Thursday, 15 December 2016 00:38

8 best Mac web browsers 2016


Which is the best web browser software for Mac users in 2016? From Safari and Opera to SeaMonkey and Vivaldi, here are eight internet browser apps for Mac OS X that are worth a try (and one that absolutely isn't)

Which is the best Mac web browser?

Which is the best web browser for Mac?

The vicious browser wars that defined the early part of the 21st century might be over, but there's still a vibrant web browser scene. Established names elbow for room amongst young upstarts, and some old names are showing that they're not done quite yet.

In fact, we found eight browser projects that are under active development for the Mac, and review each of them here. Some of the old names such as Camino, Flock, Maxthon and Torch are sadly no longer being actively developed. They might still work on Mac OS X El Capitan but in our modern age running a browser that isn't regularly supplied with security updates is foolish. 

In our tests we tested performance using the JetStream and Octane JavaScript benchmarks. Then we looked at the features on offer. Read on for our judgement of the 8 best Mac web browser  apps.

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Apple surprised the world a few months ago when it made officially available the Safari Technology Preview. It's always been possible to preview early development versions of Safari via the Webkit Nightlyservice, but it was promised the Technology Preview would be honed and ready for end users. Indeed, Technology Preview ties into iCloud just like the current release of Safari, so bookmarks are synced and there's access to Keychain usernames and passwords. It uses its own cookies, though.

Safari Technology Preview

Apple says the Technology Preview "gives you an early look at upcoming web technologies… Get the latest layout technologies, visual effects, developer tools, and more." That sounds impressive but, aside from the purple rather than blue Dock icon, Technology Preview looks and smells exactly the same as the standard Safari in most everyday situations. There aren't any additional options in Preferences, for example, and sites don't look any different.

Technology Preview did feel faster in our tests and the JetStream benchmark brought forward an impressive score of 252.77 - the highest score in this round-up. The Octane benchmark score was also the highest by quite a margin. Battery life energy impact was as low as Safari, if not lower, and that's a big plus in Technology Preview's favour if you use a MacBook of some kind.

While having access to the latest layout technologies and visual effects sounds terrific, this is only useful on sites that use them. None of the mainstream sites do. It's only really experimental sites that are likely to come close. But then again, only a handful of sites come close to exploiting technologies in most browsers. That's the way browsers work - they're always several steps ahead, cutting a path for web developers to follow if they wish.

Theoretically, the Technology Preview should be more prone to crashes because it hasn't had the rigorous bug testing of the main Safari release. We saw no crashes, in fact, but a notable bug was that username/password autocompletion in websites simply didn't work. If it wasn't for that bug, we'd recommend Technology Preview as a full-time platform if you use a Mac, because it's speedy and functional. 

Note that Technology Preview can be installed by visiting this site, but it's subsequently updated just like any other system component via the Mac App Store. At the time of writing the third preview has just been released.

Get Safari Technology Preview here. Or for a more detailed explanation, see How to getSafari developer preview

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There's a chance you'll never have heard of Vivaldi. It's the newest browser in our test, seeing its first major release in the first months of 2016. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this is some optimistic upstart put together by hobbyists, however. Its head guy is Jón von Tetzchner, who co-founded Opera back in 1994, and Vivaldi has some very specific goals: namely, to be the browser of choice for the power user generation that lives online, rather than merely visits it occasionally. 

At its heart, however, Vivaldi is similar to Google Chrome. It uses the same HTML rendering engine, with a built-in Adobe Flash plugin, and you can even use Chrome's plugins. Rather than focus on the internals, the Vivaldi team decided to pack in features. Indeed, it's possible Vivaldi is one of the most feature-packed browsers we’ve ever seen. It's a little hard to know where to jump in explaining the smorgasbord. 

Arguably the most obvious feature, and perhaps the most useful, is the unique tab system. Put simply, Vivaldi tabs can have their own tabs - something referred to as a Stack. Hover the mouse cursor over a tab with a Stack and you'll see thumbnail previews of the content of each tab in the Stack. Right-click the Stack and you can select to Tile the tabs, which arranges them a little like OS X and iOS’s split view, except it's not full-screen and you’re not limited to two items. Four tabs in a Stack are arranged into a 2x2 grid, for example. Notably, the site within each tile works as normal, even if it is now compressed into a smaller space.

