The Great OS X Browser Shootout

Part 1

Hands on with Five Contenders

In the spirit of the Great Mac Browser Shootout from January comes this OS X version. OS X is new enough that there isn't really an "established" browser yet, although Internet Explorer 5.1.x has been shipping as the default browser with OS X for quite some time.

I bring a definite preference for iCab to this review, having used it as my main browser on both the Classic Mac OS and OS X since late last year. Having seen the bloat of Mozilla on OS 9 and massive reports of IE's horrible OS X instability (now mostly fixed), and hearing the buzz on the upstart Chimera and the venerable OmniWeb (a holdover from the NeXTstep days), I thought it would be interesting to do a comparison.

All you folks who asked me "Where's OmniWeb?" or "What about X?" last time, well, that's why I'm doing this one.

My test platform has changed since the last review; it's now a brand-spanking-new PowerBook G4/800 with 512 MB RAM, running (as of Tuesday night) Mac OS  X 10.1.5.

A few basics to note in OS X: while RAM disks can be used via such software as ramBunctious, I have not put any browser caches on RAM disk for this comparison. Being most familiar with iCab, I can say that it feels marginally slower loading pages in OS X than it does in OS 9 with the cache on a RAM disk. All the browsers, however, benefited greatly from the move up to an 800 MHz G4 and 32 MB Radeon Mobility 7500 graphics chipset — even Mozilla, which was horrifically slow on my WallStreet 266 (G3 w/4 MB Rage Pro graphics), is tolerably fast now.

A few other things have changed since last time, too. Only hard disk usage figures are listed, since OS X dynamically allocates the necessary RAM for the browser. Even people running OS X with 128 MB RAM will be able to use any browser in this review, though a brief visit to the Terminal and the top command reveals the following (edited for clarity):

Process   RSIZE
Navigator  15.5M
iCab     18.6M
Mozilla   44.2M
OmniWeb   27.0M
Internet E  22.8M

Those are approximate real RAM usage figures, so Chimera (Navigator) and iCab appear to be the best bets for folks running OS X in a low-RAM environment.

None of the browsers sticks out as particularly faster in rendering pages, although IE and Opera are noticeably slower than the other four. Chimera is probably the quickest, but it's really a toss-up among Chimera, Mozilla, iCab, and OmniWeb. Mozilla's interface is easily the slowest, though — preference panels are slow to render, almost like the browser itself is rendering them as HTML pages.

Of the six browsers reviewed here, only Opera required an actual Installer program; IE was part of the OS by default, while the other four were simply copied over from disk images. OS X's application-as-package concept certainly has its benefits in this case, and Opera's developers would do well to take advantage of it.

General comments aside, let's get on to the browser review itself.

The Baby: Chimera 0.28

Disk space: 25 MB

It's hardly fair to call Chimera "competition" for the other five browsers in this review, since it's far and away the youngest browser here. Opera's Mac version has been around for over a year, OmniWeb has been on the OS X platform since it was NeXTstep, IE 5 was ported for the Public Beta, Mozilla has been available since at least the 0.9 releases, and iCab has been around quite some time as well. Even so, Chimera manages to put up a great fight. It's fast, and it works for basic browsing. Most of its planned features still don't work, but if all you need is a basic Web browser (think Netscape 2, but marginally more stable and a lot more modern), you might want to give this one a look. Best of all, this has been built from the ground up as a Cocoa application (as has OmniWeb), giving it seamless integration with the rest of the OS X look and feel. Chimera is one damn fine looking browser.

The 800-pound Gorilla: Mozilla 1.0.0

Disk space: 35 MB

Someone in the Netscape organization was recently quoted on the Net as having said that Netscape was suffering from "creeping 'feature-itis'," and Mozilla isn't going to prove him wrong. It's easily the largest of the six browsers reviewed here in both disk space and RAM usage, and further investigation with top reveals Mozilla to suck extra CPU time (usually 1-3%) even when no windows are open and it's fully in the background. While other browsers do this somewhat, none eats this much CPU time.

