The Great Mac OS 9 Web Browser Shootout

Originally published in January 2002 as a series of four Mac Daniel columns for Low End Mac.
Rated "Best of Mac Daniel" (top 15 most-read columns) from six months after its publication until it was pulled from the site.
I'll try to keep this reasonably up-to-date, but a) no guarantees and b) CodeBitch, over at MacEdition, has a pretty good handle on things from an HTML standards perspective, which is most of what's changed since this was written.

The Classic Mac OS has long been saddled with a dearth of good Web browser choices. For over a year now, Internet Explorer 5 and Netscape Communicator (4.5-4.7x) have been the only real viable players for PowerPC-based Macs.

Not any more.

With the recent releases of Opera 5.0 final and iCab Preview 2.6, as well as Netscape 6.2 and Mozilla 0.9.7, it's Netscape Communicator that is no longer a viable player. Because of this, I have specifically excluded the 4.x versions of Navigator and Communicator from this roundup. (For the curious, Netscape 4.x would have finished dead last, by a long shot.) Additionally, Microsoft have updated IE 5 to 5.1, which was a major step forward, if Microsoft are to be believed.

But which of these browsers is the best, and are any of them viable replacements for IE 5, which has emerged as the de facto standard on the Mac?

I've run Netscape 6.2, Opera 5.0, iCab Preview 2.6, IE 5.1, and Mozilla 0.9.7 through their paces on my main Mac, a PowerBook G3/266 with 384 MB RAM running Mac OS 9.2.1. To get a feel for how the browsers would fare on an older PowerPC, I also tested them on my Workgroup Server 9150/120 with 200 MB RAM, running Mac OS 9.1.

In order to determine if any of the new challengers are viable replacements for IE 5, they have to handle my normal browsing load at least as efficiently as IE 5 does. My typical day includes browsing the following sites, all on my IE 5 toolbar:

In addition to these, each browser was subjected to Robin's HTML 4.0 Conformance Test, on which the "HTML testing" results in part 3 are based.

Internet Explorer 5.1, the Established Power

Basic Requirements: 24 MB RAM, 10 MB hard disk space, Mac OS 8.1 or higher.

IE starts out on a good note. Its drag-and-drop installation makes it simple to install, and installation doesn't require a restart, as is so often the case. Speed-wise, IE has been the browser to beat on the Mac since version 4.5 came out, and its time to go forward or back one page is still nearly instantaneous. In fact, this was one of the main reasons I switched to IE. I was tired of Netscape taking 15 seconds to re-render a page every time I resized the window or went back one page. Unfortunately, this speed is achieved by cheating a bit — IE renders the cached page when going forward or back instead of checking it against the server. If your preferences are set to check "every time," as mine are, IE will ignore this and render the cached page anyway. In order to see a page that has changed, you'll have to manually reload.

Also helping to speed up IE is its ability to cycle through all open windows with a single key shortcut, something Netscape 4.x lacked when ad banner windows were popped up without a full menu bar (as they usually are).

One of IE's biggest drawbacks is its inability to choose a default search engine. Users are tied into Microsoft's atrocious excuse for a search, unless they choose to perform a short ResEdit hack. (If you're not comfortable with ResEdit, you can use Google's JavaScript-based Browser Buttons.) Scrolling can be jumpy at times, and the AutoFill feature for forms could use extending a bit a la Netscape 6/Mozilla.

For some strange reason — and this has never worked right, since I began using IE in late 2000 — visited links aren't remembered for more than a few days at most. I'm not sure what causes this, but it's a bug that has been around for quite some time and is very annoying.

Finally, IE has serious problems rendering large tables such as the one found at the Service Manual download page.

A feature I do enjoy about IE is that everything works, which is more than I can say for Mozilla, unfortunately. IE has no banner ads and requires no activation, two things I find terribly annoying about some other browsers in this shootout.

Contender #1: iCab Preview 2.6

Basic Requirements: 6 MB RAM, 5 MB hard disk space, System 7.0 or higher

Calling this a "preview" is almost as misleading as calling Netscape 6.0 "final" was. iCab hardly ever crashes, and when it does, it does so gracefully, allowing the user to simply reopen the application and continue. This is in direct contrast to IE, which often takes down the whole OS when it crashes (far more often than iCab in my two months of using both browsers side-by-side).

iCab really gets itself off on a good note with the user — no installer is necessary at all; simply expanding the download was enough. It launched almost instantaneously the first time I ran it, and it's at least as fast as, if not faster than, IE 5 in scrolling pages.

