Browser Alternatives: Beyond Internet Explorer

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2005-01-25 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Microsoft's web browser is no longer the only game in town. We look at several alternatives to IE6, including FireFox, Opera and several others. Safe and speedy browsing is just a download away.

It was in late 1999 that Internet Explorer finally toppled Netscape, becoming the preferred web browser for over 60% of web surfers. In the five years since then, its market share only grew more, until it had over a 95% share. Five years of dominance may not seem like forever, but in the computer business it's a lifetime, and on the web it's an eternity.

How did Microsoft beat Netscape? By building a better browser and giving it away free. Of course, building it into the operating system that's sold with almost every PC didn't hurt. Still, back in 1999, IE was faster, more robust and feature rich, and easier to use than its rival. Oh how times have changed.

Today, Internet Explorer is rapidly losing market share to the upstart open-source Firefox project. Firefox has garnered more than 20 million downloads, and IE is down to about a 90% market share. Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but it's not hard to see the downward trend. How is Firefox doing this? Why, by building a better browser and giving it away free, of course. Amazingly, about one third of our readers here at ExtremeTech reach us using Firefox.

The Mozilla Foundation's new open-source browser isn't the only game in town, though. There are quite a few quality browsers on the market, and almost all of them out-feature and out-perform Internet Explorer. Today we take a look at the latest versions of five IE alternatives: Avant, Firefox, Maxthon, Netscape, and Opera. Continued... A new web browser built on the IE rendering engine is Avant Browser. Similar to Maxthon, it takes the core IE page-drawing engine and builds a new, more feature-rich browser on top of it.

The interface is a bit sparser and simple compared with Maxthon's, but that's not saying a lot. You've still got plenty of toolbars using up plenty of real estate at the top of the window.

Avant's built-in tools center on Google's translation service and on blocking various "stuff" from your websites. This browser has all kinds of blockers: There's an ad blocker, image blocker, flash blocker, sound blocker, video blocker—you name it. The ad blocker is a bit less robust than the one in Maxthon, but blocking the parts of web sites that allows them to pay the bills and bring you content for free is a dubious practice to begin with.

One of Avant's nicer features is the built-in XML feed sidebar. It comes pre-populated with a few dozen feeds in several categories, but customizing the list is as easy as customizing your favorites. It's not quite as fully featured as some RSS syndication tools we've seen, though. For instance, it doesn't automatically tell you which sites have updated, or update all the feeds for you at regular intervals.

Like Maxthon, Avant has perhaps too many options for the average user. The options screen has no less than 19 categories, and while some of those are pretty sparse, others are chock full of options. Despite this, some potentially useful options are simply missing. For example, Avant supports a handful of mouse gestures, but there's no clear way to turn them off or modify them.

Though the basic look is rather unimpressive, there are plenty of good skins available for Avant Browser, and you're likely to find one you can live with in the eight included with the basic download. The RoboForm plug-in for automatically filling in forms comes standard with the browser (it's easily disabled), and it works well. We had mixed results using various toolbars meant for Internet Explorer, though. Some work fine, others don't, and some work fine for some people and don't work for others. It's a bit of a crap shoot, but again, the built-in features of the browser are rich enough that enhanced toolbar support isn't nearly as critical as in IE. Continued...

You can download a copy of Avant from Avant Force. What is there to say about Firefox that hasn't been said by now? With over 20 million downloads, and roughly 200,000 to 250,000 more every day, it's the fastest-growing browser on the web, and it's rapidly taking away market share from Internet Explorer. That's no mean feat, and it's a testament to all the things Firefox does right—and all the ways that Internet Explorer is behind the times.

The default view for Firefox is blissfully simple. There's no great clutter of toolbars or buttons. The browser window is dominated by the page you're viewing, not the browser itself.

This efficiency leads to Firefox's only real problem: It simply doesn't do enough. There's no RSS news aggregator, you can't drag tabs around to reorder them, you can't create "groups" of links separate from your bookmark folders, and so on. Firefox is a basic web browser, a framework that's "good enough for many of us" and meant to be extended through a rich plug-in architecture.

In its default state, this browser will probably not let you do everything you want to, and probably won't let you adjust its behavior exactly as you see fit. But if Firefox doesn't let you do something you want to do, odds are there's a Firefox Extension that does just what you're looking for. Enhanced ad blocking, image control, browser tab behaviors, replacement download managers—it's all there.

