Mac OS X Web browser rundown 2007

Several years ago, when Mac OS X was still a very young operating system, it was hard to find a really good and stable web browser for the Mac. Pretty much the only viable option for the first release of Mac OS X in 2001 was Internet Explorer 5.

I wanted something better than IE, so as soon as it would run natively on Mac OS X I switched to Mozilla. I don’t remember exactly when and which version of Mozilla I used, but I think it was before Mozilla 1.0 was released, so in late 2001 or early 2002. It was a bit shaky, but it was still better and faster than IE. And IE and Mozilla were the only real options you had back then, unless you wanted to run a web browser in Classic mode (Mac OS 9 emulation).

Today, in late 2007, things are different. Very different. Mac OS X users have a large number of excellent, standards compliant browsers to choose from. And Internet Explorer is no longer an option, since it has been discontinued and is no longer available for download from Microsoft. Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac was once a great browser, but the rest have caught up and surpassed it years ago. I don’t think there are many who miss it.

Current Mac OS X Web browsers

Listed in this article are some of the Mac OS X browsers that are currently available and “alive”, meaning that they are actively developed. I am not attempting to list every single browser. I have picked the ones I happen to keep on my hard drive and that I think are relevant to some extent for Web professionals.

I have also chosen not to list any applications that are primarily something else and happen to be capable of rendering Web pages (RSS readers like NetNewsWire, e-mail applications like Apple Mail, and text editors like TextMate and BBEdit for instance).

If you’re looking for a complete list of all web browsers ever made for a Mac, take a look at Darrel E. Knutson’s massive compilation of Macintosh Web Browsers.

This is not intended to be an extensive review of each browser. I have settled for making a few general remarks such as which rendering engine each browser uses, how long it has been available, and if there is anything in particular I know about its history that could be of interest. It’s hard to remember the details of when a particular version of a particular browser was released, and even harder for an outsider to know the intimate details of which technology it uses and stuff like that. It isn’t always easy to find reliable information about those things, so if you spot any errors, please do correct me.

The browsers are listed alphabetically.

Camino

Often referred to as a “Macified version of Firefox”, Camino uses the Gecko rendering engine and does feel more Mac-like than its multi-platform sibling, much thanks to its polished interface and Aqua widgets. To me, that polish makes it feel somehow more solid and reliable than Firefox, though that may be just an illusion.

Camino was first called Navigator, a name that was later changed to Chimera, and then for legal reasons changed once again to Camino.

I have my occasional periods of using Camino. It’s a native Mac OS X application, it’s fast, it’s standards compliant. I should be using it more.

Firefox

Based on the Mozilla project, Firefox is currently the browser with the second largest market share after Internet Explorer for Windows. This is the browser that broke IE’s total dominance, which we owe it many thanks for.

Like Camino, Firefox has had several names during its lifetime. It used to be called first Phoenix and then Firebird, before it was given the name Firefox in early 2004.

Firefox on the Mac is a good browser, no doubt about that. It does not use the Mac OS X Aqua interface though, so it lacks the full Mac OS X look and feel.

The large number of excellent web developer extensions available for Firefox make it a must have for web professionals though. I’d say I spend around half of my web time in Firefox, most of it being at work.

Flock

Flock is “the social web browser”, based on the Gecko rendering engine. It aims to make it easier to use social and web based applications by integrating them into the browser. A few examples of the services it supports are YouTube, Flickr, Blogger, and del.icio.us.

I’m not sure having Flock around is really relevant unless you use its specialised features (which I don’t). It uses the same rendering engine as Firefox, so there should be no difference. Still, it is in my Applications folder and it has a quite polished GUI compared to Firefox, so I’m mentioning it here.

iCab

More or less a one man show as far as I can tell, the German browser iCab has its own, standards compliant rendering engine, and actually works really well. Very impressive work by the developer, Alexander Clauss.

iCab has been around since before the Mac OS X days and is one of the few browsers (or is it the only one?) that still support OS 9. It will even run on something as ancient as Mac OS 8.5.

