updated 6/26/2008 11:05:32 AM ET 2008-06-26T15:05:32

With all the recent attention on the new Firefox 3 Internet browser, it's easy to miss two strong, innovative rivals. Add it all up, and Microsoft Corp.'s market-leading Internet Explorer has some impressive challengers.

Opera 9.5, for instance, lets you share bookmarked Web pages and notes among several computers. And another browser, Flock 2, brings Firefox 3's improvements to an already strong system for sharing photos and blog entries and linking friends on social-networking sites like Facebook.

Developed by the Mozilla open-source community, mostly volunteers, Firefox 3 showcases the "awesome bar." Start typing anything into the address bar, and you'll find letters and words jump around as Firefox 3 attempts to suggest up to 12 sites, with priority given to those you most recently visited or manually typed in.

Some people find the choices annoying, preferring how Firefox 2 limits matches to the start of previously visited Web addresses.

But I like that the new browser also looks at the entire address, the Web page's title, bookmarks and the descriptive tags added to them. The way recommendations instantly change with each keystroke reminds me of the powerful desktop search feature built into Apple's Mac computers.

I wouldn't call it "awesome," but it's quite impressive and useful.

Firefox 3 also brings speed and security improvements. Sites known to engage in "phishing" scams or the distribution of malicious software are now automatically blocked. The address bar turns partially green for sites that have passed vigorous background checks by outside parties.

The new browser also lets you launch Web-based e-mail rather than a standalone desktop program when clicking on basic "contact us" links within Web pages, though only Yahoo Inc.'s service is supported for now.

Firefox 2 users will do well to upgrade, and others should consider a switch.

Those drawn to Firefox 3's "awesome bar" may also want to consider Opera Software ASA's new offering, which checks the entire Web page visited for matches, not just the title and address. For example, if you type in the name of a movie, you'll pull up mentions deep within news articles you've read. (Firefox developers say they considered that, but found results less useful.)

Opera 9.5 also supports the security background checks and has its own security filters. But Opera won't open up Web-based e-mail when you click on "contact us" links.

What Opera does have is a tool for more easily finding specific words or phrases within a Web page. Simply type the period and a few characters, and all matches are automatically highlighted, not just one at a time like most other browsers. (Apple Inc.'s Safari comes closest to matching Opera — you type control-F rather than the period.)

A handy feature called Speed Dial lets you see miniature versions of nine favorite sites at a glance. You click on any to load the full site.

The new version makes Speed Dial more useful by synchronizing your favorites across multiple machines when you're logged on. This works with your bookmarks and a new feature called Notes, which lets you jot down shopping lists, directions and other text for retrieval elsewhere, including phones with Opera Mini software.

Unfortunately, the browser gets confused when multiple users share a browser or when multiple computers use the same account simultaneously. I've had Notes disappear, as one version overrode another. Granted these scenarios aren't common, but that makes me hesitant to rely on Notes to synch my ever-growing "to do" list.

I'm glad Opera is continuing to innovate — it was the first major browser to offer tabbed browsing, allowing you to have many sites open within the same browser window. Opera also remains the only major browser with built-in support for BitTorrent file sharing. But the new features aren't enough for me to ditch Firefox, which has a market share of more than 10 percent, compared with a sliver for Opera.

That said, I'm most impressed by Flock, which shares Firefox's core, open-source technology. Flock 2, just out as a "beta" test, primarily adds Firefox 3 upgrades to the current 1.2 version, including the "awesome bar" and security enhancements.

But Flock already has Web-based support for "contact us" links — not only with Yahoo but with Google Inc.'s Gmail and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL services, too — and a browser icon lets you check for new e-mail messages without first going to that site.

Flock has a built-in blog composer and photo uploader that works with major services, along with a media bar for accessing the latest on Google's YouTube and Yahoo's Flickr. You can drag a photo from the media bar and drop it right into your blog entry or a MySpace comments field.

When using Flock in the past, I've often had errors with Web-based e-mail. But the new version is much smoother, and the drag-and-drop functions have saved me a lot of time updating photo albums.

Though Flock is the least known of the alternatives, it is the strongest of the browsers I tested, smartly adapting to how people increasingly use the Internet for generating and sharing content. And with Firefox 3 as its core, Flock doesn't require you to choose one or the other.

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