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by Franki

While I was upgrading our Statistical hit counter, I was required to download the latest versions of Netscape 8.0.2 and Opera 8.0.1 in order to ensure I could correctly detect their browser strings in the counter. I already have IE6 SP2 and Firefox 1.0.4 installed so this looked like a good time to do a “first impressions” review of the four browsers. I’ll start with the browsers I am most familiar with and work my way down from there.

Firefox 1.0.4
Firefox’s default theme is fairly intuitive and clean but extremely bland. Most things are roughly where you would expect them to be and Mozilla have made an effort to make IE users feel at home with the menu system. Firefox boots reasonably quickly but it doesn’t seem to be much better or worse then any of the others in that regard and I don’t consider 3 seconds faster or slower to load as a valid reason to choose one browser over another. Firefox loves rendering pages written to W3C standards. It also handles most sites written with older invalid or Microsoft only code, but there are some exceptions that will probably require Internet Explorer if you can’t avoid the sites in question.

A new user would get no impression about the benefits of tabbed browsing in Firefox because the default install seems to go out of it’s way to hide this incredibly useful feature. The first thing I always do upon a new Firefox installation is to right click on a blank section of the menu bar and select Customize and drag the “New tab” button onto the tool bar. I’m writing this review in Firefox with 23 tabs running so there is no doubt in my mind that tabbed browsing is a huge boon to my productivity.

On the subject of tabs, having one closing button for a whole row of tabs is not good UI design and more then once I’ve accidentally closed the whole page of tabs because I clicked the X in the top corner while thinking about something else. Netscape and Opera get the points for best tabbing UI on this issue because they both have a close button on every tab, (Firefox can have that too but you must install an Extension for it) and also because tabbing isn’t hidden away in the file menu in those browsers by default. Having said that, these probably aren’t serious issues , just a minor annoyances really. Mozilla would also benefit by replacing the default theme for something like Noia extreme for home users and give them the choice of bland corporate or eye candy home themes. Noia is the best eye candy home user theme I’ve seen thus far and most of my corporate clients like it as well. Since some corporations don’t like eye candy, it’s probably a good idea to have a bland theme choice available upon install.


Extensions are the main reason I like Firefox and I normally have about 20 of my favourites installed that help with everything from increasing text size to web development tools and “in web form” spell checkers. The only downside of Extensions is that sometimes they can conflict with each other and cause problems. When that happens you have to open Firefox in safe mode (which is listed in the Firefox section in the programs menu) and remove the offending Extension. Fortunately that has only happened to me once in all my usage but it is an area the Firefox developers should look to improve in future versions. There are literally hundreds of Extensions for Firefox and dozens of themes and they are all neatly made available on the Mozilla add-on site. Firefox is free and Open Source so the price is right and if you have the desire you can download the source code and modify it to your needs for a truly custom solution.

As a web developers tool, Firefox is without equal. With Extensions like the “Web developer”, “Edit CSS”, search engine Optimization extensions and an excellent Javascript Console, I’ve not found any browser that is as useful for page development as Firefox. Most of my fellow developers agree with me in this regard.

Last of all is security. So far not there is not a single main stream browser that hasn’t had security flaws found in it. Firefox is no different in that respect however it must be noted that there are no “exploits” doing the rounds on the Internet that target any flaws in Firefox. That may in part be because it doesn’t have as much market share as IE, but it’s also because Firefox doesn’t support such MS technology as ActiveX which has been the cause of many an exploit in IE. The Mozilla developers have also shown themselves to be very proficient at patching any security holes. The inbuilt software updater helps by letting people know when an update is available. On a related subject, when you load Firefox you generally don’t get spyware. Firefox has that in common with Opera and Netscape 8 (at least when it is in Firefox rendering mode).

Internet Explorer 6 SP2
Once upon a time I was a big IE user. You could tell when I was working on a computer because more often then not there were about 10 to 15 separate Internet Explorer windows open on the desktop.

Internet Explorer renders old school web pages well, but pages using the recent standards often require CSS hacks to render properly in IE. Sites written specifically for IE often cause troubles with other browsers without workarounds and Internet Explorer is now the browser most holding back web standards, (Mostly because it hasn’t changed significantly since 2001.) Having said that Microsoft have been pressured to reform their IE development team and the picture may well be different in a year or so.

