Monday, February 4, 2013

Maxthon Cloud Browser

"That's cool!" The more I use this little-known browser from the East, the more times that phrase enters my mind. Maxthon 3 was already quite a distinctive entry among the common run of browsers, with things like a media download detector and a night-vision mode that darkens the webpage to save your eyes. But its latest major release, dubbed Maxthon Cloud Brower, takes that uniqueness a step further, with a clever new user interface resembling the clean look of Windows 8 and even more tools for getting the most out of the Web. To boot, Maxthon scores very high in both speed benchmarks and new-standards support. In a world dominated by Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox, let's see whether Maxthon has what it takes to entice away a few users.

One caveat before we get going in earnest: This latest version of Maxthon is technically still at the release candidate stage; the fully sanctioned version will launch next month. But it is the primary browser version being currently offered on Maxthon's site, and it performed without a hitch during testing. I'll do a reality check on benchmarking when the actual final code is realeased.

Signup and Setup
A small 300K download gets you started with Maxthon's simple one-step Windows installer, which both downloads and installs the application. A "Preparing to launch Maxthon" dialog took several seconds before I got my first look at the redesigned browser. The new installation replaced my previous one rather than running side by side, and my preferences were maintained. The Advanced link in the installer dropped down some installation options that might better be more at the surface, such as Set as default browser and Create Taskbar shortcut. At least the Join UEIP (User Experience Improvement Program) check box was blank, which sends usage info to Maxthon to help them fix the software. Maxthon versions are available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.

One of the most striking things about the look of this redesigned browser is that it dispenses with the standard window border and minimize, resize, and exit buttons at top right. Oh they're there, but only when you move the mouse over the vestigial, truncated, non-distracting buttons in the place the standard ones would be. Though small touch, it's an innovative UI idea that removes distraction.

Another brilliant little touch is that the search box enlarges when you click in it, so that normally the page address has more space. The previous version's excess of toolbar items has also been cleaned up in version 4: now there are just six, compared with nine before. But you can still get to all the functions you could before, in a dropdown menu accessible from the list icon on the right.

The placeholder smiley face button still graces the top-left corner of the window, but tapping it no longer drops down a huge panel of options. Instead, a more modest menu drops from a list-like icon on the right. The smilie merely takes you to a login dialog for Maxthon Passport, which changes the smilie to your user photo and adds easy access to social networks. Below your user pic is a narrow sidebar column of buttons for Favorites, Downloads, RSS feeds, and Sky Notes (more on these in a bit). You can add to this button sidebar using extensions.

As with Firefox and Opera, but not Chrome or IE, Maxthon still keeps the search box separate from the address box?a privacy advantage, since the address+search box combination sends every URL you enter to the search provider. As with any browser these days, if you type something in the address box that's not a URL, you can still search or see matching favorites or history if you enable this in settings. On page is well and clearly handled, with result highlighting.

Finally, gone for Maxthon 4 is version 3's skinning capability. Other browsers such as Chrome and Firefox to an even greater extent still let you dress up the browser interface with window border background colors and texture themes. I think Facebook's crushing of MySpace has taught the world that people prefer simplicity and clarity over lots of personal interface customization.

Cloud Syncing and the Start Page
Maxthon already offered some cloud features and syncing, including the ability to synchronize bookmarks, options, the address bar, new-tab links, and Magic Fill passwords among all Maxthon instances you're logged into. You could also sync notes on any computer or device you use to log into Maxthon; you can do the same for. New for this Cloud Browser Tab syncing is now built into the browser; before it required an extension.

The biggest additions are Cloud download and Push. With the first, when you're at a website offering a file download, you can download to the cloud instead of to your local machine, making the download available from any of your Maxthon instances. Of course, you're actually uploading the download to your private Maxthon cloud. One problem with this feature, though, was that I couldn't actually download the files to my iPhone, even if they were common types the phone could handle, such as JPGs. I could just see a list of what was uploaded.

To push the current page to your other devices running Maxthon, you click the same Plus Sign in the address bar used to Favorite the page. When I clicked Cloud Push to? a dialog showed entries for all the other machines and mobile devices I'd set up with my Maxthon Cloud Sync. Ticking the button for my iPhone caused a notification to appear on the phone that linked to the page I'd pushed. If I already had Maxthon open on the iPhone, my pushed page simply loaded. Pretty cool, but maybe more useful would be to send these to other people?which you can do with Cloud Push's Share with friends tab using email or even, wait for it: SMS text message!

The other new cloud feature is Cloud Tabs, which, just like it sounds, show what tabs are open on any of your devices and computers running Maxthon. For both desktop and mobile browsers, you have to go to the new tab page to see each device's tab set. Unlike Firefox's tab syncing, however, it doesn't actually replicate the tab set on the second machine, but it does show tabs open on each device, and each machine's set has an "open all" choice.


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