When it comes to web browsers, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Google's Chrome get all the attention. But they're not the only web browsers on the market, nor are they necessarily the best.

While you've probably never heard of Flock, K-Meleon, and Maxthon, these three alternative browsers offer features so innovative that once you try them out, you just might feel compelled to add them to your permanent stable of web browsing tools. Find out why…

Flock

Flock (http://www.flock.com/versions) bills itself as “the social web browser,” and it has more hooks with popular web 2.0 technologies - including social networking sites - than any other browser. With Flock's “Accounts and Services” sidebar, for instance, you can aggregate and communicate with your friends from most of the popular social networking sites — including Facebook and Twitter - while you surf other sites. And because interacting on social networking sites often involves uploading images, Flock has some ingenious tools to make your life easier. With the Photo Upload feature, you can either drag photos from your computer or select multiple images from a folder, and Flock will resize them and send them on to Picasa, Photobucket, or TinyPic.

If you have a blog - whether on a hosted site or one that you created yourself with a popular package such as WordPress - you can add blog entries directly from Flock using the browser's built-in Blog Editor.

Taken together, Flock's social networking features are so handy that you quickly wonder why the big names in web browsing haven't caught on. If like many web users today, you're active on Picasa, Twitter, Facebook, and a blog, being able to access all of these quickly from Flock's side panel while you do your other work in the browser pane is both convenient and productive.

Add links in the side panel to Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and instant messaging in the same Accounts and Services sidebar, and Flock gives you nearly instant access to most of what you're likely to be doing online today— outside of researching and collecting information. Flock also makes it easier than other web browsers to take advantage of all that a site has to offer. Log on to a site that offers content or RSS feeds, for instance, and Flock will alert you to their presence, instructing you how to use the orange feed button to add the site to your list of feeds so that you can get content from the site without having to visit it. Perhaps the best news is that Flock feels as fast and stable as IE or Firefox. IE users, in particular, will be able to adopt Flock with virtually no retraining, since most of the keyboard shortcuts — including those to access Favourites — are identical.

K-Meleon

If what you want in a web browser is speed, speed, and more speed , along with a healthy dose of customisability, then K-Meleon (http://kmeleon.sourceforge.net) will be worth your time. This little-known browser was launched specifically to be easy on system resources and therefore speedy where others browsers are not.

Even during installation, you'll see where the emphasis lies: K-Meleon gives you the option of installing a pre-loader that promises to increase browser load times by keeping a portion of the browser's code in memory at all times. In use, K-Meleon lives up to its speed-first billing. Even without benchmarks, complex pages load noticeably faster than with either IE or Firefox, as both graphics and text appear almost simultaneously. Keyboard shortcuts and menus resemble those in Firefox, so anyone familiar with that browser won't be burdened by the transition.

The fully tabbed interface works the same way it does on the other major browsers, too. A handy Sessions menu allows you to save multiple browser tabs to one shortcut, meaning that if you regularly have 10 web sites open, you can reopen them all with one click. K-Meleon's other primary strength is its array of customisation options. The browser allows you to set up multiple user profiles so that each person who uses a computer can have a unique browser set up.

There are the usual browser-specific options for appearance, toolbars, privacy, and performance, but these that are accompanied by a host of advanced configuration settings, mouse accelerators, bookmark options, and view settings.

Maxthon

Originally developed in China, Maxthon (http://www.maxthon.com) boasts that “out of the box” thinking has allowed its developers to create the best “out of box” experience for new users. Maxthon is indeed different in some immediately noticeable ways, including its interface, which is bereft of the standard title bar, giving you more browser space in which to view web pages. Like K-Meleon, customisability is a major focus for Maxthon, but Maxthon outdoes even K-Meleon in this area. Virtually everything about the interface can be customised. You can, for example, get rid of all menus, toolbars, status bars, and sidebars, leaving nothing but a browser window containing your web page. In this “no interface” mode, Maxthon is more spartan even than Google's Chrome. The effect is quite striking and it makes Maxthon a notable solution for viewing web pages on small notebook screens.

Maxthon is also easier to control with a keyboard than any other browser. To start, unlike Firefox and Chrome, Maxthon remembers the last link you clicked, so that if you return to a page, you can simply use the Tab key to move to the next link. But that's just the beginning. Virtually every feature in the browser is accessible with the keyboard, and a lengthy “Shortcut Keys” configuration menu allows you to specify which keys you would like to use to activate particular functions. You can even assign the function keys on your keyboard to open specific web pages, and you can create “web aliases,” which allow you to open a web site or groups of sites merely by typing a few letters or a word into the address bar. Maxthon's interface mimics that of IE rather than Firefox. In addition to the standard Favourites, Views, and Tools menus, though, A unique Groups menu makes short work of saving a set of open tabs to a single shortcut. The browser also comes with some useful tools, including a full-featured form-filler, a flexible screen capture utility, a “file sniffer” that can help you find the web addresses of videos, and a “collector,” or notepad feature that can save your thoughts from session to session.

There's a complete skinning system as well, which allows you to change the look and feel of the browser. Add it all up, and you have a browser that should have the major players taking notice.

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