/ Review: Modern Web Browsers

Written by: Eldee Stephens
article originally published by the author on (25/07/12)

When I first starting considering trying an Amiga NG system, the one question I had was: is there a good web browser?  More than any other application the web browser has become the primary tool for most users of personal computing devices today, especially in light of increasingly useful web-based applications. For the Amiga platform to succeed a good browsing experience is vital. Unfortunately for OS4 users the current crop of web browsers available is a bit of a mixed bag. So I thought I'd sum up my experiences on my SAM and, as of July 2012, Pegasos II machines so far; perhaps it might be interesting to users new to or considering a next-generation Amiga running AmigaOS 4.1u5:

The Past

IBrowse (v2.4)

Many moons ago the only real browsing experience possible on AmigaOS was the venerable IBrowse. Commercially developed, having more features than a pomegranate has pips, its inclusion with AmigaOS 4.0 was so important that Hyperion commissioned a port of MUI to be included with the basic system installation. And for good reason: although IBrowse is no longer actively developed and is still a 68K application, IBrowse remains an absolute wonder.

First, the browser experience: terrific. I have yet to see a more feature-complete browser for nearly any platform. The download manager, bookmark manager, preferences manager, customization possibilities, and scripting support is second-to-none. It looks and feels like a true Amiga application, not a port from another platform, and has all of the nice touches you would expect in a commercial application.

IBrowse Screenshot
Figure 1: Screenshot of IBrowse

Second, it's fast. Really fast. To the point that it matches the rendering speed of Firefox on much, much faster commodity PC hardware. Unfortunately there is a reason for that speed: it's not actually rendering very much. HTML5 support? No. CSS2 support? No. Modern JavaScript engine? No. In fact it struggles with even the most basic sites using reasonably recent standards, such as Google. This is a terrible shame, because with a more up-to-date HTML parser, IBrowse could be the perfect browser.

As such I only tend to use it for downloading files -- because of its excellent Download Manager -- and browsing Amiga community websites due to its rendering speed.

The Present

OWB (v3.32)

Based on the open-source WebKit engine, Joerg Strohmeyers's OWB was until very recently probably the first point of departure for the Interwebs on OS4. Stable, reasonably speedy and standards-compliant, the OS4 version of OWB seems the ideal replacement for the venerable IBrowse -- but that's only part of the story. You'll be able to work with just about any site out there excepting those using Adobe Flash and HTML5 video and audio. With excellent HTML, CSS, and JavaScript support, Facebook, Google Apps, among others, render perfectly well and akin to what you would find on a Windows, Mac OS, or Linux-based PC. You have the comforts of tabbed browsing, context pop-up menus, and a minimal, but beautiful, Reaction-based GUI. I'd been using OWB as my main browser since firing up my SAM for the first time and it never let me down as a web <i>viewer</i>. As a complete browsing experience, though, it leaves much to be desired.

For starters there is no download manager, no preferences manager (you'll be editing what few options there are as tooltypes in the OWB icon information pane), no printing support, no password management, no history display, no way to manage cookies or indeed any privacy settings, in short, very little in the way of functionality people have become accustomed to since the earliest days of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Even the most basic of bookmarks management is in reality a separate utility.

OWB v3.32 Screenshot
Figure 2: Screenshot of OWB v3.32

There is a very good reason this browser isn't terribly feature-complete: it wasn't meant to be. Joerg was kind enough to create the OS4 version as OWB primarily as a stopgap measure with the planned coming of Timberwolf, the OS4 port of Firefox. Timberwolf is finally here in its first incarnation, but unless you're running on an AmigaOne X1000, you'll probably find performance to be a tad lacking (more on that later).  Nonetheless OWB become the default browser on OS4. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since as said before it works beautifully. It's just feature poor as an application. As a viewer into the Interwebs it succeeds brilliantly.  It also happens to be one of the most responsive -- from a user-interface perspective, not HTML rendering -- browsers available.

Of course not everyone felt that way, and Joerg has been pummelled with feature requests and other RFEs from users throughout the Amiga community, and sometimes couched in not so-appreciative language. Eventually Joerg just had enough, and said so. His OWB port is no longer under development, at least officially. This is sad on many levels, and so, to close, I would simply say that the existance of OWB for OS4 was a primary requirement for my entrance into the Amiga community; had it not existed, I never would have bothered purchasing a SAM. 'Mad props' to Joerg for his work on this in the past.  The last available version, v3.32, is still available on Joerg's web site.

