Too good to ignore: 6 alternative browsers

Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari lead the market, but there are other browsers out there for PC and Mac users. Which are better?

When Microsoft, Mozilla or Apple comes out with a new version of Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari, it makes news -- mainly because most of us use one or more of these three Web browsers. In fact, with the exception of Google's Chrome (which made a big splash, mostly because it came from Google), most of the alternative browsers out there tend to get lost in the shuffle.

And it's too bad, because some of these relatively unknown browsers are good -- and could be better for some users than the ones they're using now. We asked three of our writers to take some lesser-known browsers out for a spin and see how they do.

They chose six candidates: Camino (for the Mac), Maxthon (for the PC), OmniWeb (for the Mac), Opera (both the Mac and the PC versions) and Shiira (for the Mac). Which is the best? It all depends on what you need from a browser.

For example, Camino is for those who want a simple, basic browser, while Maxthon is overflowing with every power feature in the book. OmniWeb offers speed and an interesting approach to tabbing (but, at a base price of $14.95, is the only browser in this roundup that isn't free), while Opera brings with it a number of features it has pioneered over the years, along with a strong fan base. Finally, Shiira has an interface that is more Mac than Apple's own Safari.

It's possible that none of these will do what you need better than the browser you're already using. But as we all know, sometimes you have to step outside of the tried and true in order to find something really great.

Check these browsers out -- one of them may work for you.

Camino 1.6.4

Apple logo

Camino, an open-source browser based on Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine, is clearly designed to be a simple, easy-to-use, yet fully functional browser. With a look and feel very similar to Safari and Firefox, almost anyone will find it easy to work with in seconds; I found myself completely at home with Camino from the second I launched it.

One major difference between Camino and Firefox is that Camino was designed and programmed specifically for the Mac instead of ported over as Firefox was (so it's less likely to "feel" like a Windows application). In addition, one gets the impression that the developers of Camino didn't try to duplicate all the features of Firefox and focused on the core browsing functionality, which probably results in leaner code overall and thereby increased performance and stability.

Camino isn't big on flashy features. It does have a few that, while not unique, are nice to have. For example, Camino lets you save the URLs for all pages currently opened in tabs as a set that re-opens all of them -- in the same positions. This is a pretty nifty feature if you repeatedly open the same set of pages every morning when checking sites (or if you use a number of Web-based applications every day).

Beyond that, the features and preferences options are pretty standard browser fare, though I do have to commend Camino's developers for including a Web features tab in the browser's preferences that includes the options to block Flash animations and advertising as well as to prevent Web animations from repeating.

Given that many Web browsers now try to implement too many features, some of which are better left to separate applications (RSS being a common example, which Camino eschews), I found Camino's straightforward focus refreshing. The approach leads to a simple design that implements the core features in an uncluttered fashion. Combined with the Web features options that put a user in control of just how much distracting Web content he wants to see, I couldn't help thinking that this would be the perfect browser for people like my father -- you know, the type of person who wants a cell phone that's nothing more than a phone.

Alternate browsers

Camino was designed specifically for the Mac.

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Since Camino keeps its feature set small and targeted, I was not surprised to find it to be very stable; it renders content both well and quickly. As with Shiira, Camino handled Flash, scripting and other complex Web technologies very well. When I compared it to Safari, Firefox and Shiira on the Mac, it outperformed those other browsers in rendering some pages. Sites heavy with Flash content and animations, in particular, seemed to load, render and function faster when I used Camino.

I should note that some Camino add-ons are available. Like the add-ons available for Firefox, these tools offers various capabilities, from backing up bookmarks to changing the look using themes or skins, though the choices for Camino are more limited.

All in all, Camino is probably not the perfect browser for everyone. If you're looking for a more full-featured browser, you may want to opt for Firefox, Safari or Shiira. But if you want a stable, simple and no-nonsense Web browser (or one that can easily limit distracting content) Camino is a good choice.

-- Ryan Faas

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