Good support for Web Standards aside, my favourite iCab feature is its error reporting. Load a page that validates, and you get a green, happy smiley next to the location bar. Load one that contains HTML or CSS errors and the smiley turns red and unhappy. Click the smiley and an error report window opens, listing all the errors iCab found. Very nice. This is something I would love to see other browser vendors pick up on.

Lynx

It is not a graphical browser, and it has no support for CSS or JavaScript, but the text-only browser Lynx should still be mentioned. I use it mostly for checking my work. If it works, is usable, and makes sense in Lynx, it should work pretty much anywhere and be reasonably accessible.

Lynx is available for many different platforms from several sources. At the time of this writing the latest version is 2.8.6, and the easiest way to run it on Mac OS X is to download it in a compiled package from Apple: Lynx text web browser. By default it uses absolutely horrible colour combinations, and I’ve only been able to figure out how to turn the most garish stuff off, leaving me with white text on a black background.

Netscape

One of the very first graphical web browsers in history, Netscape was wrestled from the marketplace by Microsoft, and fell into obscurity and disuse. It still exists, though, and the latest version (9) is actually pretty good.

Rendering-wise that is to be expected since it uses the Gecko engine, but I also get the feeling that Netscape 9 is faster and has less GUI overload than some of its previous versions.

OmniWeb

When Mac OS X was still called Rhapsody, OmniWeb was, if I remember correctly, the only available web browser to run natively. This was due to it originally being developed for the NeXT platform, which Apple bought in 1997 and turned into Mac OS X.

OmniWeb used to have its own rendering engine, which was not really up-to-date when it comes to support for CSS and JavaScript. As more modern browsers became available, that made OmniWeb a less interesting choice.

Starting with version 5, OmniWeb now uses Apple WebKit to render Web pages, so these days it is yet another browser with top notch standards support. It also has some neat UI features, like tabs with thumbnails of the site they contain, workspaces, and a form editor for working with textarea elements.

As far as I know, OmniWeb is the only browser that is not available for free.

Opera

Available for almost any device that can connect to the Internet, Opera has been (unless I am mistaken) around on the Mac since version 5 was released in 2002.

In early 2003 there were rumours that Opera Software would stop developing the Mac version, but luckily that never happened.

I’ll admit that I’ve never really used Opera for anything but testing. I don’t know why actually, since I think it’s a good browser. I think it may be its slightly quirky UI that puts me off. Maybe “quirky” isn’t the right word. “Different” might be better.

Either way, it really deserves to be on your hard drive.

Safari

Currently in version 3 (beta), Safari is Apple’s web browser. Until earlier this year it was only available for Mac OS X, but on June 11th 2007 a Windows beta of Safari 3 was released, enabling Windows-based Web professionals to check their work in Safari without having access to a Mac.

Safari isn’t perfect (no browser is), but in my opinion it has the most polished and stable user interface of all Mac browsers. Until recently it also had the very good trait of ignoring most CSS targeted at form controls. With each release, Safari is accepting more and more form control styling, so I really hope users will soon have the option to disable that.

I’d also love to see developer tools on par with those available for Firefox.

SeaMonkey

What used to be the Mozilla web browser was renamed the “Mozilla Application Suite”, and quickly fell out of fashion as the more light-weight Firefox became popular. The Mozilla Application Suite is now known as SeaMonkey.

Seamonkey is much more than just a web browser – it includes e-mail, newsgroup, and IRC clients as well as an HTML editor. Some call it bloated, others like the integration of multiple applications.

To be fair I don’t really use SeaMonkey, but I keep a copy around nonetheless.

Shiira

Shiira is a Japanese browser that uses the WebKit engine and is written in Cocoa. The goal of this open source project is to create a browser that is better and more useful than Safari.

Shiira’s UI is really nice and polished. Its PageDock feature includes previews of the content of each tab, much like in OmniWeb. If you don’t like it, you can switch it off and use normal tabs.

Since it uses the same rendering engine as Safari there isn’t much point in checking web pages in it. With extremely few exceptions, everything works as expected.

WebKit

If you want to use the latest features added to Apple’s WebKit rendering engine, which is what Safari uses, there are WebKit nightly builds you can download. To always have the latest build automatically downloaded and installed you can use the NightShift application.