If you set the preferences to check cached pages every time, iCab is almost as slow as Netscape 4 when going forward or back one page. (See IE section for how IE cheats to get around this.) If you set the preferences to check cached pages against the server less often, this problem disappears. (I have it set to once an hour instead of every time.)

It's worth noting that IE 5 does not allow you to set a time interval for checking cached pages against the server. In fact, iCab has the most in-depth preferences of any browser I've seen. You can configure almost every aspect of browser behavior, although the default preferences are generally fine if you're not inclined to go digging around.

Another wonderful feature of iCab is its ability to go back one page when you open the link in a new window (or are forced to by a site). To see for yourself, command-click a link in iCab and then go back one page while staying in that window. No other browser in this test boasts this eminently useful feature. In similarity to IE, you can cmd-click a link in the Toolbar and have it open in a new window. This is a feature I find almost indispensable after discovering it a few months back in IE 5.

The pay version of iCab, claims the developer, will lack only the kiosk and email modes, and will not use advertisements. I have no need for the kiosk mode, and I prefer to use an external client for "mailto:" URLs anyway.

iCab's best feature, however, is its ability to filter images and JavaScript by server URL. If you want to block all ads from, for instance, you can simply add "" to the Image Filters in the Preferences. If you don't want a site to pop up windows any more, just refuse that site the ability to do so in the InScript Filters pane of the prefs.

iCab also has the ability to check HTML code for spec-compliance right in the browser. As a webmaster, I find this feature to be extremely convenient, though iCab's definition of HTML 4.01 Transitional incorrectly gives warnings on (font) and (center) tags.

No browser is perfect, and iCab is no exception. If you configure the preferences to be HTML spec-compliant, many sites are very ugly. Fortunately, iCab lets you lower it to the bottom-of-the-barrel level that many Web designers have been forced to write for in the past, which makes most sites work fine. ESPN is the main exception; iCab is the only browser that can't usefully render its atrocious HTML.

Another issue (which I haven't seen big problems with yet) is that iCab freely admits its CSS1 implementation isn't fully functional.

Two small nits to pick: the first time I quit iCab, it took about 15 seconds to chew on the disk for something, and there's no key shortcut for the Preferences dialog. Cmd-; has quickly become the de facto standard on the Mac, and there's no excuse for this omission. Fortunately, adding it via ResEdit was a 30-second affair. As with IE, you can't search with Google directly from the location field, but Google's Browser Buttons work on iCab, too.

My last niggle with the application is minor, but very annoying: When you click a button to submit a form, many key shortcuts don't work until the form has been submitted.

Contender #2: Mozilla 0.9.7/Netscape 6.2

Basic Requirements: 28 MB RAM, 23 MB hard disk space, Mac OS 8.5 or later, 266 MHz or faster 604e or a G3/G4, QuickTime

My biggest complaint with Mozilla (and Netscape 6.2) is the ridiculous requirements to run the browser. My second big complaint is that, for God knows what reason, the developers have decided that Mozilla/Netscape 6 must have a built-in email client. (Fortunately, they made it an optional install, and I didn't install it.) Now that I have those out of the way, let's get down to business.

It took about three minutes for an install of everything but the Mail and News portion. I don't imagine installing the Mail and News package would take too much longer, but this is still the slowest installation so far.

To make matters worse, when Mozilla is first launched after installation, it takes an additional five minutes to "register" some "components." If this were done as part of the install process, it might not seem so bad, but when the application is installed, I expect to be able to use it right away.

Finally, rubbing even more salt into the wound, Mozilla/Netscape 6 still takes 15-30 seconds to start and load the first page even after the component registry is completed (and on subsequent launches). This needs to be fixed now.

When iCab and IE 5 launch in under 5 seconds, I'd say the Mozilla developers have some serious catching-up to do. Quitting is instantaneous, which makes the long startup seem even more disproportionate.

Aside from my first two complaints mentioned above, Mozilla and Netscape both lack a key feature of modern browsers: a download manager. There's no way to access a list of past downloads, at least not in the same form as every other browser here provides.

