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The Ultimate Mac Browser Roundup

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If any one application is near and dear to almost every Mac users heart, it is the web browser. With more applications becoming web based, and web applications becoming more complicated, the browser’s appearance, feel, and most of all performance become even more important. 2008 has been a big year for web browsers, with Firefox 3, Safari 3.1, and several massive improvements in javascript performance. 2009 is poised to be even more impressive in browser achievements, with new versions of most browsers in the works, and the promise of a new player with a big impact, Google Chrome.

Each browser was run through the industry standard Acid3 and SunSpider tests.

If you are looking for choice, performance, feel, or appearance, at least one of the 16 browsers below should fit the bill.

Webkit Browsers

Safari: Apple’s default web browser, Safari is the most popular browser in the Mac market, and for good reason. Safari is elegant, fast, and integrates deeply into the Mac environment. As great as Safari is though, there is always room for improvement. My biggest gripe with Safari, and I’ll admit it is a small one, is how it handles the contextual menu search. If I highlight a word, CMD-Click and select “Search with Google”, Safari should open a tab in the background with the search in it. Right now what Safari does is replace the tab I’m reading with the search. If there’s a hidden preference for this somewhere, someone please point it out to me.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3609.2ms

Omniweb: The Omni Group’s venerable web browser OmniWeb is the only one on this list that is not available for free. OmniWeb sells for a list price of $15. OmniWeb is packed with features, and integrates just as well as Safari does into the Mac. OmniWeb’s distinctive tabs, which are really thumbnails in a drawer, make the interface stand out from the crowd.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3745.4ms

iCab: Another ancient web browser, I was very surprised to see iCab updated. iCab is fast, but it also has a few annoying characteristics. For one, unless you donate to the developer, you get a window that appears every time it’s launched. Also, iCab uses very non-standard buttons in its toolbar.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3727.0ms

Shiira: The browser from the Land of the Rising Sun, Shiira aims to be “better and more useful than Safari,” and attempts this by adding a few interesting features. It creates large screenshot tabs at the bottom of the window, similar to OmniWeb. I found them rather obtrusive there, but they are customizable in the preferences. Its “Tab Expose” feature is nice, as are the HUD windows for bookmarks and history. Sadly, it seems that Shiira may be abandonware, as there have been no updates since January, and there are rumors of the projects death in the forums.
Acid 3 Score: 74/100
SunSpider Total: 3571.4ms

Sunrise: Sunrise uses a URL field to both search and enter addresses, which I think is a great idea. I’m not sure if Google thought that up with Chrome first or not, but I think from a usability standpoint it’s excellent. Bookmarks are a little different in Sunrise as well. It takes a screenshot of the web page to bookmark, and then instead of a standard menu there is a list of the screenshots that slides out from the right hand side. Interesting, but I’m not sold on how useful this is. If there are only a few bookmarks, then I suppose this would work well, but I doubt this could scale very far.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3558.0ms

Cruz: Cruz is a very early attempt to blend the best of Firefox and Safari into a webkit based browser. As a 0.1 release, its more of a proof of concept than a usable everyday browser, but it does seem like it has some promise.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3556.4ms

Stainless: Another “proof of concept” browser, Stainless is an attempt to clone Google Chrome for OS X. The developers describe Stainless as a “technology demo,” and advise that it is not for every day use. The main feature of this browser is that each tab is an independent process, so a web page could crash the tab, but the application could keep running.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3630.4ms

AOL: Wow, this was a blast from the past! AOL still has the familiar “You’ve got mail!” voice from years past. The browser portion of AOL looks to be based on webkit, and seems quick and usable. The only item I find incomprehensible with the AOL for Mac desktop is the tab bar at the top of the screen, which really equates to a series of bookmarks that take up a whole lot of screen real estate for very little functionality.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3551.4ms

Gecko Browsers

Firefox: The other big dog in the Mac browser market besides Safari, Firefox has all the speed of Safari along with its famous extensions that can add a ton of functionality. Firefox on the Mac feels much more at home than previous versions have, and is a serious contender for the browser crown.
Acid 3 Score: 71/100
SunSpider Total: 3389.0ms