WebKit nightly is not officially recommended for everyday Web surfers, but is mainly intended for developers. I haven’t really noticed any problems with it though, so I think it’s stable enough for anyone to use.

My choice

So, those are the browsers I keep on my Mac. Some of them I use every day, others almost never. As for choosing which one to use, it isn’t easy. Is it even possible to choose just one? I don’t know about you, but I have two favourite browsers.

For day-to-day web surfing I prefer Safari. It’s fast, stable, has a polished UI, and features excellent standards support.

For web development though, Firefox rules thanks to incredibly useful extensions like Firebug, Web Developer Extension, and HTML Validator Extension. Safari is catching up a little with the latest version of its Web Inspector, but it’s still a long way from being as useful to a Web professional as a tricked out Firefox.

Posted on October 24, 2007 in Apple, Browsers, Mac

Comments

  1. Firefox 3 will use the native OSX UI. I am sure you already know this, but I thought I’d remind people. Personally I am a Firefox kind of guy across my laptop, desktop, and mac mini. The power of Firefox comes from the plethora of extensions. Safari is ok, but I don’t see a reason to use it. I have to use IE7 a few time a day (unfortunately), but IE7Pro (plugin) makes IE7 suck a little less.

    Great write-up as usual Roger. Thanks.

  2. Safari supports 100% rounded fonts. ;)

  3. Good review!

    You have to see the beta version Opera 9.5 (Kerstel) with new version of rendering engine (some new CSS3 features, text-shadow, for example) and more native UI for mac-users (smth like Safari tabs, aqua-buttons and progress bar)…

    But Opera still too much «different», so i have to use Safari for surfing and — yes, Firefox for developing.

  4. Might be too off topic (and maybe there’s a link somewhere to help), but why is accepting form control styling a bad thing?

  5. October 24, 2007 by Simen G.

    Great list. I’m totaly agree about your choice. Firefox for web development and Safari for day-to-day web surfing.

  6. I am with xxdesmus.

    I use Firefox all the time, I like to share all my bookmarks across all computers I use (PC at work, MBP on the go, MP at home).

    However, I think the image rendering on Firefox is very poor… I have noticed that the color quality images (I don’t know if it’s the color space, or what) is really bad on Firefox, and the colors are just beautiful on Safari.

    Does anyone have run into this?

    I am thinking I should be using Safari more often, but I am very addicted to share my bookmarks… all the development stuff while indispensable, I can live without when I am just surfing around.

  7. FF all the time! I was using FF besides Saf but after a while it annoyed me to switch all the time so I killed Saf. I use FF also because of Firebug and It’s All Text … the last one to code in BBEdit instead of the CMS (Textpattern) itself … very handy!

  8. Great roundup of browsers. I also use FF pretty much all the time, mostly because of firebug.

    @Kevin - I was wondering the same thing. That’s actually one of the reasons that I don’t use Safari; it’s always bugged me.

    @Mau - I’ve noticed the color differences as well. I’m not sure what the deal is but it’s definitely there. Screenshot: the left is safari, and the right is firefox.

  9. Shiira was new to me. Thanks.

    Opening current drafts in Lynx is my favorite answer when the Art Directors in the office cry out about low screen resolutions or anything else trivial. :)

    Firefox is stand alone when i comes o development. I have sticked to Safari for a long time now but feel it is time for a change. The problem is that I always fall back when I try oher browsers.

    Will give Shiira a try.

  10. October 24, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    xxdesmus:

    Firefox 3 will use the native OSX UI. I am sure you already know this, but I thought I’d remind people.

    Nope, I had no idea. Thanks for the heads up.

    Safari is ok, but I don’t see a reason to use it.

    Speed is one of my main reasons. Firefox is much slower.

    Kevin:

    Might be too off topic (and maybe there’s a link somewhere to help), but why is accepting form control styling a bad thing?

    It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but I prefer having no doubt about what is a form control. I also like being able to read what I type in text inputs, which isn’t always possible on sites that have gone CSS crazy with their forms without checking the result in more than one or two browsers.

    Sure, it’s up to the designer to style forms well and make sure it works everywhere, but as an end user I would really like the option of disabling form control styling. Opera has a setting for that, so why not Safari :-).

