Surf’s Up

If you're in the market for a new browser, you're in luck: Linux offers many to choose from. But which is best? We surfed with a bunch, and here's our report.

Last year, when Marc Andreessen told IDG News Service that “the browser is kind of done,” and that “nothing new has happened since [the browser] got adopted into the mainstream over the past four years,” it seemed like Andreessen had finally cracked after all those years of pressure. Well, either that or he hasn’t used a browser since AOL bought his little company, Netscape, back in 1999.

Indeed, contrary to what Andreessen might think, web browsers have matured and improved greatly over the past four years. Browser user interfaces are vastly improved, privacy options are greatly increased and more effective, and standards compliance is finally up to snuff. Best of all, much of the improvements and innovations are thanks to Linux and the Open Source model.

If you’re looking to upgrade your web browser, now’s the time.

Big Features

The best way to choose a browser is to identify what features you’re looking for. These days, though, that’s easier said than done. There are so many new features that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Fortunately, Linux Magazine’s done the hard work for you. Here, in no particular order, is a good look at some of the latest innovations to come out of browser labs around the world.

REFERER [SIC] REWRITING. Whether misspelled by accident or as a byte-saving omission, the HTTP Referer header is often used by site developers as a way to detect — and thus assume things about — the types of browsers being used by visitors. Unfortunately, this has led to some bad programming habits, like forgetting to test for browser types other than Netscape and Internet Explorer. In turn, this has caused a lot of older or badly programmed sites to reject newer or alternative browsers.

To get around this problem, some browsers now offer ways to change the value of the Referer header that gets sent to the Web server. For instance, you can have Opera masquerade as Internet Explorer (IE) if you don’t want a site to suppress certain IE-only features.

Konqueror is the best in this field, as it allows you to set which Referer gets sent based on the specific domain of the site that you’re visiting.

Beonex Communicator is a close second: that browser considers Referer rewriting to be a privacy feature, and offers ways to fake or even disable the Referer field. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t let you specify exactly which Referer value gets sent to the server.

TABBED BROWSING. Although a seemingly simple concept, the ability to load more than one Web page in a single browser window seems to have revolutionized the way tech-savvy users get around the Web. A number of Mac addicts even went as far as organizing a petition drive to ask Apple to add tabs to Safari after its initial release lacked the feature. Safari 1.0 included tabs. Those Macophiles must be happy.

Tabbed browsing was originally introduced in Stilesoft’s Windows-only NetCaptor browser. Today, with the exception of Dillo, all Linux browsers have tabbed browsing windows. The most-advanced implementation goes to Galeon, which lets users rearrange tabs by dragging them around. The most-regressed award goes to Opera for treating pages like sub-windows that can be tiled or cascaded in the main application window. It’s a confusing mess that behaves a lot like Windows 3.1 applications. Just as bad is SkipStone, which requires you to switch between “tabbed mode” and “window mode,” depending on how you want to use the browser.

MOUSE GESTURES. Perhaps the most innovative feature to be added to the web browser is the ability to control it with small movements of the mouse. These so-called mouse gestures can greatly increase your productivity because choosing an action is a mere flick of the wrist.

For example, to jump back to the previously viewed page, you simply hold down a mouse button — no matter where the pointer is on the screen — and drag to the left a dozen pixels before letting go. To go forward, hold down the button and drag to the right; and so on. Originally introduced by Opera, mouse gestures are now available to users of Mozilla-based browsers through the Optimoz add-on. Optimoz is available from http://optimoz.mozdev.org.

POP-UP BLOCKING. With advertising revenues on the decline, sites have resorted to selling bigger, louder, and more annoying ads than ever before. While some of these new ad formats are tolerable, pop-ups (and pop-unders) simply ruin the browsing experience. Fortunately, almost all Linux web browsers can now block pop-up commands before they ever get executed, putting you back into control.

Mozilla and other Mozilla-based browsers stand out in this category because they let you specify a list of sites that are exempted from pop-up blocking. That means you can set looser policies for your favorite, most-trusted sites, while keeping everyone else in their place. The feature is a slightly more refined version of Konqueror’s JavaScript policies, through which you can block or accept all JavaScript commands from a specific site.

CUSTOMIZABLE INTERFACES. Because developers can be like mothers — they tend to think their babies are adorable no matter how ugly they really are — end-users have had to cope with a number of horrible user interfaces over the years. The good news is that more and more developers are finally beginning to look beyond their maternal instincts, and instead are providing interfaces that can be customized. That means you determine the proper size and location of the “Back” button. The more advanced browsers let you make a number of customizations at once through the use of themes, whereas others simply let you move and resize buttons.

