RockMelt blasted into our collective conscience this month to compete for web browsing dominance against Safari, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and Flock -- not to mention a handful of smaller competitors. So which one is right for you?
There’s no doubt that web browsing is a very personal experience, and one person’s browser of choice might be another person’s nightmare. Most of the web browsers today do an admirable job and compatibility isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be, but if you don’t have the time to test them all out, read on!
MacLife.com is here to help cut through the thick fog and help choose the one that’s just right for you from these six Mac favorites.
Who Makes It: Apple, Inc.
Based Upon: WebKit
Who’s It For: All but the most discerning power users
Where Do I Get It: www.apple.com/safari/download
Just because Apple includes Safari with Mac OS X by default, that doesn’t mean it’s the best browser on the platform, does it? Prior to Safari 5 being released earlier this year, we might have questioned whether or not that was true, but thanks to Apple opening up the WebKit-based browser with extensions (many of which are featured in the company’s own Safari Extensions Gallery), Safari 5 has finally come out of the shadows with gloves ready to spar.
Safari has been criticized in the past for not doing enough to keep innocent users away from scammy phishing websites, and it’s certainly an area where the competition has done a much better job. But otherwise, Apple’s prodigal browser is quite fast and thanks to an ever-growing list of extensions, it’s quickly catching up to the likes of Firefox as well.
The little things make all the difference, and one area where Safari 5 excels can be found with its Universal Access preference. When Facebook recently reduced the font size of users’ News Feeds, plenty of folks cried fowl as they reached for their granny glasses to read the latest from their friends. Those of us who had the “Never use font sizes smaller than…” setting probably never noticed the change, while competitors like Google’s Chrome can only combat the dilemma by increasing the font size on all pages or digging up an extension to make the magic happen.
Safari’s feature set includes managing bookmarks, downloads, passwords and forms, spell checking, a search engine toolbar with your choice of Google, Yahoo! or Bing, privacy mode and an auto-updater.
Who Makes It: Mozilla Corporation
Based Upon: Mozilla
Who’s It For: Hardcore power users
Where Do I Get It: www.mozilla.com
Mozilla’s Firefox has gained a well-deserved reputation as the most customizable browser of them all, largely thanks to a vibrant developer community currently offering more than 5,000 add-ons (the Firefox version of extensions). Where most browsers simply offer extensions to tap into existing services like Evernote or block unwanted elements of various websites, Firefox features add-ons in 14 different categories ranging from Appearance (currently 1,176) to Games & Entertainment (61), Privacy & Security (755) and Tabs (469). Suffice it to say that if you want to do it, Firefox can probably make it happen.
For instance, who would ever think to use your web browser for FTP when there are so many great software clients available? Yet, developer Mime Čuvalo offers the excellent FireFTP, a free, secure and cross-platform FTP client that works inside Firefox and does just about anything you might want from a file transfer app.
Firefox isn’t just about extensions, either -- Mozilla and their developers offer a wide variety of Themes, Search Tools and Personas which allow users to customize your web browsing experience, right down to making the browser look more like the competition.
Firefox is also a great fallback browser for those rare times when sites don’t play nice with Safari, including the very content management system used to post to this site! Firefox is probably the most compatible browser on the Mac, particularly for websites that favor Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which was long ago abandoned by Redmond.
For all of its positive traits, Firefox tends to be a bit more sluggish than many of the other browsers we’re covering here at actual browsing -- although that promises to change soon, if Mozilla’s just-released Firefox 4 Beta 7 is any indication. Based on our early tests, it’s quite the little speed demon, although a few quirks and incompatibilities still remain, which will likely be hammered out by the time it’s released to all early next year.
Who Makes It: Google, Inc.
Based Upon: WebKit, Chromium
Who’s It For: Google users, casual users
Where Do I Get It: www.google.com/chrome
First released for Microsoft Windows in September, 2008, Google’s Chrome is based on the same WebKit engine as Apple’s own Safari, but the search giant has built its own Chromium into the mix, which is the foundation for their own netbook operating system, Chrome OS. In just two years, Google has already dwarfed Apple’s Safari in browser market share with nearly 10 percent.
The Chrome browser will likely appeal to folks already deeply connected to Google -- and not just because the gang in Mountain View has a host of Google-themed extensions for their fans, including close ties to Gmail, Google Reader, Google Voice and even Google Wave. That’s not to say that third-party developers haven’t made their own imprint on Chrome, with 13 other categories of extensions ranging from Blogging to Productivity and of course, Social.
Chrome also has a few nice touches that separate it from the pack. For instance, the status bar at the bottom of the screen only pops up while you’re loading a page, then vanishes back into the ether when it’s done, rather than taking up valuable screen space all the time as other browsers do. It’s also notable that Chrome chose to place tabs on top of the URL field -- a change that Apple briefly flirted with during a public beta version of Safari but later abandoned.
Visual changes aside, at its core there’s not all that much different between Chrome and Safari, particularly since they’re based on the same core WebKit technology. Chrome still has a few things in its favor, including a much richer catalog of extensions, while Safari feels like a more mature web browser overall (which it should be, having been around longer).
It’s a tougher choice between Safari and Chrome -- more than any other two browsers in this roundup, you’ll have to try them both to see which one suits you.
