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Unix Web Browser Comparison

Jan, 2001

Web browsing in Unix has long been considered to be of a lower quality than Windows and Mac browsing. This is due in large to the absence of the now great Internet Explorer for Unix. In fact, MS has ported IE to Solaris (Sparc) and HP-UX, so porting it to popular desktop Unix variants ought to be easy. Of course, Microsoft has a real incentive to keep IE off of Linux, as it's in direct competition with MS Windows. Despite their claims, Solaris and HP-UX are not.

Having said that, recent news in the Unix Browser space have really opened things up. It's an exciting time to be a Linux desktop user.

Opera

Opera, long touted as a small and fast Windows browser has completed porting its browser to BeOS, and seems to be (finally) nearing completion for Linux. The dynamic binary weighs in at just over 1MB, making it the smallest real browser by far.

It is lightening fast, has good JavaScript, but lacks advanced browsing features such as Java, Netscape plug-in support, and high-quality printing options. On top of this, it's not 100% stable, doesn't share the same feel as a Unix browser, is binary only, and costs about $40USD.

If Opera had been released 2 years ago (around when they started porting) it would have changed Linux browsing a lot. As it is now, with KDE's Konqueror, I'm a little uncertain as to where Opera's Linux market will lie. Despite this, it really is an excellent browser

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Netscape 6.0/Mozilla

The venerable Netscape 4.x browser was the only real option for Linux browsing for years. Netscape really did an amazing service to the Linux community by porting to it. However, Netscape 6.0/Mozilla is turning out to be a little bit of a let down.

I've followed closely since Netscape opened their sources. I've been trying Mozilla since around M4 (which is a longtime ago now.) I anxiously downloaded Netscape 6.0 when it came out, and I still use Mozilla daily builds from time to time. However, I'm sad to say that I think Mozilla is dead before it even ships a release build.

It's slow, it's a memory hog, it's still unstable, and by trying o hit all of the platforms they are targeting for, Mozilla feels like it really isn't native to any of them. Now I understand their design decisions, and given that they are targeting practically every platform on earth, I commend their efforts. I strongly believe that Mozilla will live on for a long time as a reference point for future browser development. However, as a purely end-user browser (Not a web application platform) it is sadly lacking. Yes, it has brilliant Java and JavaScript support. Yes, Netscape plug-ins work with it. It is a good browser.. and for obscure OSs like Be, and odd hardware platforms such as Alpha's, it's likely to be the best browser out their. The real problem is that it's just too slow and akward to compete as a stand alone browser.

The excellent rendering engine on the other hand has a brighter future. It's being used in Eazel's forthcoming Nautilus browser, and looks like it'll be used extensively within the Gnome community. Good for them. It still doesn't hold a candle to the browsing experience offered by Konqueror..

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Konqueror

KDE 1.x was a landmark in Unix Desktop usability. When 2.0 was released it was touted again as being the new benchmark if Unix usability. The real sleeper hit of 2.x however is the amazing Konqueror browser.

The Konqueror I'm discussing in this article is the version that ships with the upcoming KDE 2.1. While it hasn't been officially released yet, it will be in about a months time. In the mean time, KDE has already released 2.1beta1 with a second beta due in about a week. I am using a build from about five days ago (January 18, 2001.) It has changed a lot for the better since 2.0x, and a lot even since the last build I had used from January first. Since I imagine the KDE team is in feature freeze, I'm guessing that this will be a fair review. Since I'm 100% sure that the only way it'll change is for the better, I'm very excited about it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, a description of what Konqueror is: It's basically a big container. KDE2 uses something called KParts (Similar to Gnome's upcoming Bonobo) to allow embedding. This is also similar to Microsoft's COM+, but seems much faster, and better implemented.

So, Konqueror can basically load other KParts. The KPart in question here is called KHTML. This is their browsing engine. And it's absolutely remarkable. When you consider all of the resources and time that has gone into Mozilla (who admittedly had to deal with some issues that Konqueror does not) you may be shocked to hear that the KHTML engine has full HTML 4.0 support, XHTML support, XML, Java, Javascript and Netscape plug-in support.

The rendering engine in 2.1 is outstanding! I now use Konqueror exclusively as my web browser. It's fantastic. In the last month, I've had to open Mozilla only once to browse a poorly written page. Once!

About 6-8 people were the core KHTML developers, about that many again worked on the greater Konqueror application. This doesn't include translations, and the scores of people who invariably helped with bug reports and patches. However, a team of approximately 20 has managed to create not only a browser but a real end-user web-enriched experience in about 2 years. This with practically no corporate funding. In fact, I'm not even sure of how many of these 20 were working on Konqueror full time. Amazing.

Okay, but what else can it do? Well, I'll go over the main points:

As mentioned, the HTML rendering is practically flawless. The Javascript support is second only to Netscape, but still isn't quite as good. I've only had one site that caused me troubles, and the Javascript support has improved vastly since 2.0x, so these last few issues may be resolved by the time 2.1 is released. Either way, it's good enough for most browsing.

Java support is done via any one of several installed JDK's. These include Kaffe, Sun's JDK, Blackdown, or the IBM JDK. I've been using the Blackdown JDK, and it's been working great. All applets I've tried have loaded fine. The support is equal to Mozilla and surpasses Netcape 4.x.

XML support is new in 2.1. It's still not 100% accurate. I tried a few pages that I had written and described with a CSS, it loaded better than IE and about as well as Mozilla. XML is still very new, and it's nice to see that Konqueror has such strong support so early on.

Netscape plug in support is included. I've only tested the Flash plug-in so far, but it worked flawlessly. Of course, other file types are viewed natively, more on this later.

Cookie Handling is another area where Konqueror really shines. I haven't seen a browser with such great support as this before. Cookie handling in KDE 1.x was very poor. To make up for this, they've really out done themselves! Of course you can either blindly turn them on (a la Windows) or off, but you can also choose to accept or reject each cookie, or by domain. This is very handy.

For instance, say I go to Slashdot. I can accept all Slashdot cookies, while rejecting all cookies from the banner-ad company that Slashdot uses. This means that over time you get asked less and less about cookies, you can have access to personalized sites that you want, while remaining largely anonymous to other companies (such as doubleclick etc.) The best part is that all of this information is maintained in an easily modified menu accessible under settings. So, if you reject all cookies from a domain and then change your mind, you can edit it to either accept from the domain or ask for each cookie. This fine-grained control is very appreciated. Well done.

Of course Konqueror isn't just a web browser. Like IE and Windows, it's integrated into the KDE desktop. KHTML is but one component. Konqueror also works as an extremely sophisticated, yet easy to use File Manager. In this mode, you can navigate from a tree view, like Windows Explorer or GMC, or in a straight single pained view. You can also split the window, or even open a terminal emulator in a separate pane in the Window. While this may sound confusing, check out these to see what I mean. It's very easy to use and very powerful.

Konqueror can be used as a file browser for both local and remote files. Remote access includes Samba (Windows shares) FTP, and more. For instance, support was recently added to view S3's Rio MP3 Player as yet another file-system.

File browsing is full of little extras such as image, HTML, and text previewing. You can also increase or decrease the zoom, as well as change the font size to suit your fancy.

Another area I've briefly mentioned is file viewing. This is similar to MS's ActiveX, but is very seamless in Konqueror. For instance, if I am viewing a web site (or indeed a local directory or FTP site) and I click on a text file, Konqueror loads the KDE bundled text editor. Similarly, when I click on a PostScript or PDF file, KGhostview is loaded inside the Konqueror pane. This makes viewing local or networked files completely transparent, and makes the browsing experience very rich. In fact, I haven't seem another browser do this as well as Konqueror. Even IE doesn't come close.

The configure-ability of Konqueror is also quite respectable. You can easily control all aspects of its operation from easily understood dialogs. These are accessible either from within Konqueror or from within the KDE Control Panel.

Lastly, I'll discuss speed and stability. Konqueror is blindingly fast. The rendering engine seems at least as fast as Mozilla's, and almost as fast as Opera's. Konqueror is very responsive. The nifty previewing feature I mentioned is done in the background, so you won't notice any speed issues there. Using Konqueror outside of KDE is possible. There's no reason that you can't use it from Enlightenment, WindowMaker or even Gnome, but it's heavily integrated into KDE, so you'll be missing out on a lot of the experience. Also, it's a lot faster in 2.1 than it was in 2.0. The optimizations done are very noticeable. Also improved is the stability. While it's still not 100% in this area, it's certainly the most stable browser I've used, even more so than IE 5.5 for Windows. In fact, with each new build I'm having a much harder time crashing it. This is one area that has significantly improved since 2.0.

I use IE 5.5 almost exclusively at work, and Konqueror beats it hands down. It's funny, but when I come home to Linux and KDE 2.1 I often pause to think of what a better operating environment it is. Not from a robust Unix point of view, but from an end-user point of view.

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Conclusions

So, as you can see, web browsing in Unix is really getting to be a pleasant experience. I'm sorry if I spoke much too long about Konqueror, but it really is that good. While I appreciate the Opera port, and while I've been a huge fan of the Mozilla effort, it's been eclipsed. By IE in Windows, and Koqnueror in Unix. In fact, I'd guess that the brightest future for Mozilla is on platforms such as BeOS and QNX, as well as a component for other applications.

Konqueror, on the other hand, has all of the end-user features, is small, fast, stable and a joy to use. My hat goes off to the KDE team for coming up out of nowhere and stealing the show. Again.

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