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Can Firefox Out-Surf Safari on the Mac? - Printable Version

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Can Firefox Out-Surf Safari on the Mac? - smitharose - 03-13-2007 03:47 PM

[attachment=25]For a person familiar with Apple's Safari browser, using the platform-agnostic Firefox can be a somewhat clunky experience. Rendering times and stability were acceptable, and it's nice to have support from a worldwide committee of developers, but it just doesn't have that fluid feeling of a well-designed Mac application.

Shortly after Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) introduced its Safari Web browser, I switched -- primarily because Internet Explorer for the Mac flat-out sucked.

I use several other browsers, but my day-in, day-out workhorse is still Safari. However, just because that's my browser of choice, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the best option.

I've already written reviews for Firefox and OmniWeb, but testing, poking and prodding a browser for a review is one thing. Relying on it as your only interface to the Internet is something else entirely. To that end, I decided to totally immerse myself in several alternatives to Safari just to see how they really work for me.

Here are my self-imposed ground rules: Each browser I live in must be the most recent version. Beta and prerelease software doesn't count. No plug-ins, hacks, extensions or any other add-on that enhances or modifies the browsers are allowed. Each browser will be tested based only on its stock features. No launching Safari "just to check this one page." Living in a single browser is non-negotiable. Safari can be launched if necessary to transfer bookmarks to another browser. No cheating. Whining is allowed.

The Web browsers on my list include Firefox, OmniWeb and Opera. I selected those browsers because they are all relatively familiar to a good cross section of Mac users.

Week 1: Firefox
I started with Firefox because it is the second most popular Web browser. First place goes to Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows-only Internet Explorer. Firefox is open source , cross-platform and free.

Firefox offers a couple of features that are important to me, and are pretty much standard fare for modern Web browsers: Pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing. The overall interface, however, felt more and more clunky as the week went on.

I'm a big fan of keyboard shortcuts because they let me keep my hands on my keyboard instead of pulling me away to my mouse/trackball/graphics tablet when it is inconvenient for me. Translation: Keyboard shortcuts help me work faster and more efficiently.

The problem I found with Firefox is that even though there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts, it almost feels as if they are compartmentalized so that you have to use your mouse to click on an item before the associated shortcuts will work. For example, I couldn't move through browser tabs from my keyboard before first clicking on a tab with my mouse.

This didn't feel like a big issue to me when I reviewed Firefox, but it really slowed me down. It felt as if it took more mouse clicks to perform the same actions than it does in Safari.

Rendering times for Web pages were perfectly acceptable, bookmarks were easy to work with, and the browser never crashed on me. Hooray for stability!

Performance Pig
Overall performance, on the other hand, was a different story. Processor usage for Firefox rarely dropped below 20 percent, and regularly shot up over 80 percent. Patience being a virtue, I felt very virtuous while waiting for my Mac to recover from those kidney punches to system performance.

I didn't come across a single Web page that Firefox couldn't handle, which is more than I can say for Safari. Although Safari 2.0.4 is leaps and bounds better than earlier versions, I still occasionally get Web pages that render incorrectly, or won't even load at all.

The light gray default Web page buttons and ultra-subtle edges on form fields were a bit of a problem for me, as well -- the default buttons only on an aesthetic level. They look so 1998. The field edges, however, sometimes made it super difficult to actually find the fields.

One last issue: I found what appears to be a redraw bug in Firefox. Sometimes when I clicked on a Firefox window to bring it to the foreground, its window scroll bar did not turn blue -- my primary indicator that a window is active.

Movable tabs, uber-customization and extensibility, a world full of developers working on the app -- these are all killer features in my book, and they are all rolled into the Firefox package. Add in superior Web site compatibility, and you have all the fixings for a powerhouse winner of a Web browser. I can see why this is the browser of choice for so many people.