Firebird and Opera deserve special mention. Both let you switch looks (“themes” and “skins,” respectively) without having to relaunch the browser. Although it’s not likely that you’ll switch looks often once you’ve selected the one that works best for you, it’s nice to be able to test out a number of different ones with ease when you first get started.

FORM MANAGER. The form manager is a more mature and convenient version of all the “wallet” applications that everyone from American Express to Yahoo seemed to be hocking a few years ago. The idea is that the manager remembers the information you submit to a particular site via a form, and then automatically enters that information into the form the next time you visit.

PASSWORD MANAGER. With some estimates stating that users must remember an average of twelve active passwords at any given time, it’s no wonder that most browsers now feature a password manager. Like the form manager, the password manager helps people keep track of information that they’re constantly submitting over the Web. When you arrive at a page that has a password field, the browser fills in the appropriate password for you, provided that you’ve logged in successfully once before.

WEB SHORTCUTS. The early browser pioneers had enough foresight to create bookmarks. With bookmarks, you can return to your favorite web pages time and again without having to remember and type a lengthy URL. But what those early developers didn’t realize was that, a decade later, many of us prefer to type URLs into the address bar rather than have to mouse through crowded menus full of hundreds of bookmarks. Fortunately, the pioneers’ successors have given us Web shortcuts, a way to map long URLs to short nicknames.

Some browsers, like Galeon and Mozilla, require that you bookmark a page first before you can give it a shortcut (a “keyword” in Galeon, or a “nick” in Mozilla). Konqueror, on the other hand, lets you create shortcuts for any URL, whether or not you’ve bookmarked it previously. Konqueror’s technique is better, because it keeps your bookmarks folder from getting crowded with URLs that you’d rather enter by hand.

XBEL BOOKMARKS. While bookmarks are handy, they’re never around when you really need them — like when you’re using a different browser than the one you normally do. Exporting and importing bookmark files between the various browsers is incredibly inconvenient, and rarely works exactly like you’d hoped. That’s why both Galeon and Konqueror have switched to using the XML Bookmark Exchange Language (XBEL) as the format for saving bookmarks to disk. Theoretically, it seems like XBEL would let all capable browsers share the same bookmarks file. In practice, though, it turns out that the browsers use different versions of the XBEL standard. At least they’re trying though.

OTHER. Of course, most sophisticated browsers on the market today also come with dozens of other handy features, like the now-familiar URL auto-complete, which saves time and effort when typing URLs directly into the address bar, and local file browsing, which allows you to view the directory structure of your hard drive as if it were a Web page.

Table One (pg. 21) shows a comparison of several browsers.

Browsers Go Head to Head

It’s nice to compare and contrast the browsers, but the real test is how they “feel.” So, we put some to the test. Here’s how we made our initial cut:

* The browsers had to have graphical displays. While there’s still a place — a very small place — for text browsers like Lynx, such tools just don’t have the features to make one of them the “ultimate browser.”

* The browsers had to be relatively new. We chose browsers that were updated at least once in the past 12 months.

* And, the browsers had to have a Linux version.

After several weeks of intense surfing, here are the results.

Figure One: Beonex Communicator is a Mozilla-based browser with extra security

BEONEX COMMUNICATOR 0.8.1. The name “Beonex” doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a name. Similarly, Communicator is just a browser — nothing in it is really unique. Because Beonex is a Mozilla-based browser, it bears a lot of resemblance to Mozilla (see Figure One and Figure Six). The only difference is that Beonex’s creator has spent a lot of time beefing up the browser’s privacy and security features.

Unfortunately for Beonex, there are equal or better privacy and security features in many other browsers out there. For instance, Mozilla Firebird users can install the User Agent Switcher extension and enjoy essentially the same features as Beonex, but with a faster launch rate and more options for add-ons.

Figure Two: Dillo’s sparse menu underscores its minimalist approach

DILLO 0.7.2. Dillo is a fast little browser, but it was incomplete as the magazine went to press, and had a number of faults, including little or no support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). (However, Dillo did a decent job when loading pages, either degrading nicely or using the old table layout method.) But Dillo’s blazing fast loading and rendering speeds make this browser hard to ignore, especially if you need something with a small footprint (265 KB). The sparse menu (see Figure Two) underscores Dillo’s minimalist theme, making Dillo a good choice for people who can’t stand all the bells and whistles in bloated browsers like Netscape 7.0.