Flock: You’ve got at least one blog, a Facebook account, photos on Flickr, videos on Youtube, and you are on on Twitter 24/7. If this is you, Flock is your browser. Flock is built from the ground up to integrate into the social web. Flock has several features that make it easer to stay connected. Unfortunately, it also has a user interface that makes it easer to stay distracted too.
Acid 3 Score: 75/100
SunSpider Total: 3419.4ms

Camino: It used to be brisk, baby! Camino is the older Gecko engine from Firefox built into a Mac browser. Camino seems to have fallen behind the development curve lately, but it still sports a clean interface and proper Mac integration. With Firefox’s new and improved Mac port, I’m not sure we will see too much more from Camino.
Acid 3 Score: 53/100
SunSpider Total: 11683.4ms

The Odd Man Out

Opera: Opera’s user interface takes some getting used to, with the tabs on top and the controls on the bottom. However, once the mind set of each tab being completely separate is achieved, it makes a lot of sense. Opera mimics the functionality of the older Mozilla browser, including not only a web browser, but a mail client, and RSS feed reader, a widget rendering engine, and a sink from either the kitchen or bathroom, I’m not sure. Even with all the extra ability, Opera seems quite brisk and responsive. Opera is also the only browser that doesn’t include either the Webkit or Gecko rendering engines. Opera builds its own, named Presto. Opera is a good browser, but it’s a port to the Mac, and unfortunately, that’s what it feels like… a port.
Acid 3 Score: 85/100
SunSpider Total: 6740.0


WebKit Nightly: Wow. I mean that… the latest WebKit nightly are incredibly fast. Safari and the rest of the WebKit gang have a lot of goodness to look forward to. I’ve started using WebKit as my main browser for now, essentially getting the next version of Safari before it’s actually released.
Acid 3 Score: 100/100
SunSpider Total: 956.8ms

Firefox 3.1 beta: Not as impressive as I’d hoped it would be. The latest Firefox beta seemed a little sluggish during my limited testing of it.
Acid 3 Score: 93/100
SunSpider Total: 1655.8ms

Opera 10 Alpha: Another good port from Opera. Alpha quality software for now, should be interesting when released. Opera recently hired John Hicks from Hicks Design to head up their user interface, so maybe we can expect a little better Mac integration in the future. I’d be all for fewer features and being a better Mac citizen.
Acid 3 Score: 100/100
SunSpider Total: 5507.2ms

CrossOver Chromium: OK, speaking of ports… I threw this one in because I’m so anxiously waiting for Chrome to be released on the Mac. I use the Windows version at work on XP, and it beats the pants off of everything else. There are no features, there are no add-ons or extensions, there’s just a amazingly fast browser that does one thing and does it very well. This is actually an emulated Windows Chrome running in a special version of Wine from the guys at CodeWeavers. Even with the emulation, Chrome performed very well. When Chrome is released for OS X, it will change the browser market.
Acid 3 Score: 73/100
SunSpider Total: 1527.0ms

29 Responses to “The Ultimate Mac Browser Roundup”

  1. Just wait for Camino 2.0, all that stuff you said it was lacking is fixed =). 2.0 is using the latest Gecko branch with a few new features, as well as decreased loading time, more responsiveness, and plugin speed boost. And the best part is I don’t have to deal with a disgusting XUL interface to get the same features of Firefox to a native Mac interface in a faster browser.

    To check out the nightly builds of 2.0:

  2. “I wouldn’t mind seeing browsers display a score or icon or the like (on the toolbar or whatever) rating the adherence of the page to the standard as this may help users understand where the real issue lies.”

    Great idea! I wonder if this could be built into a toolbar or something similar.

    Also, I understand your point, and I’m going to give this matter more thought.

    • Colin Pye

      I believe iCab has had this feature in it since Version 2, which still runs on 68K Macs, so it wasn’t introduced yesterday. They even have a campaign called “Make ICab Smile”, since the status bar icon shows a yellow smiley face when things are standards-compliant, and gets progressively more upset or sick as the web page code gets worse. It will also highlight errors if you click on the upset icon.

      It’s annoying to find it, but many web sites try to figure out which browser a user is using, and will remove features if it’s not one of their “blessed” ones. To fight this, some browsers let you masquerade under a different browser identity, and in those cases, the dirty tricksters stand out like a sore thumb.