There is no easy theme mechanism for specifically for Internet Explorer and there is no Extension system in place by default either. There are however a number of third party developers (and MSN themselves who just released a tabbing tool bar for IE) such as Maxthon but a user won’t know that from looking though the menu options in IE. Because Microsoft has built IE into Windows and relies on it for Windows update functionality, regardless of your browser choice, you’ll have to keep it around anyway. Internet Explorer loads many of it’s libraries into memory when you boot your PC so it loads fairly quickly. That being said however, if you fired up your PC to do office work and had no intention of browsing, it can be quite annoying to realise that you are wasting precious system memory loading IE libraries that you won’t be using. (The same annoyance applies if you don’t use Internet Explorer as your main browser). Internet Explorer is also the only browser in this review that can’t seem to get Favicons to display consistantly, which is ironic since if memory serves Favicons were a Microsoft invention.

As a web developer tool, Internet Explorer leaves allot to be desired, IE’s Javascript debugger is limited in the extreme and more often than not it leads you around in circles when trying to find the typo you made in that 200 line Javascript. There are no free developer tools that plug into IE that I’ve found and it really doesn’t offer anything useful for web developers other then a test to make sure you have supported it correctly.

Internet Explorer is not that bad a browser at it’s base. It’s interface is intuitive, everything it offers is easy to find, and it is reasonably quick to render pages. The main things holding Internet Explorer back are lack of features, lack of W3C standards, proper PNG image support and a truly woeful security record. Oh and it ties you to a single companies Operating Systems which is something a tool like a web browser shouldn’t really do and none of the other browsers in this review do. Spyware is also a huge problem with Internet Explorer and most of the call outs I used to get from clients where a system was slow or unstable were caused either directly or indirectly by Internet Explorer induced Virus and Spyware problems. Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware companies love Internet Explorer as it has made them millions upon millions of dollars in revenue. So much so that Microsoft themselves now look like getting into the paid subscription Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware business. Don’t count Internet Explorer out yet though, time will tell if Microsoft can fix the security record and patch in updated CSS and PNG support when they release IE7. IE7 will not be an option for pre XP SP2 Windows so if you use 98/ME/2000 you will have to upgrade to XP or use one of the other browsers in this review to get any of the benefits of an up to date browser. Internet Explorer is cheap (free) if you already own Windows and ridiculously expensive if you don’t.

Netscape 8
Netscape 8 is the odd one in the pack here. They have endeavoured to take the best of both Firefox and IE and put it all in one browser. The idea is a good one, but their choice of Internet Explorer rendering as the default choice puzzles me. I’d have preferred to see the decision made automatically where possible based on a pages doctype (or lack thereof) or via a pre-parsing engine that compares the page code it is reading with what is understood by each rendering engine (with an easy manual override).
Interestingly Netscape 8 seems to render significantly faster when you use Firefox’s rendering engine then IE’s though I have no idea if that is because of the engines themselves or the mechanism that Netscape uses to call them.

Netscape 8’s User Interface (UI) is a mixed bag, the two default themes are interesting because they seem to have done what I suggested for Firefox, one eye candy theme (Fusion) and one plain theme that looks much like Firefox’s default theme (Winscape). The Fusion theme looks cool, but it moves things from their default Windows placement (like the fact that the whole menu bar is moved to the right hand side of the window) and the odd collection of buttons under the main tool bar that handle multi-bar display are a little confusing at first as a result it isn’t terribly intuitive until you get used to it. Netscape have also embedded any number of “extras” in like weather reports and movie reviews as well as shopping links and other such things. Most of the time they just clutter up the UI and make it seem more like Adware.
The Winscape theme as I said looks much like Firefox’s default theme, and all the usual features are where you would expect them to be. It still has all that extra tool bar stuff but I’ve not yet tried delving into the browsers options to see if I could turn them off. The “Security Center” quick launch button on the tool bar menu is a great idea.

Netscape supports both Themes and Extensions, however at the time of writing the only themes available are the two that came with the default installation and there are no extensions I could find at all. That might change however as Netscape 8 is still very new and interested parties have not yet had the time to produce anything useful.