The coolest thing about Dillo is that it makes a page’s various headings (whatever’s specified in <h1>, <h2>, and lower) available to you in a menu whenever you right-click on a page. This helps you see the outline of a page and gives you fast, direct access to individual sections. It’d be nice to see this feature adopted by other browsers soon.

Unfortunately, installing Dillo can be a bit tricky depending on your Linux distribution. On Red Hat 9, the source code readily compiled. On Mandrake 9.1, however, the source configuration script aborted every time, claiming that it needed a version of GTK+ greater than 1.2. That was odd because the test machine already had GTK+ 2.0 installed. Ultimately, Dillo 0.7.0 did install from a Mandrake RPM. These build and install issues need to be resolved before Dillo 1.0 is released.

Figure Three: Galeon’s Smart Bookmarks feature lets you embed text input fields right into the toolbar

GALEON 1.3.3. The Galeon Gnome browser is based on Mozilla’s Gecko rendering engine and does a fairly good job of offering some novel features in addition to what you find in Mozilla. The best of these is Smart Bookmarks, an innovative way to pass data to simple web forms. The pre-configured Google search bar and Wikipedia dictionary bar are examples of Smart Bookmarks (see Figure Three). You can create as many of these as you’d like, provided that the bookmarked page takes a single argument in the form of an HTTP GET statement.

One disadvantage of the 1.3.x version of Galeon is that it no longer has a theme manager to let you change skins. Instead, the browser relies on GTK+ 2.0 themes, which have to be configured in the desktop control panel, not in the browser. And unfortunately, when you change a theme, the new styles are applied to your entire desktop, not just to Galeon.

Apparently, though, GTK+ 2.0 themes are just as easy to create as the old Galeon skins. According to Philip Langdale, a Galeon developer, “It would be very easy to take a 1.2.x Galeon theme, write an index.theme for it, and turn it into a GTK2 theme; it’s just that no one has done so.”

Figure Four: Konqueror’s “Most Often Visited” menu gives you quick access to the sites you visit most

KONQUEROR 3.1-12. Galeon’s KDE equivalent is Konqueror, a fast-launching, Swiss army knife of a browser that’s sure to please many Windows converts who previously used Internet Explorer. Like Internet Explorer, Konqueror doubles as a full-featured file manager. Likewise, Konqueror in web browser mode has a full-screen option and a number of pre-configured file viewers.

But lest you think Konqueror is just a Microsoft wannabe, consider that it also allows you to configure the user agent, open a terminal window, translate documents with the help of Babelfish, and even validate pages by selecting an option from the menu bar. You can even see which pages you visit the most often (see Figure Four).

Figure Five: Konqueror’s split horizontal and vertical panes is a big plus

However, the coolest Konqueror feature is its ability to split the current window into a number of horizontal and vertical panes (see Figure Five). This is great for comparing documents, and it doesn’t require all the messy window management that Opera requires to achieve the same effect.

Despite its niceties, Konqueror doesn’t have it’s own theme manager. Additionally, there is a small problem with the way that Konqueror handles bulleted lists. While browsing various sites, Konqueror often failed to display lists properly if the site developer used custom bullet images. Whereas all the other browsers show the custom image in place of the traditional bullet point, Konqueror (at times) didn’t show any bullet at all. Evidently, Konqueror won’t display an image specified by the list-style-image CSS property if the list-style-type property is set to none. It’s a small problem, but it did make a difference on a couple sites. Web developers, take note.

Figure Six: Mozilla features a number of personal information managers

MOZILLA 1.4 RC1. As many Linux users already know, the open source Mozilla project was launched from Netscape Communication Corporation’s desire to create a free browser that would compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Because of its open and flexible architecture, the Mozilla browser has sired a number of competing browsers that use its Gecko rendering engine, such as Beonex Communicator — and more Mozilla-based browsers are on the way.

While some of the Mozilla literature suggests that Mozilla is best used as a platform to build other browsers, the fact is that Mozilla is one of the best general use browsers available today.

Figure Seven: Johannes Schellen’s Pinball theme gives Mozilla a slick, professional interface

For one, the developers behind Mozilla continue to innovate in a seemingly stagnant market. The user interface continues to get better and better (see Figure Six), and the latest versions include tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking, HTTP pipelining, and link pre-fetching. HTTP pipelining can reduce page load times when requesting files from pipeline-enabled web servers, because it allows the browser to download multiple files in tandem, rather than sequentially. Link pre-fetching also reduces load times because it allows the browser to download related files and pages in the background while you’re viewing a main, pre-fetch-enabled page.