      I wish the author would have indicated the version numbers of the browsers in this roundup. I’m sure many of them have been updated more recently than the article!

  3. Heraclides

    “I really don’t think it matters if Opera adheres more stringently to web standards than any other browser if the browser doesn’t work in the one site that I (or any random user) want it to. I agree that web sites should be %100 compliant as much as possible, but if my browser doesn’t display the page that I want to view correctly, than I’m going to use a browser that does. Again, I wish I had some good data on this, but I don’t. More just a feeling that I’ve had using the browser. Like thinking: “Where is that, I thought there was an option for X on this site.” Yes, they were probably heavily javascripted sites, and no, they probably weren’t perfect, but if it works in another browser and not in Opera, I’m going to use the other browser.”

    Forgive me for this, but I’m going to try again to get you to see the point. This is short-sighted thinking in that while it works in a “here and for this moment” stop-gap fashion, it puts the burden to “fix the problem” on the wrong group: as I wrote before, supporting non-standard code perpetuates the problem. Mixed support of alternatives from the standards leaves developers of both of browsers and webpages without a well-understood and universally accepted objective to code for. This is the hell that web developers have been trying to get away from for quite some time. This is not just an issue for Opera, but for ALL browsers.

    When there is more than one implmentation of a “language”, a common standard needs to be developed so that there is common understanding of what the compiler/interpreter/render is to accept and what coders are to code.

    If a coder chooses to work outside the standard, using code only supported by one implementation of the langauge, their code not working on the other implementations of the langauge are not the “fault” of those implementating the languages, but the coder in choosing to use features they should know are outside of the standard and so will fail in other environments.

    If I choose to use an extension to C that is not implemented in other compilers, it is not the fault of other compilers that my code won’t compile (correctly) on them and it is not for the other compiler developers to “cover for” my decision. Same deal for web development.

    While you might get frustrated in not being able to render the page faithfully in your choice of browser, your frustration really should be directed at the coders of the relevant website.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing browsers display a score or icon or the like (on the toolbar or whatever) rating the adherence of the page to the standard as this may help users understand where the real issue lies. I’ve seen your line of reasoning elsewhere and it rests on users’ innocently making an unreasonable demand on the browsers: they shouldn’t me made to cover for coder’s poor decisions.

    The dictionary shortcut (other browser users would use a copy & paste to Dictionary) is only in WebKit-based browsers (AFAIK) and I think it is better described that way. It is quite neat, if a bit niche.

    I only use Opera as a browser and I’m sure that’s true for many people. There may be so little for Opera (the company) or the user to gain in presenting packages without the non-browser code that Opera don’t. After all, if you’re not losing anything in extras how their presence is a negative feature? Every program has features I never use, but as long as they stay out of my way, that’s fine. Their presence may affect download sizes and disk space somewhat, but it shouldn’t affect the run-time situation much.

    Perhaps i[f] we all used Opera[,] web sites would be forced to code appropriately and stop sniffing for the user agent.”

    Firstly, this is not specific to Opera and is not an issue of browsers as I wrote above: it’s an issue of user’s asking (impractically) that browsers should “cover” for others’ choosing to code using non-standard “features”.

    Secondly, determining what the user agent itself is, is a poor solution to branching Javascript code to handle non-standard implementations, it is better to check for object/method support. There are excellent explanations for the reasons behind this on the internet.

  4. @Heraclides Sorry, didn’t mean to come off as condescending, totally not what I was aiming for. Here are some more of my thoughts about Opera.

    I really don’t think it matters if Opera adheres more stringently to web standards than any other browser if the browser doesn’t work in the one site that I (or any random user) want it to. I agree that web sites should be %100 compliant as much as possible, but if my browser doesn’t display the page that I want to view correctly, than I’m going to use a browser that does. Again, I wish I had some good data on this, but I don’t. More just a feeling that I’ve had using the browser. Like thinking: “Where is that, I thought there was an option for X on this site.” Yes, they were probably heavily javascripted sites, and no, they probably weren’t perfect, but if it works in another browser and not in Opera, I’m going to use the other browser.

    One thing in the back of my mind when using Opera is all the extra features. Mail, RSS, Widgets(?!), etc… For me, I love having my feeds in Google Reader, my mail in, and I’ve got the Dashboard for widgets, so I don’t use those extra features. On the other hand, I’ve never had the impression that Opera was “bloated” with the extra features like Mozilla was, and now SeaMonkey. I simply want to browse with my browser.

    The final thought I have about Opera is integration. I love having my usernames and passwords stored in Keychain. CMD-CTRL-D does not define the word that is highlighted. I’m not sure how to send the current page as an email, although you can send a link using the right-click contextual menu. OK, this is all small stuff, but we are discussing preferences in browsers.

    What I see Opera has going for it, or what I’ve loved about it in the past: Syncing Opera across platforms is awesome, works like a charm. Using the widgets on Linux or Windows when I’m in that neck of the woods is nice. Opera is fast, and lightweight for the number of features it has. I think the best thing that Opera has going for it is adherence to web standards. Perhaps is we all used Opera web sites would be forced to code appropriately and stop sniffing for the user agent.

    Again, YMMV, and to each his own. :)

  5. Heraclides


    I wasn’t trying to argue with you ;-) Writing “but the fact is” is a little dogmatic (!) and might be read as assuming I don’t know much about Apple computers or their users. It happens that I’ve owned Apple machines since the ][+ and I did, indirectly, indicate that “look and feel” is valued by many Mac users. (I’ve also used a wide range of other OSes and machine since those days.) It’s just I’ve long, long gotten past liking a product mostly for its “look and feel”. I like nice products as much as anyone, but, particularly for work that matters, a product has to work well first. It’s really just a matter of priorities and I think, to an extent, looking past “gloss” and “hype”. It’s probably what happens when you get older (read: more experienced) and cynical :-)

    Regards the “bad buttons”, etc., I’ve rarely experienced this and am sceptical that this is particularly true of Opera compared to other browsers. All browsers have compliance issues as any of the better HTML/CSS/DOM compatibility tables show.

    That said, these “faults” are most often a case of the website developer not testing their code for compliance, not a fault in the browser itself. It is particularly true for websites developed initially for Explorer, as Explorer is the odd one out in its methods of accessing the DOM (the internal representation of the structure of a webpage Javascript accesses) and a few other things. The up-shot is that code for Explorer in particular needs validating against other browsers (and vice versa). Some browser developers “accommodate” Explorer’s non-standard approaches to varying degrees. Apparently, some browser developers even resort to detecting specific popular websites and having ad hoc code deal with their quirks. While I understand the logic behind this (it keeps the punters happy), I feel it perpetuates the problem.

    That Opera scores very well on the Acid 3 test would have me suspect that the issue will be that the website concerned is not standards-compliant and I would first be looking at the website developer, not the browser ;-) The Acid 3 test is specifically targeted at this type of issue, after all.

  6. I second Heraclides in being a very happy Opera user and whole-heartedly recommending it for *everyone*. Forget Mac integration, you simply cannot beat the built-in features and stability. The instances of bad rendering are rare and, in my experience, usually due to heavy JavaScript. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s head and shoulders above all the others.

  7. Regardless of others tweaks and [this week’s] superlative, Safari’s built-in RSS feed aggregator is a necessity for the blogs I write and/or edit.

    Every now and then, after a Firefox update, I’ll give their RSS handler a try; but, Safari remains superior.

  8. I found the Camino beta (Download here) after writing this up, and I’m very impressed so far! I’ve been using it as my primary browser for a few days now, and I’ve gone ahead and deleted most of the other browsers.

    @Heraclides You bring up some very good points, but the fact is that looks do matter quite a lot to Mac users, and the look and feel of Opera has always seemed to me at least like they “also” support the Mac, not designed for the Mac.

    The other thing with Opera, and this is harder to put your finger on, is that there are some sites that have some features that do not show up in Opera. Missing buttons and things like that. I don’t have any concrete evidence of it, but its something I’ve noticed while using it.

    Also, the list wasn’t “Good” or “Bad”, it was just a list of each browser and my impressions of using them in day to day use.