On the subject of standards support, Netscape 8 on Windows would seem to have it all. For pages that need IE, the IE rendering engine will do the job and for the more recent standards compliant sites you can chose the Firefox rendering engine. The selector to choose which one to use is in the bottom left corner of the window and changes to the icon of the browser it comes from. (Firefox or IE). As I mentioned earlier, an automated switching mechanism would be of benefit, mostly because most newbie’s don’t know enough about the subject to make a wise decision or even to know why it’s necessary in the first place. Failing an automated switching mechanism, Netscape should have set the Firefox rendering engine as the default and then looked at the pages in question and asked to switch to IE if it found ActiveX or a page written by Frontpage, Visual Studio or other Microsoft HTML generating tools.

As a web developer tool, NS8 doesn’t have the wealth of Extensions available that Firefox provides, but that may change in future, it does have a good Javascript console and if people port their Firefox extensions to Netscape it will be every bit as good as Firefox in this regard.

Security is also an interesting aspect for Netscape 8, since it uses both Firefox and IE’s rendering engine, it needs to keep both up to date to remain secure. The day after NS8 was released it was found to be based on an older version of Firefox that had several relatively minor security issues. They promptly fixed the issue but it showed us how this side of NS8 is something of worry security wise. For the IE rendering side of things, I am assuming that must be handled via the normal Windows Update system and there is precious little Netscape can do about that. It remains to be seen how secure Netscape 8 is since it’s still new and only time will tell. Since it’s only about a month old and already has had a few flaws disclosed, it can only get better from here. It also remains to be seen if Netscape will be vulnerable to any Internet Explorer flaws that are found in the future. If it is susceptible to IE security holes, then in my mind at least, one of the reasons to switch to an alternative browser is now gone.

The price of Netscape 8 is great (free) but Netscape seem to have added many items that provide them with a revenue stream by (hopefully) attracting users to those services. You can’t hold that against them however, so it comes down to how annoying you find it. I personally found the movie link changing every minute or two rather distracting but your usage may vary. My inexperience with Netscape 8 is such that I may feel the need to update this review later on when I become more familiar with the browsers intricacies.

Opera 8
I must confess have something of a soft spot for Opera, it was the first non Microsoft browser I had tried that taught me that “Web browser” wasn’t synonymous with “Internet Explorer”. That earlier Opera version (5.x) wasn’t good enough to keep me away from IE mostly due to bad Javascript DOM and odd rendering issues but it showed me that Microsoft didn’t really know how to write a tight fast browser without bloat. Opera 8 looks very clean, even with the Google text ads running under the menu bar.

Tabbed browsing is really advertised as a feature, mostly due to the big “New page” button on the menu that spawns a new tab when pressed. The tabbed interface is the cleanest of all the implementations (without taking Firefox’s tabbing Extensions into account). Each tab is clearly defined and has it’s own close button as well as looking somewhat like the title bar of the Operating System it’s running on. Top points for the default tabbing UI go to Opera. The main menu bar which features the Forward, Backward, Reload and Home buttons is much smaller on Opera then the other browsers but it’s likely that they had to make some allowances for the Ad display on the free version and it isn’t much of an issue to gripe about. The menu system is fairly straight forward and everything is more or less where you’d expect it to be.

The big difference between Firefox and Opera seems to be that Firefox prefers to keep the browser at a fairly basic level feature wise and use Extensions to expand the feature set as the user requires. Opera comes up with some good features and makes them a default part of the browser. As an example, Opera has a “Small screen” option in the “View” menu that replicates somewhat what you would see on a non PC device. In Firefox has the “Small Screen Renderer” Extension that performs much the same function but isn’t installed unless you see the need for it and install it yourself. Another example is the Zoom function in the “View” menu, in Opera it’s a default feature, in Firefox it is provided by the “Text size tool bar“. In that instance I believe Opera got it right as that feature is so useful it should be a default part of Firefox as well. Notes and most of the other features of Opera are also provided to Firefox users by way of Extensions. It remains to be seen which is the most popular approach, but as a power user I’d prefer to decide what extras I want to bloat my installation with and Opera can’t hope to replicate “by default” the same feature set of all the Firefox extensions add without bloating Opera’s code base beyond usability. The User Interface is skinable and most areas can be user customised in the options including such things as icon size and toolbar options.

One thing I don’t like about Opera, is that it by default identifies itself as Internet Explorer. I don’t like it, because it is behaviour like that, that makes web developers think that they don’t need to write standards compliant code and can instead just code for Internet Explorer. I understand why Opera have done it, but I don’t agree or approve of their choice, but it’s easy enough to change via the nice menu they have provided for that function. (Firefox has the “User agent switcher” to provide that ability). The “Voice” tool provided by Opera is very handy and after it has downloaded the 10.5MB of extras required for this feature it performed well and is an excellent tool for users that prefer to have pages read out to them. Just highlight some text, right click and select “Speak” from the menu. If this functionality is important to you, then Opera is the browser you need as I’ve not seen anything like it available for the other browsers. (That is not to say that such functionality doesn’t exist for the other browsers, just that I’ve not seen it.) (Update: I stand corrected, Firefox has the FoxyVoice extension to provide that functionality for Windows users.)

Standards support in Opera 8 is light years ahead of where it was a couple of versions back. I didn’t find any sites in my browsing that looked bad in Opera but having said that I didn’t go looking for sites that would look bad either. Opera 8 is also miles ahead of IE6 in it’s support of the W3C standards and that is something Microsoft isn’t likely to catch up to in just one new version. The days when I used to pull my hair out trying to get DHTML pages working in Opera appear to be over. A quick trip around maps.google.com showed that it was as good as the other browsers at handling the DHTML intensive site.

For web development, Opera is well ahead of the likes of IE, but a fair way behind Firefox if you load in the relevant extensions. That is hardly Opera’s fault though as they don’t have Firefox’s Extension system and building all that stuff into the browser would be a case of making big changes for a relatively small audience
.

Security wise, Opera generally gets the thumbs up as it seldom shows up on security sites. Having said that an update came out not long after version 8 was released to patch a vulnerability. The Speed with which that update was released speaks well for the companies support for their browser and it all goes to prove that there is no such thing as a completely safe web browser. With that in mind, of the 4 browsers in this review, only one of them regularly has exploits floating around the Internet looking to infect users. And only one of them will happily fill your PC with Spyware. Can you guess which one it is? I’ll give you a clue, it isn’t Opera, it isn’t Firefox and it isn’t Netscape. I should again mention that I have not been using Opera 8 long enough to fully form my opinions so I may update the review after I’ve used it for a few months.

It must be noted that I generally abhor giving numerical scores for reviews like this one, so I’ll use words instead. You can’t go wrong with any browser in this review except IE6. And when IE7 comes out you may be good to go with that one as well. Promoting open web standards is very important to me, so I’ll probably never consider IE unless they fall into line in this regard and stop trying to take over the web via incompatibility and propriety technology. Opera comes as Adware or a paid version. If you can put up with the Ads, then the free version is a competent, fully featured and standards compliant browser. [Note: after this article was written, Opera made it’s browser available without charge and without advertisements]. Netscape 8 is an example of innovation extending out from Open Source software and has many of the same benefits of Firefox. I didn’t find using it as pleasant as Opera or Firefox and I’m at something of a loss to explain why but I expect it has to do with all the 3rd party movie/weather/kitchen sink tool bars distracting me as they seemed more distracting then even Operas Ad bar. It’s an excellent start though and with some further development could be a real contender. Netscape just has to get it into their head that they need to use subtlety when incorporating 3rd parties products into their browser. IE6 SP2 is what it is, everyone reading this is no doubt well familiar with it and it isn’t worth going over it again. Until Microsoft puts some new rabbits in their IE hat and comes to grips with security issues, it will only be used by me for updating Windows machines and viewing sites that I absolutely must use that are totally unusable in anything else. (I avoid such sites like the plague whenever possible).

If I absolutely must provide a numerical score for each browser, here is roughly how I’d rank them.
Firefox: 8.0/10
Opera 8: 7.5/10
Netscape 8: 7.0/10
IE6 SP2: 4.0/10

If it weren’t for Firefox’s extensions and the fact that the free Opera is Adware, I’d have ranked Opera above Firefox. Again I don’t begrudge Opera the right to make money but I’d have preferred it if Opera standard was totally free and they charged for the extras like Voice and other such things. But if the Google ads don’t annoy you then there is no problem right? And if they do you can always buy it as it isn’t so expensive to do so.
Netscape 8 shows a great deal of promise, however it seems big and unwieldy to me but that may be in part to the default Fusion theme and all the third party extra’s they put on the main toolbars. IE6 is only in the comparison at all because it’s the most widely used browser. If not for that it doesn’t have the features or security record to compare with any of the more updated browsers. As it stands now, the two biggest browsers on the Internet are Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox. Time will tell if Microsoft can get an updated IE out to help them keep their majority.