  11. While it’s well-publicized that Firefox 3 will use the native OS X UI, I’d like to see it in action in order to judge the overall quality of implementation.

    I tried Gran Paradiso Alpha earlier this summer but it proved too rough around the edges (as would be expected) for an honest evaluation. Does anyone know if the latest version is much further along on OS X?

  12. @Dan Thanks, I posted another screenshot too. Another example of BAD colors.

    @Roger Is this something that could be prevented?

  13. October 24, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    The problem with different colours is a tricky one that I don’t fully understand. I thought I’d read an in-depth explanation of it somewhere but the only thing I can find now is Color Spaces. Perhaps someone reading this can explain exactly why Safari renders some images differently.

  14. It’s an ugly page, but this page helps explain discrepancies between browsers with image colors: http://www.gballard.net/psd/golivepage_profile/embeddedJPEGprofiles.html#

  15. Sorry, that link got munged by markdown. Here it is again:

    http://www.gballard.net/psd/golivepage_profile/embeddedJPEGprofiles.html

  16. October 24, 2007 by George

    Yes, it’s definitely ICC profiles embedded in the JPEG that is causing the goofy colors on Safari. I ran into this problem in a project of mine, when a client delivered a Photoshop file that had an ICC profile embedded. I didn’t even notice when I was saving images for the web that the ICC profile option was ticked since I never use it myself.

    Same thing will happen of course with IE6 (and 7?) when you use PNGs. For that I use PNGOUT to remove embedded data in the PNGs that will let IE6 display them correctly, in addition to optimizing the file size!

  17. Does anyone actually use Flock?

    I love Lynx. All the Flash, JavaScript, image and style nonsense just falls away. And if the site’s still nice to use, you know it’s been written well.

    I use Camino though.

  18. Regarding PNGs. Starting with CS3, Photoshop will no longer embed gamma meta data when you “Save for Web…” Used to be you had to use something like PNGOUT or GammaSlamma to strip it because it wasn’t even an option previously to NOT save it. Happily: no more.

  19. Firefox 3 will use the native OSX UI.

    It did not sound from Alex Faaborg’s post a few weeks ago that it would actual use the native UI, only look more like a mac application visually. While that will get it closer, without actually using native OS X interface elements I suspect it still won’t “feel” quite right.

    http://blog.mozilla.com/faaborg/2007/10/10/the-firefox-3-visual-refresh-system-integration/

  20. I typically use Mozilla 1.7.13 for my normal browsing. It’s faster than Firefox and follows Mac OS conventions better (up arrows in textboxes go to the beginning of the line, command-w closes tabs and windows, always), and most everything works with the Gecko engine it uses unless people are doing UA string checking (bad!). I use the pinstripe theme to make it fit in better with the Mac.

    For development, I use Firefox because of Firebug, the HTML Validator extension, the Measureit extension, and the ColorZilla extension. I also like LiveHTTPHeaders (a bit easier to see than the firebug version). Firefox takes up so much memory with lots of tabs open, however, that I can’t use it as my regular browser. I use the GrApple (EOS) theme to make Firefox fit in with my other apps.

    I’ve never been able to get into Safari, other than for testing. The two things I miss most from Gecko based browsers are the “type-ahead find” feature and the ability to assign keywords to bookmarks (so I can just type something like “amz cool product” into the location bar to search for “cool product” on amazon.com).

  21. Since Firefox’s UI is rendered with Gecko and uses CSS to style the elements (a somewhat wacky way to do things but it has its advantages I guess), they’re simply updating the default theme with a more OSX-like appearance for Firefox 3 (as far as I can tell). I believe they use some kind of native widget interface for certain things where CSS falls short or it makes more sense to do so. I’m no expert so I’m not completely sure though.

  22. The most important feature of a browser now that adequate standards compliance is guaranteed: Saving your tabs on close, quit, or crash. Nobody does that better than Opera.

  23. Roger,

    Nice presentation, but one browser is still missing :-)

    Sunrise at:

    http://sunrisebrowser.com/en/

    This is a WebKit based browser, lightweight, fast, with a Spartan though pleasing interface.

    JJS.