Other interesting features include the ability to create notes about any site, which subsequently appear (and can be further edited) when you visit that site. A side panel can be expanded to show bookmarks and downloads. In fact the sidebar can show any website. You might visit Facebook or Twitter in the sidebar, for example, to keep an eye on things while you're browsing.

There's more - much more, in fact. The fly in the ointment is Vivaldi's power usage, which is high. We doubt it's been optimised at all for Mac OS X in this regard. This isn’t an issue if you're on a desktop Mac but on a portable Mac you're going to feel it in reduced battery life. Performance in the JetStream benchmark wasn't terrific either, scoring just 197.18. The Octane benchmark score was also pretty ordinary. That said, responsiveness was snappy while browsing, and it’s only in complicated web apps that you'll even come close to feeling the strain.

Get Vivaldi here.

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A foot soldier in the browser war of the early 21st century, Firefox became hugely popular as the alternative of choice. Since then…? Well, how things have changed. With the introduction of Chrome, which somehow simultaneously occupies both the mainstream and alternative niches, Firefox has dropped to a mere 4% market share.

Put simply, not many people use Firefox any longer. It's a browser that's never been entirely comfortable on the Mac in any event, looking somewhat at odds with OS X simplicity and elegance. This is still the case today. The user interface features both a URL field and a separate search field, despite the fact you can search perfectly well by typing queries into the former. At the right of both the URL and search fields are a baffling array of icons - one for editing favourites, one to show a bookmarks list, one to show the downloads list, a home button, something called Firefox Hello (of which more in a moment), and an icon to save the page to the Pocket read-later service. Next to all that is the menu icon, which pops-up a grid of another set of icons, this time to do with configuring or utilising Firefox’s features. It just feels like things haven't moved on much since desktop computing in the year 2000. 

But what about the actual features - the things that might make one convert to Firefox? Amongst the goodies are Firefox Account, by which you can sync bookmarks, passwords, tabs and more across all your devices. This includes iPhone and iPad devices now that Mozilla has finally released a version of Firefox for iOS. Firefox Hello lets you create collaborative browsing sessions with friends, in which you share the same web page and view each other via webcam. This works with other browsers that support the required WebRTC feature, such as Internet Explorer and Google Chrome, but not currently Safari.

Then there are the features Firefox introduced and was famous for - the interface can be themed, for example, and there are buckets and buckets of add-ons and extensions that bring new features to the browser.

Mozilla claims the performance of Firefox is better than all other browsers but in our tests the core of 191.58 in JetStream was average bordering on low, and the Octane benchmark score was in a similar bracket. Worse than this, however, was the scrolling within web pages, which tended to be jerky. A few years ago this kind of thing was acceptable but nowadays most browsers feel like their gears have been greased, and there’s simply little if any waiting around. Firefox's power consumption wasn’t quite as bad as some browsers reviewed here but still nowhere near Safari’s frugality.

We're left wondering exactly what the Firefox folk have been doing for the last decade. Where’s the progress or the innovation? Once upon a time it was common for the technically inclined to get people to use Firefox in preference to inferior alternatives. Sadly, nowadays anybody who's still using Firefox should be pitied. There are simply much better options out there, especially on the Mac.

Get Firefox here.

Google Chrome

There's a pretty good chance you're reading this via Google Chrome; some measures say that 70 percent of web users rely on it daily. Macworld's own figures put this closer to 60 percent, but that's still a solid majority.

Releasing a browser was a masterstroke by Google, of course, because it introduces to Macs and PCs a custom-made gateway to all their online services. Such was this push that up until recently Chrome had a Borg-like tendency to take over the computer on which it was installed, adding its own menu and notification system. This has been removed from recent releases, and Chrome’s Mac developers are attempting to integrate the browser with OS X’s built-in systems. 

Chrome has always earned its place on our computers, however, both in terms of its performance and its feature set. Its JetStream benchmark score of 207.74 makes it one of the fastest browsers reviewed here, for example, and the Octane benchmark score was similarly impressive. The speed with which pages appear and subsequently scroll is almost breathtaking.

