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Review: Alternative Web browsers

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Can the alternative browsers really replace Netscape Navigator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Depending on your browsing needs, yes. We took several out for a spin: Opera and HotJava for Windows 95, Lynx for several platforms and Arachne for MS-DOS. Here's what we found:

Singing soprano...

Opera, from Norway's Opera Software, is one of the best browser alternatives. The beta version of Opera Ver. 3.0. is not only simple to use and lightweight, but very intelligently designed.

Opera has a wonderfully clean user interface with just the right amount of customization options. The navigation bar at the top of the interface is practical and everything that you need to open a Web site, print, save or even search through a site is but a click away. The "tile windows" and "cascade windows" option lets you open mutiple Web sites within the same overall window - making it very easy to compare content between pages or to move between different sites. To accomplish the same thing with Navigator or IE, you'd have to open up multiple browsers, then move them around and re-size them.

Usenet access is just a click away on the toolbar. And there's just something about the Opera home page that makes you want to be a part of the "alternative". Good marketing I guess.

The browser can be completely run through the keyboard. And unique among browsers, Opera lets you zoom in or out of entire Web pages - a boon for visually impaired users.

But there are still things missing. Java support, for one. Also, some of the links in the navigation bar don't yet work.

Opera costs $35. Our recommendation: Download the beta of 3.0 for free. When 3.01 comes out in November, it'll definitely be worth it.

Opera Web site

Too hot to handle

HotJava, Ver. 1.0 from Sun Microsystems, Corp., is a very interesting Web browser. This is Sun's first offering to the browser market and while it currently poses no threat to Netscape or Microsoft, it does have potential. The browser is built completely in Java, so one would think that it would have no problem with Java saturated web sites. On the contrary. We tested this browser on a number of Java intensive pages and it consistently choked or wouldn't display the page properly. However, on sites which utilize only HTML in the page design, the browser worked fine. The interface is refreshingly clean. There are eight buttons that comprise a top toolbar (or you can position it anywhere else around the perimeter of the screen) and five pulldown menu choices. At first the selections seem a bit limited but a second look reveals all the options of the other more well-known browsers.

HotJava features the Java Security Manager which works to determine the validity of any applets that might be included in the web site. Administrators can have full control over applet access. By examining the applet's signature, a form of applet validation, the browser can tell if it has been modified from the original form as well as who created the applet.

Sun claims that the HotJava browser "can download and execute applets even behind corporate firewalls." The browser is designed for scalability and new content/new protocols are easily added to its framework. Thus with such ease of scalability, Sun is pushing this system for use with its network computers.

Download page

Lynx!

Lynx is the little browser that could. As old as Mosaic, this text-only browser now supports tables and cookies. It even lets you navigate frames.

If you're looking for a way to surf the Web without all the flashy graphics and in-your-face multimedia then Lynx is the solution. It's quick, it's easy and even if you install it on your hard drive (rather than using it over a dial-up line or telnet to a host), it takes up very little room.

The navigation functions of the browser are convenient. You use you arrow keys to move about the screen; no mouse necessary in Lynx. Lynx' text-based interface is designed to work with speech software for the visually impaired.

Simply, Lynx does exactly what it is supposed to do. It gives users a quick, no-nonsense way to extract information from the Web.

Download page

In the spider's lair with Arachne

Using Arachne is sort of like listening to LPs instead of CDs - there's just something irresistably quaint about it.

But Arachne is also something of a technological marvel - a graphical browser for MS-DOS that uses just 450K-bytes of RAM. It supports basic Netscape formatting - that is, tables (frames are under development). It even comes with a competent POP3 mail client. ALso included are two PPP dialers.

It doesn't support Java, JavaScript or animated GIF images. More frustrating, though, is its lack of support for either cookies or basic HTTP authentication. That means you can't use Arachne to connect to Web sites that require registration, such as the New York Times or, gasp, Network World Fusion - in such cases, Lynx over a dialup or telnet connection is far superior.

Download site
Online Editor Adam Gaffin contributed to this article.

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