Maxthon 2.0.8

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Of the less well known open source browsers, Maxthon has been gaining attention as the second most popular Web browser in its home country of China. Based on IE's Trident engine, we found it to be highly customisable; however its lack of support makes it difficult to recommend for business.

While there is a myriad of browsers available — many of them free — there are only a few engines behind them all. Netscape and Firefox (among others) rely on the open source Gecko layout engine. Opera uses their own Presto engine which also serves the Nintendo DS browser.

Maxthon, like many other lesser known browsers (such as Avant, iRider, UltaBrower and Yahoo!) actually uses the Trident layout engine from Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE). Trident is also used by MS Outlook, WinAmp and RealPlayer. Examples of browsers reliant on the KDE engine are Konquereor and Apple Safari.

Test procedure
Typically our concerns about browsers revolve around usability rather than performance; hence we concentrated of the range of features provided with this application and any difficulties or delights associated with their use.

We looked at compatibility issues of the layout engine — such as how closely it follows the common Internet Explorer and Firefox/Netscape standards. Finally we consider the look-and-feel of the interface and investigate how this might be adjusted to fit in with your corporate brand or image. We spent a number of hours using Maxthon as our standard browser to get a proper feel for the product.

Design and features
Maxthon is an open source tabbed browser from Maxthon International based in China. It is reported to be the second most popular browser in China, and includes support for 28 languages. It also uses standard Mozilla compatible dictionaries.

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Maxthon's Chinese origins are rather apparent from the quaint language in the documentation and the cute comments or quotes that appear in the status bar when the browser can't think of anything more useful to tell the user. The comments range from useful tips on browser use or sadistic medical related quotes — fortunately one of the tips explained how to turn off this feature.

Toolbars are styled similarly to those of Microsoft Office with a similar ability to be rearranged and shifted to any screen edge or left "floating". Originally named MyIE2 the name was changed, "because we felt a better name was needed to promote such a powerful browser and avoid possible confusions."

Maxthon piggybacks on MSIE and simply adds extra functions. To confirm this we looked at text and table handling as well as Javascript behaviour; the precisely matched MSIE behaviour and so it is even compatible with the Windows update Web site (if you try to visit MS Update with Mozilla you will be told that MSIE version 5 is required.)

Following Microsoft certainly has advantages, as they currently dominate the browser market. However we wonder about the long term benefits of veering away from the international standards followed by the increasingly popular Gecko based browsers such Firefox and Netscape. Maxthon's dependence on Microsoft goes further than having MSIE present on your machine — it is only built for Windows operating systems — so Mac and Linux users can stop reading!

Additional skins are available online plus details on how to create your own skins. You might like to develop a corporate skin for Maxthon if your people spend most of their time with Web-based applications. The whole browser will give the impression of being part of your own Web interface and you can even hide the frame and toolbars to allow more space for your Web applications.

Maxthon includes a very flexible screen capture utility. As expected, you can capture full screen, the browser window or a specified portion of the screen. You can also choose to capture another window or the actual web pages open in the browser.

This is a tabbed browser so you may have several documents open at once — Maxthon will capture all of them if required — even though only one is currently visible. Furthermore, it captures the whole page — even long pages that cannot be viewed in one bite. The software lays out the page and transfers it directly to file rather than the screen.

On the downside, the layout seen in the browser may not always be a precise match with the saved image — this is an issue in situations where the MSIE layout engine has problems with the Web content.

Mouse gestures can be used for navigation tasks such as back, forward and refresh — this is particularly useful if you are hiding the toolbars to allow more screen space for the actual Web content. We found the gestures easy enough to use, although I personally don't plan to give up my toolbars just yet.

For those unfamiliar with "mouse gestures", we are talking about mouse movements that a program interprets as standard cursor controls. For example, a quick up and down motion is interpreted as 'Refresh' by Maxthon. Mouse gestures can be turned off if desired.

A CPU saver function reduces system resource wastage. Javascript and animated graphics probably don't need to be taking up processor time when they are on browser-tabs not currently being viewed, and if not essential you might want to turn them off completely.

On a number of occasions Maxthon failed to close properly and thus we were unable to open Web pages via a third party application (such as a link in a spreadsheet) and we were forced to kill the process via the Windows "Task Manager". Another concern that arose from using the browser with other applications was the appearance of a blank page when the browser started up. The blank page would appear in a tab that was in front of the one we requested. We could not determine what setting would prevent this, but the problem eventually went away some time after we stopped fiddling with the options we thought were relevant.

RSS feeds are sought out by Maxthon on any page visited. A couple of mouse clicks is sufficient to add a feed to your library (assuming you have rights to read it), allowing you to remain aware of new articles without having to open that Web site.

An essential part of any application, especially one that interacts with the Internet, is security. Being based on MSIE, Maxthon naturally incorporates all the safety features native to whichever version of IE you have installed.

Warning messages appear periodically as we browsed the net — especially when viewing a range of less savoury sites. We were warned of hidden links and of course we were asked if we wanted to allow applications to run.

Pictures, movies and other items can be selected and marked for blocking by the Ad-hunter feature. Ad-hunter blocks a few obvious advertisements by default and fine tuning can progressively improve performance. File-sniffer is a feature that watches out for particular file types and can tell you the true URL for those components.

Security is not just about protecting your self from remote attacks. A shared computer can lead to privacy issues. Do you want the next user to see where you have been? Maxthon can be set to delete privacy information when you log out; cookies, history and cache files can be individually set for automatic deletion. Online favourite lists mean that your favourites are only visible when you login and they remain available to you on any computer served by Maxthon.

As far as we can tell there are no proper help files for this product. The help menu directs us to an online help page that, at the time of writing, contained 52 solved questions and 261 unsolved questions. Descriptions of the various browser functions will not be found on these pages.

Very brief functional descriptions appear on the main page for the browser Web site, but this information is almost useless for anyone trying to get a handle on what this application is capable of. Given that this product has been available for sometime and apparently has a loyal following, it is a little surprising that so few FAQ answers are available — then again most disciples of this browser are in China.

The Chinese FAQs include 1270 solved and 2661 unsolved queries. Sadly I don't read Chinese! After rooting around the Web site I notice a link to a "Wiki" online help page — and it contains little more than that available on the main Maxthon Web site.

Implementing this software in a business environment has its dangers. Your IT people will need to become very familiar with the browser before rolling it out across your company due to a dearth of help files and very limited FAQ/forum support — this is often the price paid for "free" software.

On the other hand, the ability to brand this application with your own corporate skin may hold great appeal to some — particular in situations where clients will see your browser based applications in action. Maxthon adds security features to the underlying MS Internet Explorer engine.

You should think very carefully about how much you need Maxthon's unique range of features before any rollout in your work place. Certain quirks may cause frustration — at least initially — and you have to be prepared to deal with these issues with little, if any, external support. Download it and have a play, it does no harm to look!