Firefox has become wildly popular for good reason. It's lean, efficient, fast, and provides a significant step up in basic features over Internet Explorer. For power users, it is perhaps a bit too sparse, and it won't take long before you start hunting for extensions to make it do everything you want. With over 20 million downloads and growing, the extensions and skin sites for Firefox are booming.

But we don't need to tell you all this. Our web statistics show that over 34% of you come to ExtremeTech using Firefox. That's way over the worldwide average. (Our stats also show that many of you came with old versions this month—for your own security's sake, please update your browser!). Continued...

You can download a copy of Firefox from The Mozilla Organization. The browser now known as Maxthon used to be called MyIE2. It is actually built on the core Internet Explorer technology, using the IE page-rendering code in the OS to draw web pages. Still, it is an application in its own right, with a score of nifty features you won't find in IE.

The default view in Maxthon is a bit overwhelming. A lot of the browser window's real estate is taken up by various toolbars. You've got a lot of control over which toolbars are shown, what's on them, what they look like, and where they reside, so you can definitely whip it into shape with a little tweaking. Still, the Maxthon creators could stand to do a little work on helping users see more page and less browser interface.

One of Maxthon's key strengths is the plethora of built-in tools and links that come as part of the standard package. Features like translation tools are readily accessible. The search toolbar defaults to Yahoo! search, but it's easy to change the default to Google or the engine of your choice, and Maxthon makes large-scale searches using multiple engines easy. Links to external tools like Notepad, regedit, or Paint are handy for web developers (once they customize the list to include their favorite tools).

Maxthon makes better use of the mouse than most browsers. It recognizes a bunch of mouse gestures for navigation, and of course you can customize the list to your heart's content. Also handy is a feature the developers call "Super Drag & Drop." Just click and hold on an image, drag it a little bit, and let go: The image will be opened in a new tab. The same goes for links; or highlight a word and drag it a little to open a new search tab with that word. Once you get used to it, this can come in handy.

The browser includes all kinds of different "blocking" features to help you display other people's pages the way you want them. Not only can you block popups, but also floating ads, pop-under ads, and whatever ActiveX controls you want to add to the black list. You can even kill standard web ads. The ethics of doing this kind of thing are sketchy at best—you may not like ads, but they're necessary to keep professionally produced web content available for free. There's a line between "reasonable advertising" and "totally obnoxious web page," though, and Maxthon has the tools to help you enforce that if you desire.

This just scratches the surface of what Maxthon offers. Features like auto form-filling are in there, as are staples like plenty of interface skins, plugins, and toolbars. We've had mixed results getting toolbars intended for IE to work (like the Google Toolbar), but most of what those products offer, Maxthon has built-in.

If there's a downside to Maxthon, it's that it offers too much. The dizzying array of choices in the Options menu can take days to tweak and tune the way you like. Sure, picking the minimum and maximum tab width is nice, but isn't that going a bit far? At some point, we'd like to see the Maxthon developers figure out what is most commonly used and start to trim away the fat. Leave some of these options in the config file, get them out of the Options menus, and trim down all those default tool and menu bars.

Power users will probably enjoy Maxthon. There's so much in there that you'll eventually get the browser to look and behave exactly the way you want it to. Maxthon is free, but the developers ask you to make a $15 donation if you like it and plan to keep using it. Continued...

You can download a copy of Maxthon from Mysoft Technology. Right from the start, we didn't like the way Netscape treated us. While other browsers seem to go out of their way to make sure you enjoy the web the way you want to, Netscape 7.2 seems to want you to do things its way. It's like you're just a pair of eyeballs and once you've agreed to download, Netscape is going to push as many products and services at you as it can.

You don't download Netscape directly, you download a 289KB "stub" that performs the real download. This isn't really uncommon, and it's not a bother. After all, it makes sense to only grab the bits you're going to use, right? By default, this setup/download program wants to install an e-mail application, IM (AIM & ICQ), Desktop Weather from The Weather Channel, Java 2, and Macromedia Flash Player. The low-end config is about a 10MB download, but it can grow to over 20MB if you install these options. We picked the custom configuration and chose not to download anything other than Flash Player.

