When Apple released Safari a few years ago, the program was widely hailed for its speed, clean design, and elegant interface. It lacked a few of Internet Explorer’s more powerful features, but on the whole Safari was, and is, an excellent Web browser. But although Apple has made some under-the-hood improvements to Safari since its release, relatively little in the interface has changed, leaving plenty of room for the Omni Group to turn their Web browser, OmniWeb, into a Web browsing powerhouse. I’ve been testing OmniWeb 5.0 for months now, and although I still use Safari for certain tasks, I’ve become utterly addicted to OmniWeb’s power user features. Since OmniWeb 5.0 now uses WebCore, the same Apple low-level framework for rendering Web pages that Safari uses, its speed and rendering capabilities are on par with Safari. So let me tell you where OmniWeb sets itself apart from Safari, and likely from other Web browsers, though short of occasional use of Camino, I haven’t spent much time in current versions of Mozilla, Firefox, Opera, iCab, or others.
Windows and Tabs and Workspaces, Oh My! The tabbed interface for browsing has become popular in recent years since it allows the user to open and switch among multiple Web pages without creating a muddle of new windows. However, whereas the standard approach is to use notebook-like tabs at the top of the screen, OmniWeb instead creates thumbnails in a drawer occupying the entire right or left side of the window. You can switch to a more-compact name-only view, but the thumbnails are brilliant, since they act like icons, visually representing the page without forcing you to read and parse the name. OmniWeb’s thumbnails are also easily manipulable, so you can double-click one to open it in a window on its own, click a little X next to its name to close it without viewing it, or Control-click it to display a pop-up menu with other commands, such as Reload Tab and Reload All Tabs. You can drag thumbnails around in the list to rearrange them, Option-drag them to make copies, and even drag or Option-drag them into new windows. The size of the drawer determines the size of the thumbnails, and if you have more than fit in the drawer, a scroll bar appears to provide access to the hidden ones. You can, of course, create and switch among tabs using keyboard shortcuts as well.
Omni also added the concept of workspaces, which initially threw me, but which I’ve since come to adore. A workspace is a collection of one or more OmniWeb windows to Web pages, potentially with multiple tabs, that remembers its state at a user-specified point in time or on an ongoing basis as pages change, tabs are added and removed, and windows open and close. Loading a workspace thus displays the saved state, complete with all the tabs and page content, along with window size and location. For instance, I have a Moderate TidBITS Talk workspace that uses a full-screen window (much larger than I’d normally use) and knows to load the Web Crossing moderation page and the TidBITS home page (from which I copy article URLs). I’ve also used workspaces when researching Macworld articles, creating a tab for each site I need to visit, and making sure OmniWeb saves the state every time I close the window. That way I can easily go back and check a fact without having to find and load the appropriate page again. Even better, I can save the workspace as a standalone file and send it to my editor so she can easily verify URLs, prices, and other things that would otherwise require copying and pasting URLs.
But you know what the truly wondrous aspect of workspaces is? If you crash (a somewhat common occurrence early in the beta cycle) or quit the browser for any reason (like installing one of Apple’s security updates), when you next launch OmniWeb, it will, if you’ve set your default workspace right, automatically load all of the tabs and windows that were showing before. There have been times I’ve lost 20 tabs in Safari when quitting, and picking them out of the history is nearly impossible. This feature, glorious though it is, is not without a slight downside. In a few Web applications that save state (but not data) within their URLs, reloading a page after a crash can cause null data to be resubmitted. It’s not OmniWeb’s fault, since it has no way of knowing what loading a URL can do. (Speaking of crashes, whenever OmniWeb crashes, it can create a crash log to send to the Omni Group via email; I always like applications that report home in obvious ways when they’re failing.)
Bookmarks and URLs — The bookmark features of most Web browsers drive me absolutely nuts. I don’t want to spend time pondering whether I should make a bookmark or not, and if so, where I should store it. What I like about OmniWeb 5.0’s bookmark capabilities is that although they have all the basic features, I can more or less ignore them. That’s because OmniWeb keeps a complete history for as long as I like, indexing the full content of every page I visit and allowing me to search for text in the Web page’s content, title, URL, or user-created note. No more do I have to try to remember how to find some site, or comb through Google search results looking for a site I visited recently. To obtain this feature in other Web browsers, you need St. Clair Software’s just-updated HistoryHound. In fact, my only irritation with OmniWeb’s history feature is that I can’t prevent it from seeing uninteresting and constantly refreshed pages, such as Web Crossing’s email log (HistoryHound does OmniWeb one better here, letting you exclude such pages from scanning and indexing).
But as much as I like OmniWeb’s history, I don’t bring it up and search it all that often, simply because I don’t have to. That’s because OmniWeb, like Internet Explorer, has fabulous URL auto-completion. Type a few characters into the Address field and OmniWeb displays a list of all visited pages that contain those characters in their URLs or titles. For instance, if I want to visit the Web Crossing page where I’d manage the Dutch translation mailing list, I can just type "Dutch" into the Address field and pick the right item in the list. My only complaint is that the list is only as wide as the Address field itself, which sometimes makes differentiating between similar pages difficult. If that’s bothersome, you can have the Address field appear as a separate Location bar, which makes it the width of the page.
