5 lesser-known browsers: Free, lightweight and low-maintenance

Are Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome slowing your machine -- or are they simply more than you need? We look at some alternatives.

Popular browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome have lots of features -- and can take up lots of memory. We look at 5 lesser-known browsers for simpler surfing.

Mainstream Web browsers such as IE, Firefox and Chrome provide a huge set of browsing and configuration features that make these browsers highly customizable. However, these features can have have a negative impact on the browser's speed and memory footprint.

In fact, many users do not require all those features -- especially developers, who want to work quickly and without unnecessary frills. Happily, there are alternative Web browsers that are simple, fast and light on memory resources.

In this article, I examine five lesser-known free Web browsers: Dillo, Epiphany, Konqueror, Lynx and Midori. While they are all Linux-based browsers, three (Konqueror, Lynx and Midori) are compatible with Windows systems, while three (Dillo, Konqueror and Lynx) can be used on Macs.

Each browser has its strengths and weaknesses, I've discovered. Some of them strip away too much functionality for my taste, but one strikes just the right balance and has now become my daily go-to browser.

How I tested

For this review, I tested the five browsers on a Dell Inspiron 1525 laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB RAM using Ubuntu 13.04. I used each browser for at least 4 to 5 hours, during which time I researched the browser I was using on the Web and also visited Google, Gmail, Facebook and YouTube.

In addition, I used two benchmarking applications: the Acid3 test, which checks a browser's compliance with JavaScript, Document Object Module (DOM) and other standards; and the HTML5 test to check the browser's compliance with the draft HTML5 specification.

To measure browser speed, I used the Speed-Battle test from U-Double-U.

(Note: Two of the browsers, Dillo and Lynx, could not be tested with any of the above applications because neither supports JavaScript.)

Finally, in order to test memory usage, I used the pmap command in Linux and reported the results after I opened one tab, opened nine more tabs (for a total of ten), closed five of the tabs and then closed four more tabs (leaving one left open).

In all the tests, I also included Chrome and Firefox so that the tested browsers could be compared to the two major browsers available for Linux.

Developer: Jorge Arellano Cid

Reviewed version: dillo-3.0.3

OS support Linux, BSD, OS X, Cygwin

License: GPLv3

Dillo is a minimalistic graphical Web browser that was developed by Jorge Arellano Cid in 1999. His purpose was to allow users to gain access to the information on the Web without having to purchase high-end computer systems or install space-consuming Web browsers. Dillo is written in C/C++ and based on the Fast, Light Toolkit (FLTK) GUI library.

It has a bare minimum GUI framework that consists of a single toolbar with only standard options like back, forward, home, reload, save, stop, bookmark and tools. It supports only HTML/XHTML (with CSS rendering).

Dillo had the smallest memory footprint of all the graphical Web browsers I looked at (the only browser that beat it was text-based Lynx). It comes pre-installed in many Linux distributions such as Damn Small Linux (DSL) and VectorLinux.

What's new

Release 3.0.3 contains several major improvements, including configurable UI colors, speedy DNS requests when IPv6 is disabled and better window titles. Some new features, such as an effective mechanism to block ads and trackers, and the use of Ctrl+U to view page source, were also added.

What's good about it

Open the browser and the welcome screen displays plenty of information related to Dillo: the current release, change-log highlights, a link to the help manual, etc. This saves a lot of time for a new Dillo user.

Most of the websites I tried it with loaded within a second, although not all of them displayed properly (more on that in a moment). A bug meter at the lower-right corner of the browser window detects and displays any bugs that may occur if a site isn't compliant with Web standards.

Cookie support is disabled by default (though it can be enabled). Dillo never sends or accepts cookies while making a third-party request/response and is regarded as an RFC 2965-compliant browser. (RFC 2965 is the original specification for HTTP cookies. It describes a standard that an HTTP server and a browser should follow in order to securely exchange session-related information.)

Though Dillo has a very basic user interface, it supports tabbed browsing. Another good feature is that the browser cache gets cleared every time you exit the browser. This not only makes sure that temporary files and folders do not reserve extra space, but also eliminates the need to empty the browser cache manually. (Though it might put some users off because it hinders faster display of already-visited Web pages.)

Because it is so lightweight, Dillo can also be used with mobile devices and is useful when browsing local documentation such as saved HTML files.

Other considerations

For Dillo users, the low memory footprint comes at a price. The browser does not support websites that rely heavily on JavaScript, Flash or Java. (On the other hand, I never encountered any irritating pop-ups while browsing with Dillo.) It treats iframes as links and so displays them on separate pages. I tried browsing many popular websites but it could not display the sites accurately.

HTTPS support is disabled by default, which could frustrate users of Facebook and other sites that require it. The plug-in can be enabled manually, but I had to reconfigure the source with the --enable-ssl command, then recompile and reinstall the software, something that most users aren't likely to do.

I also wish that Dillo had better keyboard controls. Some standard keyboard shortcuts do not work -- for example, Ctrl+D does not open a bookmarking mechanism and Ctrl+K does not activate the search bar. I'd have also liked an option to store browsing history. Also, scarcity of available browser plug-ins is something that needs to be improved.

Bottom line

Dillo cannot replace mainstream browsers like Firefox, Chrome or IE, but it is an excellent solution if you want to browse the Web using old hardware. It can also be your go-to browser if you want to quickly access information from a heavy website that takes time to load on mainstream browsers.