Once the download is complete, you're required to log in with a screen name and password to proceed. We made sure the box to include the IM capabilities was unchecked, but we still couldn't proceed without this. So you have to sign up for AIM, America Online, Netscape, or Compuserve just to get in. We wouldn't have gone a single step further if we weren't reviewing the browser for this article.

Complete the setup, and Netscape assaults you with stuff you don't want to see, didn't ask for, and probably don't want. The ad for $10-a-month Internet access through Netscape is annoying and just plain weird (presumably you have net access already if you got this browser). What's with the big sidebar pushing Netscape news stories at me?

The general interface isn't very attractive, but there are a variety of "themes" available (Netscape's term for skins). The search bar defaults to using the Netscape search engine powered by Google, but we would prefer straight Google. The options menu is rather clean and simple, and doesn't overwhelm. On the other hand, there are a few things we'd like to see here that we don't. There's a popup blocker, but no ad blocker or flash blocker. There are no options for mouse gestures, and not enough control over how tabs behave (should new tabs open next to the existing tab, or at the end of the list?).

Something about Netscape 7.2 just feels old. It's as if someone just kept stapling new features onto a browser, instead of giving users refined control over the features already there. Sure, the basics are there: pop-up blocker, tabbed browsing, and an integrated search bar. In that respect, it's better than IE. Of the IE alternatives here, it's simply the most annoying.

Why can't I drag and drop tabs wherever I want to? Why are there News, E-mail, Weather, and AIM shortcuts on my toolbar when I didn't choose to install those components (they take me to Netscape's respective websites for those features)? Where are my options to install new toolbars, and why can I collapse the existing toolbars but not move them around at all?

Oh, and when we uninstalled Netscape, it left those "Try Internet Service Free!" links on our desktop and Start Menu. Continued...

You can download a copy of Netscape from Netscape Communications Corp. Opera is the only really commercial browser in this roundup, in the sense that it's the only one that expects you to pay for it. An Opera 7 license costs $39, but you can use the browser for free if you agree to a little extra advertising in your web experience. When you first fire up Opera, you are presented with the following dialog box, asking you if you want targeted Google text ads or generic graphical ads.

The default Opera interface is pretty well organized, but too cluttered and large for our tastes. A very large volume of the window is made up of the various toolbars and side bars, in part because Opera is so feature-rich.

Even more so than Netscape, Opera takes the "Everything and the kitchen sink, too" approach to the web browser. It's got a built-in email and newsreader that supports POP3, IMAP, and Opera web mail services. There's a contact list manager, notes, and integrated download manager. These are all kind of neat, but it's a case of trying to do everything and not doing any of them well enough. The email and contacts are far less usable than Outlook or Thunderbird. The IRC chat client is functional, but not nearly as good as the stand-alone clients out there.

Here's a good example of where less would be more: Opera has a Google search bar right next to the address bar. That's good, and an efficient use of space, but there's an entire toolbar above it with a few Opera links and two more search windows, one for price comparisons at shopper.com and the other for Amazon listings.

Fortunately, this is all customizable. You can't freely drag around toolbars, but the Customize Toolbar function lets you place any toolbar on the top, bottom, left, right, or turn it off altogether. It also makes it easy to add, remove, or reorder buttons. Judicious use of this feature will reclaim your browser window and reduce the interface clutter.

Opera comes preloaded with an enormous slew of bookmarks, a feature which we find more annoying than helpful. The Preferences menu is actually rather cleanly laid out, though. There's a long list of categories, but for a browser that includes chat, email, newsgroups, and more, it's pretty reasonable. The browser supports mouse gestures, and you can turn them on and off, but we found no easy way to modify them.

Ultimately, Opera 7 is a good browser that simply tries to do too much. We don't need our mail and contacts, newsreader, commerce search toolbars, and IRC chat built into the browser unless it's going to be better than the stand-alone programs we use for those things. The built-in RSS news aggregator (Opera calls them "Newsfeeds", not to be confused with "News" which is Usenet newsgroups) is actually quite nice, though. It's one of the best we've seen included in a browser. Continued...

You can download or buy a copy of Opera from Opera Software ASA. There has been a lot of talk lately about moving away from Internet Explorer to improve the security of your computer. The logic seems to go something like this:

If IE has security flaws, and this other browser is not IE, then it must not have security flaws.

