Maxthon Cloud Browser Review

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If you think a browser can’t make a difference in your use of the Web, Maxthon will make you think again, with a raft of neat helpers, super standards support, and fast performance.

(4 out of 5)

Pros

  • Loads of nifty browsing helper features
  • Speedy performance
  • Two page-rendering engines (Webkit and Trident) for compatibility
  • Leading support for new Web standards
  • Cloud syncing of tabs, passwords, and more
  • Do Not Track enabled by default

Cons

  • Tabs not as flexible as other browsers’
  • No appreciable graphics hardware acceleration

“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.

Interface
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.

Tabs
Maxthon’s tab implementation is actually a weak spot: I couldn’t rip a tab out to create a new browser window, as I could with every other major browser. And forget about Opera 12‘s tab previews or IE, Chrome, and Firefox’s tab-pinning. Another minor inconvenience is that you can’t close a tab unless it’s the active one. But the browser does offer a unique split-screen view that shows two tab contents side by side. A button dropdown lets you close or refresh all tabs at once.

Maxthon’s new-tab page is every bit as useful as that of any other browser, save possibly Opera’s, which offers live updated mini apps. In Maxthon, you can move the link tiles around on the grid to taste, and add any sites you want (Chrome only puts your most-visited sites on the tiles.) Maxthon also lets you choose a background either from stock art you’re your own images. And you can sync the tiles with your other Maxthon installations or hide them for a blank white page. When I tried syncing, however, each tile on the second PC showed my present above the default tile, and didn’t link to my choice.

Extras
Now for the fun stuff: As I mentioned at the outset, Maxthon comes more stocked with goodies than any browser you’re likely to encounter. Traversing around the edges of the browser window reveals these. I already mentioned the Extensions bar on the left, but some of the cooler features lurk in the toolbar button at top right and in the lower-right border.

A highlight among these perks is the Resource Sniffer, accessible from the toolbar. Go to any page that contains video, music, or photos, and the Resource Sniffer can download it all for you. But when you’re on a page with video with Sniffer enabled, the movie plays in a separate Maxthon video window, which can be annoying and hard to dismiss. And on a page that offered MP3 downloads, the Sniffer didn’t show any audio files available. I was however able to download videos from all the major video sharing sites.

Other nifty options in the toolbar include Magic Fill—pretty much a multi-account password manager; Snap, which grabs a screen capture of either the whole browser or an area you select with a cross-hairs; Feed Reader, which can display RSS and Atom feeds nicely; and SkyNote, which lets you jot down text that will be available from other devices running Maxthon. The toolbar also gives access to frequently needed Windows items like My Computer, Paint, Calc, and you can even add any program to run from the External Tools button.

A favorite Maxthon trick of mine is Night Mode, which darkens bright interfaces—it even lets you choose text and background colors—for any site. Akin to this is the Mute button at the bottom in the status bar, which makes sure you won’t be disturbed by noisy auto-playing sites. You can also set the status bar to display your upload or download speeds, CPU usage, and IP address.

Like Safari, Maxthon offers a “reading view” for text-heavy webpages. This eliminates distracting ads and images. When you arrive at a suitable page, a book icon appears in the address bar, and clicking this presents a clean white page of text. Another cool visual tool is the “telestrator.”:Holding down the right mouse button, you can highlight an area on any Web page.

One extra you don’t get in Maxthon (but do in Opera) is a built-in BitTorrent client. Nor, for that matter, will you get Opera’s Turbo Mode, mail client, or Speed Dial apps. Like Opera, Maxthon allows mouse-gesture input, for example, letting you navigate back by holding the right button and clicking on the left one.  Use Maxthon for a while, and you’ll likely find even more hidden treasures.

Extensions
Even this less-famous browser has a thriving extension selection—well over 300. A gear icon at the bottom of the left sidebar takes you to the Extension Manager, where you can search through yours and turn them on and off. A link in the Manager takes you to the Extension Gallery, which offers all the expected top rated and category views. Installation is a one-click operationThe Facebook extension is okay, but I prefer Firefox’s Social API-based one. Many of the options are for a Chinese audience, unsurprisingly, considering the browser’s provenance, but there are plenty for Western users.

Performance
Maxthon users need have no worries when it comes to speed. Not only does the browser just feel fast, it’s neck and neck with the top performers on the more thorough of the JavaScript benchmarks—Google’s Octane and Mozilla’s Kraken. But it trails on the oft-cited SunSpider benchmark from WebKit. Here are the results from my test machine, a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo PC with 3GB of RAM running 32-bit Windows 7 Professional:

Browser

Google Octane Score (higher is better)

Chrome 24

10042

Maxthon 3.4

9913

Maxthon 4 Cloud Browser

9703

Firefox 18

6611

Opera 12

3840

Note: IE9 doesn’t support the HTML5 feature needed to run the above benchmark.

Browser

Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)

Firefox 18

3153

Maxthon 4 Cloud Browser

3156

Maxthon 3.4

3299

Chrome 24

3361

Opera 12

12336

Internet Explorer 9

16794

 

Browser

SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)

Chrome 24

239

Internet Explorer 9

260

Firefox 18

273

Maxthon 3.4

296

Opera 12

302

Maxthon 4 Cloud Browser

328

To test whether and how well Maxthon implements graphics hardware acceleration, a performance booster pioneered by Microsoft’s IE team, I ran a couple of hardware acceleration tests: from Microsoft’s IETestdrive site, Psychedelic Browsing, and Mozilla’s hardware acceleration stress test. Here were my results on a 3.4GHz quad core PC with 4GB RAM and an ATI Radeon HD 4290 graphics card, running Windows 7 Ultimate.