As with the Classic version, the first launch of the browser requires some 20 seconds for component registration, whatever that is. Subsequent launches take 7-9 seconds, which is still abnormally slow for a browser but at least tolerable. After all these beta versions, you'd think the developers would have gotten the idea that a command key to access the preferences is a good idea. Nope. You still can't use the now-standard cmd-; to open the Preferences dialog. At least clicking on its Dock icon doesn't bring up a new window, something I find infinitely annoying about iCab and IE.

The Lean Girl Next Door: iCab 2.8

Disk space: 6 MB

She might not be the most beautiful girl you ever met, but she's not unattractive, either, and boy, what a body. iCab uses a Platinum appearance for HTML buttons that doesn't integrate with the rest of the OS as nicely, but it doesn't look really out of place either. For most browsing, it's the opposite end of the spectrum from Mozilla — it launches in a second or two, browses just as fast, and uses only a fraction of the RAM and disk space required by the larger browser.

The Preview 2.8 version just released brings the return of Java support to the OS X version (no more relying on IE as a backup browser for Yahoo! Games) and finally brings cmd-; support for the Preferences dialog. (Are you listening, Mozilla developers?)

Most significant about the latest release, though, is arguably the best image/script filter and cookie manager in existence. There's a somewhat steeper — although very worthwhile — learning curve relative to the older version's filtering capabilities if you're upgrading, but if you're starting from scratch, you'll appreciate the new version immensely. Its filtering abilities are unmatched by any other browser, and they're the primary reason I've been unable to tear myself away from iCab, despite the occasional advantages of other browsers, which inevitably get relegated to backup duty.

The Perennial Also-Ran: Opera 5.0b4

Disk space: 6 MB

Yet again, Opera fails (miserably) to live up to its claim as the fastest browser on the planet. It doesn't even feel close to fastest; in fact, it feels like one of the slower browsers here, fighting IE for last place.

Opera would be a much more compelling browser on the Mac platform if it had feature parity with the Windows and Linux versions. I'd even be willing to put up with the massive banner ads the Windows and Linux users get if Opera were anywhere near as fast on the Mac as it is on those two platforms. But it doesn't have feature parity with them, and it's not as fast, and the final version will have those ads, which adds up to a pretty uncompelling package in the eyes of this reviewer.

In addition, all Opera's HTML buttons are "aquafied" in a very strange way, which makes some Web pages (the AppleFritter forums, for instance) look really weird. Don't waste your time downloading this one unless you're a browser junkie and just have to try it for yourself. There are better options out there.

Being Average Never Killed Anybody, But it Never Won Any Awards Either: IE 5.1.4

Disk space: 20 MB (part of OS X by default)

Like iCab, Internet Explorer (IE) is nearly identical to its Classic version. There's not anything I can find that IE does significantly better than any other browser here, but there's not a lot I can find that it does significantly worse, either. For a default browser, it's pretty average, but average has improved markedly from three years ago. You could do worse than simply stick with IE if you don't care about filtering ads, JavaScript, or blocking cookies.

The Saab of Browsers: OmniWeb 4.1 sneakypeek 91

Disk space: 9 MB

Saabs, for those of you unfamiliar with the European car market, are quirky Swedish cars made by a company that started off making airplanes and decided two-stroke engines had a place in the auto market. Fortunately, those two-strokers are gone, but Saabs still have the ignition switch in the center console, exhibit massive amounts of torque steer in high-performance versions (the 9-3 Viggen is a wonderful example of what happens when you put 250 bhp through the front wheels of a reasonably lightweight car, which makes for amazingly jerky steering under hard acceleration), and are generally perceived as a bit odd by the mainstream. Yet they have a very devout fan base, many of whom will buy nothing else.

While I'm not that extreme (yet?), I do like them, and OmniWeb reminds me of a nice 9-5 Aero. It's not the fastest browser on OS X, but it performs quite well despite some minor quirks (like using cmd-Y for the preferences). And boy, does it have a devoted fan base.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson