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.

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.

Konqueror is also a fully-fledged file manager that supports all the standard file management operations such as cut, copy, rename, etc. Apart from these standard features, Konqueror also provides some interesting features, such as hierarchical display of files and folders, keyboard short-cuts to execute a command and split windows.

However, Konquerer doesn't include the ability to compress, share or send-to using the right-click menu. I use compress and send-to options a lot and just cannot imagine file management without these options.

Bottom line

Konquerer is an adequate, if limited, file manager, but I was definitely not much impressed with its Web browsing capabilities. It has stability problems, and many of the websites that I use on daily basis had compatibility issues with Konqueror.

Lynx

Developer: Thomas Dickey (original authors: Lou Montulli, Michael Grobe, Charles Rezac)

Reviewed version: 2.8.7

OS support Unix, Mac OS and OS X, Windows, OS/2 EMX, DOS386+ (but not 3.1 or 3.11)

License: GPLv2

Lynx is a command line-based, open-source, lightweight and multi-platform text browser. It is more than 20 years old, making it one of the oldest Web browsers around.

It was developed by a group of students (Lou Montulli, Michael Grobe and Charles Rezac) at the University of Kansas in 1992 and is still being actively developed. Currently, Thomas Dickey is the chief maintainer of this browser package.

Lynx displays only the text part of a Web page and ignores everything else. It displays Web content just the same way as seen by a search engine bot and hence is a very useful tool if you need to test a site for any search-engine crawling problems.

Once you've installed the browser, then you can just type lynx on a command prompt to open it. Lynx displays different types of information in different colors. For example, bold text is displayed in red, italic text is displayed in blue, ordinary text content is displayed in violet or white, hyperlinks are displayed in green and a currently highlighted hyperlink is displayed in yellow.

What's new

Release 2.8.7 contains many bug fixes and new features. For example, the ability to save (or store) the current browsing session has been added. This version also offers improved support for Secured Socket Layer (SSL), HTML interpretation and cookies.

What's good about it

The Lynx browser has many advantages over graphical Web browsers -- as long as you don't mind missing the images. Being a command-line utility, it opens up very fast (usually taking less than a second). A website can be opened by just typing lynx into a command line.

In fact, Lynx takes less time to load a website than any GUI browser. This can come handy in spots where you're stuck with a low-bandwidth Internet connection -- in testing, it used far less memory than any of the other browsers covered here.

At the same time, it isn't difficult to understand. A feature that I really liked was the display of main keyboard shortcuts at the bottom of the browser window: Type H for help, O for configurable browser options, G to open a new URL, Q to quit, Ctrl+R reload a page and so on. There is no need to refer any user manual to start using Lynx.

Another good thing about Lynx is that it does not track user information -- because it is a text-based browser, it doesn't contain the embedded tracking elements that are hidden in the interfaces of many Web pages. Though it supports cookies, Lynx asks the user to allow or deny a cookie every time it loads a website.

Lynx can also act as a text-to-speech application for visually impaired people and can power Refreshable Braille Displays. It is a blessing in disguise for those system administrators who work either on machines with very old hardware that does not support GUI-based Web browsers.

Lynx can also be used to view files and directories on your local system. To view the contents of a file or a directory within the browser, provide its name as an argument to the Lynx command line. For example, to open a text file you can type lynx helloworld.txt.

Last but not the least, Lynx is highly configurable browser. Just type lynx -help and it produces a list of more than 200 configurable options.

Other considerations

All that being said, you can't get past the fact that Lynx cannot display images, videos, Flash or JavaScript objects -- and hence is not suitable to surf e-commerce or social media websites. Though it can be configured to open an external program to handle images and videos, this configuration is not enabled by default.

Lynx does not support multiple downloads -- only one file can be downloaded at a time. Also, the download process runs in the foreground, which blocks the user from doing any other activities on the browser until the download completes.

Bottom line

While it isn't likely to replace your everyday browser, if you're a website administrator or other IT professional, Lynx is a great tool to have in your kit. There is some indication that people are still using this 20-year-old browser to surf modern-day websites. Just try it out and see.

Midori

Developer: Christian Dywan

Reviewed version: 0.5.4

OS support Windows, Elementary OS and *Nix systems

License: LGPL v2.1

Midori -- which means "green" in Japanese -- is an open-source Web browser that has a simple user interface. It is a GTK-based browser that is written in the C and Vala programming languages and uses the WebKit rendering engine.

It comes as a part of the Xfce desktop environment and comes pre-installed with some Linux-based operating systems like Elementary OS and Bodhi Linux. It also has a nice range of features, such as HTML5 support, anonymous browsing, etc.

What's new

Release 0.5.4 includes improvements in error page display, information on network errors and thumbnail generation. Developers will also be happy to hear that this version comes with glib 2.32.2, allowing users to build their own versions of Midori under Ubuntu 12.04. In addition, new features like default zoom level preference were also added, while there are also fixes for crashes and segfaults.

What's good about it

I like Web browsers with simple user interfaces, and the first thing that impressed me about Midori was the easy and uncluttered interface; in fact, it looks quite similar to Firefox's. All it consists of is a single-click menu icon, an address bar, a search bar and a few important buttons such as add a new tab, add a bookmark, refresh and back/forward navigation. This means that the Web page occupies the maximum amount of display area.

Midori provides many useful browsing features such as HTML5 support, bookmarks, RSS support and a spell checker. By default, Midori will remember tabs opened in the last session, which can be quite useful in case of a power failure or a crash.

It also offers many configurable options like tabbed browsing, privacy settings, font/display settings and startup settings under the preferences option in the main menu.

Midori is fast. In fact, it tested as the fastest of the browsers reviewed here (Firefox actually came out as the speed leader). It loaded most popular websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Gmail in less than a second, and had no problems with any of the graphics.

Midori supports all the standard keyboard shortcuts -- I could open a new tab with Ctrl+T, go to the address bar using Ctrl+L, go to the search bar using Ctrl+K, save a bookmark using Ctrl+D or navigate between tabs using Alt+1, Alt+2, etc.

Midori -- being user-privacy conscious -- uses DuckDuckGo (a browser that doesn't collect or share user information) as its default search engine. (You can set it to use other engines such as Google and Yahoo, if you prefer.) Another thing that I liked about Midori is the private browsing feature using a separate launch icon. When you open Midori in private browsing mode, it clearly lets you know the details regarding how the browser helps to keep the browsing private in this mode.

I was especially impressed by the trash icon that sits left of the main menu icon; it can be used to bring back any tab that was closed recently. Though I was used to Shift+Ctrl+T or (History --> Recently Closed Tabs) to do the same thing with Firefox, this makes it easier than ever to open any of the recently closed tabs.

Other considerations

Compared to browsers such as Firefox, a stripped-down browser like Midori offers few features and configuration options -- which is the price you pay for efficiency. For example, no bookmarks are available while browsing in privacy mode, which can be frustrating sometimes. In addition, Midori still has a long way to go in terms of extension support.

I missed the ability to use a single mouse-click on, say, a plus icon to open a new browser tab (though the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+T worked perfectly fine). The location bar can be used to enter user search queries (with an option to use any of the supported search engines), but still there is still a separate search bar in the top right corner, which seemed an unnecessary waste of space to me.

And there are a few kinks to be worked out. For example, the use of http:// is mandatory when you're entering the startup home page in preferences. I tried entering google.com as my home page preference, but the browser showed a blank page every time until I replaced google.com with http://google.com.

Bottom line

Midori is no real threat to Firefox/IE/Chrome, but can be used as an alternate primary browser (unless you use a Mac). I would recommend that users of these mainstream browsers try out Midori, as it not only loads/renders fast but is light on resources and has all the necessary features for day-to-day work.

Conclusion

Each browser reviewed here has its own pros and cons.

Lynx is definitely not for end users. It is for pros who either do not have any GUI support (such as system administrators working on server machines) or for those who are still working on legacy systems that do not support GUI browsers.

Dillo has a very low memory footprint -- next to Lynx, it tested with the lowest footprint of all the browsers covered here. However, it has limitations when it comes to Flash/Java/JavaScript-based websites. For me, it's a useful secondary browser.

Epiphany and Konqueror integrate well with Gnome and KDE, respectively. Epiphany is a decent browser that has good page loading/rendering speed and a simple interface. However, I was disappointed with its stability and compatibility issues.

In my opinion, the winner here is Midori. Midori is an excellent alternative for someone who is looking for a simple, fast and robust Web browser. I have been using it regularly ever since I tested it for this review and I am more than happy with it.

Himanshu Arora is a software programmer, open source enthusiast and Linux researcher. Some of his articles have been featured in IBM developerWorks and Linux Journal. He (along with some like-minded friends) blogs at MyLinuxBook.

This article, 5 lesser-known browsers: Free, lightweight and low-maintenance, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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