Shiira Is an OS X Browser With a Lot of Promise

All in all, I’m very impressed and I look forward to seeing where the browser goes from here.

Shiira was discontinued in 2011. This review is here primarily for archival purposes.

Back in the day, one of the common criticisms levelled at the Mac was that its software library was incredibly limited — especially when compared to the gigantic library that existed for the Windows platform. And while that’s still somewhat true today in certain areas (i.e. games), you can’t say that Mac users don’t have enough options when it comes to web browsers.

As of right now, there are several competent web browsers for the Mac:

  • Internet Explorer — Which is no longer being developed by Microsoft.
  • Netscape — Yes, it’s still around.
  • Mozilla — Netscape’s open source browser suite.
  • Firefox — The open source, Mozilla-based browser currently getting so much press, thanks to IE’s security failings.
  • Camino — A Mac-optimized browser built using Mozilla’s codebase.
  • Opera — One of the first alternative browsers.
  • OmniWeb — A Mac-only browser with a pretty dedicated following.
  • Safari — Apple’s own browser, and my personal fave.

And now you can add one more to the list: the Japanese browser Shiira.

I’ve been using the latest version (as of this writing), 0.9.3, as my primary browser at home for the past week or so, and have been very impressed. Although Shiira is still in beta and has a few interface bugs and inconsistencies, it’s incredibly well-formed and has a great deal of promise.

The first thing you’ll notice when you download Shiira is that the DMG file is under 2MB in size. In this day and age of bloatware, that’s a very encouraging sign. (Note: Shiira is only available for OS X 10.3 Panther or higher.)

The second thing you’ll notice, once you’ve installed Shiira, is that it’s very similar to Safari in terms of look and feel. Perhaps too similar, based on some of the comments I’ve seen in discussion forums. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, seeing as how they both use Web Kit, Apple’s suite of tools for displaying web content. And since it’s fully Aqua-ized (unlike, say, Firefox, whose form widgets have a distinctly non-Mac look to them), it’s as pretty as any fully-fledged Mac app.

However, there are certain areas in which Shiira actually improves upon Safari. For starters, it feels quite a bit quicker, especially when doing simple tasks like browsing the history. Doing a side-by-side comparison of the two with the Activity Monitor reveals that Shiira does, in fact, use slightly fewer system resources than Safari.

Like Safari (and every other browser worth it’s salt out there), Shiira employs tabbed browsing, perhaps one of the coolest developments in the browser world ever. And while the tab implementation looks like Safari’s, Shiira one-ups Apple’s browser by allowing you to reorganize your tabs. It sounds like a little thing, but it’s very cool and handy.

Some of Shiira’s tab controls do take a little getting used to. For example, you can set how you want the tabs to behave when you close one. You can tell Shiira to display the previously selected tab, or the tab to the right of the just-closed tab (which is Safari’s method). You can also set the tab width to be set by the tab’s name; otherwise, all tabs are the same width (this is what I prefer).

You can also change the browser’s appearance, in one of two ways. First, you can select between the “Aqua” and “Brushed Metal” textures for browser windows. Brushed Metal is more Panther-esque but I prefer the softer, smoother Aqua. Second, you can use browser themes to modify the toolbar icons. The default theme isn’t terribly great, so I highly recommend downloading and installing Jon Hick’s browser theme (installing new browser themes is a piece of cake). And you can also turn off the display of favicons, those little icons that sometimes appear in your Favorites window.

Like Safari and Firefox, Shiira has implemented a Google search bar into the browser. However, you’re not stuck with just Google; by default, you can also use Webster, Thesaurus.Com, and Dictionary.Com, to name a few. You can also add as many as you want, and hop between them.

One thing that Shiira does quite well is its implementation of the Drawer. The Drawer is one of the more “controversial” additions of Mac OS X, and people seem to either love it or hate it. I’m a bit ambivalent myself, though I can certainly see the advantages. The Drawer is just what its name implies, a little drawer-like window that slides out from the side of your current document window. Shiira uses the Drawer to display your bookmarks, history, and downloads. It’s a very handy feature, and allows you get at a lot of info with little more than a click and glance.

Unfortunately, I don’t use the Drawer too much because it takes up precious real estate on my iMac’s little 1024x768 display. However, on a larger monitor, I can see how the Drawer could come in very handy, and if used in conjunction with tabbed browsing, is an ideal situation for power users. You’d only have to open one browser window, and practically everything you could ever want to work with would be right there in front of you.

And finally, Shiira is free.

So far so good. But are there any flaws to Shiira? There are a few. But seeing as how this is still a beta release, I’m willing to bet they’ll be ironed out by the time the full release comes around.

Most of the flaws I’ve found have been with the interface. For example, if you go to “History” in the top menu, and try to open a page from there, Shiira won’t let you unless you already have a browser window open. This seems very counterintuitive to me; Shiira should just spawn a browser window based upon whatever I select from the “History” menu.

Tabbing between form elements and browser controls can be a bit haphazard at times. Hitting the “Tab” key several times yields no response, as if the program has suddenly lost focus. It’d be nice for “Tab” to always default to the location bar if nothing else is selected. And sometimes, tabbing just doesn’t work. Same goes for the “Page Up,” “Page Down,” “Home,” and “End” keys. As a result, scrolling with your keyboard can sometimes be a bit frustrating, as it will work fine in one window, and not in another.

As nice as its implementation is, the Drawer could also use some tweaking. The text of the various buttons is cut-off, with looks rather sloppy. If they decreased the size of that text by one point, that would easily clear up the problem.

Printing support also seems to be a bit sketchy from what I’ve read, but I don’t have a printer here at home so I couldn’t test that for myself.

Finally, I’ve noticed that the browser sometimes renders text strangely, inserting foreign characters into some websites’ text. I’m willing to bet that’s because the default text encoding is “Japanese (Auto detect)” (Shiira is a Japanese browser after all). Changing it to “Western (ISO Latin 1)” seemed to clear the problem right up. However, sometimes the browser won’t let you select that option (the dropdown menu didn’t work for me one time), so you might need to quit and restart so that you can.

All in all, I’m very impressed and I look forward to seeing where the browser goes from here. There’s no word yet on when Shiira 1.0 will be coming out, but it’s already an excellent program. And seeing as how the development team is promising even more features (such as RSS support) down the road, I’ve a feeling it will only get better. Much better.

Read more about Shiira and Web Browser Review.