  24. Regarding the colour issues some people have been mentioning:

    Safari support ColorSync (colour management on OS X) and ICC profiles. But only for images. That can explain discrepancies in rendering between HTML/CSS colours and the (same) colours in images. Gecko 1.9 (Firefox 3.0) will have support for Colour Management build in, not only for images, but also for HTML/CSS colours. It is not yet sure if it will turn ON by default. It does work very well on my side.

    One problem that browsers have with ICC colour management is plugins, and especially Flash (that plugin doesn’t support or understand any ICC profile related; it is a shame, as Adobe was always on the forefront regarding colour management - but who knows, maybe Flash 10). Plugins run in their own little window (embed !) and the browser has no access to what happen inside that window. This can lead to colour differences between Flash colours and HTML/CSS/images colours when ICC colour management is turned on. And, in the end, there is nothing the browser makers can do about that. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. But then, I surf with Camino and the built in FlashBlock turned on always.

    On the subject of Firefox 3 Mac, yes it now has Aqua style form controls, and they (now) work nicely (the same as what you can see in WebKit nightly builds or Safari 3.0beta). Fx 3 beta1 will be out in a week or two, I think.

  25. Good summary! My personal favorite is Firefox, no matter the platform. I too look forward to a more native Mac OS X look and feel for Firefox, though.

    I like the look of Camino and Shiira, although Shiira has been the most unstable software I’ve ever used (like Netscape 4 reborn on a Mac).

    Flock isn’t that beautiful to me, but its Image Uploader (to Flickr and other services) is outstanding.

  26. I prefer links over lynx, it is a very similar text only browser for command shell but it has mouse support (press escape to see the menu) and provides bookmark support. screenshots and download at sourceforge

  27. “Firefox 3 will use the native OSX UI”

    No, it will not. Firefox is not built with the native technology, has not been been built that way, and never will be built that way. Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird, etc. will keep using XUL till hell freezes over. That’s what they are supposed to do. Having a cross-platform toolkit is what makes Mozilla’s job easier.

    Mozilla say that Firefox 3 for OS X will look more like an OS X application, just as the next version of Firefox for Vista will look more like a Vista application.

    Looking and behaving are two different things. Firefox 3 isn’t going to behave like an OS X application and isn’t going to have the platform integration that native browsers like Safari, Camino, and Omniweb have. If you like it despite that, use it. But don’t tell stories.

  28. About the iCab smiley’s, both Firefox and Safari have a plugin to display errors and warnings about the html of the viewed html-page. I can now see, for intance that your page has 41 warnings! ;-) (All related to google syndiaction). See Firefox Html Validator and Safari Tidy plugin.

  29. I’ve allways used firefox for all of my internet use, but recently it started to act strangely when handeling large javascript files (like library’s?)

    So that’s when I crossed over to my mac’s native browser Safari, and I love it. Still, i also still use firefox for my web development, and i’ve not tried out the Nightly’s yet.

    Thank’s for the overview!

  30. People are getting confused between native UI and native widgets. Firefox 3 will have native Aqua form widgets (at least until you try to style them), but as ever the interface will be built in the decidedly non-native XUL and themed to mimic a native UI.

  31. Erm, you might want to update your section about Opera. Its been in Alpha for a good few months and it just went to 9.5 beta today, which beings OS native window chrome as standard I beleive. So it should fell a lot more natural on Mac’s, if thats what you want (its still skinnable after all).

    Opera 9.5 beta (Kestrel)

  32. Strangley, for my day to day surfing I like Safari on Windows and Camino on the Mac.

  33. Thanks for the Lynx download link, I always thought it was not available on Mac OS X. I usually use the Fangs extension for Firefox to test for text browsers, but I’ll give Lynx a go. Cheers!

  34. @John Lascurettes:

    Hey! That was an awesome reference! I tried to maintain the ICC profile while exporting to JPEG from within Photoshop PS3 and it worked just great!

    I uploaded another screenshot, the left represents the ICC-less image, the right represents the one with ICC, both with Firefox.

    Thank you so much!

  35. Roger, you might also mention that three of the four rendering engines that run all of those GUI-based browsers pass the Acid2 test.

