Oregano, Firefox and NetSurf reviewedBy Martin Hansen. Published: 25th Aug 2005, 01:11:32 | Permalink | Printable
So close yet so farHow would you describe your experiences of RISC OS on the web? In his review of three likely contenders in the RISC OS web browser arena, Martin Hansen is certainly pulling no punches.
I may as well admit it right at the start of this article: My web browser of choice is Internet Explorer. As a passionate RISC OS enthusiast, I'm not proud of this fact. So let me briefly explain how this has come about, and why, in spite of recent RISC OS browser developments, it is still the case.
I am a mathematics teacher and five years ago, my school issued each member of the teaching staff with a free 333MHz laptop computer running Windows 2000 Professional. Internet Explorer came with the laptop as part of the bundled OS and we were expected to use it to access the school intranet and the Internet. Since then, staff have been encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to tackle more and more administrative tasks electronically using this setup.
In January 2004 I bought an A6 Windows machine for my daughter with VirtualRiscPC already installed from Stuart Tyrell Developments. I managed, in an epic four hour stint, to find out how to configure this to log on to the school server, and to set it up, and obtain the necessary permission, to gain access to the world wide web through a fierce firewall that protects the school's network, now of some eight hundred staff and pupil computers, from the Windows nasties: viruses, spam and spyware.
In February 2004, I bought an Iyonix. In spite of my success in getting the A6 networked, I initially despaired at trying to get the Iyonix to converse with the school's local area network. In frustration I had an outside BT telephone line installed in preparation to bypass what is, for Iyonix, an unnecessary protective shield and gain Internet access directly. However, over an intensive three day period that involved many, many email exchanges with our head of IT, postings to, and helpful replies from, the Iyonix Support mailing list, and much experimentation, I finally cracked it: using the browser supplied free with my Iyonix, Oregano 2, I could obtain the internal intranet main page, albeit slowly and with the odd, worrying, error message. I also managed to send and receive 'roaming' email using a web-based package called Squirrel-Mail. The term 'roaming' indicates that authorised users can access their email from any of the eight hundred machines on the LAN.
Thinking back to the time when my Iyonix was first networked, I recall that I already regarded Oregano 2 as being great for reading, for example, HTML based instructions and manuals that come with RISC OS applications or Archive back issues on CD. "How good was it", I remember asking myself, "at rendering some of my favourite websites?"
On my Iyonix, and I'm running it now as I type to confirm those distant impressions, Oregano 2 renders the front pages of the Drobe, Iconbar, Cybervillage, Acorn Arcade, APDL, CJE Micros and RISC OS Ltd websites quickly and competently. With 'bump scrolling' turned off, scrolling a page is very smooth. Google can be used to search the web. Castle's website causes a few cosmetic colouring problems on the buttons but eBay and the yacht and boating world site, cause Oregano 2 to crash, although not taking the desktop down with it. The official McFly website brings up the message, "Get Macromedia Flash Player".
Delving a little deeper on the Drobe site, clicking on the link, "More RISC OS news..." eventually brings up the large webpage of around 700 headlines with article descriptions, and thumbnail graphics. It is fascinating to watch the Iyonix task display as this page loads. But although Oregano 2 appears to still be working, no hot link, or URL typed in to the address bar works. Presumably worn out, it seems to have given up on the Internet for the day. Possibly, this problem has since been resolved on the Oregano SmartGroups list. I tried fiddling with a few of the configuration settings before deciding that I'd spent enough time messing around with it for one day.
Oregano 2 is actually doing a better job now than was my impression when I tried it out a year or so ago but problems with some websites and, in particular, its inability to quickly and correctly render my school intranet pages prompted me then to stick with Windows and Internet Explorer. For me this was no big deal as I had not bought my Iyonix in the expectation that it would be my means of surfing the net. However it did make me aware that the premier RISC OS machine could not seriously, in my opinion, be sold as a high quality device with which to navigate the world wide web. This is, let's be blunt, embarrassing. If RISC OS is to gain new users, then, in this respect, they are going to be in a similar position to me - familiar with IE and expecting something as good if they are investigating alternatives.
So, although I personally have not been desperately waiting for a quality RISC OS browser for RISC OS, I am certainly aware of its importance to the platform. This was the thought that prompted me, earlier this week, to download the latest versions of Firefox and NetSurf, and to check, as described above, my older impressions concerning Oregano 2.
The development and history of NetSurf and the porting of Firefox to RISC OS will be very familiar to regular readers and I have no intention of recapping discussions of these here. I simply wish to download a couple of web browsers for my Iyonix and ascertain if, in their present states, they can do a better job than Oregano 2, and if they can match what I am familiar with, Internet Explorer on an old and slow Windows laptop.
I found Firefox and the required modules easy to install and was quite excited as I double clicked the application directory logo of a fox embracing the world. After a brief pause I, once again, had the Drobe front page upon my Iyonix's screen, although the background texture under the rocket logo was absent. There is an immediately obvious glitch with scrolling, often with the webpage seeming to disappear entirely but for a line at the bottom. A random mouse click over the page brings it back. This did make the application feel flaky and I tried to be careful not to rush the browser. I waited until it settled each time before pushing on with my investigation. Drobe's "More RISC OS news..." link didn't kill it as it had Oregano 2 and so I began working through my list of liked sites.
Various RISC OS media websites, Castle, and RISC OS Ltd sites all rendered well, as before, plus yacht and boating world, and eBay were now also accessible. Google could again be used to search the web. As expected, the Flash reliant McFlyofficial.com remained out of reach, and the APDL site, unexpectedly, rendered very poorly. The animation on the opening page of CJE Micros' site froze but otherwise all was well. Much to my delight, my school intranet pages rendered perfectly, given time.
Once again I decided to delve deeper into the web, and decided to look at how the bids for a Viewfinder card on eBay were going. Using Firefox to do this was hard work. The scrolling bug, although not fatal, became excruciatingly irritating as I tried to move around the pages of lists. Trying to type in text to be searched was awkward, with the caret often vanishing, keyboard presses not registering, and the mouse pointer failing to change to the shape appropriate to the area it was moving over. The whole task was painfully slow on my 600MHz Iyonix compared to my 333MHz x86 laptop: The Iyonix, clocked at twice the speed of the laptop is, I estimate, six times slower. I would have given up when Firefox crashed taking down the entire computer but for my desire to get an eBay item screen shot under Firefox. After another twenty minutes of faffing around, including another fatal crash, I got the screen sprite I was after. However, I felt irritated and stressed by what I'd been through. I quit the application feeling disappointed. Incidentally, its developer has asked for help in completing the port.
By now, you will have gathered that I'd got a fairly clear and set testing routine established. I moved on to apply it to NetSurf. Again, installation was straight forward and the greeting of a Drobe front page, once again confirmed that I had a live and kicking browser up and running. Drobe's "More RISC OS news..." loaded well and scrolled smoothly with both the window furniture or keyboard page up/page down keys. The links to old articles, that had crashed Oregano 2 but not FireFox, also worked under NetSurf.
It is frustrating: I have to conclude, perhaps predictably, that none of the three browsers are going to tempt me away from Internet Explorer. To recap: Oregano 2 works at a good pace on the Iyonix but there are too many websites that it can not cope with. Firefox can render most sites, but has a scrolling bug that makes it unusable with many. It is slow and unresponsive and when it does crash, often takes down the entire machine with it. NetSurf falls in the middle of the other two. Like Oregano 2, it works at a good pace and it copes well with more sites, but not enough. The RISC OS browser issue remains to be resolved.
Do you use RISC OS for Internet banking? Which banks can't you access? Let us know of your findings.
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