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So, what Browser to use?


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In another posting I offered you a list of alternative browsers . But some people still say to me, "Great list ...but why should I change?" This of course a fair question, especially for those new to the net. So I will now try to offer some answers. I am known as a very anti-Internet Explorer person, so I will try to keep my rants out. It is my intention with this article not to sell you on any one browser, but to simply give you an idea of some of the problems and differences with different browsers so you can make a better informed decision to stay with what you use, change or simply know in what situation another browser may be better for any one site.


I will mostly be concentrating on the big three, IE (Internet Explorer) from Micro$oft, Firefox from Mozilla and Opera. There are others of course, Konqueror for Linux and Safari from Apple for Mac. However I do not have these Operating Systems and can therefore no offer much of an opinion. I have left Netscape out as it is really just a slight variation of Mozilla, they are really the same browser, Mozilla I have left out as it is not much different then Firefox. Both use the same rendering engine.


Just for your information: Mozilla was the project name for the Netscape browser. At some point Mozilla separated from Netscape and became it's own entity. When Mozilla was finally developed it was taken and changed slightly to become Netscape 6. In the meantime Firefox (under different names) was developed. The major difference being that Firefox is Modular. Where Mozilla is a suite of products including chat, e-mail etc., Firefox is just a browser, if you want e-mail you can download another product called Thunderbird, then there is a Calendar in development etc.. At one time Mozilla was to be replaced by Firefox, this may have changed now. There is also Mozilla's Camino for Mac, but I have met no Mac users who use it, most stick with Firefox which works on all OS's


So what is the problem with IE?


This has allot to do with what you do with it. As a designer my hatred for the browser stems from it's poor support for standards. Web standards are good, like any other standardized things. The standards are meant to define what can be used in a web page and how it is to be seen. When you build a web site using standards as I do, all web sites should show the design almost exactly the same. When standards are not used, or in the case of IE, not supported, a web site can look drastically different between IE and Firefox. If you are a designer this is a great frustration and slows down development. For a normal user, this means that you may not be seeing the site as it was meant to be seen, or a site may look bad or even be unusable depending on what browser you use. IE is the only major player that does not support standards well, however it is the browser used by ca. 80% of web surfers. IE is the first browser most people see and use, it is needed to get any other browsers. People then are used to it and compare all browsers to it thinking it is the best when it really is not.


As with all Micro$oft products, IE is built to be very user friendly, a no-brainer you may say. It is meant for people who do not know what they are doing and made so easy that you never need to learn what you are doing. For this reason it uses questionable default settings is therefore prone to security problems. Most every other browser including some that use the IE engine are more secure then IE.


Age is another problem, IE6 has been around for years and other than a odd security update nothing has been done. Where as other browsers have been continually updated. Later this year at least a public beta version of IE7 is expected to be released. Worth noting is that:

  • IE7 was originally planned to only be included with the next OS (then Longhorn, now Vista). IE7 would only be available for those buying Vista, not as a update to IE6. This means you would be stuck with IE6 until you one day buy Vista. However Vista missed it's release date and Firefox hit the market and had Millions of downloads in just a few months and IE market share dropped. Now IE7 has been released to testers with XP and the Public Beta release this year will be for XP only. If the final release will be for XP or just Vista is unclear. It seems like this plan was ditched after Firefox took so much market away from IE and Micro$oft got nervous.
  • IE7 main features seem to be a much improved standards support in the rendering engine. Also security has been greatly improved, but this is integral to Vista and it is questionable if the same security can be reached with XP.
  • IE7 will not be available for anyone using Win 95, Win 98, Win ME, Win NT, or Win 2000 or Mac/Linux. IE development for Mac was stopped after IE 5.2.
  • Other problems holding back web design are also not being improved with IE7, for instance XHTML Mime Type support.
  • IE7 will finally offer pop-up blockers, skins and Tabs ... things that every other browser has been offering for years.
  • IE6 still has bugs that have been in it since IE3 and have either been ignored or they have failed to fix.
  • IE does not allow enlarging text sizes when the developer defined the text to a specific set size. Makes surfing difficult for those with poor eyesight.
  • Most all screenreaders currently available to the visually impaired that ride piggyback on a normal browser only run with IE.


So IE is finally being upgraded, but only for those with the two newest systems, everyone else will have to live with IE6 and it's bugs and poor standards support.


In my Browser list , you will find however alternatives to IE. SlimBrowser, Avant, Crazy browser and Co. are all far better browsers, offer improved security, pop-up blockers, tabs and such ... yet all utilize the IE engine. This means you have more useful tools, however the sites will consider it IE when you visit, so you can still use sites like M$N Groups. On the bad side, they also inherit many of IE's security problems, though some have plugged some of the holes themselves.


Then I should get Firefox?