>> Next: Flock, Opera and RockMelt
Who Makes It: Flock
Based Upon: Mozilla (Old version), Chromium (New version coming Dec. 1)
Who’s It For: Social networking lovers, more advanced users
Where Do I Get It: flock.com
Founded in 2005, Flock has been gradually making inroads as “the social networking browser” long before RockMelt crashed onto the scene this month, thanks to its tight integration with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and MySpace (remember them?).
The current Flock version 2.6.1 is powered by Mozilla, the same engine behind Firefox, which means that the browser looks and feels a lot like Firefox and can take advantage of all of that browser’s add-ons. Flock goes further by offering native sharing of text, links, photos and videos as well as a unique “Media Bar” which shows previews of online videos and photos. An RSS feed reader and blog editor & reader is also built into the mix.
Flock isn’t as widely used among Mac users, despite receiving a Best Mac Software of 2007 award from CNET for its debut version. Despite this, the company announced in 2008 that 70 percent of their users had made Flock their default browser, so it clearly has a dedicated army of fans.
While Flock is a quite capable browser, its multi-panel approach might be considered too cluttered for the average user, particularly with a gaggle of buttons taking up so much screen real estate just above the Sidebar, which itself can be easily collapsed when you want more space. Otherwise, it’s certainly just as capable as Firefox itself.
The Flock browser is currently in transition -- the Windows version has already been reworked to use the open-source Chromium (the foundation of Google’s own Chrome browser), and a “streamlined, super-fast new Flock” is coming to the Mac as well on December 1, leaving its Mozilla roots behind. Whether their loyal users will come along for the ride remains to be seen.
Who Makes It: Opera Software
Based Upon: Opera
Who’s It For: Casual web browsers who want to keep it simple
Where Do I Get It: www.opera.com/browser
Opera is an odd man out in this batch of web browsers, carrying a mere 3.48 percent of the current market based on recent Wikimedia data from October, 2010. First released publicly in 2006, the Opera browser sadly has less market share than even relative newcomer Google’s Chrome (currently at 9.71 percent) or even Apple’s Safari (with 5.57 percent, despite being on both the Mac and Windows platform).
Perhaps Opera’s legacy is that it has introduced a raft of features that later became standards on other browsers, but don’t cry for the company’s founders -- the Opera browser is currently embedded in game platforms like Nintendo’s Wii and portable DS as well as Adobe’s Creative Suite, not to mention a host of mobile platforms including Blackberry, Symbian, Android and yes, even the iPhone.
Opera isn’t as easily extendable as the other browsers in terms of widgets (their name for extensions) -- for instance, popular browser utilities such as 1Password and Xmarks are completely MIA from the platform, so if you rely on such functionality to enhance your browsing experience, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
Who Makes It: RockMelt, Inc.
Based Upon: Chromium, WebKit
Who’s It For: Facebook users, social networking lovers
Where Do I Get It: www.rockmelt.com (Currently by invite only)
Last but not least we come to the new kid in town: RockMelt is being billed as a “browser for the Facebook era” thanks to its intimate ties with the social network. For some, that might be considered “unhealthy” ties, since a Facebook account is required to use RockMelt (as well as to obtain an invite, which is currently the only way to get it). However, if you like the idea of having your Facebook friends handy regardless of which site you’re currently on, then RockMelt is likely the browser for you.
Thanks to the unobtrusive “Friend Edge” strip at the left side of the browser, a chat with your fellow online ‘Bookers is always just a click away. Likewise, on the right side you’ll find the App Edge, which is home to additional Facebook fun such as your News Feed and Notifications, but you can also add Twitter and RSS feeds into the mix as well. This is essentially the same type of social integration that Flock first made popular, but RockMelt does it one better by keeping things compact and offering buttons that pop out when clicked.
RockMelt is based on Google’s Chromium (itself based on WebKit), and as such its abilities can be expanded thanks to extensions. The good news is, most of the available extensions work just fine with RockMelt, including AdBlock, Clip to Evernote, Instapaper and yes, Xmarks, the popular bookmark sync tool that has recently been taken off life support. (1Password is a notable exception that will require an update to resolve, but they’re already hard at work on it.)
Sharing is also a big part of RockMelt -- so much so that a big “Share” button resides permanently between your URL and search fields. Click on that button and you can easily post a link to the current page on either Facebook or Twitter, complete with an image from the former and location data from the latter. You’ll also have the opportunity to send your link as a Facebook message as well.
Even if you’re not so into the social network scene, RockMelt is a capable browser with some nice touches of its own. Unlike Chrome’s unified URL and search field, RockMelt keeps them separated, dropping down search results in their own window as needed while allowing your existing webpage to remain open. RockMelt also borrows heavily from Chrome itself, featuring the same “tabs on top” interface with a disappearing status bar. If you are already using Google’s Chrome, RockMelt is a win-win situation since it builds upon an already slick framework.
The bad news is that RockMelt is currently available by invitation only, which requires Facebook Connect to receive. Once you receive your e-mail invite, you’ll also be given three additional invites which you can share with friends -- an icon in the upper right corner of the browser will let you see which of your other Facebook friends have requested an invite so you can help them cut into line ahead of others, or you can offer the invites to anyone on your friends list.
While we here at MacLife.com have a special place in our hearts for Safari and Firefox, we encourage you to give download all of these browsers (they’re free, after all!) and put them through their paces. Chances are, you may just find a new browsing experience that you never knew was possible. Sound off in the comments with your own favorites, even if they weren’t included in the above list!
Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter