KELLNER: One free ‘social’ Web browser works better

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CORRECTION: The original version of this column incorrectly stated that the Flock social networking browser reviewed was built on Google’s Chrome technology. While a Chrome-based Beta version of Flock is available for Windows users, Macintosh and Linux users can only run a version of Flock built around the Mozilla Web browser.

Facebook, once a mystery if you weren’t a college or university student (or recent graduate), is now the virtual “public square” of the age. We all connect there, or at least 500 million of us do.

I would venture that many of us, at least at work, do it the same way: via a Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Google’s Chrome. I’ll leave the mobile-device question aside for the moment.

But having multiple Web pages open can be a resource hog, and you can lose your way among the various social networks. Wouldn’t it be neat if you could incorporate your social stuff alongside your Web browsing? (That massive grinding sound, by the way, is of the collective molars of thousands of bosses scraping together. But I digress.)

Two free Web browsers — Flock and RockMelt — purport to do this. Flock, online at www.flock.com, has been out for a few months; RockMelt, backed by Netscape co-creator Marc Andreessen, is in Beta testing, but you can go to www.rockmelt.com to sign up for an invite. If some of your social networking buddies are already using RockMelt, as one of mine was, you could jump up the waiting list a bit.

In case you’re wondering which one to choose, here’s a useful clue: one works very well, the other less so, in large part due to different layout styles, and, possibly the underlying browser technology.

RockMelt, available for both Windows and Macintosh users, is built on Google’s Chrome Web browser. Flock’s general release, for now, is built on Mozilla, the browser technology behind Firefox. (Flock says it will be on the next release of Chrome, version 7, “in a few weeks” and on both platforms.)

Regardless of the technology, Flock, sad to say, seems to have some issues. I downloaded it twice, some number of weeks apart, and each time the screen display was unsatisfying. The left “margin” of the browser contained all sorts of Facebook updates, but was large enough to make the “main” browsing area uncomfortably difficult to read. Typical browser zooming commands helped, but not totally. (It is possible to adjust the width of that margin, but you then lose some of the content.)

I tested both Flock and RockMelt on an HNC monitor with a 24.5-inch (diagonally measured) screen and a resolution set at 1080p, as I have an HDMI connection from my computer’s video output. In short, there’s plenty of screen “real estate” for the program to use.

At the top of Flock’s Web-browsing area is a scroll of photos from the Flickr sharing service, if you sign in; it also can handle YouTube videos and Truveo video clips. After a while, all this media richness is like sucking down an entire jar of Dulce de Leche: Very sweet, but a tad overwhelming.

Overwhelming, and not in a good way, describes Flock’s My World page, which attempts to aggregate your favorite websites, a Twitter feed search, your favored RSS news feeds and media into one viewable selection. Ugh. It’s just too much, like putting maraschino cherries, in syrup, on top of the Dulce de Leche.

The Flock folks say improvements to the browser are coming, including an upgrade to Chrome Version 7, which should help things a bit, stabilitywise. But I’m not suggesting you flock to Flock just yet.

RockMelt, on the other hand, already has Chrome 7, is a bit more streamlined and is a far more functional a product. It sets up in a more automated fashion, asking if you wish to import bookmarks and such from other browsers and if you wish to make it your “default” Web client.

Once that’s done, you’re encouraged to sign in to Facebook and Twitter — other services are coming, I’m told — and add online “feeds” from your favorite or most recent websites. These sit in a small “rail” on the right side of the screen; hover over an icon, and you can see the number of new items. Click on the icon, and a display window pops up.

On the left “rail,” RockMelt will give you either the latest updates from all your Facebook friends or the ones you select as favorites. Again, it’s a hover-and-click approach, but I find that less distracting than Flock’s floating feed.

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