Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Trying out Maxthon

In my seemingly fruitless search for a web browser that doesn't suck, I tried Maxthon.  Here I am with my impressions after tinkering around with it, and in some cases hacking away at it, to attempt to get it set up for daily use.

The issues popped up immediately after installing.  As per my usual, I deselected the options for creating a desktop icon and a taskbar icon, but left the Start Menu icon enabled, and told it not to set itself as my default browser.  It created both icons that I told it not to create, and set itself as my default browser.

Also, immediately after the install finished, an error dialog popped up saying it couldn't find some function in a DLL, which was somehow related to its auto-update thing, and because of that it couldn't install its auto-update thing.  Being that I hate auto-update, not a single tear was shed that day, and I moved right along.

I immediately inspected the options, and upon finding that mouse gestures are enabled by default, I quickly disabled them.  They also provide a lot of default URL aliases that I also removed.  Options save as soon as you change them, which is nice.  I'm not going to bother making an exhaustive list of the options I enabled or disabled, because nobody really cares.

For whatever reason, it's set to use Internet Explorer's proxy options by default, so I disabled that nuisance.  Fortunately, it gives me the option to disable proxy, use IE's proxy, or use its own proxy, so it doesn't really matter.

Maxthon comes with Adblock Plus installed and enabled by default, which is really cool.  You still have to go into the options and tell it that no ad is ever acceptable, but... whatever.  Except that, initially at least, I couldn't figure out how to get into Adblock Plus' options, at all.  Despite the menu item sitting right there.  It was disabled, and the indicator said it was off.  The Maxthon extension site had an annoying ad, front and center.  After much annoyance I ended up elsewhere on the internet, on a page with ads, and finally I could get into Adblock Plus' options.

As it turns out, they added exception filters for all of their sites and advertisers by default.  If an exception filter is hit, apparently you can't get into the Adblock Plus settings with that tab focused.  So don't forget to remove all that shit.

Next, I messed around with the search settings.  I use keyword searches, where I can just type the keyword, a space, and then what I want to search for, and the search engine I gave that keyword to pops up with my results.  Well, I set that up no problem.  Even did the standard neutering of the regular "let's turn anything we don't recognize on the location bar into a search, including when the user is trying to load a server on their LAN by its hostname" functionality.  That was all well and good.  Except that there were search suggestions coming in from somewhere, and there's zero option to disable them.  What this means is, all my keystrokes were being sent to a server somewhere so these suggestions could be generated, meaning they can easily track everything I ever type in the location bar.  I wanted that gone ASAP, and judging from my Google searches on the matter, a lot of other people feel the same way.

The method of disabling it isn't pretty.  There's actually three things you can do, but it didn't work for me until I did the very last one, and I haven't tested removing either of the other two to see what's truly necessary.  Paths may vary on your system, depending on 32/64 bit stuff that you should probably be used to by now.  Do all this with the browser closed, for best results.
  1. Set the read-only flag on C:\Program Files\Maxthon\Modules\MxSmartUrl\update.db, creating it if necessary.  To make it, just right click, make a new text file, and if you've got the "hide extensions for known file types" option turned off like a good computer user, then you can simply replace the default name with update.db and it'll Just Work™.
  2. Add the line api.bing.com to your C:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts file.  Despite not having an extension, this is just a regular text file that you can open in Notepad.  It needs to not have an extension in order to function as intended, so don't add one.
  3. Rename C:\Program Files\Maxthon\Modules\MxSmartUrl\MxSmartUrl.dll to something else.  I chose MxSmartUrl.dll.die.
As I said, it didn't work until I did the last one.  Also, somewhat related, you can safely uninstall the installed-by-default Search extension, it's unnecessary.

During my configuration, I removed the multitude of search engines they provide by default.  At some point, they reappeared in the list, but that hasn't happened again.  Also, this includes their default Google search, for which you can't edit the URL to remove the "hey this is the client that's making the search" information.  I also removed Maxthon Multi Search.

The New Tab page does what it does in most other browsers: you can set pages to appear there for easy access to frequently used sites.  There's even a search box there.  You know, to be redundant with the enabled-by-default-with-no-option-to-disable address box search and the location bar search box sitting right next to it.  Except with this one, you can't edit the list of search engines or change the URLs they use.  The space it takes up also prevents an entire row of bookmarks from showing up.  Thankfully, you can get rid of it.  Just make a new page of bookmarks on the New Tab page, then delete the very first one.

Once it's brought within reason, the New Tab page is actually pretty nice.  You can even configure a background image for it, though Maxthon doesn't do any scaling on that image, it just takes a curiously-positioned chunk out of the image that changes if you resize the window.  It's biased towards the left side of the image, and the vertical center.  If you don't have an image you want to use, they have a few defaults.

Switching the browser's theme is also pretty simple.  In the condensed menu, there's a "Skins" option at the bottom.  Clicking it brings up a window that shows a few preset skins, as well as letting you set your own image and/or color scheme.  I like how simple and straightforward the process is.

My attention turned to that cluttered location bar with its ton of icons.  I like mine to be mostly the address field, so I set out to rectify this.  Unfortunately, you can't just right click and select Customize to change the toolbar icons around like in other browsers, but you can remove most of them from the View menu, just by unchecking them.  You can even remove the search box in this manner.  The icons to the right of everything, just before the condensed menu thing, can all be hidden as well and are still accessible by clicking an acceptably small dropdown indicator.  Also, the Status bar, straight out of the '90s, can also be hidden.  The sidebar, which is enabled by default, can also be hidden, even directly from the sidebar itself.

Having gotten it configured for screen space, I looked through the options once more, and noted that its cookie options are sorely lacking.  It has zero cookie management, and you can't disable just third-party cookies.  They're an all-or-nothing deal.  A definite hit on the usability of the browser as a whole.

Also annoying, and a common problem with all Chromium-based browsers, is that when the window is maximized, it covers and prevents access to my taskbar, which is set to auto-hide like any sane person would do.

Another interesting feature is the ability to switch the rendering engine between Webkit and Trident.  Not sure why you'd ever want to use Trident, but hey, the option's there.  You can even enable a toolbar icon to switch it on the fly.  I honestly can't picture the use case for this, though.  What site that exists today that you'd ever find yourself on doesn't render nearly identically in all rendering engines?  With Microsoft having been bitchslapped into being more standards-compliant than they once were, even Trident renders pages reasonably consistently with the other rendering engines out there.  I honestly don't see the need for switching the rendering engine, at all.

I didn't notice that it had set itself as my default browser until the next time I restarted Firefox, which I have set to prompt me if it isn't the default.  I quickly reverted back to Firefox as default, to find that Maxthon now goes "...hey..." with a red dot on the condensed menu icon, and another one next to the "set as default browser" option.  How about no?

After all that, I decided to try out YouTube and see whether it used HTML5 or Flash.  It defaults to HTML5, with the same jittery sound as any other Chromium-based browser on my computer.  Forcing it to switch to Flash was a matter of installing the YouTube Center extension and selecting "Aggressive Flash" in its options.  Even with the Flash player, it's an unacceptable experience.  Video decoding lags and is full of artifacts.

I have yet to actually log in to any website I normally use, because quite frankly, Maxthon is a browser from China and I just don't trust it.  Not even over HTTPS, because it still has the ability to read every single thing I type.

It's an interesting browser, but full of unexpected critical fails, and my lack of trust towards it in general is going to lead me to not recommend using it.

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