Additionally, there seems to be a strange bug that kills all keyboard shortcuts every so often without any warning, leaving the mouse as the only way to close windows or quit. In all the Mozilla 0.9.x versions I've used so far, as well as Netscape 6.2 (based on the Mozilla 0.9.4 code), this happened to almost every second window I opened, and it happens almost every time a window is closed with cmd-W.

There is also a display issue with the Preferences dialog itself — text often gets truncated at the right edge of the dialog (the Themes pane, for example). The Preferences dialog is generally slow — it feels like the system is bogged down when using it. I understand that I "only" have a 266 MHz G3, but there's no reason why Mozilla should be as bloated and slow as it is — I feel like I'm back on my 7200/90 with Netscape 4 and a 28.8 modem whenever I use Mozilla.

Finally, the cmd-; key shortcut for opening the Preferences is also missing here.

Now, let's move on to the good points. First is a small and obscure one, but I like it anyway: The "about:mozilla" easter egg still works just as it always did in Netscape 4.x and earlier.

Another nice feature is the stored autofill data is now password-protected, so you can feel a bit safer about storing credit card numbers, social security numbers, etc. in there.

Mozilla, unlike Netscape 6, does not require the silly activation step once it's installed. AOL Time Warner, you are gaining nothing in the eyes of your users by requiring this in Netscape. Stop it.

Contender #3: Opera 5.0

Basic Requirements: 12 MB RAM, 5 MB hard disk space, System 7.5.3 or higher.

Installation of the latest beta of "the fastest browser on Earth" took about two minutes and required no restart. Good, but not as good as iCab or IE.

The advertisements have now been removed — for thirty days. I don't believe ad-supported browsers have much of a future; Web users are already too annoyed with advertisements in the browser window itself. Opera needs to introduce a feature-reduced, permanently ad-free mode or start charging a lot less than $40 to remove them. I predict it's only a matter of time before an enterprising programmer comes up with an ad removal hack like those for AIM.

Scrolling is far smoother than in IE, and the search mode is amazingly powerful. If iCab had Opera's search mode and graphics engine, I would never go back to anything else. As the developers claim, it's fast, but I'm not sure I agree with "fastest browser on Earth." It doesn't, for the most part, feel noticeably faster than either IE or iCab.

Opera has what must be a very useful feature for the visually impaired: optional sounds indicating when pages have loaded, failed to load, etc. The catch-22 here is that there doesn't seem to be any way to configure it without being able to see the screen, and, unfortunately, that's about where the good points end.

Opera has some serious problems — not bugs, really, but rather deficiencies or missing features that have kept me from switching to it. First and foremost is the fact that it's going to be $40 down the road. That's a lot of money for a program that offers (at least to me) only one compelling feature, lacks several that I rely on, and forces advertisements down my throat otherwise.

Speaking of money, Opera is virtually unusable with my online banking at Citibank.

The next problem I have with it is its lack of a URL toolbar like that found in IE and iCab. Third is the lack of global control over fonts for browser display. While the additional power Opera gives you is nice — it allows you to set specific fonts for each level of header tag, for example — a global setting is essential. It takes too long to set every single text variation to one font.

Unlike other browsers here, Opera lacks a "cycle windows" shortcut; instead, like AIM, Opera assigns each open window a number and you can go to a specific window by typing cmd-(number). This is good if you can keep track of what windows are what numbers all the time, but most people will likely find it a hindrance, since the "next window" key shortcut effectively changes every time you change windows. To make matters worse, if a window is closed, all the windows with higher numbers have their numbers shifted down by one. When I use a command-click to open a link in a new window in most browsers, I know the new window is going to be in virtually the same place and nearly the same size that the old one was. Opera handles this in a very different manner, and I haven't yet gotten used to it, which only makes one more reason I don't find Opera to be ideal. The "link bar" is probably the most useless feature I've ever seen in a browser; it only works on sites that specify relative links using the latest HTML spec, and even then it's of dubious utility. I don't want a link bar. I want a toolbar that I can pack full of often-used URLs like iCab and IE have.


Here's a summary of the system requirements for each browser:

BrowserOSRAM (MB)HD space (MB)Other
IE 5.18.12410 MB
iCab Preview 2.67.065
Mozilla 0.9.7
Netscape 6.2
8.53023266 MHz 604e or faster, QuickTime

At this point, I'd have to say that iCab is in the lead thanks to its amazing filtering features and general stability. Opera and IE are in a virtual dead heat for second place, and the Mozilla/Netscape 6 duo is trailing by quite a bit.

