Back to the browser

from the May 2007 Actrix Online Informer
by Rob Zorn

For the last few years, Internet Explorer's dominance as the browser of choice has been under small but persistent threat. 'Boutique browsers' such as Opera, and particularly Firefox are now becoming more mainstream because users say they have better features. Some enthusiasts like them simply because they just aren't Microsoft. Many Firefox users choose that browser because it is open source which they say makes it more secure, and easier to make add-ons and plug-ins for. Its rapid rise has largely been due to the loud applause given it by the open source crowd.

Firefox and Opera' rise in popularity has had Microsoft running scared, and though it often criticised its competitors' unique features as "trivial" the latest version of Internet Explorer (IE7) now incorporates them all. In fact, the "browser war" of the last couple of years has meant that each browser has pretty much copied the best features of the others, and there is now very little difference between the later versions of each.

If you can use one browser brand, you can use another with little needed in terms of personal adjustment. There's no problem having more than one browser installed on your PC. In fact you could use them all at the same time if you wished even to access the same websites at the same time.

If we had to recommend just one...

While Firefox is the main challenger to Internet Explorer, my opinion is that the latest version of Opera (9.2) still leads the way in terms of unique and useful features. These include the ability to make notes about pages you're visiting and refer back to them later, the "paste and go" feature that saves time and a click or two when you're pasting URLs into the address bar, and the fast forward button which analyses the available links on a page and automatically loads what it thinks is the next logical one for you. I also like Opera's ability to quickly change "skins" and colour schemes which gives the browser a whole new appearance. You can do this with Firefox too under Themes, but it isn't quite as quick and easy.

Opera also comes with "mouse gestures" loaded by default. You can perform various functions such as back, forward and refresh simply by holding the right mouse button down and jerking in a specified direction. This is a pretty cool feature that is going to catch on. You can download it as a special add-on for Firefox and IE7.

Speed test

So how do the browsers compare speed-wise? After all, the most important thing a browser can do is load web pages quickly, especially on dialup where waiting times can be agonising.

We did some pretty rough and ready speed tests involving local and overseas websites we hadn't visited before, and with carefully cleared caches.

The results were very close on a 3Mb cable broadband connection, so if you have broadband, there's probably not a lot of point changing browsers for speed reasons alone. Firefox averaged 8.1 seconds for a full page load. IE7 and Opera came in equal on 8.7 seconds.

However, it was a different story on a 56K dialup connection. Firefox and Internet Explorer (44 seconds and 45 seconds respectively) were easily pipped by Opera at just 32 seconds. If you're on dialup, this may be another reason to consider Opera.

Please note, however, that these tests weren't terribly scientific and should be seen as indicative only.

Market share

Just how much of the browser market each has is difficult to determine for sure, and depends on who's saying so. Firefox claims it has 12% of the world browser market, and Opera says it has achieved 5% market share in some countries. We asked the techs to give us a breakdown of the percentage of times our homepage is accessed by each browser, and the results are as follows:

MS Internet Explorer (IE5-IE7) 91.3 %
Firefox 5.6 %
Opera 0.4 %

While these figures are probably a good snapshot of the browser market in New Zealand, overseas use of Firefox and Opera is likely to be considerably higher.

Where to get 'em

Firefox Version 2.0.0.3 is a 5.9 Megabyte download from www.mozilla.com.

Opera 9.2 is a 6.2 Megabyte download from www.opera.com.

Internet Explorer: If you have Windows Automatic Updates turned on (check in your Control Panel) Windows will automatically be downloading the update to Internet Explorer 7 whenever you are online and at some stage you can expect that little box to turn up in the bottom right hand corner proudly announcing that you're now ready to install IE7, and that may have happened already. If you can't wait you can download it from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/.  It's about 15 Megabytes, but the size of your download may vary according to your operating system.

What's new in Internet Explorer 7?

Add-ons, Extensions and Widgets

Each of our three browsers has a host of downloadable extras that you can make part of your browser. IE7 generally calls them Add-ons, Firefox calls them Extensions (and sometimes IE7 does too), and Opera calls them Widgets. Each has around a thousand or so to choose from, and they have to be downloaded separately. There's a wide scope available so have a browse of what's on offer. Check out the Editor's picks or the Most downloaded sections for the best ones.

Internet Explorer 7

Find them under Tools/Manage Add-ons. Some that might be worth checking out are:

IeSpell - checks your spelling in text-input boxes on a web page.

Firefly - a Web Browser made specifically for kids. Parents can load in pages that they've approved and kids can only surf those pages.

SurfVCR - records your Web surfing session and plays it back to you like a movie.

Firefox

Find them under Tools/Add-ons. Some that might be worth checking out are:

FoxyTunes - places remote controls for your favourite media player within Firefox so you can control your music without leaving the browser.

FireBug - lets you explore the inner workings of Web pages. See how they've done it so you can debug and perfect your own HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc.

SiteDelta - highlights changes made to a website since your last visit.

ProCon Predator - filters web pages containing explicit content automatically based on the website's text.

Opera

Find them under Widgets/Add widgets. Some that might be worth checking out are:

GMail checker - checks your Gmail account for new messages every five minutes.

Circular Tetris - adds a new spin to the popular Tetris game. Instead of horizontal bars to organise on the fly, you're challenged by circular walls!

Do-too to do lists - allows you to make lists of things to do. It's sort of like online post-it notes!

Screen ruler - a useful tool for web designers and others too. Simply click the grid in two places to measure the distance in pixels between the points.

World Clock - displays the time for you in various cities around the world.

Browser Bob

If you're a browser junky who's tried them all but not quite found the one that looks just right, you might want to try Browser Bob. Browser Bob software provides you with a browser template which you can add your own graphics and colour scheme to. Design your own buttons and logos and place them exactly where you want them, and include or exclude features as you see fit. You can add sound, advertising banners and even pictures of yourself for backgrounds.

The build function allows you to create an executable install file which you can then give to others so they can use your totally unique browser too. Now that could put an interesting spin on the birthday and Christmas presents you give this year!

It's reasonably easy to work your way through the functions, and you could have a simple browser installed and working just minutes after you download the program, but there's enough there to keep the tech-minded intrigued and busy for many hours.

There are three different versions each with a free 30 day trial. The basic version comes with a 30 day fully working trial and costs $US99/NZ$145 if you decide to keep it.

You can find out more and download Browser Bob at www.browserbob.com.