Friday, June 16, 2006

Flock Review

FlockThis week a new browser debuted in public beta. Flock 0.7 is now available for download. Flock is an open-source browser based on the Firefox model, and shares many of Firefox's distinctive characteristics, such as tabbed browsing, built-in search box, easy customization, and amenability to extensions. In fact, many beloved Firefox extensions have been retooled to work in Flock.

Flock, however, was not designed just to be a Firefox spinoff. The purpose of the new browser was to integrate web 2.0 uses into the browser's normal functioning. Now this can mean different things to different people. In the case of Flock, this means making it easier to blog, read news feeds, share photographs, and maintain social bookmarks. You can read more about the goals of the project here.

With that in mind, I would like to give my thoughts on some of the unique aspects of the new browser.

Photographs: Users can choose between Flickr and Photobucket. (I imagine that in the future more services will be added.) The initial setup is fairly easy and can be done when the browser first opens. Photostreams can be displayed in a special bar across the top of the screen, and images can be dragged and dropped into the stream from webpages and Windows Explorer. The photo function works well together with the blogging function

Bookmarks/Favorites: I do not make much use of social bookmarking myself, so I am not the best person to comment on these features. It will suffice for me to say that the feature is fairly easy to set up, and you have a choice of or shadows. "Favorites" are automatically imported from your previous default browser. You can choose whether or not to make these public. Unfortunately for me, Flock broke apart my subfolders into top-level folders of their own, so that it is now hard to tell one from another.

Blogging: The blogging function, like the other social functions, is easy to setup. One can post to multiple blogs on different accounts. Right now, it is able to post to Blogger, Drupal, LiveJournal, MoveableType, Typepad, and WordPress through a WYSIWYG editor that provides the capability to edit source code, where necessary. It includes an option to add Technorati tags if you post through "File -> Publish to Blog..." rather than the "Publish" button on the editing window. It is also imperative to use the "File" menu to publish if you have several blogs registered and wish to make sure you publish to the correct one. I wish that there was a way to set one blog as the default.

Newsreader: News feeds (RSS/Atom) can be imported into Flock from other readers with varying degrees of ease. This browser makes it easy to add new feeds by clicking on the orange feed button in the location box and then working through a dialogue. Feeds open in a separate pane on the left side of the screen, much like the Firefox extension Sage.

Flock will not replace online newsreaders such as Bloglines or Feedburner for users who prefer that method of monitoring feeds. However, the built-in reader is a worthy replacement for the Sage extension from the Firefox browser, with two exceptions. One is that there does not seem to be a way to order the reader to check feeds; it does this on its own schedule. (To change this schedule, see here.) The second is that the newsreader does not seem to share Sage's lightweight and relatively fast performance. When I open the news, I have to click through two "script not responding" boxes before being able to read feeds; when the reader is running in the background, this can slow page loading and other functions to a crawl.

General evaluation: This last issue points to my biggest problem with the Flock browser as a whole, namely its footprint on system resources. I use a slightly dated computer (about four years old) with limited RAM. At the current time, Flock uses about 140 Megabytes of memory during normal use, a bit more than my middle-aged system can handle. For those of you who, like me, have an older machine, I would recommend sticking with Firefox (or another worthy browser) as your primary browser for the moment. Certainly it is worth giving Flock a try, but this browser really needs more system resources for a user to take full advantage of its capabilities. Overall I have found the current version of Firefox to respond more quickly on my computer. Your own mileage may vary, of course.

Perhaps the review so far sounds too negative. I actually do think that this is a promising browser. It just needs some improvement, which I am sure will come in future editions. I am a great fan of the open-source software movement, not only because it is free (always good), but also because it provides a more flexible model for developing new uses. In any case, it is worthwhile for bloggers or others who spend time online to download it and take a look at its features. You may find the new functions useful.

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