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Home / Internet / 1Blocker 3 review: Safari extension revamps its content-blocking for macOS Catalina

A revamped tool for blocking unwanted tracking, JavaScript, and other browsing intrusions takes advantage of new Safari features.

1Blocker 3 review: Safari extension revamps its content-blocking for macOS Catalina

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Senior Contributor,

Macworld |

Apple introduced content-blocking Safari extensions in 2015 for iOS and 2016 for macOS, offering third-party developers a way to bring rule-based blocking without requiring users to give up privacy. Extension creators can produce and update unwanted lists of URLs, structural page elements, and a few other kinds of items that are unwanted or outright malicious. These lists are loaded into Safari, which handles blocking. User behavior isn’t uploaded—it’s a one-way street.

The standalone 1Blocker app lets you choose which categories of rules to apply, but is more limited in choosing among rules in each category.

1Blocker was one of the first to enter this market, producing an app that paired with extensions for flexible control. 1Blocker 3 is an overhaul of the macOS app, intended to provide a simpler interface for users who don’t want to dig into rules and to meet new extension requirements set by Apple for the latest release of Safari.

The result is a tool that you can essentially set and forget. However, in this initial release, you can’t dig beneath the surface to tweak further, as was possible in the previous version. The company promises more fine-grained control in future updates, including a page-based selector for marking items to block, such as boxes that appear and hide content. This feature appeared in earlier releases.

Content-blocking tools can be contentious if their entire goal is to prevent sites from receiving revenue from ads shown to visitors. 1Blocker threads that needle by offering switches and customization that let users still see ads they want or load everything at sites they trust while blocking much that’s unneeded, invasive of privacy, or actively risky.

Safari once had a wide-ranging architecture for extensions, and it was an environment where a number of privacy tools thrived. Some of them focused on blocking ads, while others had a broader interest in preventing a range of behavior. But in Apple’s ongoing effort to limit the surface in which malware can affect users, it opted to shift extensions entirely to the Mac App Store and limit their functionality. (Some argue Apple has other motives, but the company continues to invest in the development of built-in Safari anti-tracking features.)

However, 1Blocker didn’t require these extra features. Version 3 upgrades its code, overhauls its interface, and shifts it into a Mac App Store install. But it’s mostly the same app, though it’s easier to use in nearly every respect.

Click the 1Blocker button to see basic information and change settings, such as whitelisting the site to bypass all rules.

Because 1Blocker relies on the content-blocking rules allowed in Safari, its only real limitation is how many rules Apple allows at once—50,000 per extension. To work around this, 1Blocker has split its current 110,000-plus ruleset into multiple extensions, each focused on a specific category, like ad trackers, “annoyances” (cookie usage pop-up notices), and adult sites. These are set via Safari > Preferences > Extensions. For each extension type, you need to enable the extension in Safari and separately flip a switch in 1Blocker.

Two categories that you might consider not enabling include comment loading and “social widgets.” Many sites rely on third-party comment systems, like Disqus. If you want to use commenting, then you’ll need to either keep this category turned off or use on/off switches for individual rules in the Block Comments ruleset to enable just the settings you need.

The dropdown 1Blocker button reveals which items were blocked on a given page and can optionally show the count as a badge.

Social widget blocking prevents buttons and code loading on a site you visit that’s imported from Facebook, Twitter, and many other sites. If you use social sharing routinely, leaving this category disabled makes sense, but many people prefer to not trust what information leaks about their behavior to third-party networks. (Some sites build social sharing in such a way that they don’t pass your details along, and would be unaffected.)

1Blocker labels many of its individual rules with the name of the site or service and offers a search option to find them. But it’s cumbersome to use, because the app doesn’t group these rules into something like subcategories. Twitter, for instance, has 1,050 rules in the Block Widgets category, and each rule has to be flipped off one at a time. In the version tested, disabling a rule caused the search selection to disappear showing all rules in the category. It would be a thankless and unappetizing task to proceed.

