Group test: web browsers
In depth: Never before has the once humble browser been so powerful. These days it's not just basic tasks that can be undertaken without leaving the confines of a Firefox or Konqueror window; some of the jobs that used to require complex desktop applications - database design, video editing, photo manipulation - are now perfectly viable for those with just browser software and web access.
There are other more proprietary and equally widespread technologies around, but as these in-browser application frameworks rely on plugins to work correctly, it could be seen as a little unfair to judge them in this Roundup. However, we're concerned with getting things done, so if a favourite site works better in one browser than another - even as result of better support from a developer - then we'll take it into account.
Think of it this way: we could offer a picture of how well each browser does on the Acid 2 test, chuck in a table of features and have done with it. But that would be lazy, because browsers rely on content from other sources and you need to know what really works best for you.
Firefox renders the heaviest Flash/Flex-based websites with speed and aplomb.
The most popular piece of end-user open source software, Firefox has managed to grab about 20 per cent of the browser market from Internet Explorer. One of the problems that really successful software has to deal with is continuing to be revolutionary while keeping the conservative mass user base happy. In this regard Firefox 3 is such a success that users migrating from version 2 may not notice any big changes at all.
However, pare a way the surface layer of shiny new gloss and you'll find the bookmarks system has received a massive update. It now uses the SQLite database system to improve performance when searching or managing bookmarks, and to power the demurely named Awesome Bar.
This replacement of the old 'type ahead' address bar takes the process of finding useful past pages a step further - displaying hits for any pages you've visited that contain the string you're typing. For example, we looked at a page about The Killers (film) on IMDB.com. Later, we typed 'Killers' into the address bar and an entry for that IMDB page popped up, despite 'The Killers' being absent from the URL.
Firefox 3 has also been the recipient of a hefty increase in speed - both in terms of launching and rendering pages. At least some of this boost comes courtesy of the latest version of the Gecko rendering engine, which not only makes native SVG rendering possible, but also totally overhauls the way the browser zooms into pages.
Previously, the zoom command (View > Zoom) would have changed only the text size on a page, which made an utter mess of layouts. The new zoom rebuilds the entire page at a new size, leaving the layout and images intact.
The software's memory usage has been optimised as well, with Firefox 3 now consuming somewhere between a half and three quarters of the memory of its predecessor. No big deal for newer systems with plenty of free memory perhaps, but certainly useful on more modest hardware where it can mean the difference between a useable and exasperating web experience.
Aside from the deep changes and new technology we've mentioned, the other advantage Firefox 3 has is that it's already used by many millions of people. It's been such a part of the scene during the web's development that it's rare to come across a site that isn't Firefox-friendly - the same cannot be said of the other browsers here. The large community that the Firefox project has assembled around it also has benefits in other ways. For example, Konqueror has a rather neat parent button and although Firefox doesn't have this natively, Joseph Becher has created one which can be installed with a single click.
Put all this together and it means that Firefox is still the best browser out there for any OS. It's not perfect by any means and the cosmetic changes in version 3 are hardly revolutionary, but even casual users are likely to see the benefit of upgrading.
Usability enhancements - such as drag and drop tab management, multiple tab bookmarks and the recently closed tabs feature - improve the software enormously, while speed boosts and memory optimisation make this extra power boost accessible even on older systems. There's also a big benefit for those working across multiple platforms, in that there's a consistent user experience (now featuring more native-looking widgets) regardless of the underlying OS.
Verdict: Firefox 3 is an essential download for any computer system, especially those short on resources. 9/10.
Web app test: Konqueror 3.5 doesn't even get past the opening screen here, but 4.1 onwards work OK.
Freed from the shackles of being the file browser and web browser in KDE, Konqueror is the beast that spawned Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.
Konqueror has been an integral part of the KDE experience since the beginning. It used to be responsible for both file management and web browsing, but the developers behind the fourth generation of the KDE desktop have changed tack, giving the files to Dolphin and honing Konqueror's web skills.
It's obvious that the new focus on web browsing has had an impact on the interface, which has swapped all the buttons dedicated to files and folders for a more typical back, forward, refresh, stop and home setup. This is augmented by a useful parent button which can be used to go up the structure of a website.
Even though it's a vast improvement over version 3.5 (included in the latest Ubuntu), 4.1.1 still has its problems. What's worse is that many of the problems we encountered can be put down to thoughtless configuration. For example, the apostrophe key has been assigned as a shortcut in our installation, making it impossible to use Konqueror for online word processing. Every time we want to do a contraction or single quote, the browser launches the Find Link service and subsequent letters are entered into a search string. It isn't difficult to change, but it is emblematic of some unusual design choices.
These usability niggles aside, we did note some issues in the rendering of CSS content and a slight performance gap between this and Firefox in the rendering of simple pages. We also experienced a few problems with the cursor being slightly misaligned on a couple of sites.
