April 24, 2008

Browsing the Web the old-fashioned way

Author: Federico Kereki

Are you in the mood for some '90s-style Web browsing with no graphic elements? Or, more realistically, do you work with a Linux console and often need to check something on the Web? If so, get acquainted with text-based Web browsers such as w3m, Lynx, and the similarly named Links.

While browsing the Web without a mouse, graphics, fancy fonts, JavaScript, and Java can be sorely restrictive, it can also be quite speedy. If you're a fan of function keys and special commands, you'll be pleased to learn that these browsers provide plenty of shortcuts for every taste. After you gain experience, you'll be able to navigate around with just a few key taps.

All the programs are similar, so once you master one, you can become accustomed to the others quickly. They can usually render tables appropriately, but they're often unable to display frames or other text-positioning mechanisms the way the original HTML designer intended. For example, a page with several frames will display the text vertically, one frame's worth after another.

Lynx, the old warrior

Lynx, which has been around since 1992, is one of the oldest Web tools still in use. (As a frame of reference, Tim Berners-Lee finished the first version of the first browser ever on Christmas day, 1990, so we're really talking about the origins of the Internet here.) Lynx is still in development, with version 2.8.7 in the works. You'll likely find it in all modern distributions. If you use Smart, simply type in smart install lynx to install it.

Type lynx URL to open a page. Keying lynx without any further parameters takes you to the Help screen, where you can move around by using the cursor keys. Take a look at the Lynx User Guide and keystroke commands to view the many available commands. Use h to get to the help screen, and m to go back to the site you were visiting.

You can use the o key to configure Lynx (although you should probably keep the values as they are), the arrow keys to jump from one link to another, the Page Up and Down keys to scroll up and down, and the Enter key to follow a link and make a jump.

w3m, a Japanese browser

w3m, which stands for WWW-wo-Miru, meaning "see the Web" in Japanese, has been around since 1999. The current version is 0.5.2, from May 2007, and it is distributed under the MIT License. You can also use w3m as a GNU Emacs module to check Web pages while you're editing a file. Since it was developed by non-English speakers, w3m is well suited for languages other than English.

w3m boasts a long list of options: press o to check it. Pressing ? takes you to a full help page, and the left arrow key returns you to the page you were viewing. (Check the user manual for all keys.)

w3m's display is somewhat more compact than Lynx's, allowing you to see more text per screen. You can even configure w3m to let you use the mouse for easier navigation.

According to the author, "As w3m's virtues are its small size and rendering speed, adding more features might lose these advantages." However, bug fixing goes on.

Links and its family

Links is a fast text browser that has spawned several other projects, including ELinks and Hacked Links. Links is available under the GNU General Public License (GPL), and its current version is 0.98, with a prerelease 0.99 version also available. Aside from its speed, it offers distinctive features such as the ability to download several files at the same time. It also includes FTP, SSL, and some JavaScript support, though with some distributions, you might have to compile Links on your own to get it. Also, be warned that sites that use JavaScript heavily, such as Gmail's, might not work.

Opening a Web page in Links is simple: type links URL. To get help or to access other functions, press the Escape key; a top-line horizontal menu will appear. Links uses pull-down and pop-up menus a lot, making it easier to work with. You don't have to memorize any keys in order to use Links (although several key commands make your browsing faster) -- just remember the Escape key.


After using graphical browsers such as Firefox, Opera, Safari, or even Internet Explorer, going back to a text browser seems quaint. However, any time you're working in a text-only console and need to check some reference or Google something, you'll appreciate have a text Web browser to work with.


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