Advanced rules can be set, though it requires a fairly substantial understanding of HTML and related properties.

Each rule can block a URL pattern, cookies sent when loading a given URL pattern, and the display of a CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) element, where CSS is used for overlay boxes and similar page elements. When blocking URLs, the rule can also specify whether everything from that location is blocked or a particular kind of item is blocked, like an image or a script.

You can click the Custom button in the 1Blocker app in its upper-left corner, choose a category, then click the +New Rule button in the lower-right corner to add rules appropriate for that category. This includes whitelisting, site URLs, cookies, and CSS elements. You can choose to force a site to only load via a secure https URL.

Whitelisting is a powerful tool to trust a site fully. It bypasses any rule choices you’ve made, except forcing all-https requests.

When you visit a site, the 1Blocker menubar button provides useful feedback. You can opt to display a badget that notes how many items were blocked. Click the button and click Blocked Resources, and you can examine which URLs were blocked. Unfortunately, probably due to Apple’s rules about app interaction with extensions, the 1Blocker labels for rules don’t appear in that list, making it less useful in knowing anything but the category of item a URL appears in.

The button lets you whitelist sites and set https-only page requests, too. When you visit a whitelisted site, a red heart appears as a badge on the 1Blocker button.

In this initial release, an advanced feature from previous version was left out, which is the ability to use its Safari extension to select items on a page and build a rule around the selection. While the option appears in the 1Blocker extension button dropdown as Hide Element, clicking it brings up a notice that “Hide Element is not yet available.” The company expects to add it in a future release. The 1Blocker standalone app references using the extension button inaccurately, since the future doesn’t yet exist in version 3.

I don’t think it’s a gaping hole, but it is unfortunate, as the graphical selection tool allowed the use of sites that frequently throw up interstitial, pop-overs, and other interface elements that interfere with reading or site use. I subscribe to a number of editorial sites, and find that these messages regularly appear even when I’m logged in to my account, which led me to create custom rules in an earlier version of 1Blocker to disable them.

You can create this exclusions manually, which typically requires a good knowledge of HTML, media formats, and CSS. It’s also unclear how to get started. In the Custom tab, click the plus sign next to Advanced Customization. This creates a new group labeled simply “New Group.” Select it, enable it, and click +New Rule to access a more advanced blocking rule.

1Blocker has also overhauled how it charges with its move into the Mac App Store. In this new release, it offers a free version that allows turning on a single category at a time, whitelisting sites, and rule updates, though the updates are less frequent than the paid release.

The paid subscription version lets you enable any and all categories, provides twice-weekly rule updates that are automatically downloaded, and offers access to advanced customization features. This includes the future return of the graphical hide elements options.

Subscriptions are charged at $2.99 a month, $14.99 a year (with a 14-day free trial), or $38.99 for lifetime use. At this writing, the company has an introductory sales promotion that drops yearly pricing to $9.99 and lifetime use to $32.99.

Existing owners of previous releases of 1Blocker aren’t required to pay for an upgrade, however. They receive access to all new features at no cost except frequent rule updates. That’s an additional $1.99 a month, $4.99 a year, or $12.99 for a permanent license.

A single subscription works across all iOS and macOS devices connected to a single iCloud account.

1Blocker provides a powerful way to carve out your web-browsing experience in Safari 13 while still working within Apple’s new constraints. The updated version is missing some features and given its new subscription model, should be a bigger step up from previous releases.

1Blocker’s extension lists, simplicity, and effectiveness mean that it’s a worthwhile purchase and I recommend it. For those who want more sophistication, the app is intended to grow to fit their needs, but only time will show if the developers meet that expectation along with their new revenue model.

This story, “1Blocker 3 review: Safari extension revamps its content-blocking for macOS Catalina” was originally published by

Macworld.

1Blocker 3 brings more advanced tools and greater simplicity in this overhaul for the latest Safari and macOS.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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