Verdict: Needs to focus more on usability and intuitive use. It's good, but not great, and it's not (yet) a Firefox beater. 6/10.
Opera 9.5 is slightly less stable than previous versions, but worked well with the BBC's iPlayer.
You have to feel sorry for Opera, the web browser from chilly northern Europe. It's been first with many of the innovations we now take for granted (tabbed browsing and user CSS styling), but its market share - excluding mobile iterations - has yet to crack 1 per cent.
For our tests, we downloaded version 9.5 from the Opera website. The package, a mere 8MB, took a couple of seconds to download. A new entry was added to the Internet part of our Applications menu and we were up and running shortly after. That was an omen of things to come, because Opera is fast. Its launch speed is blistering, it keeps up admirably with Firefox in rendering pages and it's unsurpassed in CSS tests (at least for this week). Opera is also good with memory, using about 10MB less than Firefox when running the same number of tabs.
What's perhaps most remarkable about Opera and its diminutive memory usages is that it's more than just a browser - the package contains a fully fledged email and chat client, a note-taking function, a BitTorrent client for speedy downloads and a slew of OS X Dashboard-style widgets. Using all of these increases the footprint of the software significantly, but not more than having additional applications open.
In fact, the only real problem we encountered with Opera 9.5 occurred when using Flash/Flex applications such as Photoshop Express and Sprout Builder. These ranged from outright crashes to unsupported browser notifications, but they did affect our confidence in the software. There were also occasional glitches when saving to a Google Docs project, and this too made us feel more wary about using the software for our longer browsing sessions.
Finally, while most pages rendered quickly, big video-streaming sites like the BBC's iPlayer and YouTube took a long time to appear. The audio played well, but video tended to be a little choppy. While this may have been a connection issue, we didn't experience the same problems with Firefox.
Verdict: A good application in use, but a few stability issues make it hard to recommend wholeheartedly. 7/10.
Epiphany shares a rendering engine with Firefox 2, which means it's pretty good.
Epiphany is an odd fish. It's a Gecko-based browser that integrates well with Gnome, but seems not to follow the Gnome guidelines of simplicity overall as well as Firefox does. The reason it looks a little ancient is to do with the setup of the toolbars; Epiphany's design results in a lot of wasted space on the right, especially on a widescreen monitor, and less vertical space for the content. These are small issues, but it's only when you see them compared that it becomes clear how much better other browsers are at getting out of the way of what you're viewing.
With all of our test pages and web applications Epiphany didn't exhibit any significant problems. The missing search bar is rectified by being able to access search through the address bar, but changing the default search provider involves messing about with Smart Bookmarks. There aren't enough configuration options available either, especially when defining default behaviour.
In most other respects, browsing with Epiphany is much the same as browsing with Firefox version 2, except that you can't install and use Firefox extensions and themes in Epiphany. To this end, the browser ships with an extensions package which offers things like ad blocking, bookmark synchronisation and even a version of Greasemonkey. But, while these are useful, they don't really compensate for the loss of the thousands of offerings Firefox can access.
Although there's more to it, it's hard to shake the feeling that Epiphany is just a pretty good theme for Firefox; a kind of retro look back to the heady days of Netscape Navigator. That being the case, there may be a question over the point of the project and, as it stands, the browser doesn't offer any compelling reasons to abandon the innovations of Firefox 3. Which is a shame, because Epiphany isn't bad - it's just dated.
Verdict: A good browser rapidly being eclipsed by Firefox. It's not bad, but you can certainly run better. 7/10.
When graphics don't matter - or you're testing accessibility for blind users - Lynx can be useful.
As the web becomes more visually sophisticated, is there still a niche for a text-only browser? Lynx thinks so, eschewing graphics in favour of displaying web pages through a standard Linux terminal. This means changing everything about the way you approach the internet - even basic web navigation - is unfamiliar. In fact, after a few seconds the novelty totally wore off and we began to long for some comforting visual cues.
However, Lynx is essential for anybody involved in building websites. Lynx accurately displays pages as a blind person would experience them with speech synthesis software, making it invaluable for accessibility optimisation. It's also useful to view sites in the browser as a check, because it shows up 'badly' designed sites - making them near unreadable - and issues pop up that would p ass many graphical browsers by. You'll find out how many cookies a site tries to put on your machine, for instance, because Lynx will demand explicit approval for each of them.
It might seem a bit impenetrable, but websites that have been designed with accessibility in mind - such as the BBC's low-graphics news site - are surprisingly easy to read. Once a story is displayed, the text is broken down into easy-to-manage pages, obviating the need for mouse scrolling. Hitting the Space bar takes you to the next page, the left cursor key goes back one page in your history and the right key goes forward.
