Maxthon 3.4 review

Pros

  • Impressive compatibility with web pages
  • Excellent HTML5 support
  • Pretty speedy browser
  • Some smart extra features

Cons

  • Crashes from time to time
  • Weak hardware acceleration performance

There's a new browser in town, and it's toting some pretty impressive firepower. In fact, Maxthon has been around for nearly a decade, but it will probably be new to most folks who read this. Maxthon 3.4 is not only the most feature-rich browser you'll find, but its speed and standards compatibility levels are eyebrow-raising. It's a free download, too, so why not give it a go.

Want to capture video playing inside the browser or grab a screenshot? Maxthon has the tools. Want syncing of tabs, bookmarks, and even notes? You guessed it, Maxthon can do it with built-in tools. Sick of bright white web page backgrounds burning out your eyes? Maxthon's night mode can come to your rescue. You don't have to worry about a site being incompatible with the maverick browser, either, since it includes both Google Chrome's and Internet Explorer's underlying page rendering engines.

Interface

By default, Maxthon's interface isn't as sparse as those of the current browser crowd. But it has a few brilliant touches, and you'll discover more and more as you go along. A rail along the left gives access to Favourites, Downloads, Feeds, SkyNotes (more on that later), and Tab sync. But you can add extensions to this rail, such as a Facebook sharer, a Twitter tweeter, shopping assisters, and games. I didn't see an ad blocker in Maxthon's own extension gallery, but third-party Maxthon extension sites offer them.

To the left of the tabs along the very top, you'll see a large blue smiley-face button, which accesses the program's large main menu dialog. The smiley turns into your own user picture when you create a syncing account with Maxthon, making for a truly personalised browser. And the personalisation goes even further: The Skins feature lets you radically customise the browser's border, tabs, and buttons, with hundreds of choices ranging from cute kid-style themes to polished metal looks.

There’s a lot more control over the look of your browser compared to what Chrome or IE offers. Installation of skins is quick and restart-free, and once you've downloaded one, it's available from a button on the browser border.

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 tabs and their content 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 any other browser’s, save possibly Opera's, which offers live updated mini apps. In Maxthon, you can arrange the link tiles on the grid to your 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 or your own images. And you can sync the tiles with your other Maxthon installations, or hide them for a blank white page.

Extras

Now for the fun stuff: As I mentioned at the outset, Maxthon comes stocked with more 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 and the 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 – a multi-account password manager; Snap, which grabs a screen capture of either the whole browser or an area you select with 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 you want to run from the External Tools button.

A favourite Maxthon trick of mine is Night Mode, which darkens bright interfaces – it even lets you choose text and background colours – 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 web pages. 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.

Syncing and Start Page

By default, Maxthon fires up with a pretty useful start page, showing links, news, search, and popular videos. You can customise it to the hilt with your own links and location. I mentioned that you can use Maxthon's Cloud Sync to synchronise notes on any computer or device you use to log into Maxthon – and you can do the same for bookmarks, options, the address bar, new-tab links, and Magic Fill passwords. A separate extension enables tab syncing, too.

Next Page > Performance and Verdict

Performance

There's really only one thing you need to know about Maxthon when it comes to speed: It beats Chrome on Google's own benchmark! The benchmark, V8, is designed to "reflect the performance of well-structured object-based applications." Since Maxthon's JavaScript engine is a tweaked version of Chrome's, it isn’t surprising that it does well. But it also excels on Mozilla's Kraken, though it's only middling on the oft-cited SunSpider benchmark from WebKit. Here are the full results of these benchmarks which were run on my test machine, a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo PC with 3GB of RAM running 32-bit Windows 7 Professional:

Browser

Google V8 (v.6) Score (higher is better)

Maxthon 3.4

9767

Google Chrome 20

9353

Firefox 14

5633

Opera 12

3572

Safari 5.1

2679

Internet Explorer 9

2048

Browser

Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms (lower is better)

Maxthon 3.4

3299

Google Chrome 20

3579

Firefox 14

4347

Opera 12

12336

Safari 5.1

15898

Internet Explorer 9

16794

Browser

SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms (lower is better)

Google Chrome 20

255

Internet Explorer 9

260

Opera 12

290

Firefox 14

294

Maxthon 3.4

296

Safari 5.1

304

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. I used the Psychedelic Browsing test from Microsoft's IETestdrive site, 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)

Firefox 14

4142 (no sound)

Google Chrome 20

3516 (correct sound)

Opera 12

1012 (no sound)

Maxthon 3.4

72 (correct sound)

Safari 5.1.7

26 (correct sound)

Browser with ATI Radeon HD 4290/3.4GHz quad core

Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test FPS (higher is better)

Firefox 14

60+

Internet Explorer 9

60+

Google Chrome 20

60+

Opera 12

45

Maxthon 3.4

20

Safari 5.1.7

12

On this test, 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, hitting 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 the various browsers have tightened up their differences when it comes to startup speed. On my 2.53GHz dual-core Windows 7 laptop with 3GB RAM, after a reboot Maxthon made a decent, middle-of-the-pack showing (it was still far faster than startup-slugs Opera and Safari) at 2.5 seconds. None of the browsers is likely to annoy you with its 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

2.2

1.9

Google Chrome 20

2.3

1.5

Maxthon 3.4

2.5

1.5

Firefox 14

2.7

1.7

Opera 12

6.1

1.9

Safari 5.1

6.6

2.2

Compatibility

Maxthon does very well in the compatibility stakes, and that’s not surprising as 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 terms of HTML5 support, Maxthon just yielded the crown to Chrome, with that browser's release of version 21. But our underdog still produced a remarkable showing on the HTML5Test.com measure of HTML5 support. The test is out of a maximum of 500 points, with bonus points awarded for features which aren't technically part of HTML5 but are nice to have, such as additional video codecs. Maxthon still wins for these bonuses – not surprising given that the browser is all about extra perks.

Browser

HTML5Test.com Score (higher is better)

Bonus Points

Google Chrome 21

437

13

Maxthon 3.4

422

15

Opera 12

385

9

Firefox 8

314

9

Safari 5.1

252

2

Internet Explorer 9

141

5

But you can't really say that Maxthon is a leader in HTML5 support, since it doesn't implement HTML5 getUserMedia, which lets the browser access the webcam and microphone without the need for a plugin like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight.

Security and privacy

Maxthon includes a safe URL checker, but there’s no download protection as is provided with 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 and stop it 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 until 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.

Verdict

Maxthon's approach seems to be to add just about every distinguishing feature that every other browser sports to the mix. Its use of IE and Chrome's page rendering engines is certainly clear evidence of this. But Maxthon does add a few goodies of its own, like the built-in media downloader, night view, and screen capture tool. Performance and capability with the latest standards haven’t suffered, either. Maxthon is second only to Chrome in its HTML5Test result.

But despite all its bells and whistles, which will no doubt appeal to many, Maxthon isn’t an innovator, but a borrower. It's also behind in hardware acceleration, and occasionally crashed in my testing. And though Maxthon deserves a tip of the hat – and it’s definitely worth giving it a whirl – it’s still not quite up there with my favourite current browser which leads in standards support, Chrome. (Incidentally, if you run Chrome, you might want to check out our recent feature on the best extensions for 2012).