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Alternative Browsers: Beyond Chrome and Firefox

Looking for a new flavor of Web browser? If the mainstream favorites aren't doing the trick, or you just want to test drive something new, we take a look at several of the "alternative" Web browsers for the Linux desktop.

Firefox too mainstream for ya? Bored with Chrome or Opera? Linux users with a wandering eye can find plenty of browser alternatives, from the super-useful to niche browsers that offer moderate improvements on existing browsers like Firefox. We look at some of the “alternative” browsers on Linux that we’ve found interesting and useful over the years.

Believe it or not, there are quite a few interesting and useful Web browsers for Linux. For the purposes of this round-up, I’ve focused on graphical browsers, though if you’re a real stickler for the CLI, you have plenty of options there as well. (I recommend w3m if that’s how you roll.) Let’s take a look at the best of the rest.

Flock

Based on Firefox, Flock is branded the “Social Web Browser,” and includes a number of features for using social networking sites like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, that aren’t included in Firefox.

Why try Flock instead of Firefox? A lot of the functionality that’s in Flock can be added via add-ons in Firefox. However, Flock makes it much, much easier out of the box. Power users probably will prefer Firefox, but if I was setting up a machine for a friend or family member and wanted to make sure they find it easy to use social media, especially for blogging or sites like Flickr, I’d probably give them Flock instead.

For example, Flock has a built-in editor to create and post to blogs, a photo upload manager for sites like Flickr, and a “portal” page that allows users to keep tabs (no pun intended) on all their favorite social media services and feeds. The full list of supported services includes Facebook, Digg, Twitter, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Delicious, LiveJournal, Photobucket, and many others.

The current release is a bit long in the tooth. Flock just released Flock 2.5.6, which is based on Firefox 3.0. So the latest and greatest Flock is missing a lot of the performance tuning that has gone into Firefox 3.5 and 3.6. But the Flock folks should be working on something based on 3.6 to appear this year.

Swiftfox

Speaking of performance, Swiftfox is a browser that’s near and dear to the performance junkies in the crowd. If you’re familiar with Firefox, then Swiftfox is going to look really familiar.

Swiftfox is an optimized build of Firefox for AMD and Intel processors for Linux. Isn’t it nice that Linux users finally get one of the browsers all to themselves? Swiftfox comes with Deb packages or an installer for Linux systems that don’t use Debian-style packages. It comes with builds for AMD64, AMD64 with a 32-bit OS, older AMD chips, and builds for Intel Prescott CPUs and older Intel CPUs. Intel Prescott builds are for processors after the Pentium 4 chips.

The Swiftfox folks do a pretty good job of keeping up with the Joneses, er, Mozilla Project. The most recent build of Swiftfox is based on Firefox 3.6, which was released just a few weeks ago. If your need for speed includes a need to keep really current, give Swiftfox a shot.

Aside from optimizations, though, Swiftfox doesn’t really offer anything beyond vanilla Firefox. Hardcore performance folks might want to keep up with Swiftfox, but most users probably won’t get enough benefit to make it worth the switch.

Epiphany

Epiphany is the default browser for the GNOME desktop. Back in the day it was based on Mozilla’s Gecko rendering engine, but has switched to WebKit in recent releases. It’s small, fast, and simplified compared to Firefox and integrates well with the GNOME desktop.

Even though it’s the default on GNOME, you probably won’t see Epiphany installed by default on Most Linux distros with GNOME. Ubuntu, Linux Mint, openSUSE and others ship with Firefox by default even though Epiphany is part of the standard application set for GNOME.

Epiphany offers a limited set of extensions, and does have support for Greasemonkey scripts if you install that extension, but otherwise is very stripped down compared to Firefox or even Chrome. If you want the full-on GNOME experience with a browser that is designed to be part of the GNOME desktop, it’s worth a look. It is a nice, fast, light browser and good for basic Web browsing. I couldn’t switch to Epiphany, myself. It lacks a lot of features you find in the fatter browsers and doesn’t support most of the extensions I depend on — but it makes a good secondary browser. I often use Epiphany to test Websites or to handle multiple logins to the same sites so I can avoid logging out of my main Google account, etc.

Arora

Looking for a really lightweight browser? Try Arora, a cross-platform Web browser that combines some of the best of the big boys. Arora is based on WebKit and Qt, and is relatively full-featured. It has good privacy settings including a private browsing mode, includes a Flash-blocking plugin and Ad-blocker by default, and the WebKit Web Inspector, which is a nice touch for developers.

Since Chrome has finally been released “officially” on Linux, Arora is a bit less compelling than it was when the project started. It’s fast, lightweight, and has some really nice features, but you can also find most of those features in Chrome plus the benefit of the much larger add-on ecosystem that’s being developed around Chrome.

One area where the Arora project may be reaching beyond Chrome is in terms of portability. It runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, Haiku, embedded Linux, and “any other platforms supported by the Qt toolkit.” That’s a pretty wide selection of OSes.

Konqueror

Konqueror has long been one of my favorite browsers, though I haven’t been able to switch to it full-time it has its place in my toolbox.

Konqueror is the default Web browser for KDE, and does a lot more than browse the Web. It started as the KDE file manager, but has since been supplanted by Dolphin as the default file manager. While Dolphin focuses on simplicity, Konq focuses on doing a bit of everything. It handles file management, acts as a “universal file viewer,” and browses the Web too.

One of my favorite features in Konqueror, not native to any other browser as far as I’m aware, is the ability to split the browser view. So you can view multiple web pages in one active window, rather than switching back and forth. Yes, you can add this on with an extension in Firefox, but it’s not as elegant as the implementation in Konqueror. It’s also handy when you’re working with Konqueror as a file manager.

Konq also supports a number of “KIO” plugins, also called “IOslaves,” to browse SSH, audio CDs, Samba Shares, and more. Combine the KIO plugins and the split view, and Konq makes a great file manager for remote systems. You can browse two (or more) remote systems and copy files back and forth just as easily as you can with a local file manager. Konq also boasts a convenient feature for archiving Web pages I haven’t seen in other browsers.

Konqueror isn’t quite as good a standalone browser as Firefox or Chrome, but it does a lot more and does it well. If you’re on Linux, especially if you use KDE, you owe it to yourself to check out Konqueror.

Iceweasel

I’d be remiss not to mention Iceweasel, though I don’t really recommend it over Firefox. Apart from the clever name, Iceweasel doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. It’s a re-branded Firefox that was created to solve some trademark issues that Debian was having with the Mozilla Foundation. It’s mostly Firefox, but may includes some patches that haven’t been approved by Mozilla and anything that doesn’t match the Debian Free Software Guidelines removed.

What did we miss?

Know of any up-and-coming browsers for Linux that we should take a look at? These are some of the most popular “alternative” browsers, but there’s probably much more out there. We’d love to hear about your favorites.

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