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Browser wars

Internet Explorer 6.0, with its security holes and lack of browsing amenities, has been losing once-loyal users to its rivals, and a replacement is long overdue. Here’s our first look at IE 7.0.

This column appears in the May 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now.

Internet Explorer 7.0 in its final form is still not here. Microsoft is aiming to bring it out at around the same time as Vista: in theory, late this year. But the firm has put up a beta, intended for developers and enthusiasts, at www.microsoft.com/ie, and we've had a look.

In our browsing over the past few days, IE 7.0 has crashed a couple of times, but has mostly behaved itself. If you're dying to try it and are prepared to take the risk, we say go for it. But overall, IE isn't that big a bang.

Mostly, it brings an increasingly antiquated browser up to rough parity with Firefox and Opera. It has a few nice features its rivals don't, but none of them are life-changing. And it introduces at least one new annoyance – and retains some old ones.

IE 7.0 has a weird attitude towards menus. Since Windows 1.0, menus have appeared directly beneath the title bar. Not here. By default, they don't appear. Even if you change the settings, they still sit below the URL field. How come? Microsoft says that for most common tasks, you won't need menus at all. And that's probably true – once you find where the tasks have moved in IE's rearranged interface. But why Microsoft seems to think that millions of people who already know how to use menus would want to stop using them, we're not sure.

In truth, IE hasn't changed so very much in this respect – click the buttons and what do you get? Menus. These offer some new options, but lack some old ones. Locating them below the URL field is an odd idea, and one company representative we spoke to couldn't explain the thinking. We find them hard to find. Our mouse-hands have many years of practice swooping up to a particular spot, and moving them makes us pause for a split-second.

This isn't just an IE 7.0 thing; impending updates for multiple Microsoft products reflect the company's antimenu obsession. But each one does away with them in a different fashion, thereby eliminating a meaningful point of consistency from the Windows interface. Office 2007 seems to come the closest to eliminating old-style menus in a coherent fashion.

It's a little as if Ford was simultaneously showing off Fiestas with the brake pedal to the right of the accelerator and Escorts that put it on top, all without an explanation as to why the brake needed to move at all – beyond saying that learning how to stop a car isn't exactly a piece of cake.

We wouldn't be complaining if IE 7.0 had an option that put menus back in the spot where every prior version – and every other browser – has placed them. But it doesn't.

As for other notable changes to the IE interface, the biggest one is probably tabbed browsing – a feature that every other major browser in the known universe has offered for some time. Microsoft's take on tabs is pretty standard: you can add one with a click, or bookmark a group of them. You can't drag-and-drop tabs around as far as we can tell, but a feature called Quick Tabs lets you view thumbnails of every open window at once – the only striking addition that's not in Firefox or Opera. It is, however, reminiscent of Mac OS X's Exposé.

IE is also catching up with its rivals on RSS feeds, but the big three have taken distinctly different paths. Firefox turns feeds into menu items; Opera uses an email-style interface; Explorer takes another approach entirely.

If a site that offers RSS feeds is set up properly, IE will notice and its Feed icon will light up. Click it and you can add a feed to your favourites. It turns feeds into simple web pages and, while it won't replace a full-blown reader, it is simple and effective. And something Firefox doesn't do.

Firefox stores your feeds in the Bookmarks menu – an efficient way to put them at your fingertips without taking up space. IE 7.0 only lets you navigate them in a sizable window, which pops up to the left of the web page window. So this one is a matter of personal taste.

If you install Explorer 7.0, Microsoft's RSS engine gets installed in Windows. The firm hopes developers will use it to build RSS capabilities into apps of all sorts.

IE now supports OpenSearch, which lets any search engine send results to any compatible app. It's used to power its search field, which sits in the upper right-hand corner, à la Firefox. But IE 7.0 seems to provide easy access to only a fraction of the engines that support OpenSearch.

The program also has an excellent print preview feature that lets you turn off headers and footers, drag margins and print part of a page by selecting it, and a ‘smart zoom' feature. When you zoom, the page scales appropriately.

And finally, security. The widespread abuse of Microsoft's ActiveX technology to launch attacks is one reason folks switched to Firefox or Opera. IE 7.0 doesn't trust ActiveX; you need to give your approval. Microsoft showed us that a site that was able to dump spyware on a PC via IE 6.0 couldn't do so through 7.0.

A phishing filter has been included, too. It's hard to predict how effective this will be in the long term, but at least IE 7.0 users should be safer than anyone who sticks with the previous version.

One remaining annoyance is that Explorer's Internet Options dialog remains a sea of confusing possibilities. Firefox and Opera let you find tweakable settings much more quickly. And we wish IE put its field for searching a web page's text at the bottom of the page, as Firefox does. Its dialog is still prone to cover up the text you're trying to find.

In most ways that matter, IE 7.0 is a better browser than version 6.0. It's no great leap forward for either Explorer or browsing in general, though.

We can't imagine many people who dumped IE for Firefox or Opera feeling the need to go back. With a preview of Opera 9.0 out and Firefox 2.0 in the works, it's possible that the alternative browsers will evolve further before IE 7.0 is finally out of beta. But once 7.0 is the default Windows browser, it's possible that fewer people will find it necessary to flee IE for an alternative. We'll see.

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