My gut reaction is yes, but not all like it. Firefox has some problems, then again it is only in version 1.5 compared to IE 6/7. Firefox is a hands on browser, you have more control over the settings to improve security or weaken it if you do not learn to use the browser correctly. Firefox expects you to think for your self and not wait for the browser to do everything for you. Also Firefox will resize the text in web sites regardless of the size set. This is better for the visually impaired, but can easily break a poorly designed site. No screenreaders that I am aware of at this time work with Firefox


Firefox also offers skins, tabs, a good pop-up blocker and a large library of extensions that can help you do things the browser does not do by default. For web developers there are some great tools, but also many things that help normal users are available in extensions. A search field is offered and you can install any of a dozen search engines and databases to meet your needs. Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves... just type in the word and switch search engines as needed. Also available is Wikipedia, dictionaries like Webster, Leo German/English or the IMDB Movie database and Ebay just to name a few. Just type in the object and choose where you wish to look.


Also included is RSS support. So called Live Bookmarks will allow you to track the newest postings in web sites or forums offering RSS Feeds. Another nifty feature is the ability to open multiple home pages, just separate your favorite sites with a | and all the pages will open when you open Firefox.


Firefox supports standards better than just about any other. it is small and fast (depending on how many extensions you have), but does actually open slower than IE. You can run older versions of Firefox on your PC where IE always overwrites the older versions. However using Firefox on say M$N groups is a nightmare, you cannot use the tools offered by M$N, they are only supported by IE so you must write everything in pure HTML.


What about Opera?


No longer to be ignored, Opera went for years as the Swedish underdog with dedicated fans and as the fastest browser on the net. But it never really had a chance because it had no big organization to support it. So from it's earliest days it cost money and that kept it from ever really getting the market share it deserved. With Opera 6 or 7 it became freeware with adds and finally just recently with Opera 8 it is truly Freeware.


I do not know if Opera still goes as the fastest browser, but it too opens faster than Firefox. It also offers skins, tabs, pop-up blocker and better security then IE.


But Opera offers a few jewels that IE and Firefox do not. In the case of those with disabilities I would suggest Opera as the better browser. Under View / Style you can choose to view a web page with any number of Stylesheets that can offer you a way to view web sites better suited to you or if you are a developer to test you web site in many views.


Then for developers there is the small screen mode, it can help give you an idea how your site would look in a small screen device like a PDA or cell phone. But Opera still has a couple of bugs when dealing with standards. But in the end it shows sites generally as Firefox would and far better than IE.


Opera offers user programmable keyboard shortcuts to speed using the browser with a keyboard.


No screenreaders that am aware of at this time will work with Opera. However for the visually impaired who just need a larger text size to read, you can adjust the text size, but Opera is the only browser to offer a built in Zoom that will not only enlarge the text but the images as well, so you can see more and it will not break the site. Also Opera is the first browser that can be trained to react to audible spoken commands. However this is still in development so you must speak slowly and clearly and it will not react to heavy accented english or any foreign languages this time.


So in the case of disabilities, Opera is by far the better browser.


Final thoughts ...


So there you have it. I will not really tell you what browser to use, the decision is yours and I hope you have some things to consider. If you prefer IE or spend most of your time in sites requiring IE like M$N Groups, I would suggest you consider the IE spin-offs at least as an alternative.


For general secure surfing and the use of sites offering RSS Feeds my general suggestion would be Firefox (or Mozilla, or Camino, or Netscape)


If you do not like Firefox for whatever reason, or you suffer from some forms of disabilities, without a doubt you should give Opera a thorough check, it could change your surfing habits for good.


If you really want my opinion (avoid the pure IE until at least IE7), install all of them. Different browsers are good for different places. My general browser is Firefox for surfing and testing. Opera for testing (just never took a liking to the interface, but it is a good browser) and Flash sites (I keep flash blocked on my other browsers to avoid all those silly flashing banners and pop-ups), but when dealing with M$N groups I use Crazy Browser or Avant as well as testing web designs.


You need not dedicate yourself to one. Find one you like and then keep the others for those special sites.


As for other OS's I have listed them in my browser listing as well. Firefox seems to be the main browser across Mac and Linux. Linux comes with Konqueror which is not bad but has standards problems. Mac is a close run between the delivered Safari which has a good standards and security record and Firefox. Camino just does not seem to have gone far there so far. There are other alternatives here as well but none strong enough to list here.


I hope I have given you some ideas and info to help you choose. The bottom line is you have to choose the best browser for you and the best browser for you where you are surfing at this moment. If Firefox proved nothing else, as long as we just use the supplied browser like Lemming, nothing will change. But when a alternative browser starts getting to many new users, suddenly browsers start thinking security and supporting standards.


UPDATE: To my embarassment it seems IE7 Public Beta 2 has been released already, during a time period I was offline shortly. You can download it here . It is also worth noting that the following can be found there as well, Guess it is now official that IE7 will be available for XP SP2 users. Highlights are from me.

Evaluation of Internet Explorer 7 should start now, but the software should not be used on production systems in mission-critical environments . Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 Preview will only run on Windows? XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) systems, but will ultimately be available for Windows Vista, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, and Windows Server 2003.

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