Be Good Not Bad by Brian Warren

19 May 2006

Browsing Windows

Since getting my intel iMac at the office and my MacBook Pro for freelance work, I’ve installed Windows on both, using both BootCamp and Parallels. The process of running both Windows and Mac OS X, going back and forth between the two to test websites, has been stimulating.

The world of web browsing on Windows is a pretty sorry state of affairs.

Over the past five years or so, I have become a total web browser nut. I’m sure this is partly due to the fact that about five years ago I got into web design. Either way, these days, I spend a ton of time in the browser. In some respects, the web browser is my primary tool for web design. So, naturally, I’m a bit sensitive to good and bad web browsers.

Type

As I’ve been doing extensive testing of some of my sites on Windows I’ve noticed one thing across the board that really gets under my skin as a graphic designer. The typography is terrible! I’m not just talking about limited font choices, but the type itself, when rendered on the screen is just ugly. Check out this example from a small corner of Mark Bixby’s blog.

Notice what the type looks like, especially in the date. It’s so much prettier in Safari. The built-in font engine in Mac OS X is so much nicer than in Windows, even with Windows’ font-smoothing tool, ClearType turned on. (ClearType is off, by default. If you’re stuck in Windows, go turn it on. It’s conveniently deeply nested in the Control Panel -> Display -> Appearance -> Effects -> Smooth edges of fonts with ClearType).

You can see that ClearType does make a difference in smoothing the fonts on the screen, but it’s not wonderful. It’s not pleasant, especially when you get to serif fonts, such as the date in the example. This makes things extremely frustrating for a designer, as you want to make your sites beautiful. It’s my understanding that the type engine will be improved in next years’ release of Windows Vista, but my hopes aren’t high.

No Fun.

There are three main choices for browsers in Windows: The ubiquitous Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Opera. Firefox is a fantastic browser, extremely user-friendly and extensible. Every Windows user should be using it as their primary browser. Internet Explorer should be hidden away from view, only brought out for rare occasions. Opera is great too, though not quite as friendly as Firefox.

On the Mac, we have those options, but that’s just the beginning. The browser market on the Mac is diverse and fun. Safari is extremely well-designed, renders sites well and is nicely integrated into the operating system. Camino is a fabulous browser, built off the same engine that drives Firefox, but it’s more mac-like. Apple afficianados have a love/hate relationship with Firefox. It’s fast and powerful but doesn’t look and feel like something developed for the mac. Camino steps in there with a look and feel that is top notch, and feels just right.

My current favorite, though, is OmniWeb. This browser has it all. The folks at Omni Group really have tried to innovate in the web browser arena and with OmniWeb they did a great job of having a bunch of cool features but with a simple, beautiful design. One of my favorite features is the tab drawer. A drawer that slides out that keeps all your tabs that you have open, including a thumbnail rendering of each one. This rendering is live, too. So if you start loading a web page, and switch to another tab, you can see the thumbnail image change as the page loads. It’s a neat effect. OmniWeb 5.5 the new version that is in public beta, uses the latest version of WebKit, the same rendering engine that Safari uses. In fact, it uses a more up-to-date version than Safari itself uses! OmniWeb has a built-in ad and popup blocker, as well as support for cool stuff like site-specific preferences, saving your browsing sessions as “workspaces”, and spell-checking in form fields (in fact, the whole browser is integrated with the Mac OS X dictionary).

Good design makes all the difference. The typography on the Mac and the quality of the UI in these browsers makes using the web on the mac so much more pleasant.

The wonderful world of browsing the web is just one great example of how well off Mac users are. It’s one thing I would really miss if I had to switch.