Most internet users never try a new web browser, instead relying on the default software that came with their OS. But by using different browsers in different situations you’ll be able to get more done in less time and experience the web in a new way.
For example, some browsers excel in areas such as standards compliance, which is ideal if you’re developing a site. Or if you’re into social networking, there are browsers built around that.
Some are more specific – there’s a browser for anonymous web access and one that specialises in data manipulation. When you’re clued up about the pros and cons of different browsers, picking which to use in a given situation becomes a necessary skill.
Built around the same Gecko engine as Firefox, the web browser Flock is as extensible and speedy as its open source cousin.
Despite familiar foundations, Flock looks quite different from Firefox. In addition to the usual browser navigation icons, there’s a series of sidebar buttons.
That’s the first clue to Flock’s unique selling point – it integrates with popular sites such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, LiveJournal and many others to give you access to all their features without having to visit them directly.
Want to check out which of your friends are online at Facebook? Logging in to the ‘People’ bar will help you keep track of them. Need to post an entry on LiveJournal?
Open the built-in blog editor and post an update from the browser. You can even upload photos directly to many of your selected sites. In that respect, Flock is designed with social web users in mind.
Best for: bloggers & users of social networking sites
K-Meleon is also based on the Gecko engine, but is lighter and more tightly integrated with Windows than other Gecko-based apps.
Its interface is built on the Windows API rather than Firefox’s bespoke system, so its resemblance to early iterations of IE is understandable. It may not be the best-looking browser, but it is one of the fastest.
In contrast to Flock, K-Meleon does browsing and nothing else. There are no additional features to slow down your browsing experience, though essentials such as tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and themes are included.
For people who want to get things done fast, K-Meleon’s best feature is macro support. Create your own common command sequences to speed up browsing or download them from the browser’s site.
Best for: Windows users who want to get things done fast
Maxthon is all about usability.
Built around IE’s rendering engine, it boasts a customisable interface and a host of bolt-on features. It’s an ideal substitute client for IE fans who want Firefox-style extensibility.
Fully skinnable, with pop-up blocking features that even remove banners and floating ads, one of Maxthon’s best features is web service integration.
You can add your own, but the package comes with Whois services and a list of anonymous web proxies for stealth browsing as default.
There’s also one of our favourite features from Safari – the ability to group pages together and give them a single bookmark.
Best for: IE users who want a Firefox-type toolkit
The browsers we’ve looked at so far are all good for general use, but there are some that are more specific in their applications.
Kirix Strata, still in beta, is a Gecko-based browser with good standards support. Alongside the usual features you’ll find tools that help you access and manipulate website data, including web tables, RSS feeds and server-side databases.
With these features you can grab web content and save it in formats you can access on your desktop. You can create custom reports from the information you’ve retrieved, analyse and process web logs – even edit the data you’ve pulled from the tables on a page.
It’s the kind of functionality we’d like to see in other web browsers as standard.
Best for: people who work online
While Kirix Strata is aimed at people who want to dig deeper, xB Browser is targeted at users who don’t want to be seen.
It comes in a ‘fast’ subscription-based version and a ‘slow’ version that uses peer-to-peer networking technology to disguise web requests. This gives you anonymous browsing and email functionality.
Strictly speaking, xB isn’t a standalone browser; rather it’s a comprehensive extension for Firefox.
However, it installs as a separate client even if you already have Firefox. xB is ideal if you have concerns about your data getting into the wrong hands, or you want to access sites that block users from your IP range.
Best for: people concerned about privacy
If you’re a Vista user, you’ll have seen the Flip 3D feature that enables you to cycle through open applications in a 3D space.
Web browser SpaceTime does the same thing with web pages, content and search results. Pages are displayed in 3D stacks that you can navigate using your mouse, zooming into pages, around them, organising and arranging them.
What first looks like a neat but rather pointless trick reveals its true usefulness when tackling search results.
The browser has built-in tools to search Google, eBay, YouTube, Flickr and other services, returning the results as 3D thumbnails that you can flip through rather than a list of links.
It’s an ideal browser for visual work (photo and video searches) if not for everyday use.
Best for: avid (re)searchers lacking desktop space
Safari, the browser Apple bundle with Mac OS X, has defected to the other side with a version now available for Windows.
The Windows version doesn’t mess with the Mac layout, but it does improve on bookmark organisation, with a look and feel imported from iTunes to make newcomers comfortable with creating folders for favourite links.
It has most of the features you’d expect, including tabs and RSS handling. It’s standards compliant too, and the lightweight build makes it one of the fastest browsers. Safari on Windows may be of most interest to web developers.
It’s the most popular browser on the Mac, and this version has the same rendering engine.
Best for: Windows-based Apple fans
Want to go old-school? Netscape Navigator is still clinging on.
It was once the undisputed leader in the browser wars, but IE 4’s operating system integration put paid to that. AOL bought out the brand in late 1998 – and still doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.
The last version to be offi cially released, Netscape Navigator 9, went gold in October 2007, but poor downloads soon led AOL to announce that it was pulling the plug on development – it stopped active support in March.
Still, it’s a great-looking browser built on the same stable base as Firefox. Extra features include FTP integration, a built-in Digg tracker and a ‘Quick Link’ pad that lets you add links you want to visit in a single session.
Support for Firefox extensions makes it a great second browser, though you may prefer to simply download the new Netscape ‘Netstripe’ theme for Firefox.
Best for: nostalgia freaks