Browser with ATI Radeon HD 4290/3.4GHz quad core 

Psychedelic Browsing
RPM (higher is better)

Internet Explorer 9

4414 (correct sound)

Google Chrome 24

3574 (correct sound)

Firefox 18

2967 (no sound)

Opera 12

1012 (no sound)

Maxthon 3.4

72 (correct sound)

Maxthon 4 Cloud Browser

62  (correct sound)

 

Browser with ATI Radeon HD 4290/3.4GHz quad core

Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test
FPS (higher is better)

Firefox 18

60+

Internet Explorer 9

60+

Google Chrome 24

60+

Opera 12

45

Maxthon 3.4

20

Maxthon 4 Cloud Browser

18

On these tests, Maxthon falls down a bit. It does appear to have some modicum of hardware acceleration implemented, but it’s not even close to IE, Chrome, or Firefox. It did, however perform somewhat better on a PC with an Nvidia GeForce GT 240 graphics card, with 291 RPM on Psychedelic Browsing and 26 FPS on the Mozilla hardware stress test.

Startup Time
How long do you have to wait before a browser is usable? That’s another key performance question, and as with other measures, browsers have tightened up their differences on this measure. On my 2.53GHz dual-core Windows 7 laptop with 3GB RAM, after a reboot, at 7 seconds Maxthon was noticeably slower to get going than IE and Chrome. None of the browsers is likely to annoy you with warm restart time, including Maxthon, as you can see in the second column of this table:

Browser

Cold Startup Time   
(seconds)

Warm Startup Time   
(seconds)

Internet Explorer 9  

3.0

1.3

Chrome 24

3.3

1.1

Firefox 18

4.0

1.6

Maxthon 3.4

6.3

1.3

Maxthon 4 Cloud Browser  

7.0

1.3

Opera 12

10.1

1.9

Compatibility
Maxthon has one of the best compatibility stories you could imagine: It includes both the page-rendering engine that underlies Internet Explorer, and that of Chrome. In all my browsing with it, I haven’t run into a single page that displayed a “browser not supported” message.

In HTML5 support, Maxthon has retaken the lead from Chrome on the HTML5Test.com measure of HTML5 support. The test is out of a maximum of 500 points, each awarded for supporting features of the standard, and “Bonus Points” for features that aren’t technically part of HTML5 but are nice to have, such as additional video codecs. Maxthon also wins for these bonuses—not surprising for the browser that’s all about extra perks.

Browser 

HTML5Test.com Score (higher is better)

Bonus Points

Maxthon 4 (Cloud Browser)

464

15

Google Chrome 24

448

13

Maxthon 3.4

422

15

Opera 12

419

9

Firefox 18

389

10

Internet Explorer 9

141

5

Maxthon now even implements the HTML5 getUserMedia function of the WebRTC (realtime communication) spec, which lets the browser access the computer’s webcam and microphone without the need for a plugin like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. Opera was the first to support this, and Chrome quickly followed suit, while Firefox only has a proprietary, disabled-by-default version of getUserMedia support. Maxthon’s implementation is a tad less elegant than the others, though, with a simple message box to okay use of your camera, rather than the more integrated-looking interfaces for this in Chrome and Opera.

Security and Privacy
Maxthon includes a safe URL checker, but there was no download protection like that you get in Internet Explorer. I was able to download and run an executable program without any warning from the browser. On Browserscope’s security tests, Maxthon comes out slightly ahead of Firefox and IE9, with a score of 14 out of 17, compared with 13 for IE9, 12 for Firefox, and 16 for Chrome. Maxthon uses separate processes for tabs, and uses Chrome-like sandboxing to isolate page code from affecting your system.

For privacy, like all the other browsers Maxthon offers Private Browsing, accessible from the main menu. Any history or downloaded files from surfing done in a private session won’t be saved. Like all other browsers besides Chrome, Maxthon implements the Do Not Track standard, and it’s the only browser I’ve tested that has this protection turned on by default! Another unique feature is the ability to lock the browser, so others can’t use it till you log in again.

All is not perfection, however. A couple of times, I encountered a message box telling me the browser had encountered a fatal error. But the program does save open tabs in case of a crash.

Browsing Through the Clouds
I love how innovative Maxthon’s developers are, in a world of copycat browser features. It makes sense for a browser to take advantage of the cloud, and while most have done this to some extent or another through syncing, none offers as many cloud storage, syncing and sharing options a Maxthon Cloud Browser. But its benefits don’t stop there: The little-known Web software is also fast, and leads in new standards support. It only falls short of the competition in tab features and hardware acceleration. For a superfast browser with maybe not quite so many bells and whistles, check out our Editors’ Choice, Google Chrome.

Read more Web browser reviews:

By Michael Muchmore, PCMag

Specifications

    • Type: Business, Personal, Professional
    • OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS, Windows 7
    • Tech Support: Online community and FAQ.


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