MUIOWB (v1.9)

Although I would rather have had Joerg decide to renew OWB development again, thanks to the work of several community members, the MorphOS version of OWB was ported over to OS4 some months ago. Just like Joerg's version it retains terrific standards compliance, but it also brings a much more complete browser experience, including all of the 'missing' features of our current OWB listed earlier. Features like a useful download manager, network manager (for managing specific connections associated with elements in a web page), cookie manager, excellent and extensive preferences, the ability to 'weed out' graphics from advertising providers,  and very nice and well-integrated history management.

It's also a speedy devil. Although my SAM certainly doesn't have the power of anything close to modern PCs -- or even PCs from nearly a decade ago -- MUIOWB actually makes web browsing enjoyable again on my Amiga rather than feeling like a chore. Javascript support so far has proven excellent, and I haven't detected any specific rendering issues. Since moving mostly over to my Pegasos, the browsing experience is even better. Without a doubt, this is probably the most complete web browser AmigaOS users have ever had.  And it is my, and many others', browser of choice on AmigaOS systems.

MUIOWB Screenshot
Figure 3: Screenshot of MUIOWB

In a way I still don't like it as much as Joerg's on some levels. First off the default MUI-based interface elements just look unpleasant. Of course that's a subjective call; others may differ on that point. And as it is only in its first release on our platform, stability is an issue. I've gotten a couple of freezes at random, something which I've never experienced with the 'older' OWB; and there are odd little interface issues as well, like replacing fonts in certain interface elements with a tiny size at random.  Scrolling speed on most pages is very sluggish as well, certainly more so that any other browser I've used on my SAM to date, although it's better on the Pegasos as one might imagine; and, finally, the font rendering looks poor in comparison with what I see on other applications, including OWB v3.32 and Netsurf v2.9.  This hasn't changed since its initial release, but the porting team have been granted access to the latest source build from the MorphOS version, so hopefully things will get cleaned up soon.

That said, it really is the best thing out there at the moment for almost every user, and my criticisms above really are nit-picking. It also represents a very nice cross-platform effort, something which is rare given the animosity between certain elements of the AmigaOS and MorphOS user base. Go ahead and download it from os4depot and give it a whirl. You'll end up using it as your default, no doubt.

Netsurf (v2.9)

Ah, now at first this seems more like the browser I've been looking for. Like OWB for OS4, Netsurf includes a Reaction-based GUI, so it looks and feels like a native OS4 application. It has a status window for downloading files, a preferences manager, a bookmarks manager (called a hotlist manager), and support for the AREXX scripting langauge. It even has rudimentary printing support -- which doesn't sound all that important until you want to print out a boarding pass for an airline flight and find printing support is missing. Netsurf also doesn't suffer from being a one-off or a product from a long-gone company: it actually comes from a multi-platform, open-source project in which the Amiga platform is an equal among many, not just an afterthought. And it is supported by Unsatisfactory Software, authors of well-known and popular AmigaOS software. When it iconifies onto the Workbench, the icon is even a preview of the page you had been viewing, which is a very nice touch.

I like Netsurf; I like it a lot. I like that fact that it can be themed, I like the fact that is open-source software and the developers are easily accessible and supportive of their users, and I like the speed. It feels faster than MUIOWB on many sites, but like IBrowse, there is a reason for that perceived speed: lack of function. In this case no support for JavaScript. At all. In the late 1990s that didn't matter too much. It probably didn't even matter that much a few years ago. But today, if the web is considered a modern application platform as much as an amorphous collection of static pages, JavaScript is the engine that allows for that. So no Google Docs, no Facebook (well, that could actually be considered a plus), and half-functionality on most modern sites out there.

Netsurf Screenshot
Figure 4: Screenshot of Netsurf

A modern JavaScript interpreter is planned, but it will probably be a very long time before it sees the light of day. That being said the CSS support is excellent, as is modern HTML support -- so chances are if you're trying to view a static page it will render just fine. So does that mean that Netsurf should be your main browser, using OWB or MUIOWB when JavaScript is needed?

