs. I found Safari's implementation to be the most space-efficient, unobtrusive, and easy to use.

IE 5's Explorer bar.
IE 5's Explorer bar.
IE has tabs of a different sort, and they're provided in its Explorer pane, on the left side of the browser window. This window shows you your Favorites and History, plus Search, Scrapbook, and Page Holder, which works like a second browser window to give you a small view of a second Web page. The Explorer pane is definitely less space-efficient than tabs in a horizontal bar. Hiding the Explorer pane requires going to the View menu; the pane has no Close button.

The Search tab in the Explorer pane performs the same task as the Google search field built into Safari's menu bar--but takes up much more screen space, and Google isn't among the search engines you can choose. Navigator has a Search button on the menu bar, which works when you enter a search term into the address field. It returns results from Google, but you can't choose a different search engine or add a new one. It also lacks Safari's Snapback feature, which lets you return to your original search results, no matter how many pages away you browse. I do wish Safari's search field had the "Search this Site" option from the Google toolbar.

IE 5 still has features that have been dropped in subsequent browser versions on other platforms, contributing to the sense that it's showing its age. For example, it has a Subscribe feature, which checks for updates to favorite Web sites on a schedule. The current trend in keeping track of fresh content is subscribing to RSS feeds, and Apple has promised to incorporate an RSS reader into an upcoming version of Safari.

The Verdict

For me, Safari comes out on top. I'll stick with it, because the navigation and security tools are convenient and easy to use. But I'll definitely keep my eye on future versions of Navigator, because its extreme customizability suits my control-freak nature.

Next month, I'll look at some cult browsers: Mozilla's Firefox and Camino, and The Omni Group's OmniWeb.

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