Epiphany

Developer: Gnome (original author: Marco Pesenti Gritti)

Reviewed version: 3.8.2

OS support Gnome-based Linux and BSD

License: GPLv2+

Epiphany -- also known as the Gnome Web browser -- is a free and open-source Web browser that was primarily developed for the Gnome desktop environment in 2003, after the developers of the Web browser Gaelon parted ways over disagreements on Gaelon's design complexity. Epiphany is GTK-based, is completely written in the C programming language and uses the WebKit engine for rendering Web pages.

Epiphany is useful for users who want a standard browser that has good integration with the Gnome desktop environment.

What's new

Release 3.8.2 contains some updates in Epiphany's ability to be translated to other languages (Epiphany has now been translated into more than 60 languages). There are also a few minor changes, including the removal of some non-required features. For example, page thumbnails are no longer created for error pages, titles for error pages are no longer stored in history and crash pages are not loaded for un-restored pages. These changes could reduce the memory footprint.

What's good about it

Epiphany is HIG-complaint and gets along well with the Gnome desktop environment. It provides private browsing functionality, which can be accessed through the incognito window option in the main menu.

Besides, that, Epiphany provides all the standard features like a pop-up blocker, spelling checker and extension support. One particular feature that I really like is that the bookmarks can be categorized under various user-defined categories.

A new-tab button toward the top right corner makes opening a tab really easy for those who are not used to Ctrl+T.

Other considerations

While the major browsers pack in more features than most people need, they do offer a number of useful features that Epiphany lacks. For example, Epiphany always opens up with a blank screen -- there is no way to specify a home page. A right-click on a link still has the "open link" command above the "open in new tab" command, which is kind of old-school now, as tabbed browsing is the preferred way of browsing these days.

Also, I found it hard to distinguish the active tab from other tabs. Furthermore, a right-click on any non-active tab makes it active, which can be inconvenient in some cases.

Configuration settings are basic, and the browser has nothing extra to offer in terms of privacy other than some standard stuff like cookie- and tracking-related settings. Also, the process of importing bookmarks from other browsers could be reduced to fewer steps. Epiphany also encountered a couple of random crashes while it was loading a website at the same time that I was loading websites in a separate browser.

Finally, there are some ways in which Epiphany doesn't play well with others. It takes standard keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl+B, Ctrl+U and Ctrl+I that are generally used for text editing (bold, underline and italics), and instead assigns them to bookmark management, open page source in a new tab and private browsing, respectively. So, in a nutshell, you cannot use these key combinations for text editing purpose on Google Docs (or any other cloud platform) while working in Epiphany.

Bottom line

If you are looking for a Linux browser that can serve as an alternative to Firefox and at the same time integrates well with the Gnome desktop environment, then you might want to try Epiphany.

Konqueror

Developer: KDE

Reviewed version: 4.10.5

OS support *Nix systems, Windows, Mac

License: GPL

Konqueror is a versatile application that can function as a Web browser, a file manager and a universal file viewer. It was first released in 1996; since 2000, it has come bundled as a core component of the KDE software package.

It allows you to browse both local and networked files/folders (it supports protocols like FTP/SFTP, HTTP and IMAP) and lets you view files such as PDFs and spreadsheets.

What's new

The latest version 4.10.5 contains fixes for a font rendering issue in sites that use Web fonts and a browser auto-save issue that spins up the hard disk even when idle. No new features have been added in this release.

What's good about it

One thing that impressed me right away was the large display area for Web pages. Konqueror displays a tab bar only when there is more than one active tab, so that you have the maximum viewing area while browsing a single website. The browser opens a new tab when you double-click on the tab bar -- a feature that I missed in most of the other browsers reviewed here. Also, tabs have flexible widths that adjust automatically to the title of the page.

The welcome screen contains links that let you go to your home folder, trash, network folders or bookmarks. Two or more files can be easily compared by splitting windows either horizontally or vertically.

Konqueror also provides useful features like an ad-block filter, plug-in/extension support and VNC viewer support. It can also be used as a text/PDF/spreadsheet viewer.

One of the highlights of Konqueror is that it is also a fully-fledged file manager. It supports all the standard file management operations like cut, copy, rename, open-with, etc. and also provides some interesting features such as hierarchical display of files and folders, keyboard shortcuts to open a terminal or execute a command, and a horizontal/vertical split window.

It doesn't have everything one could wish -- for example, I missed having compress, share and send-to options in the right-click menu.

Other considerations

There isn't any Internet search bar in the browser window, a major inconvenience. Also, you can't type a search query in the location bar, which most major browsers now support. I was really surprised when Konqueror crashed for the very first website -- YouTube -- that I tried to open. (It only crashed there once, but others have encountered similar problems.)

However, that wasn't the only problem -- it turned out that there were many more surprises to come.

For example, Gmail refused to show up in its usual feature-rich display. It popped up a notification bar that reported that some important features may not work with Konqueror and so I was redirected to a more basic HTML interface.

The chat window within my Facebook account was always disconnected in Konqueror, while it worked fine in other browsers like Firefox and Midori.

I couldn't open Google Drive at all -- I just kept getting a "File does not exist" error. A closer look at the URL -- https://drive.google.com/DocAction?action=unsupported browser# -- clearly indicated that Google Drive does not support Konqueror.

Apart from these, there were other small issues that I noticed. For example, its use of keyboard commands is inconsistent. Ctrl+T opens a new tab, but Shift+Ctrl+T, instead of reopening the last closed tab as one might expect, opens the current tab again in horizontal split window mode. It's Ctrl+Z that reopens the last closed tab. Also, there isn't any private browsing mode.

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