HTML Standards Testing

All four browsers were tested for compliance with 13 major components of the HTML 4 specification. For explanations of what each test entailed, visit the hyperlinked test name as well as the test glossary.

Abbreviations work as expected in all four browsers, although Opera doesn't do anything to make the abbreviations or acronyms any different from the rest of the text, which I find useful in iCab and IE 5. Advantage: push for all but Opera.

Extended character support is excellent in Mozilla/Netscape 6, very good in IE 5, good in iCab (only a few seldom-used characters are not displayed), and worst (although not terrible) in Opera. Advantage: Mozilla/Netscape 6, although the differences among the top three are practically irrelevant.

Forms have several small problems in IE and iCab: labels and access keys fail completely in IE 5 and are inconsistent in iCab. Form-based popup menu selections are rendered with labels included in iCab, which looks funny, and grouping elements within these popup menus also doesn't work yet. IE handles these two things fine. Disabling radio buttons and checkboxes is nonfunctional in iCab, just as it is in IE. Opera, meanwhile, ignores the TABINDEX attribute entirely, ignores labels and access keys completely, and has the same problem iCab has with grouping elements in selection menus. However, it is the only browser that properly renders the DISABLED attribute on radio buttons and checkboxes. Mozilla/Netscape 6 have known problems with access keys and labels, as well as the DISABLED attribute. (At least we know someone's working on it.) Also worth noting: No two browsers rendered the buttons on the "smile" form alike. Advantage: Mozilla/Netscape 6, because it has the fewest problems and we know people are working on them.

Frames work as expected in all four browsers. Advantage: push.

In all browsers but IE, soft hyphens don't show up when they're not supposed to be displayed, but they also don't work as hyphens when the browser window is too narrow for the word to fit on one line — the word simply gets pushed down to the next line. IE renders the soft hyphens as normal hyphens, so they always show up. Advantage: push for all but IE, because IE's method is by far the ugliest.

Identifiers and anchors work fine in iCab and Opera, but IE often misses the intended target by at least half a screen. Advantage: push for all but IE.

Objects work perfectly in iCab, except for text files, which cannot be embedded (and the alt text saying so isn't rendered either). Opera has problems with rendering the image objects and image maps. Both Opera and Mozilla/Netscape 6 properly embed text files, but Mozilla/Netscape 6 doesn't render all image maps properly when coded as objects (also a known bug). IE 5 is even worse — it renders extra image objects that it's supposed to ignore, but at least it properly renders the alt text saying that the text object could not be embedded. Advantage: iCab, by a lot.

Quotations and citations work perfectly in iCab. Citations are completely ignored in IE and Opera, although titles work fine, and both browsers also ignore CSS-specified quotation styles. Mozilla/Netscape 6 works with citations and titles but ignores the quotation styles like IE and Opera do. Advantage: iCab, with Mozilla/Netscape 6 in second.

Revisions work as expected in all four. Advantage: push.

Scripting works very similarly in all four browsers. None of them respects the DEFER attribute, and NOSCRIPT doesn't work quite as it should in any of the four. Opera, the worst, runs scripts in languages it doesn't even know. Advantage: push for all but Opera.

Table rendering fails miserably in all browsers except Mozilla/Netscape 6, which only works properly with the FRAME attribute. Again, the bugs are being tracked and worked on with Mozilla/Netscape 6, so perhaps these will be fixed soon. IE gets last place here because it chokes on large table such as these. Advantage: Mozilla/Netscape 6, with IE a very solid last.

Bi-directional text is totally broken in all browsers but Mozilla/Netscape 6, where only the direction marks work properly. Once again, the bugs are known and being tracked. Advantage: Mozilla/Netscape 6.

Zero-width spaces are broken in all browsers but Mozilla 0.9.7. (Netscape 6.2, based on the Mozilla 0.9.4 source, doesn't yet support the zero-width space.) Advantage: Mozilla.

Now to score the HTML compliance results. I have ranked the browsers 1-4 on each test, relative to each other, with 1 being the best. As such, the lowest score wins. After the 13 rounds of Robin's HTML tests, the score is as follows:

Netscape 6
Text Direction2212
White Space111*1
Total Points1925 1527

* If you really want to give Mozilla a half-point victory here, you can, but it doesn't change the standings.