    • WebKit passes
    • Presto passes
    • iCab passes
    • Gecko does not

    When Firefox 3 comes out, it will pass (and so other browsers based on Gecko 1.9). Then, all major, in-development browsers for OS X will pass the Acid2 test.

  36. Until recently it also had the very good trait of ignoring most CSS targeted at form controls.

    Please, tell me why this is a good thing?

  37. October 26, 2007 by Gerry Quach

    My main browser is Safari, for the simple reason that text looks superior on this browser. It’s just painful to look at Firefox’s font rendering.

    My dream browser would be Firefox with Safari’s font rendering and speed. Mozilla team, please make it so!

  38. I have experienced major performance problems with Firefox across a number of PPC macs, although I don’t see the same problems on my Intel mac.

    Safari is my everyday browser of choice for speed and ease of use.

  39. November 3, 2007 by atman

    as a surfer, i use camino - for speed over safari. appreciable speed.

    as a designer, i use firefox - for the same reasons you use them.

    but firefox leaks serious memory for me, so i don’t use it for day-to-day.

  40. I use Flock for blogging, Flickr and YouTube. As you said, its Firefox with all the Web 2.0 added features. I find it the most Mac like in its appearance and since it is basically Firefox with the added features, it makes sense for me. Not sure why it isn’t more popular. Safari is tough to use because it sometimes forgets cookies, and fails miserably on some IE only sites. Camino is a fast browser, but like Safari, very basic.

    I blog using Flock, and drag pics from online photo sites within the application to my blog. You have to be a Web 2.0 user though to really appreciate it.

  41. For day to day surfing Camino is the clear winner.

    • It’s as fast as Safari 3.04, i.e. the fastest browser
    • You can block ads, incl. animated flash ads, without removing flash functionality altogether
    • It’s stable.
    • It has full keyboard navigation functionality (open links with search + Enter)

    The vast majority of browser users don’t need any of the extra stuff you can get with Firefox or Safari.

    I’ve used Firefox (great versatility, brutally slow compared to Safari/Camino), Safari (great speed, brutal keyboard navigation support, not so good compatibility, e.g. try Wordpress on Safari, not fun).

    When I need certain functionality for development or funky script based bookmarks, I’ll pop open Firefox, otherwise, it’s Camino all the way.

    To read more, check my blog entry above.

  42. Wow, I just came across this page and found an excellent, concise summary of the available range of Mac browsers listed on my page.

    And to join in on the fray, my installed primary browsers are currently OmniWeb, Camino, Firefox, Safari, Shiira, Sunrise, Netscape, iCab, Opera, Internet Explorer, Linx, and Lynx. So, just a smattering of the 136 browsers ever publicly released for the Macintosh.

    Great article, excellent analysis and summary!

  43. February 6, 2008 by alysia

    thanks everyone. I use Camino and according to this info here I’m doing the right thing. I uploaded firefox again after dumping it once and I noticed right away how slow it was compared to Camino. speed is more important to me than anything thats been talked about here. u guys are definetely over my head.

    I just found out I can try Flock for my blogging purposes and drag photos unto my blog. this is most useful info. will try it. it seems to me mozzilla and camino are sisters, so I don’t know why camino is so much faster. I’ve been checking other browsers because of some crashing last night with camino, so figured has something to do with I don’t run Beta, whatever that is.

  44. I’ve come to similar conclusions as you on this topic. First I switched to FF because I couldn’t deal with the absence of Firebug and some other extensions.

    After a while though, it became clear to me that Firefox just couldn’t handle my workload AND my personal browsing. After a few hours it just starts to drag (just as it did when I was on Windows).

    So then I switched to Flock, which is a nice browser, but it actually seemed to complicate things. Having both Flock and Firefox open for long periods of time seemed to result in more slowness in BOTH of them… not a clue as to why in that case!

    Anywho, long story short: Safari is fast. Ok, so all the benchmarkers out there will want to compare the two and suggest that FF is actually faster than Safari at some things… but that’s not the point! FF bogs down much faster than Safari, in my experience, while Safari just seems to zip around the web with a lot less weight to carry around.

    So yeah… Firefox for work (I do a lot of web design) and Safari for personal. I love them both!

    -Garrett

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