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Will RockMelt sock it to Flock?

While the Big Five browsers duke it out to see which one can come up with the best mix of speed, compatibility, and add-ons, social networking bruisers Flock 3 (Windows only) and RockMelt beta (Windows | Mac) have taken off the kid gloves to beat each other senseless over Twitter and Facebook integration.

This isn’t a fair match by a long shot. Chromium-fueled Flock 3 has been available since June 2010, and claims 500,000 users. (Just as a point of comparison, the Mozilla Gecko-powered version 2 of Flock has 8.5 million users and has been on the market for three years.) Flock CEO Shawn Hardin pointed out that Flock version 2.6 is the most popular nonmobile app on Facebook, and Flock version 3 is the sixth most popular nonmobile app on Facebook. Just by virtue of the time that Flock has had the market practically to itself could prove a difficult hill for RockMelt to climb.

CNET has learned from a Flock representative that the company plans for a major update on December 1. The Mac version of Flock 3 is expected to debut, several months off its original due date in July 2010. LinkedIn support will be added, and the release will upgrade Flock 3 to the Chromium 7 base, which will patch numerous security holes, make bug fixes, and introduce Chromium 7’s faster browsing speeds to Flock.

Currently, both Flock 3 and RockMelt beta are built on Chromium 6.

User numbers aside, RockMelt plays David handily against Flock’s Goliath. First off is the login procedure. RockMelt access is based on your Facebook login. You download it, you use your existing Facebook username and password, and you’re ready to get your social on. Flock doesn’t require you to create a new Flock account, although you have to be able to synchronize your data across computers. Both browsers synchronize your data to the cloud, so there’s no hassle to use either one on multiple computers, but RockMelt wins this round for cutting out the registration process.

However, RockMelt is currently restricted by invitation. The browser offers a simple sharing method to help you distribute the invites allocated to you among your Twitter followers and Facebook friends, but that undercuts the otherwise fast registration process.

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The RSS reader in the RockMelt makes it easy to subscribe to pages, and to see feeds from your favorites. It’s not as fully-developed as the search result viewer, though.

Rafe Needleman/CNET)

Supported accounts are a major area of contention. RockMelt only supports Facebook and Twitter, while Flock 3 works with both of those plus YouTube and Flickr. Supporting accounts is not enough for these browsers, which are basically Google Chrome with souped-up social networking extensions. How the accounts and their features are exposed is immensely important, with the major difference being that RockMelt maintains a single-serving update of one friend per service at time, while Flock creates a unified stream of all supported services.

RockMelt emphasizes its connection to Facebook. The “Friends Edge” on the left is dedicated to your Facebook friends, showing who’s online, filterable by favorites, and a Show All Friends button. The right sidebar, the “App Edge,” is where you can toggle social networks, providing one-click access to your Facebook news feed, your Facebook profile, and your Twitter account. An indicator will tell you when you’ve got new updates. Chrome extensions that you install will also live here, although they don’t always work. The search box has been improved, too, with hooks into your Facebook friends’ lists.

RockMelt has tweaked the RSS feed subscription process into a more obvious notification. When you land on a page with an RSS feed, the browser will autodetect it and provide a one-click button for subscribing from the App Edge.

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The new sidebar, a first for Chromium when it debuted in June, allows users to maintain a single friend stream. You can also create Groups to help you keep them all organized.

Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

It’s undeniable that RockMelt has polish that Flock lacks. The edges utilize the mobile-app style rounded-box icons and real-time update indicators. Flock’s sidebar doesn’t work well when narrowed down because you lose access to the filtering features at the top and it cuts off status updates. You can hide it with a toggle on the right side of the browser, but then you must actively reopen it to see what’s going on.

While those are solid hits from RockMelt, Flock’s overall feature set is far more robust. You can edit your contacts, merging contact info and creating groups to organize them. These groups can then be applied to your contact stream, which lives in the right sidebar. RockMelt allows you to “favorite” friends in the Friends Edge, but it doesn’t support the powerful sorting that Flock has. Where RockMelt only searches for Facebook contacts, Flock will search all of its supported services for your friends’ updates from the location bar. Both browsers do allow you to share currently viewing sites to supported services with comments, a key feature.

So which one is best? That still depends on what you’re looking to get out of the browser. Because of the tight integration with your friends and the slick design, RockMelt will give you the strongest Facebook experience of the two browsers. Since Twitter searches aren’t supported from the location bar in RockMelt, along with the support for grouping and other social networking services in Flock, Flock is the better browser for a cross-discipline, unified social affair. And as noted, Mac users will have to wait until the OS X version of Flock 3 comes out.

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