Of course, this is a fallacious argument, and naturally it isn't true. Yes, Internet Explorer is full of security defects. A great many of them have been patched up with Windows XP Service Pack 2, which did more than just add a popup blocker and change the security defaults in the browser. In fact, we recommend installing SP2 and running it no matter what browser you run. But the other browsers are not necessarily more secure than IE with SP2. With shorter histories and smaller user bases, the security problems of other browsers aren't made public as readily. Many of them simply haven't been found yet.

Many users consider themselves safe with Firefox and a decent firewall, but five minutes of research has uncovered quite a few known vulnerabilities. A download-dialog-spoofing story recently made the news, but that's not where it ends. Here's a fun activity to try at home: Head to the SecurityFocus vulnerabilities page, select Mozilla for the company name, then Firefox for the product. You'll find several serious problems.

Security is not simply about code, it's about behavior. There is no security code problem with Firefox's Extensions feature that we know of, but it behaves in a very unsafe manner. You can install plug-ins directly from the web, which is very user-friendly, but unsigned extensions are given the same treatment as signed ones. The default choice is "install," even if the extension is a harmful piece of spyware, a Trojan, or a keyboard logger.

Two browsers in this roundup, Maxthon and Avant Browser, use the core IE rendering engine to draw web pages. Concerns over security may scare users away from trying these, but securing your computer isn't so cut-and-dry. With a firewall running, pop-up blocker enabled, and by paying attention to dialog boxes prompting you about installing ActiveX controls, these other browsers can be as secure as Firefox, Opera, or Netscape. They both have additional security measures beyond what you find in Internet Explorer, and you shouldn't avoid them simply because running anything having to do with IE gives you the heebie jeebies.

We recommend running Spybot Search & Destroy, AdAware, or Microsoft AntiSpyware regularly. You can get spyware, adware, Trojans, and other maladies no matter what browser you use. What's more, malware such as this can come from email, peer-to-peer networking programs, and basically any executable you grab off the web (even if it comes from a supposedly reputable source). A browser alone won't make you safe: Run a firewall, scan for viruses and spyware regularly, and when it comes to security, don't believe the hype. Hype doesn't make you safe. Continued... What we have covered here only begins to scratch the surface of what each of these browsers is capable of. We could drone on all day about any one of them and still leave out somebody's favorite feature. Hopefully, we have sparked your curiosity, and you'll give some of these IE Alternatives a try.

Which one do we recommend? A browser is a bit personal, and we couldn't say for sure which one you'd like best. Maxthon and Avant have a significant advantage in that they're based on the core Explorer rendering engine. Some sites use ActiveX or DHTML controls that only work in IE. Check out Microsoft's beta blogging site MSN Spaces for a great example. It's perfectly functional in almost any browser, but updating your "Space" in IE, Maxthon, or Avant Browser gives you a very slick drag-and-drop interface that's missing in Firefox, Netscape, or Opera. On the other hand, Maxthon and Avant Browser are really geared toward power-users and may require too much tweaking through dizzying options menus for some users.

Opera and Netscape are definitely full-featured, but they take a heavy-handed approach toward integration and advertising that's a real put-off. Both offer a better browsing experience than Internet Explorer 6, but that's hardly worth crowing about. Just add tabs and you achieve victory over IE.

Then there's Firefox, the current darling of the web community. It's a great browser that will likely require a bit of extensions-hunting to do all the things you want. This is probably the best choice for novice computer users, because the simple interface and options menu is least likely to overwhelm them. As their confidence grows, a little extension here or skin there will let it grow with them. Unfortunately, those web applications that use DHTML or ActiveX controls won't work, so if your corporate intranet or other favorite website is geared toward IE, Firefox may not be a great solution.

The home pages for each of these browsers makes a big deal about how fast they are, but in our opinion, these speed claims are overblown. In regular real-world testing, none of them were noticeably faster than any other, or than standard IE 6. Many users may find that Internet Explorer feels slow because their system is bogged down with tons of Spyware. On a clean system, they all seem to load pages just about as fast.

Our recommendation is simply to try out the browsers you're interested in. Give them a few days, play around with the options, extensions, and plug-ins. All these browsers are free, or have free options, so there's no reason not to give them a whirl. If you're still using Internet Explorer, it's time to step up to a better browser. If the only alternative browser you've tried is Firefox, you might want to give some of the others a shot—you might just find something you like better.

 
 
 
 
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.

 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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