22 May 2005

Ranking the Browsers

Cyber Crime Law got me thinking about browsers.

There are 4 Windows browsers out there which are noteworthy: Opera, Netscape, Firefox, and Explorer. I have all of them on my computer and have recently updated the first three. If you follow any tech news at all you know that Firefox has been making serious inroads Microsoft's monopoly over browsers. You may also have seen that the newest version of Netscape is getting good reviews. You may not know that Opera is better than both because Opera is not as well publicized. Here is my ranking of the browsers and what I see as their strengths and weaknesses:

#1 Opera 8.0 - All around, Opera is the best browser. If you are someone who is going to be something of an advanced user get Opera and play around with the different configurations and tools. I suspect everyone will use a slightly different configuration.

Upper end usage: Opera is the only browser which has native voice controls. They are somewhat primitive but they work. I don't think they are good enough to actually browse the web with (for instance, I can't figure out how to open things in my personal bar) but I really look forward to seeing how well developed this becomes by the next few versions.

Opera also has RSS/Atom/XML aggregator capability. At the right end of the address bar it will indicate if a site has a feed and if you click on it the feed will be saved. The browser will pop up a small window at the bottom right when any saved blog has a new entry. The bar at the top of the browser has a "Feeds" table you can pull down which will show all the feeds. Click on a feed and it opens a tab with the title of each post for that blog. There are also some controls which allow you to delete read posts, set date limits for the posts you want to see and how you want to see the posts. Unfortunately, it's not perfected. Or, better said, it has to be done for each particular feed, there is no way to set it to show only new posts, and when I tried to set it so that I would only be shown that day's postings it would work immediately but the next day it would go back to showing me all postings. Still, it's the best aggregator I've seen which came in a browser (although I must admit I now use FeedReader). Opera tends to improve things fairly quickly and I look forward to the future of this feature.

Normal usage: What sold me on Opera to begin with and what it does better than any other browser out there is tabbing (although Opera calls them pages, not tabs). The right click menu which can be used over the tabs or over links is better thought out and more useful than that of other browsers. In particular, the option to open a link in a foreground or background tab is great (other browsers set this option universally so that you always open one way or another); it's a convenience which now drives me nuts when I use other browsers without it. As well, if you have set your startup preferences on "Continue from last time" when you close Opera it saves all your tabs and reopens them when you reopen Opera. Thus, if I have 10 stories I want to blog about I can save them all in background tabs and when I start my computer up tomorrow I won't have to hunt them all down again.

Opera also has a "Copy to note" function. You highlight a section of text, right click, and choose "copy to note" from the menu. It permanently saves the text. To retrieve the note you have copied you go to the tools menu and under "Notes" are all those you have saved. You can even type a note in yourself if you so desire.

Opera saves logins under "Wand." When you go to a sign in page you click the wand at the top and it offers the possible names under which you have previously signed in to that site. While sometimes not as convenient as automatic sign ins by other browsers, this allows you to sign in to various email accounts rather than automatically being forced into a particular one. For instance, I have more than one account in both Yahoo and AOL. If I use the auto sign ins from other browser they will always open a particular account; Opera gives me the option to open the email I want to open.

There are a number of other little advantages which you discover as you work with Opera over time but I think those are the major ones.

Disadvantages: Compatibility. I find that perhaps 2-3% of the pages I visit have compatibility issues. Simply put, nobody checks to see if their page is compatible with Opera and Microsoft hasn't gone out of its way to make things compatible (see here, here, and here). The two pages I use the most which have this problem are VersusLaw and Blogger's posting pages (which I can only get to work in Explorer or w.bloggar). Opera works fine with blogs, news pages, etc.

The free version of Opera has an advertisement at its top. This doesn't bother me in the least but I've seen others complain about it.

#2 Firefox 1.04 - The primary advantage of this browser is its simplicity and its compatibility. It's a good solid browser which is almost completely compatible with Explorer sites. The only page I have seen not work with it has been Blogger's posting pages (maybe because of pop-up controls). The tabs are of limited use because they all close when the browser closes. I know this is the biggest fad among those who want to turn away from Explorer and it's very adequate. But it's not much more.

Yes, I know you can put extensions on Firefox. However, most every extension I'd want is already in Opera. And when I last did this (way back in Firebird days) it screwed the browser up.

#3 Netscape 8.0 - Perhaps the best description of this browser would be a bunch of interesting ideas some of which don't work yet. The best thing it has is the "multi-bar" which will allow all sorts of tool bars without eating up a bunch of space; you switch between them in the same space and can create new one easily. It's a good idea. When I first set up Netscape it imported my Opera bookmarks - and it worked. Tabbing works the same way that Firefox's does and it still dumps them all when you close the program.

I tried to set up the rss aggregator but it didn't always show them for sites which I know have them and didn't seem to work for many which it did show the feed. It worked for the Volokh Conspiracy but that was the only one I got to work completely. Once it's set up there is a tab which rotates through the titles of posts and you can click on the tab to get that post or on a symbol to see several titles in a pull down menu. There doesn't seem to be much ability to control the feeds and the tab. It's an interesting idea but not a really good system because it takes too much space.

#4 Explorer - About the only thing good about Explorer is that every site makes sure it is compatible. Microsoft doesn't even seem to be trying to keep up. I use it when I have to.


Anonymous said...

I love Opera. Tabbed browsing is the way to go.

The ads in the free version are small and unobtrusive. They are keyed (I think through Google) to whatever page you go to. In other words, if you go to a hiking page, ads for outdoor equipment retailers might pop up. Often very useful.

Once you've used Opera's "in-line find" feature, you'll never go back to the clunky "Ctrl-F" and pop-up window method. All you do is type a ".", followed by your search string, and Opera takes you there instantly. Hit "F3", and you go to the next occurence. Elegant.

Boyd said...

First, Firefox extensions generally work well. I've got a whole raft of them installed (lessee...1, 2, 3...25 in all), and while I have experienced problems in the past, they tend to get worked out fairly quickly, or they don't and I just uninstall them. No muss, no fuss.

And Firefox extensions solve just the type of problem you describe with Opera: you don't like the way something works by default? There's probably an extension which will do exactly what you want (although I'm unsure about modifying the Password Manager to work the way Opera does. That seems like it may be too much of a security issue.).

And finally, may the record show that I've been posting to Blogger for months using Firefox with nary a problem. Maybe there's a difference in how we approach writing our posts (I write mine in HTML, which I doubt you do) that produces our respective success and failure to get Firefox to work with Blogger.

Ken Lammers said...

I'll grant that Firefox can become a superior browser and that the extensions probably don't screw each other up anymore. The thing is that Opera has it all from the beginning without all the effort and it's well thought out. I've gotten lazy as I've gotten older. I don't want to experiment and add extensions or delete them until I get a program which works exactly the way I want it too. I want a program which works well from the moment I download it and has all the features; Opera has what I want.

Any password saver is a security risk. If I had any email which I was that worried about I wouldn't enter it into any password saver.

I usually post in a mix of html and the function buttons on Blogger. I put in things like [b] [/b] myself but don't type in that 40+ letter URL - I use the link command. It's the buttons which I cannot get to work in Firefox. The most annoying of these is the fact that spell checker doesn't work (because my spelling can be terrible). Still, it's kind of a moot point since I now use w.bloggar almost all the time to post.