Three great alternatives to the Big Three browsers

While the new versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Google Chrome are making news, a less popular browser may actually suit your needs better than the market leaders.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Browser upgrades are all the rage this month: Google Chrome is now at version 10, Internet Explorer 9 was released last week, and this week Firefox 4 joins the upgrade parade.

Anyone who uses one or all of the three most popular browsers is almost certain to upgrade to the new releases. While there are plenty of good reasons why IE, Firefox, and Chrome are the browser leaders, they may not be the best choice for your needs. The three lesser-known browsers described below show that our surfing options have never been richer.

The browser that invites you to go small
When you see FlashPeak's SlimBrowser for the first time, you're struck by how unremarkable the program is. SlimBrowser is most noteworthy for what it isn't: big. The app's setup file is a mere 2.31MB, so it won't crowd your hard drive, nor will it slow down your browsing.

SlimBrowser doesn't skimp on security; it allows you to clear all traces with a single click or selectively, including on a site-by-site basis. You can auto-lock the browser, block ads and pop-ups, and auto-fill forms, among other standard browser operations. The program lets you access your IE tools and import or export your Favorites. You also get fast access to Facebook features and other popular Web services.

If you'd like to spiff up the program's plain-vanilla appearance, FlashPeak offers several skins for SlimBrowser. But sparkle is not the primary reason for switching to SlimBrowser--speed without sacrificing security is.

A browser for the whole family
It took me a few minutes to get used to the ZipZap browser's familial approach to the Web. You start by creating profiles for all your family members. The profiles include name, birth date, and gender. The program restricts each user's access to sites in various categories automatically based on this information. For each user you can enable or disable account passwords, e-mail access, search access, and whether friends and media are allowed.

The designated administrator can adjust permissions and other settings for each account by clicking the Manage Account button at the top-right of the main page. In addition to changing profile options, administrators are able to restrict specific accounts' access to various categories of sites, such as adult, gambling, violence, porn, and online games.

ZipZap browser's prohibited categories
The ZipZap family browser lets parents restrict other family members' access to sites in various categories. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Most of ZipZap's restricted categories make perfect sense, but I'm not sure exactly what is blocked when users select such options as radio, pets, home repair, clothing, sports, and hygiene. There's no way to view or adjust the criteria for the categories of sites being blocked, nor determine whether clever kids could figure out how to overcome ZipZap's site restrictions.

While ZipZap blocked Google Video completely, I was able to access some questionable content on YouTube even with the browser's adult and porn categories blocked. I opened--or attempted to open--about 20 relatively mainstream sites in various categories in ZipZap, but no X-rated sites. Apart from Google Video, the only site that wouldn't open was Pandora, which requires Flash cookies that ZipZap blocks.

I don't think ZipZap will become my everyday browser, but the program can provide an added level of protection for children on the Web. Still, no program can substitute for direct parental supervision.

Why choose? Lunascape puts three browser engines in one wrapper
Just can't make up your mind between IE, Firefox, and Chrome? Try a browser that puts the engines used by these three browsers in a single wrapper. Lunascape makes it easy to switch between IE's Trident, Firefox's Gecko, and Chrome's WebKit (open-source) engines, including support for many IE and Firefox add-ons in addition to the browser's own collection of extensions.

When you install Lunascape you're given the option to import your Firefox bookmarks and IE favorites. Firefox and IE let you import the other's bookmarks/favorites with just a few clicks, and Chrome imports bookmarks and other settings from both IE and Firefox. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out a way to add Chrome's bookmarks to Lunascape's collection.

A nice Lunascape feature is the ability to associate a page with a specific engine. You can switch between four interfaces in addition to the default, and dozens of other skins are available for download from the Lunascape site.

Familiar names remain serious browser contenders
They may not be able to match IE, Firefox, and Chrome in terms of market share, but when it comes to features, usability, and longevity, Opera, Safari, and SeaMonkey do more than hold their own.

CNET editor extraordinaire Seth Rosenblatt says Opera now performs almost as well as Chrome while taking a third less disk space than its predecessor. Other noteworthy enhancements in the latest release are support for extensions, the ability to stack tabs, and a built-in "verified safe" security feature that color-codes sites as secure (yellow badge) and trusted (green badge).

Opera also features a Turbo mode to speed up browsing on slow connections, and the ability to report sites as fraudulent or malicious. The browser also includes a mail client.

Apple's Safari browser may not be as venerable as Opera, but it still has stood the test of time (Apple's deep pockets haven't hurt that any). The Windows version of Safari 5 is most noteworthy for its improved performance, according to Seth.

While Safari may lack some of the features of the browser market leaders, it is worth considering for its speed and its Reader feature, which lets you combine several pages into a single, scrollable window that highlights content and downplays ads.

Whenever I open SeaMonkey, it's like revisiting an old friend. The program integrates a browser, mail client, HTML editor, IRC chat, and other Web components, similar to its predecessor Netscape, to which it bears a striking resemblance. SeaMonkey uses much of the same Mozilla code as Firefox and Thunderbird.

The security features in SeaMonkey include a pop-up blocker, cookie and image managers, and the ability to clear all private data with a keystroke combination (Ctrl+Shift+Delete) or selectively from the Tools menu. While you can import mail and other data from Thunderbird, you can't move your IE favorites or Firefox bookmarks to SeaMonkey without manually selecting the bookmarks file.

SeaMonkey is clearly not every Web user's cup of chai, but it's nice to know there's a throwback browser out there if you ever get nostalgic for yesterday's surfing experience.