April 4, 2006

Camino 1.0: Mozilla it is, Firefox it is not

Author: Nathan Willis

On February 14 -- four years and a day after the first development build -- the Mozilla Foundation released Camino 1.0, its Web browser designed specifically for the Mac OS X platform. I took it for a spin to see how it measures up to Firefox on OS X, and what makes it different.

You can download Camino from caminobrowser.org. The 1.0 installer is a 14.2MB .DMG disk image that works for OS X version 10.2 and later. It is a universal binary, so users of both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs will fetch the same file. As with most OS X applications, installation is a matter of dragging Camino.app from the installer image to your system's Applications folder.

Camino, you may remember, began life in 2001 as Chimera, a browser-only OS X fork of the Mozilla suite's Navigator component. The notion of abandoning the integrated suite in favor of a standalone browser, of course, was picked up in 2002 by the project now known as Firefox. Firefox was declared 1.0 first, owing in large part to its larger developer base. Camino gained its first full-time developer in the spring of 2005, and progress has accelerated since.

The application today shares the Gecko rendering engine with Firefox, uses the same JavaScript and CSS code -- but is decidedly non cross-platform, tied in tightly to services offered by OS X. If you are on a Mac, it can be difficult to decide which browser is better.

The dry statistics

First off, let's look at the numbers. I tested Camino 1.0 alongside Firefox 1.5 and Apple's Safari 1.3.2 on an 867MHz PowerBook running Mac OS X 10.3. On this relatively modest system, Camino took an average of 9 seconds to start up, roughly the same as Safari -- but far faster than Firefox's 23 second startup time.

I've heard reports of Camino's blazing speed at page rendering, but I didn't find any significant difference among any of the browsers on real-world pages. I am not sold on the value of testing artificial "benchmark" pages, but out of curiosity I ran each browser through the CSS Rendering Benchmark at nontroppo.org. The test measures the time it takes each browser to rewrite the contents of a test page (text display time) and the time elapsed before triggering an onLoad event (load time). The results are below.

Browser text display time load time
Camino 727ms 3167ms
Firefox 818ms 4144ms
Safari 1260ms 3158ms

After two hours of browsing the exact same pages, the PowerBook's Activity Monitor reported memory usage of 33.75MB for Camino, 34.78MB for Safari, and 45.23MB for Firefox.

Way forward technologies

Intriguing as those numbers are, though, few choose a Web browser on the basis of its CSS text display time. What about the interface experience? Veteran Firefox users are likely to feel comfortable working with Camino, since they share many of the same visual metaphors, design conventions, and shortcuts. Media plugins such as QuickTime and Flash work identically, thanks to the operating system's implementation of shared plugins. Where the browsers diverge, however, is on customization and extensibility.

Camino's interface is built directly on Aqua, and not XUL, as other Mozilla products are. Consequently, Camino cannot use add-ons like extensions and themes that are available for Firefox and Mozilla SeaMonkey. For some users, the lack of extensions is a deal-breaker, even if for others it is subordinate to a good browsing experience.

Many die-hard Camino users say that Firefox's OS-agnostic design creates shortcomings on the Mac platform by trying to offer an identical user experience on a wide variety of system. Camino integrates with core OS X features to overcome some of these challenges.

For example, saved passwords in Firefox are stored within an application-specific repository. Camino, in contrast, saves them to the system-wide Keychain service, making them far easier to look up, back up, update, and share. Similarly, right-clicking on an email address in Firefox gives you the option to copy it to the clipboard, but Camino can save it directly to the OS X Address Book application. You can also share and browse bookmarks across a network with Bonjour.

Another oft-repeated claim is that Camino's dependence on OS X core toolkits such as Aqua and Cocoa result not only in a smaller application, but also in a more stable one. It stands to reason that Camino could suffer accordingly from bugs in these technologies, but would be unaffected by bugs in the Firefox code that they replace -- such as XUL, XPCOM, and XPInstall. Similarly, Camino would be vulnerable to fewer security exploits than Firefox since it does not incorporate these components.

These claims are debatable, hinging as they do on the assumption that OS X has fewer bugs on average than Mozilla code. A Bugzilla query will show you far fewer open bugs for Camino than for Firefox, but it is hardly a fair, scientific comparison. I will testify, however, that in my experience, Camino crashes less often.

The narrow way? Hardly

Fear not if the lack of extension and theme support troubles you. Camino does include some built-in features comparable to popular Firefox add-ons like ad blocking and Java embedding.

And there are a few third-party additions -- the principal difference being that writing add-ons for Firefox is far simpler for the developer. Mozillazine's Camino forum links to a list of them from its FAQ thread.

A substantial set is available from nadamac, including CamiTools (additional preference controls), CamiScript (a script menu), and a nice collection of Bookmarklets.

Full theme control is not possible, since Camino uses native OS X widgets, but there are alternative icon sets, tabs, and application icons available if you just can't control yourself. The Camino forum add-ons list mentioned above links to them as well. Be forewarned, though, that using them involves manually replacing resources inside the Camino.app binary itself. Certainly not difficult, but more dangerous to the application than the built-in theme support of Firefox.

Ultimately, I like Camino enough to make it the default browser on my PowerBook. The rationale for that decision boils down to the fact that the PowerBook is not my primary computing platform -- on my desktop Linux machine, I run Firefox and have come to depend on several important extensions.

On the laptop, however, what matters more is browsing alone, as I tend to use it in out-of-the-office situations, for simpler tasks. I don't develop code or design Web pages on it, and I use it in shorter stints. Camino's speed improvement is substantial, and for the comparatively "light" usage of browsing alone, the convenience far outweighs the absence of extensions.

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