Note: I’d love to have included Safari in this test, and possibly Konqueror, but due to time constraints and the desire to stick with Windows since that is what most people visiting this site are using I was unable to do so. Having said that Safari has grown considerably in market share as determined by visitors to this site and it has the feature set and security record to compete with any of these browsers.








4 Responses to “Browser comparison. IE6 verses Netscape 8 verses Opera 8 verses Firefox 1.0.4.”

  1. George Says:

    Well, opera is free now. I’m not sure about plug-in capability in Opera but it should be there. If it’s not it’s a big minus to them (i use opera 90% of time). But i think it’s better to have some extra features included in the base code of the browser. I’ve user Firefox and it’s annoying to install all the extensions each time i format. Plus i think it is slower like this, as there are not too many ways to create extensions without bloating the code. Not sure about this one. Why should i install the Flash extension for Firefox? It’s something that should be supported.
    So i’d (and i do) go for Opera. Especially now that it’s free.
    Hope to get some feedback.

  2. Leo Isaacks Says:

    I have installed Netscape Browser but can’t get my e-mail to work. AOL, Yahoo, and others listed work OK. Any idea on how to get Earthlink Mail to work?
    Leo

  3. W Coleman Says:

    I wrote what I thought was W3C DOM javascript and ran it on IE6 sp2, NS6.2, and NS8.0.4. It runs fine in IE and NS8 rendered as IE but not in NS6 or NS8 in FF mode. I want to dynamically update table cells and textareas etc. Here’s the code.

    and this is in a .js file

    var obj=new Project();
    obj.name="Uganda";

    function getObject(obj){
    return document.getElementById(obj);
    }

    Any ideas? My targets are IE6 sp2, and NS6+.

    I also want to DnD to and from the browsers i.e. a block from a spreadsheet into a browser table.

    Thanks Franki,

    WC

    [Edit Note by Don: Thanks for dropping by our chat facility (see link in upper left menu for live chat help). We concluded that the problem was that you didn’t define the object txfProvenience as far as NS6 was concerned. You had a text field named “txfProvenience” and that was not sufficient. Changing name to id — a unique identifier — seemed to solve your problem. Glad we were able to solve it. Let us know if that isn’t all that was required.]

  4. Piyush Pawar Says:

    What is the difference in html codds for IE,Netscape and Firefox

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HTMLfixIT Site Stats.

Browser Statistics
Internet Explorer 85.88%
IE 717.63%
IE 62.3%
IE 50.00%
IE other8.6%
Moz Firefox 3.x3.03%
Moz Firefox 2.x0.18%
Moz Firefox 0.x/1.x26.65%
Netscape 8.x0.00%
NS 6+/Mozilla2.73%
Moz Seamonkey0.00%
K-meleon0.00%
Epiphany0.00%
Netscape 4.x0.00%
Opera 9.x0.00%
Opera 8.x0.00%
Opera 7.x0.42%
Opera 6.x0.00%
Opera other0.42%
Safari Mac/Intel5.21%
Safari Mac/PPC0.06%
Safari Windows25.2%
Google Chrome1.51%
Konqueror0.18%
Galeon0.00%
WebTV0.00%


Resolution Statistics
640 x 4800.25%
800 x 60026.14%
1024 x 76836.55%
1152 x 8640.25%
1280 x 80011.68%
1280 x 8540.00%
1280 x 102417.01%
1400 x 10500.00%
1600 x 12001.02%
1920 x 12007.11%
2560 x 10240.00%


OS Statistics
Windows 741.55%
Windows Vista2.4%
Windows 20033.91%
Windows XP20.86%
Windows 20000.36%
Windows NT40.05%
Windows 98/ME0.05%
Windows 950.00%
Linux/UNIX/BSD8.76%
Mac OSX8.03%
Mac Classic0.00%
Misc14.03%



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