Other bookmark features that make OmniWeb stand out include the capability to synchronize bookmarks with another Mac via .Mac or a WebDAV server, shared bookmarks with other OmniWeb users on your network (you control which of your bookmarks are shared, of course), and a nice shortcut that opens all the bookmarks in a folder on your Favorites bar when you Command-click the folder, just like in Safari. OmniWeb bookmarks aren’t entirely static either: it can check bookmarks to see if they’ve changed, alerting you via a Dock icon badge to updated sites and showing a bookmark collection of sites that were unreachable. If a bookmark changes to redirect to a new page, OmniWeb updates the bookmark address for you. You can also create News Feed bookmarks to RSS feeds; they also automatically update, and although you can even view RSS entries in the Bookmarks window, it’s easier to load the Web pages. Lastly, you can use an optional View Links button on the toolbar to list all the links on a page in a collection in the bookmarks window; it’s a fast way to deal with pages that contain many links.
Miscellaneous Merriment — Oodles of other welcome features abound in OmniWeb. If you have a URL in your clipboard (copied from some other source), you can simply paste it "into" the body of an OmniWeb window to load that page into a new tab. This seems minor, but it saves pressing Command-L or clicking in the Address field first; I use it constantly.
You can create settings for individual sites, and at least some of these settings are automatically remembered for you. For instance, on sites that use too-small text, I increase the size, and from then on, OmniWeb displays those sites, and only those sites, with larger text. Other site-specific preferences include image loading, ad blocking, text encoding, and more.
One of the criticisms of Web forums is that typing into those nasty little text fields is annoying. OmniWeb addresses those complaints by letting you expand any TEXTAREA field into a full-fledged Macintosh text entry window, complete with system-wide spell checking. Along the same lines, you can view the source of any Web page, just like any other Web browser, but if you have the appropriate upload permissions, you can even edit the page. Whether or not you can upload the page, you can still make changes and ask OmniWeb to redisplay the page to see how your changes affect the layout.
The now-canonical Google search field is in the toolbar, of course, but a drop-down menu lets you search other sites like VersionTracker and the Internet Movie Database. You can even add your own search sites to it, so I can now search TidBITS by typing "tb searchterm" into OmniWeb’s Address field. OmniWeb also lets you find text or regular expressions on the current page, and if you’re in one of OmniWeb’s text entry windows, you can also replace the text you’ve found. One neat little trick: when you’re on any page, you can type a few characters from the name of a link to jump directly to that link text; press Return to follow the link.
OmniWeb 5.0 has finally pegged the Downloads window that has bugged me in every other browser for all time. It lists all the downloads within an amount of time you specify, but more important, you can have the window automatically appear when you start a download and disappear if no downloads are active. That’s the best combination of feedback and respect for the user’s work environment I’ve seen yet; I’m always closing download windows in other browsers to get them out of my way.
Like some other browsers, OmniWeb has AutoFill, which helps you fill in forms with data that doesn’t change, such as your name and address, and AutoComplete, which offers suggestions based on previous entries while you’re entering data in any field. Though these features are perfectly functional, I still prefer Safari’s approach, which automatically fills form fields whenever it can and which automatically completes field entries without forcing you to pick from a list each time. Safari’s behavior is slightly more likely to cause mistakes, whereas OmniWeb’s behavior is safer but enough less helpful that I often find myself avoiding it.
You can save data from the Web in a number of interesting ways. A Save Linked menu lets you save images linked from the current page or HTML documents linked from the current page. You can, of course, print a page to PDF using Save As, but if you want a PDF that doesn’t have artificially added page breaks, hold down Option and choose Save As PDF from the File menu to get a one-page PDF. And lastly, you can add a Summarize button to the toolbar that uses Apple’s Summary service to summarize the current page. Although I’ve only recently found this option, there are occasions when I skip reading a Web page because I lack the time at that moment; a summary might make it easier for me to decide if it’s worth the effort.
Features I haven’t tried yet include navigation via speech, ad blocking, AppleScript support (it provides a Script menu for storing scripts), and probably more. One of the things I like about OmniWeb 5.0 is that I’m still learning how to take advantage of its features, rather than constantly wishing it had more. Even after months of testing and hanging out on the OmniWeb beta list, I still learned new things while writing this review. That’s in part to finally looking into the online help and PDF manual, which pointed me in the right direction for a lot of features I hadn’t previously investigated seriously.
Buying OmniWeb — One last thing that OmniWeb 5.0 has that isn’t common among Web browsers is a price tag. The program costs $30 new ($20 academic) or $10 to upgrade from 4.5 ($7 academic). You can use it for 30 days with the only restriction being that you can’t change the initial page that loads on startup to avoid OmniWeb’s rather humorous nagging. If you use the Web seriously, OmniWeb is well worth $30. And perhaps even more to the point, the Omni Group deserves support for raising the standard of how a Web browser can go beyond – far beyond – the basics of rendering pretty pages.