The only downside to these latter two features is that they’re not yet widely supported in the Web development community. Developers and designers who want their sites to load faster should take note.

Finally, Mozilla is extremely customizable. Its themes are easy to use and essentially install themselves, although you do have to relaunch the browser to make a new theme active. Check out Johannes Schellen’s Pinball theme. With the button text turned off, the theme makes Mozilla into a slick little browser that’s a pleasure to look at and use (see Figure Seven). Best of all, you know there’s still a powerful engine under the hood.

Figure Eight: Mozilla Firebird features an easier-to-use preferences panel and quicker access to privacy options than the original Mozilla

MOZILLA FIREBIRD 0.6. The “Firebird” in this browser’s name is more of a version name for Mozilla than a brand. That’s because the developers behind Mozilla hope that whatever results from the Firebird project will one day completely replace the current XPFE-based browser component in Mozilla. In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping you from using Firebird now. It’s a fast, well-designed browser that’s more mature than you’d expect from a version “0.6″ application.

In addition to having a better-designed preferences menu than Mozilla, Firebird also features a convenient “Clear All” button that erases any stored information you may have accumulated during your session (see Figure Eight). This is handy if you often have to log in to the CIA web site.

Another important Firebird feature is the addition of the “Extensions” panel in the preferences menu. With extensions, you can download and install add-ons to Firebird just as easily as if you were installing new themes. This makes Firebird incredibly versatile, as you can add only the features you need and essentially create your own, custom browser.

And yes, there is a Pinball theme available for Firebird, in case you were wondering. The theme is very appealing.

Figure Nine: Netscape allows you to block popups, but there are default “exceptions” to the rule

NETSCAPE 7.02. Built on Mozilla, Netscape offers little except a host of AOL Time Warner-related bookmarks, and some mildly interesting content channels for the sidebar. But because AOL Time Warner waits until there’s a stable version of Mozilla before releasing updates to Netscape, it’s virtually guaranteed that there will be few things in the company’s browser that we haven’t seen before.

On the upside, having AOL Time Warner bankroll development and marketing means that Netscape has a good chance of once again becoming a noteworthy competitor in the browser wars — much more so than Mozilla, which remains the browser of early adopters. Having another contender is certainly a good thing, since Internet Explorer’s current monopoly on the market means that 97% of all web surfers still have to deal with pop-ups and don’t yet have tabbed browsing.

On the downside, AOL Time Warner has as much of a self-serving agenda as any corporation, including Microsoft. If you visit http://www.netscape.com, not one, but two popups are likely to show up even if you explicitly configure Netscape to block pop-ups. A little poking around revealed that pretty much any company from CarsDirect.com to Wal-Mart can buy their way into the pop-up exceptions list that’s set by default (see Figure Nine).

OPERA 7.11. As mentioned earlier, Opera was the first browser to implement mouse gestures. To try this innovative feature, load the Linux Magazine home page from http://www.linux-mag.com and click on a link. Now, to go back to the home page, hold the right mouse button down and sweep the mouse quickly to the left. Opera should go back one page in its history. Mouse gestures really speed up the browsing process once you get used to it, and it’s much more comfortable than having to cross the screen going from the scroll bar to the Back button.

Figure Ten: The default layout for Opera is crowded and confusing

One of the more interesting features in Opera is its “Delete private data” option in the File menu. As with Firebird’s “Clear All” option, this is a nice addition to the privacy features that are slowly working their way into many web browsers. People using public computers should keep such features in mind.

If all this entices you to give Opera a try, beware: the default skin and layout are incredibly ugly (see Figure Ten). Fortunately, you can download new skins and change them on the fly (see Figure Eleven). Likewise, you can move the buttons around and turn off various menus. And there’s a pretty cool option to change the coloring of all the widgets at once, regardless of the skin that’s in place.

Figure Eleven: Opera’s interface can be cleaned up with themes and other configuration options

And again, Opera uses outdated sub-windows instead of tabs. This means that every page you load in a sub-window has its own title bar and window control buttons — a confusing paradigm and a waste of space. Sub-windows are easily lost behind one another, and they look and behave differently than the real windows that your window manager usually handles for you. The only real benefit of sub-windows seems to be that you can put different sub-windows next to one another if you want to create the appearance of a split pane, but Konqueror does this much better.