Mozilla (and Netscape 6.2) looks like the clear winner until you take a look at where most of those points came from. Two of the first-place rankings came from the table and bi-directional text tests, in which only one of several possible attributes worked properly in Mozilla/Netscape 6. Another victory came in the extended character support, which was very close to a three-way tie for first between Mozilla/Netscape 6, iCab, and IE. Additionally, you're a lot less likely to see a zero-width space or soft hyphen than you are to see embedded objects on a page. iCab handled objects far better than any other browser did. Netscape 6.2 is at least as good as iCab for HTML rendering, but its speed isn't up to par unless you have a Mac made in the last two years. I say Netscape isn't even a contender unless you're just addicted to the Netscape name. It is three versions behind the Mozilla code base, and the problems inherent in that code base (all the current problems of Mozilla, plus several bugs that have been fixed since then) put Netscape 6.2 right out of the running.

What about Mozilla 0.9.7? Well, it has its good points, particularly in HTML standards support, but it feels slow, bloated, and clunky compared to the other three browsers. The sad part is that this browser is a huge improvement, at least when displaying pages, over the 4.x versions of Netscape. It just isn't enough of an improvement to grab my attention, and the fact that it feels slow on a 266 MHz G3 — let alone a 120 MHz 601 — doesn't help matters. Sorry, guys, but you get fourth place with this one.

Figuring out the order of the next three is very difficult. I'm sure I'll get plenty of mail and message board comments disagreeing with my picks, but that's why they're my picks and not your picks.

All three are fast. All three launch quickly, are generally free of glaring bugs, and are quite usable as everyday browsers. Personal preference will no doubt play a big part in your own choice, but I think the majority of readers will agree with my picks here. If you're trying to decide which browser is best for you, try all three of them for a few weeks and decide which you prefer.

Opera gets a third place. The amazing search feature, its excellent speed (especially on slower PPCs), and its ability to do reasonably in-depth configuration of the preferences are the bright spots in what is otherwise a very mediocre browser. I had expected better HTML support (Opera placed last in the HTML tests) from the company that has been so vocal about their standards compliance. While I feel that IE and Opera are nearly equal in many respects, the lack of a URL toolbar — indeed, the lack of many of the very useful features of the Windoze version — hurts significantly. The confusing Bookmarks interface doesn't help, either, and the banner ads are also an issue. All these problems knock Opera down into third place.

IE 5 gets second place, but as the T-shirt says, "Second place is the first loser." To be honest, this is due in part to the fact that it's written by Microsoft. However, it lacks the in-depth configuration of both Opera and iCab, and its lack of respect for many HTML standards is becoming more and more obvious. The built-in search is terrible. It's by far the most unstable piece of software I use regularly, and its instability tends to bring down the whole OS, not just IE itself. Of the top three, it's easily the biggest RAM and disk space hog, though its appetite for disk space isn't nearly as voracious as that for RAM.

And the winner is...

iCab. It's lean, it's stable, and it's fast on any PPC (and for even older Macs, iCab has a 68K version). It has very modest system requirements, rarely crashes, and has support for HTML standards that is arguably the best of all the browsers in this review. iCab was the only browser to fully support a category in the HTML testing that no other browser did (quotations/citations), and it only missed fully supporting another category (objects) by one item (text objects). It's free, and it doesn't use banner ads to pay for its development. Its image and JavaScript filters are absolutely indispensable features that help to make up for its inability to legibly display some poorly written HTML. It is a piece of software that combines the speed of IE 5 with the standards compliance of Mozilla — and does all of it with far fewer resources than other browsers require.

It's worth noting that when I started this review about two months back I was still using IE 5 as my default browser. I went in with the idea that one of the browsers would have to unseat IE 5 as the king of the Mac browser market — and iCab has done just that. Having used all four of these browsers on an almost-daily basis since that time, through two beta versions of Opera, three releases of Mozilla, and two major updates to IE 5, iCab is the only one good enough to get me to switch. Now that I've switched over, I doubt I'll ever go back to IE full-time, but it's still my browser of choice for sites that iCab renders strangely or can't handle.

68K and Mac OS X versions of this review will be published when I have time.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson