'Offline browser' sounds much like an oxymoron. The idea of surfing the Web offline is even weirder than that of a flying fish or hot snow. We are so much used to being online that we don't notice it anymore just like we don't notice the air we breathe... unless there's no more air. The suffocating feeling of being offline, with our dear Internet out of our reach, is one of the ugliest experiences a modern Internet-savvy person can have. So why not be offline with our dear Internet within our reach?
What is Offline Browsing?
The concept of an offline browser is dead straightforward. The only way you can browse a website when offline is to download it onto your computer when you're online. The same is true for your emails: you download your whole mailbox to your desktop, write your emails as usual and watch them automatically uploaded as soon as you go online again.
Sounds simple, eh? The reality is harsher. While an average website is not that big (with up to 50 pages, it is in fact fairly small), the most visited websites are much, MUCH larger. For example, the Software Informer website has several millions pages. News sites like bbc.co.uk or cnn.com are barely smaller. And since these sites account for the bulk of the Web total pageview number, the odds are you will want to have them stored on your computer.
If you download the webpage of a local business to have access to their phone numbers or to check out their product or service range, there shouldn't be any noteworthy problem. Yet, downloading the entire SI site on your desktop wouls surely make your hard drive burst at the seams. Besides, it would devastate your bandwidth and your traffic limit if you don't have an unlimited data plan. If you can't get a large website in one chunk, you could try downloading it in several pieces.
This idea is one of the crucial features in the modern offline browsers: by default, you can define the Start page from where the download should begin and the number of page levels that should be crawled and downloaded by the browser. A page level (aka 'link depth') is essentially the number of links, in which you can reach a webpage from your Start page. For example, this article can be reached directly from the SI start page and, therefore, has page level 1. Any of the programs I link to in this article have page level 2, etc. Normally, the higher the page level you define, the more pages will be downloaded as their number grows exponentially.
Which Offline Browser is the Best?
As simple as they are, the offline browsers can be divided into two classes: standalones and download managers. The former are offline browsers in the strict sense of the word, as they do not provide any other functionality apart from website downloads. The download managers focus primarily on managing and speeding up your downloads, with site grabbing being a relatively unimportant, though nice feature.
Paradoxically, the download managers have proved to be even better offline browsers than offline browser. I compared the site grabbers included into Free Download Manager (freeware) and Internet Download Manager ($29.95) with standalone applications like My Offline Browser ($29.00), BackStreet Browser ($19), SurfOffline ($39.95) and MetaProducts Offline Browser ($49.95).
SurfOffline was the first to drop out when it proudly notified me I can download only up to 200 files with the trial version. My Offline Browser failed to keep up with the competition as well: instead of the downloaded site, I got only a bunch of error messages and megatons of frustration as I tried to close it.
MetaProducts Offline Browser showed definitely better results than the previous two browsers. However, its hip design was at the same time its biggest drawback. It took me several minutes to figure out how I can get back to its Main Screen (the square figure in the down right corner), and it took me even longer to figure out how I can exit it (right-click on the tray icon → Exit). Changing the download settings was also not that easy: the Gear icon in the down left corner → Default Level Setting. I know, it sounds as if I were completely retarted 'cause I failed to grasp how this browser works... But honestly, out of all programs I tested, MetaProducts Offline Browser was the one with the most confusing interface.
BackStreet Browser is not only the cheapest standalone in my test, it is also the easiest-to-use one. It works smoothly, really smoothly, and even though I failed to download the entire SI website with it (he-he), I got the impression that I could have done it, provided my desktop had enough storage capacity. Still, there is one thing about BackStreet Browser to grouse about. It is just as good as Free Download Manager or Internet Download Manager.
Do you follow me? That's simple. Why should I pay ninteen bucks for an offline browser if I can get a nice fully fledged download manager with offline browsing capabilities for $29.95? Is site grabbing worth more than a half of IDM? I doubt it. And why should I pay at all, if I can get FDM absolutely free of charge? Especially if you take into account that it doesn't leave me with site grabbing only but rather gives me a nicely wide feature range from download management to site management to Flash video downloads (wink-wink).
Both IDM and FDM did their job very well. I can't guarantee you'll download Facebook or Google with them, but smaller sites like the Waiting to Respawn webcomics, the trick plays pretty well. The downloads ran smoothly, without eating too much of my bandwidth or spitting hordes of error messages. So, if you need an offline browser, my advice is to get IDM or FDM: they're really worth giving a try. Happy end.