Yes. Although it had suffered from stability issues on my SAM with past versions past, now with v2.9, it's been rock-solid on both my SAM and my Pegasos boxes. I'd like to see a more complete Download Manager integrated at some point, and it still needs a better progress indicator while downloading and rendering page elements. Scrolling performance also dropped off starting with v2.9 -- but it's still darn speedy.  Chris is a tremendous guy steadily working on future versions and this is a product which will no doubt improve with time. If you haven't used Netsurf in a while, try it. You'll be surprised just how good it is.

The Future


For a great many years, starting with the AmiZilla project and ending with the Timberwolf bounty, Amigans have yearned for a version of a mainstream browser on their NG hardware. Ported by the incredibly talented Frieden brothers as a private project, Timberwolf is a native version of Mozilla Firefox for AmigaOS. It is by far the most feature complete browsing experience available on any NG platform -- except when it comes to Amiga-specific features.  There are no Amiga menus; there are no Amiga interface gadgets or scrollbars; there is no printing support.  This is a port and it really feels like one.  Moreover the release candidates (the latest as of this writing) have been painfully slow: slow to launch, slow to render, sluggish in use.  Now it should be pointed out that the Friedens know this, and, more to the point, have made it as clear as humanly possible that the first version's goals are stability and feature-completeness.  Performance and Amiga-specific functionality comes later. So everyone should just hold their belly-aching for the moment.

I suppose I can't fault them: it is the right path to go, and after such a long delay, it's nice to finally have something we can run on our systems at long last.  And on the AmigaOne X1000 it is very performant indeed.  I don't know why the performance differential is bigger on other machines, but on the A1X1K, it really shines.  Firefox uses technologies which are also the basis for a host of other applications sponsored by the Mozilla Organization, so having it on AmigaOS helps to future-proof the platform somewhat as well as demonstrate that the modern Amiga platform can take nearly anything you throw at it.

I really think this is the browser of the future, the one we'll be using in 2013 and years to come.  But for the moment, unless you have the latest Amiga NG machine, I can't really recommend it unless there are Firefox plugins that are absolute requirements for you.  For me, I'll be anxiously waiting the next major release.  It should be terrific.

So what to use?

Ideally we'd have a performant, hardware-accelerated Timberwolf now, resplendent in a native Amiga GUI. But for now, we wait. In the interim there are three 'modern' browsers available. Leaving aside the issue of interface 'beauty' issues, MUIOWB is probably the most feature-complete option currently available. But what about performance? To answer this I tried a few web sites with our three current choices. All times are in seconds, they include everything from the moment the 'return' key is hit until every element is downloaded and renders, and all caches were cleared.  The first set of numbers is from the original article, running on a SAM440ep-flex machine at 667MHz:
                MUIOWB  RAOWB*  Netsurf*  5.2     10.9   6.8       12.4    13.5   7.0     5.9     8.7    7.1         21.6    25.2   15.1     36.4    42.4   15.4      8.7     15.3   6.8    31.9    24.6   n/a
* these benchmarks were performed with previous versions 
of RAOWB (v3.31) and Netsurf (v2.7)
The next set of numbers are from the latest builds available on a Pegasos II system with a 1GHz G4 processor and 1GB of memory:
                MUIOWB  RAOWB  Netsurf  Timberwolf  3.6     3.6    4.6      9.8       7.8     8.0    6.5      9.8     5.5     7.6    3.4      5.2         13.4    25.1   6.7      14.4     13.7    21.6   9.1      19.8      3.5     19.6   4.0      8.9    19.7    30.1   n/a      41.6
So from this we see that MUIOWB is still the clear performance leader over OWB v3.32 and Timberwolf, and Netsurf is certainly no slouch. It might appear that Netsurf wipes the floor with its competitors, but remember there is no Javascript support. So keep that in mind. For the present I have all of 'em on my systems, including Ibrowse OEM, and will keep them for various uses until the next version of Timberwolf arrives.

What have been your experiences in this field? I'm looking for constructive feedback (no insults or baiting, please) on the current crop of OS4 browsers from OS4 users. To comment on your browser experience on Amiga NG systems, please visit the comment thread on AmigaWorld.

Last updated: 25.07.12