    As always, YMMV :)

  9. Heraclides

    Some quick comments:

    1. If readers want a very complete list of web browsers for the Apple Mac platform, try this: (160 and counting… OK, not all of them are “true” web browsers.)

    2. One thing I generally dislike about lists of products, is a tendency to present alternatives as “good” or “bad”. I personally prefer people to just list features that distinguish the alternatives, and refrain from personal judgement, as I find myself trying to second-guess why the author has that particular stance. Just a thought. This is much better than most, but all the same I feel one or two of the entries read uncritically could be read as tad biased! ;-)

    3. Excuse me for “adding” to the Opera entry to try balance out its review a little, as I know this browser particularly well.

    Opera was for some time well ahead of the other browsers in support for the standards and performance: the other browsers have caught up now, although Opera is still scoring higher on the Acid 3 test as you show. In my (anecdotal) experience, it is still the most robust browser. I for example routinely have about 50-60 tabs open, something I don’t (yet) trust the other browsers to maintain well. To be fair, I haven’t pushed the other browsers overly hard of late, but that reflects past experience… a browser hanging, crashing, etc., is a major disruption to my work flow, so naturally I avoid it. I typically have Opera open for over a week or so with 60+ tabs (in several windows) without issue.

    Opera is quite configurable, e.g. my “controls” are on the left, not the bottom, which had me confused by your remark at first.

    I think in summary if looks matter over ability, users might not like Opera, but if ability matters, as it does for me, users might find it a good choice. This may likely be more true of those whose work involves intensive use of the internet; “home users” for which the use of the internet is “play” might feel happier with a nicer “look”, especially as they are probably less affected by crashes, nor keep the browser up and running for more than a week, etc.

    It still has room for improvement, of course, and for specific uses I occasionally use other browsers, e.g. at the moment both the Opera and Safari approach to “Save As”, esp. for PDFs, is poor and as a result I usually use Firefox for downloads; previously I used Opera until some twit changed “Save As” for the worse.

    Funnily, I find the Firefox interface to feel clunky! Some of the plug-ins are very useful, e.g. the developer plug-ins and Zotero is very interesting, but still needs some work when I last looked.

    Safari, I feel is targeted to “lighter” users. My perception is that this reflects an overall strategy by Apple of providing for the non-specialist “consumer” market and (deliberately) not venturing beyond this, leaving that for others. My experience has been that it’s nice for “light-weight” browsing (it has a nice “look and feel”, etc.), but for work purposes I rarely use it as ability and stability matter more to me.

  10. The latest version of Stainless has a preference to load the WebKit nightlies, so you can test the speedy WebKit Nightly inside Stainless’s shiny multi-process browser UI.

  11. I agree, Camino’s speed seems pretty good so far. Too bad about it’s Acid 3 test, but so far it’s holding up for all the pages I visit, and for my personal pages with my own Javascript etc.

  12. segaprophet

    In my opinion, Safari is a performance disaster, I’ve had the same problems with constant disk access and memory leaks, Safari also locks up way more often than any other browser I’ve tried.

    In general, every Gecko browser above is better than Safari on all these counts, but I prefer Camino from among them for it’s OS X integration, and it ain’t no slouch on speed either.

  13. Wow, I had no idea there were so many browsers. I’ve been annoyed lately with my mac’s performance and after doing some tests it seemed that Safari was the culprit, specifically with it’s continual disk access and huge memory footprint. I wanted something the integrated with Keychain, so Firefox was out, and I remembered Camino. I’m currently testing it to see if it will become my browser of choice.

    That said, with all these other possibilities I might have to give some others a try too. Oh to have a low memory Safari that wasn’t a lock hungry hog.

  14. segaprophet

    hey, don’t be so hard on Camino, it’s still chugging along!

    the 2.0 beta was just released, and that uses the latest Gecko version, along with some nifty new features.

  15. in Safari: just hold down the cmd-key while right-click a selected word to search with google … the tab with the google-search will open in the background … Safari always behaves like this

  16. I really love iCab and use it as my primary browser. The developer is prompt to respond to questions and/or comments. The browser itself is very stable, secure, and actually highly customizable. I encourage folks to give it a try. I liked it enough that it was easily worth the small ‘donation’ to the developer.