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January 8, 2004

For Tabbed Browsing And Other New Tricks, Try Explorer's Rivals

By WALTER S. MOSSBERG

The Web browser is probably the most frequently used category of software in the world. But in recent years, the browser most people rely on -- Microsoft's Internet Explorer -- has been stagnant, offering very few new features.

This is a common pattern with Microsoft. The company is aggressive about improving its software when it first enters a market. But once it crushes its competitors and establishes an effective monopoly, as it has in Web browsers, Microsoft seems to switch off significant innovation. Other, smaller companies, however, have been plugging away at improving the Web browser. There are numerous competitors to IE that include integrated popup ad blockers, better privacy controls, easier searching and other enhancements.

Several of these alternate browsers have a very cool feature to which I have recently become addicted: tabbed browsing. With tabbed browsing, you can keep multiple Web pages open at the same time, on the same screen. Only one page is visible at a time, but the others are identified by a row of tabs, usually at the top of the screen. To switch screens, you just click on one of the tabs. The new page appears instantly, because it has already been downloaded.

Tabbed browsing is the biggest fundamental improvement in the Web browser in years. It's like quickly navigating among paper folders in a packed file drawer by reading the staggered tabs that protrude from their top edges.

With tabbed browsing, you can open all your most-visited bookmarks or favorites with one click. They could remain open all day, updating in the background. You can view them at any time, and in any order, by just clicking. You can also open any new Web page or link in a fresh tab of its own. Or, if you have groups of related favorites or bookmarks arranged in folders -- say, a folder labeled "Red Sox" that contains a dozen favorite sites about the fabled team -- you can open them all with a click.

Tabbed browsing is especially great with slow dial-up connections, where waiting for a new page to load can be irritating. But I even love using it with broadband connections.

There are a number of choices among tabbed browsers, and most also offer some of the other post-IE improvements cited above, like built-in popup blockers. Best known are Netscape, Opera and Mozilla. These run on both Windows and the Mac. Other tabbed browsers on Windows include Avant and Secure IE. On the Mac, tabbed browsers include OmniWeb 5 and Camino. All can be downloaded from the Web.

But my two favorite post-IE, tabbed browsers are Safari on the Mac, and NetCaptor on Windows. I use both daily, on multiple computers.

Safari was produced by Apple Computer and is free on every new Mac. It is the standard browser on OS X, the new Mac operating system. Like everything Apple makes, Safari combines a clean, simple interface with sophisticated functionality. It has a built-in popup blocker, and a built-in Google search box that spares you the need to navigate to the Google Web site. There's also a great feature called "SnapBack" that brings you back, with one click, to the first page of Google search results, even if you've wandered down a long, blind alley of multiple pages.

Tabbed browsing in Safari is turned on by checking a preference. Once it's on, each new Web site can be opened up in a brushed-metallic tab at the top of the screen. Each tab has a separate button that closes it, and a separate progress indicator that is displayed while the page is loading.

Whole folders of Safari bookmarks can be opened at once by selecting the command "Open in Tabs" that appears at the bottom of every folder. And there's an "auto tab" setting that automatically opens every bookmark in a folder. Safari can be downloaded at www.apple.com/safari/.

NetCaptor, for Windows, claims to have been the first browser with tabbed browsing, more than five years ago. It allows you to do a staggering number of things with tabs. You can refresh them or close them all at once, control how they are named, and even make the tabs appear at the bottom of the screen instead of the top. (Curiously, the default is the bottom of the screen. You have to change a preference to get the tabs to show up at the top.)

NetCaptor also has a cool feature called "CaptorGroups" -- essentially groups of tabbed pages that open at the same time. Any open page can be added to a CaptorGroup, or you can open a series of pages individually and turn them into a CaptorGroup with a few mouse clicks. You can also share CaptorGroups over a network or via e-mail.

NetCaptor sports oodles of additional features. It can block popups and other ads. There's a two-click "Clean Up" feature that erases the traces of where you've been on the Web. There's even a built-in translation feature that takes you to a service where you can get rough translations of Web pages to and from English and most other major languages.

NetCaptor can be downloaded at www.netcaptor.com. Try it -- or, if you're a Mac user, try Safari. You may never go back to Internet Explorer again.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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