Of course, astute readers will be quick to point out that Opera is also one of the few browsers out there with a price tag. There is a fully functional free version, but it features a conspicuous, rotating banner ad right up top. At $39.95, the price of removing the banner isn’t necessarily prohibitive if you really love Opera — but, if you’re indifferent or just cheap, there are plenty of free options out there that are just as good.

Figure Twelve: SkipStone requires you to remember whether you’re in tabbed browsing mode or window browsing mode

SKIPSTONE 0.83. According to the project’s web site this incomplete, GTK+-based browser “aims to be light and fast with dependencies.” It does indeed launch quickly, but the page rendering speed is on par with that of Mozilla, due to the fact that it shares the same Gecko rendering engine. That’s not a complaint in itself, since Mozilla renders pages at a decent, average speed, but there’s not much else to SkipStone. It’s hard to see why anyone would use it instead of Mozilla or another Gecko-based browser.

In fact, the requirement that users must explicitly switch between tabbed mode and window mode make SkipStone awkward for tabbed browsing (see Figure Twelve). Additionally, SkipStone failed to load any themes, and sometimes had trouble loading its own default buttons. The application would regularly spit out error messages saying it couldn’t find the various pixmaps for the user interface, even though the pixmaps were all in place and were set with the appropriate attributes.

The Ultimate Warrior

So which browser is the best? Avoiding the standard response that it “depends on what you’re looking for,” the bottom line, best browser is Mozilla Firebird.

If not for the lack of a theme manager and the odd handling of lists with custom bullets, Konqueror would easily be the hands-down winner. Konqueror has the fastest launch time and a number of great features. But, barring any sudden solutions to those problems, Mozilla Firebird is the best browser to use. The ease with which you can add extensions — and the number of extensions currently available — makes Firebird the browser for everything you need to do. And it’s only in version 0.6 — meaning it’s only going to get better from here.

Searching for Perfection

So what’s missing? What features should future browsers include? A tool with Firebird’s extensibility, plus Konqueror’s split views, plus Dillo’s heading menu, and Galeon’s Smart Bookmarks would certainly make for one powerful setup. Add to that a plug-in manager that lets you download and install new plug-ins just as easily as you would new themes — and that lets you toggle those plug-ins as you jump from site to site — that’s something that surfers might even be willing to pay for.

Furthermore, if this dream browser stored bookmarks in XBEL format, like Galeon and Konqueror, and came with utilities for sharing bookmarks with other XBEL-enabled browsers, you’d have an über-browser capable of winning even the ugliest war.

Given all of the progress so far, many of these improvements are probably just around the corner. Time and again, developers have shown that there’s still plenty of innovation left in the browser market. That’s great news, because the Web isn’t going away anytime soon.

Of course, whatever the browser of the future looks like, it’ll have to support the Pinball theme.

Amit Asaravala is an independent journalist. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, he was the founder of New Architect magazine and the Editor-in-Chief of
Web Techniques magazine.

Table One: Feature support in Linux browsers

BrowserBeonexDilloGaleonKonquerorMozillaMozilla FirebirdNetscapeOperaSkipStone
Version Tested0. RC10.
LicenseMPL, NPLGPLGPLGPLMPL, NPLMPL, NPLcommercial, commercial GPL
MPL, NPL($39.95)
Launch Speedslowfastaveragefastslowfastslowfastfast
Render Speedaveragefastaverageaverageaverageaverageaverageaverageaverage
HTML 4yesyes yesyesyesyesyesyesyes
JavaScriptyesnoyesyes yesyesyesyesyes
(when in
tabbed view)
Pop-up Blockingyesnoyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
Custom UIyesno yes yes yesyesyesyesyes
(must (via (limited)(troublesome)
Form Manageryesnononoyesyesyesnono
Password Manageryesnoyesnoyesyesyesyesno
Refer Rewriteyesnonoyesnoyes noyesno
Web Shortcutsyesnoyesyesyesnoyesyesyes
URL Autocompleteyesnoyes**yesyesyesyesyesno
Browse Local Diskyesyes yes yes yes yes yesyesyes
FTP Browseryesnoyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
Built-in Searchyesnoyesnoyesyesyesyesno
Mouse Gesturesyes noyes yes yes yes yes yesno
(theoretically*)(see (requires (requires (requires (requires


* Theoretically, a Mozilla-based browser should be able to use Optimoz mouse gestures.
** Galeon 1.3.3 displays suggestions from list of previously typed URLs, but does not actually complete URLs.

Comments are closed.