Attempt to view something like Facebook or YouTube and you'll be out of luck, but with blogs and news sites… it's OK. If you're looking for upsides, running Lynx consumed approximately 2.6MB per tab which, compared with Firefox's 76MB average, is pretty good. Still, unless you need it, it's hard to recommend Lynx in the year 2008.
Verdict: Pretty good for a text browser but, er, it's a text browser, so it's still fundamentally limited. 4/10.
Dillo is fine when browsing simple pages, but doesn't fare well with more sophisticated sites.
Dillo's purpose in life is to put a spring in the step of your older computers. It's small, fast and wouldn't trouble even a low-spec laptop. To that end, it comes in a small package and has a memory footprint (averaging 1.6MB) that makes Lynx look like a resource hog. Using Synaptic on Ubuntu, Dillo downloaded and installed in just under 10 seconds. Booting up the application is also swift, appearing on our desktop in under a second.
Dillo is due for a refresh shortly, where the ageing interface will be replaced with an FLTK equivalent. This is good, because the current interface is definitely old-school. The interface buttons have natural language tooltips which wouldn't sound out of place in a 1950s public information film and even the tabs look like they've been hewn from Welsh bluestone.
The browser itself follows the standard design of having a toolbar at the top of the window and a large portal designed for the viewing of pages themselves. Like the most recent offerings from Microsoft and Google, there's no room for a menu bar, meaning options for configuring the browser are accessible via the unintuitive V menu.
Unusually, it's possible to constrain the window to a particular height and width, which could be useful if the software is running on a smaller device - such as an EeePC or Nokia N800 - but unfortunately its default size (640x550) gets entirely lost on a larger screen.
The real problem with Dillo is that it doesn't display websites well. This is especially troublesome since it doesn't render cascading style sheets (CSS) either, meaning anything built in the last few years or within a content management system isn't going to work properly. As with Lynx, sites designed for low graphics (such as the BBC news site) display in a readable manner, but once you want to stretch beyond basic tables and HTML, Dillo just doesn't perform.
Verdict: Dillo is being left behind by embedded browsers, and really doesn't do enough to warrant a place on your desktop. 3/10.
Our choice: Firefox
The best test for a browser is to see which one you instinctively click on when sitting down at a computer at the start, or end, of a long day. After all, if your favourite sites don't render properly or pages appear slower than fingernail growth, the chances are that its welcome on your hard disk will be short lived. And that's why users should live with Firefox, Konqueror, Epiphany and Opera for a short while to see which one conforms to their particular needs.
Yes, we're going to dismiss Dillo and Lynx out of hand - they're a little too old-school for today's user. They might both have had their niches once, but those must be vanishingly small by now. We'll leave them by saying that Lynx is useful for the blind (its low mark reflects its unsuitability for mainstream graphical browsing, not as a development tool) and that Dillo needs to come up with something a lot more compelling to compete.
Of the remaining four, there are strengths and weaknesses to them all. However, we feel most people are likely to stick with the most familiar option and go with Firefox. For us, there's a particular process of elimination that we have gone through since the latest generation of browsers was released.
We began with Firefox, Konqueror, Epiphany and Opera. Over time - and with the addition of computers running OS X and Windows - Konqueror and Epiphany became less used because the other two offered the opportunity to work consistently between our various operating systems.
Another factor in this decision was that the Konqueror interface, much like that of KDE, tends towards the comprehensive and can impose a steep learning curve on users more interested in getting things done than fiddling with settings. Epiphany was completely the opposite, but was sometimes too shallow.
Despite a good showing, Opera 9.5 lost out to Firefox because of reliability issues when working with web applications. You only need to lose an hour's worth of work to start mistrusting an application. If it goes down twice at critical moments, the chance that you'll stick with it drops considerably.
Which leaves Firefox 3, a browser familiar enough to make upgrading a pleasurable experience, but one that has taken a big step forward with both cosmetic and fundamental changes. The interface has become more immediate, giving further emphasis to the content of a site (or 'the important bit').
If there's a cloud on the horizon for Firefox, it's the decision by Apple and Google to choose WebKit over Gecko. That means WebKit is now likely to get a developer boost (which should benefit Konqueror), and this may have a knock-on effect on Firefox's future growth.
As an illustration, Mozilla's browser took a few years to encroach on Internet Explorer and achieve its 20 per cent market share, but some tech-focused websites noted that after just a few days Google's Chrome was being used by up to 5 per cent of their visitors.
With Google offering a direct link to the browser from the most visited homepage on Earth, the prospect of Chrome eclipsing Firefox within a year shouldn't be discounted. Many of these new users will come from the Internet Explorer fold, but it's bound to have an impact on everyone.
For the moment, though, we have no hesitation in recommending Firefox as the best browser available for Linux or any other operating system.
First published in Linux Format magazine