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Saturday, June 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Practical Mac / Glenn Fleishman
Worthy rivals take on quirky Safari browser


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Web browsers abound for Mac OS X, but their differences have become harder to discern. Before Safari appeared on the scene in January 2003, several browsers contended with the slow-rendering Microsoft Internet Explorer.

In November 2002, I rounded up several browsers that had their strong points as alternatives to IE; a couple of months later, Apple's introduction of its free Safari browser pounded the nails into IE's coffin, and, I would have guessed, pushed competing browsers into the dustbin of history.

But there's a lot of room in the browser space because Safari remains idiosyncratic: It's Apple's specific idea of what needs to be in a browser and how a browser should work. Apple didn't throw in the kitchen sink, and occasionally one feels the need to wash up dishes.

Four other browsers are worth contemplating, especially as three make their way from beta to release in the next few weeks to months: Camino 0.8b, Mozilla 1.7RC2 (release candidate), OmniWeb 5 (beta 6.1) and Opera 7.5 (release version).

In the past, I would have had to qualify any review of browser alternatives against Safari's speed and IE's support for complex pages. In my testing now, other browsers just meet or slightly beat Safari's speed, while rendering any page I throw at them correctly almost all of the time. With so many browsers in beta, it's easy to excuse a button that's out of alignment, for instance.

Safari set the bar so high that these other browsers shave seconds — not tens of seconds — off a task. I've found that on a slower machine, the alternative browsers, especially OmniWeb 5 while loading secure pages, have a distinct speed edge. On a faster Power Mac G4, I was unable to clock any difference on detailed or secure pages.

But speed isn't the only criteria you should use when evaluating the latest browsers. The reason to switch from Safari has to involve some of the particular features that each browser adds, such as better password support. On the baseline, all browsers are more robust than ever before with pop-up ad blockers and (except Opera) tabbed windows. (Safari didn't introduce them but made them a feature to meet in newer browsers.)

Mozilla 1.7 (www.mozilla.org/, free) has a built-in e-mail client and newsgroup reader and a mini-HTML page editor, chat program and contact manager. It also has piles of preferences, including some extremely technical security settings. It's also the only browser a Mac client can use to access Google's Gmail e-mail service beta test.

Opera 7.5 (www.opera.com, free with ads, $39 ad free with support and premiums) includes a few kitchen-sink features, including e-mail, chat and newsgroups, but it also has a very fine granular password-management system. You can store or not store passwords for particular pages and sites, and then manage those passwords. It includes a few interesting features, such as setting a page to reload automatically at an interval.
 
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Camino 0.8 (www.mozilla.org/projects/camino/, free) is a more elegant and stripped-down version of Mozilla tailored for Mac OS X. Unless you have a particular aversion to Safari, Camino has no distinct advantage, but it works quite well.

OmniWeb 5 (www.omnigroup.com, unlimited free trial, $29.95 for license) is my favorite of the bunch. It uses the same rendering engine that powers Safari, but The Omni Group seems to have souped it up. When viewing tabs, it can display a small thumbnail of the page, even as that page loads and you're viewing another tab.

OmniWeb can store passwords for secure pages, if you wish, a particular irritation I have with Safari: I understand that storing any password is a risk, but why not provide a setting to allow it? OmniWeb also can pick up passwords you've stored in Safari via the systemwide Keychain.

Mac OS X browsers have matured to the point that you might have no reason to switch from Safari. But if you're looking for a specific reason to change, you can't go wrong with any of these four.

Get paranoid: Last week I wrote that Apple's May 21 security update removed most of the danger associated with what's becoming known as the "URL scheme exploit," in which an arbitrary Web address can mount a disk image and execute a program.

In fact, Apple patched just one of the biggest holes in which AppleScript could be run from a URL but left in place a more fundamental problem.

The solution for now is a free program called Paranoid Android, which warns you when your Mac is being asked to open a kind of file that isn't already defined (www.unsanity.com/haxies/pa/). It's kind of software developer Unsanity to offer this utility where Apple has left a gap.

In the intervening two-plus weeks since this exploit was made known, Apple has remained relatively quiet on specific steps it is taking.

No sites in the wild that exploit this large hole have been spotted, but it's only a matter of time. Install Paranoid Android and watch for updates from Apple.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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