If there's a price for this, it's the fact that Chrome really does push you towards Google services. You're encouraged to log in with your Google account, for example, in which case all your browsing data will automatically be synced across all your devices (including, of course, Android phones/tablets, and any of those cheap Chromebook laptops you might own). As useful as this might sound, doing so is providing Google with access to yet more of your data. For a small but growing number of people that’s starting to smell a bit whiffy. 

And yet it's so hard to move away from Chrome. For example, the ecosystem comprising the Chrome Web Store is simply unparalleled. There are hundreds if not thousands of extensions to cater to every need, and web apps that can duplicate almost anything that can be done on the desktop. And Chrome’s developers keep adding in those genuinely useful features, such as automatic translation - visit a Chinese web page, for example, and it'll be translated automatically for you.

Chrome is simply the best browser out there and Google has the resources to keep it that way. If you're desperately looking to switch away from Chrome to an alternative browser, we can provide just one potential reason: Chrome consumes battery power like a Hungry Hungry Hippo gobbles marbles. It simply doesn't appear to have been optimised for modern Macs, to the extent where we have trouble recommending Chrome for those who use a portable Mac. Of course, this makes little difference to iMac and Mac Pro users.

Get Google Chrome here.


First impressions of Opera are that it’s fast. Rather like when computers are shown in movies and TV shows, pages load in the blink of an eye, and scrolling is smooth and unhindered. The JetStream benchmark score of 210.26 sees it nudging ahead a little bit even of Google Chrome in the out-and-out performance stakes, and the Octane benchmarks back this up. It’s still a notch behind the current Safari and some distance behind the Safari Technical Preview, though.

The good performance is entirely understandable because, like Vivaldi reviewed earlier, Opera is yet another browser based on the same Blink rendering engine as Google Chrome. Like Vivaldi, Opera can also utilize Chrome extensions although only if you first install a special compatibility extension. Opera has its own extensive library of native extensions in any case, which cover needs such as ad and tracker cookie blocking.

If you’re been using computers for more than a decade the start of the previous paragraph might’ve made you scratch your head. Isn’t the whole point of Opera that it uses its own browser engine? Well, it did until a few years ago. At that point the futility of competing against Google and Microsoft must’ve finally got to the Opera head honchos and they abandoned it, preferring instead to build an entirely new browser on top of Blink (or WebKit, as it was back then).

And the Opera developers are still in the process of building the new Opera, with features being added-in as time goes on, although you still get the basics of syncing, private browsing, and tab management. Unique to Opera is a curated news feed and a useful download manager, both of which are selected from the new tab screen. Turbo mode attempts to reduce your bandwidth usage by sending any web pages you request compressed direct from Opera’s servers, while coming soon is a complete virtual private network (VPN) feature, which will be free and open to all. This will guarantee privacy and security if you’re using your computer out and about.

The look and feel is also pleasingly basic, giving Opera a stripped-down and lean feel. It can’t yet be themed, although it is possible to change the background image for new tabs.

There a lot to like in Opera but, alas, it suffers from the same battery-eating malaise as Chrome and Vivaldi, both of which are based on the same Blink rendering engine that presumably is the cause. Because of this it’s hard for us to recommend Opera for anybody using a portable Mac.

Get Opera here


Those with grey hair might remember how browsers used to work back when the two mainstream choices were Netscape or Internet Explorer -- even on the Mac! A radical faction then split away from the Netscape team to form Firefox, and if you’ve ever wondered what happened to the venerable Netscape then we’ve the answer: It became SeaMonkey. And, perhaps astonishingly, it’s still being developed after all these years, with a new version released in March 2016.

On the top side of the SeaMonkey coin is the browser itself, which is actually just one component of a bundle of apps that come under the SeaMonkey heading. As with the original Netscape, you also get an email and newsgroup app, news/feed reader, HTML editor, IRC chat, and more. Here we’re looking only at the browser component.

On the other side of the coin, however, the HTML rendering engine is taken from the latest Firefox release. Thus, we end-up with a perfect anachronism – SeaMonkey looks, feels and largely operates like Netscape in the year 2000 but it performs like a totally modern browser, and is fully compatible with modern web technologies. Although the lowest in our testing here, the JetStream benchmark score of a respectable 196.57 reflects this, as does its pretty good Octane benchmark score, and we weren’t waiting around for pages to load. Scrolling was less than silky smooth, but not quite as jerky as when using Firefox. Battery power consumption was also on a par with Firefox, if a little worse.

It’s not hard to see the age-related wrinkles, though. For starters, SeaMonkey doesn’t appear to be compatible with Retina displays. This is probably because it uses its own text rendering system that simply hasn’t been updated. The result is that fonts look blurry. And the interface really does look like Netscape from the early years of this century. There’s even the same progress icon at the top right. It’s no longer the Netscape logo but that of a small bird (canary?). However, it animates in the same way while a page is loading.

Rather irritatingly, gestures don’t work, so you can’t swipe left or right on a trackpad or Magic Mouse in order to move back or forward in your browsing history.

Other than what’s mentioned earlier, in terms of features things are fairly standard: syncing of bookmarks and other browsing data (via SeaMonkey’s own server), regular tabbed browsing, support for extensions (again, SeaMonkey’s own rather than Firefox), and some useful older features long-since lost from most modern browsers, such as the ability to block images from a particular site.

If ever you’ve been faced with a new “modern” look and feel in an updated app, and then wondered why things can’t just stay the same as they ever were, SeaMonkey is for you. However, it’s pretty hard to recommend for anybody else – especially if your Mac has a Retina screen.

Get SeaMonkey here.


It might sound incredible but 15 years ago, when Mac OS X was young, there wasn’t a lot of choice when it came to web browsers. OmniWeb was one of them and, although it again sounds incredible, it was sold to avid Mac users for $40.

Needless to say, entire oceans have flowed under the bridge since then and nowadays OmniWeb is free, just like virtually every other web browser. We found that the last official release doesn’t work on OS X Captain, forcing us to use here the most recent testing release that was made available in August 2015.

Being virtually the only kid in town wasn’t OmniWeb’s only virtue in those early days. The folks behind it also strictly followed Apple’s Cocoa user interface guidelines. Put simply, this means that OmniWeb was a shining example of how an OS X app should look and feel. Open new browser tabs, for example, and a drawer slides out at the left to display them as thumbnail previews. In the somewhat spare and flat world of UI design nowadays this kind of thing looks a little twee and even nostalgic if you’re a long-time Mac user.

OmniWeb offers a curiously idiosyncratic set of features. For example, Workspaces lets you create configurations of browser tabs. You can switch between each Workspace, hiding any others, and save them so that you can load up that array of tabs in future. Clearly, this was made with serious research tasks in mind. OmniWeb allows you to create settings for individual sites too. Don’t like the font used at BBC News? Just open the site preferences using the icon at the top right, and choose a different one. OmniWeb will remember your choice in future. Ad-blocking is built-in, although this is not done via a huge sites blacklist – as with most ad-blockers but by blocking images that match ad sizes and other characteristics.

There’s no way to expand OmniWeb’s functionality using plugins or extensions, and as mentioned the interface is old-fashioned, with both a URL field and Google search box. The interface can’t be themed. There’s no private browsing mode, either.

Performance in the JetStream benchmark was surprising: the score of 231.06 makes it the second fastest browser tested here, although the Octane benchmark was a little more ordinary. OmniWeb uses the same WebKit engine as Safari, so a high JetStream score is no surprise. However, our MacBook Pro’s fans spun-up during the benchmark testing procedure, something that didn’t happen while testing the other browsers. Power consumption was higher than Safari, but not too bad compared to the others on test here.

It’s all a little peculiar but, if OmniWeb was indeed one of only a few choices when it came to web browsing, we could imagine ourselves using it happily, and even coming to respect it. People did, and there’s a hardcore of users that still do. However, for the rest of us, times have changed.

Get OmniWeb here.


Almost last in our list is Safari, which has been the built-in browser supplied with OS X for over a decade now. In that time it's evolved from being notoriously underpowered and painful to use, to becoming one of the top-flight web browsers. And because Safari is provided with iPhones and iPads, it’s also one of the world’s most widely-used browsers.

In terms of features there's a handful of unique tools. For example, Reading List lets you save web pages for offline viewing - a kind of super-powerful bookmarking – while the Shared Links feature lets you monitor social media updates alongside RSS/Atom feeds from websites in a sidebar. Reader View converts web pages into simple documents, without any of the typical mess of a webpage, such as adverts and arbitrary formatting. We particularly like Safari’s implementation of pinned tabs, which lets you store useful sites at the left of the tab listing. Safari somehow makes it useful and sensible, removing the irks that plague Google Chrome’s implementation.

Where Safari excels, and where no other browser even comes close to competing, is in its integration with OS X. No other browser offers access to the Keychain, for example, providing a centralized way to store and sync passwords across your Apple devices. Safari syncs with iCloud Bookmarks too, and has been optimized for OS X so that it uses the least possible power. This latter feature really does make a difference if you’re using some form of MacBook. We estimate that using Safari can lead to as much as an extra hour or two of browsing on one battery charge compared to using something like Google Chrome, for example.

Performance is pretty excellent too, and the old complaints about a subpar experience are simply no longer true. The JetStream benchmark threw out a score of 221.77, although the Octane benchmark score was slightly more average. However, Safari really does feel snappy and there’s no waiting around for pages to load. Scrolling is smooth.

Safari's weakness is its humble selection of extensions. There's a decent selection covering the major bases like ad-blocking, but anybody who's visited the Google Chrome’s Web Store will snigger at the paucity of choice. If you're the kind of browser user whose extensions list reaches the double digits then you might struggle to recreate that experience with Safari.

Built into OS X - no download required

Read next: Safari for Mac tips

Internet Explorer

It's not uncommon for newcomers to the Mac to ask where they can download Internet Explorer, or indeed any Microsoft browser for the Mac.

Microsoft included a version of Internet Explorer in Mac OS 9 and subsequently OS X, but stopped releasing new versions way back in 2003. That was in the days of PowerPC-based Macs so, even if you now got hold of a copy of Internet Explorer for Mac, it wouldn't install on a modern Mac. (Apple formerly let people run old PowerPC apps on the newer Intel Macs using something called Rosetta, but this was dropped in OS X 10.7.)

But Microsoft's given up on Internet Explorer even on Windows nowadays, preferring instead to focus on the Edge browser. (However, both Internet Explorer and Edge are provided as part of Windows 10, largely because there's still a minority of sites that simply won't work unless you're using Internet Explorer.)

If you encounter such a site, there are methods that let you run a Windows version of Internet Explorer on your Mac. Perhaps the simplest is to run it over an internet connection via Microsoft's Azure service and the Remote Desktop app. This is free, and the instructions can be found here. Another method is to use the WINE software that lets you run certain Windows apps on Mac OS X. The WINE Bottler add-in makes installing and running Internet Explorer a one-click procedure, and again the whole thing is free of charge, although you're limited to using Internet Explorer 8 rather than the current 11 release.

The most common way of running Internet Explorer, or any Windows software, is to either virtualise a complete Windows installation using an app like Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion or Virtual Box, or to use BootCamp Assistant to install Windows alongside OS X on your Mac's hard disk and simply boot into Windows instead of OS X whenever you need to use Internet Explorer.

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We ran the two most popular JavaScript benchmarks to test each browser: JetStream, which was created by Apple, and Octane, which was created by Google. Our test machine was a MacBook Pro with a 2.8GHz Core i7 and 16GB of RAM. Higher scores are better. As with all benchmarks, these results can't be considered scientific and should be considered more as an indication of performance, rather than the bottom line.

Safari Technology Preview

Version tested: 9.1.1 (11601.6.17, 11602.1.29)1
Octane: 38956
JetStream: 252.77 


Version tested: 1.1.453.47 (Stable channel)
Octane: 34570
JetStream: 197.18


Version tested: 46.0
Octane: 32624
JetStream: 191.58

Google Chrome

Version tested: 50.0.2661.86
Octane: 35832
JetStream: 207.74 


Version tested: 36.0.2130.65 (stable stream)
Octane: 36578
JetStream: 210.26 


Version tested: 2.40
Octane: 34386
JetStream: 196.57 


Version tested: 6.0 (v626 r241262) 
Octane: 31812
JetStream: 231.06 


Version tested: 9.1 (11601.5.17.1)
Octane: 33732
JetStream: 221.77

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