Ed Bott, PC Computing
March 1, 1999
If you think Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator are just about browsing the Web, think again. Microsoft and Netscape are fighting a battle for your heart and mind--and, more important, your wallet--and the browser is their chief weapon. If you choose a Microsoft browser, you'll really upgrade your copy of Windows with a far-reaching set of Internet components. If you use Communicator's new Navigator browser, on the other hand, you'll find yourself pushed, pulled, tugged, and occasionally dragged kicking and screaming to Netscape's Netcenter portal.
We looked at the second technical beta of Internet Explorer 5.0 and a shipping copy of Navigator 4.5. Both are free to download from their Web sites, or available on CD for a nominal charge.
Smooth Setup Superficially at least, IE5 is a slicker, faster, easier-to-use version of IE4, with dozens of tiny improvements and a reorganized interface that collectively make everyday tasks easier. In this upgrade, Microsoft has cleaned out much of the irritating clutter that made IE4 look bloated--like the desktop Channels bar--while adding components you'll need for Microsoft Office 2000 and other applications. For anyone who was put off by IE4's insistence on hijacking the desktop, the cleaner, less intrusive IE5 is a big improvement.
Navigator 4.5's user interface is essentially unchanged. The big difference is the addition of keyword searching and a relentless focus on the Netcenter portal. Installing the upgrade was effortless on both Windows 95 and Windows 98, and when we started the browser, we connected with Netcenter, as expected. We were startled, though, to discover a dirty trick--the default Navigator setup brazenly resets Internet Explorer's startup page and search options as well.
Head Start Many of the usability tweaks in Internet Explorer 5.0 first appeared in Office 97 and IE4, but they're notably refined here. The AutoComplete feature, for example, helps you quickly jump to Web sites you've visited previously. When you begin typing in the browser's Address box, a dialog box drops down displaying matching entries from the History list. Similarly, filling in Web-based forms is easier because IE5 contains an option to save usernames, passwords, and other data.
The usability improvements extend to the administrator's desk too. You can fully control every configuration, including security and proxy settings, from the free Internet Explorer Administration Kit. It's possible to do the same with Netscape Mission Control, but only if you've anted up $1,995 for the minimum 50-seat license.
Smarter Searches The crown jewel of IE5's interface is the Explorer Bar--a frame just to the left of the browser window that hosts navigation controls. The most useful of the four built-in controls is the Search pane, which lets you quickly connect to common search engines to find Web pages, people, and companies. Although it superficially resembles the version that debuted in IE4, this Search bar is radically revamped, and it's a model of efficient interface design. It's also supremely customizable.
By contrast, clicking on Navigator's Search button sends you to a page on the Netcenter portal, and chasing links takes you to still more pages, with frequent detours through Netcenter. Both browsers support keyword searching. IE simply feeds the search terms to Yahoo. Navigator, on the other hand, includes a list of predefined associations between sites and common commercial keywords. If Navigator doesn't recognize the keywords, it sends you to Netcenter's search page.
Bar Hopping Explorer bars aren't just for searching--they also make it easier to add and organize Favorites than previous IE versions did, although power users will be frustrated by the lack of a tree-style interface for dragging and dropping shortcuts. Navigator 4.5 doesn't offer improvements in bookmark management--that's a shame, because we predict you'll want to clear the 60 default bookmarks on Netscape's list, most of which simply point back to Netcenter.
IE5's History bar lets you find nearly any page you've viewed recently, as long as it's still in the cache. You can display the contents of the cache by day, site, or frequency of access. Best of all, you can click on the Search button to quickly find a specific word or phrase. No other browser comes close to giving you this level of control over the contents of the cache. And the IE5 synchronization tools are far simpler to set up and use than the awkward channels and subscriptions in IE4. Mobile users will also appreciate the new capability to define multiple connection settings--so you can use a different proxy server in each regional office and bypass the proxy settings for a direct dial-up connection, without having to reconfigure the browser.
Because IE5 is completely component based, developers can add custom controls called Web Accessories that plug into the Explorer bar or into a predefined slot along the bottom of the window. Ironically, Netscape has taken advantage of IE's add-in capabilities to build an ActiveX control called Netscape TuneUp for IE, which adds a Netscape-centric navigation bar to the bottom of the IE window that leads you effortlessly to--you guessed it--Netcenter.
We found Internet Explorer 5.0 to be impressively fast, much faster than Navigator 4.5 at every imaginable task. On our 200MHz K6 test system, IE5 loaded in 9 seconds or less, while Navigator took more than 15 seconds. IE was consistently faster at loading complex Web pages, with a performance edge of 10 to 50 percent in our tests.
As the difference in version numbers would suggest, IE5 is a more mature, polished browser than Navigator 4.5. With its support for XML and dynamic HTML, it's also well poised for the future. Netscape promises its 5.0 browser will include a faster rendering engine that supports the latest Web standards. We'll see. Until then, IE earns our unqualified recommendation for everyone except die-hard Netscape partisans.
Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0Rating:Five Stars
Verdict: The fastest, most flexible browser you can find--and the Channels bar is gone.
Pros: Dozens of usability improvements; great for mobile users.
Cons: Full installation requires 100MB.
Free to download / Microsoft Corp. / (800) 426-9400 / www.microsoft.com
Netscape Communicator 4.5Rating:Three Stars
Verdict: Every other click takes you back to Netscape's portal page--we're hoping Communicator 5.0 fares better.
Pros: Microsoft didn't write it.
Cons: Surprisingly slow and difficult to customize.
Free to download / Netscape Communications Corp. / (650) 937-3777 / www.netscape.com