Browser Wars 2.0

New Explorer and Firefox versions take the field, both win

Generally speaking, when you've seen one Web browser, you've seen them all. The basic functionality of one of the Internet's oldest tools has barely changed since it was first developed. They all give you a window into the Internet. That said, some windows have more attractive curtains, fewer smudges and provide better insulation.

With new versions of two of the most popular Web browsers coming out at nearly the same time, we examined both Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2.0, keeping a keen eye out for functionality and aesthetic improvements over prior versions.

In the end, most people will continue to use their favorite browser, regardless of improvements in the competing product. That said, users of either will be pleased with the improvements to their favorite.

Exploring Explorer

Using a typical T1 Internet connection, IE took us six minutes and 10 seconds to download and install'not including the mandatory reboot of the computer. The first time we opened IE, we were routed not to our home page but rather to a customization page offering various options, most of which we did not have to change.

One thing Microsoft insists you choose, however, is a search provider for the Web search box residing at the top of the browser window. The default is MS Live Search, but you can add any of six major search providers, as well as several interest-based engines such as Wikipedia and ESPN. With a few extra steps, you can add other search services as well.

The visual interface for IE 7 is much improved. The menus have moved off to the right side and are represented by icons. The only buttons on the left side, along with the URL field, are the 'Back' and 'Forward' arrows. The familiar 'Home,' 'Refresh,' 'Stop' and 'Print' buttons are made smaller and pushed off to the right. Overall, we found this look clean and efficient, although it did take some fiddling to figure out.

Microsoft has a long history of offering new features only after they have met with public approval in other software products. Tabbed browsing, popularized by Firefox, is the latest example of this reticence, finally making its debut in IE 7.

Tabbed browsing lets you keep open multiple Web pages within a single browser session, with small tabs running across the top of the viewing area to designate the pages. This lets you quickly switch between pages without opening a new browser session for each one.

Unfortunately, there is currently no standard HTML value for the 'target' attribute in a link that will force a new tab to open; ensuring that this happens is currently impossible from a Web programmer's point of view. Now that Microsoft has hopped onto the bandwagon, a new World Wide Web Consortium standard is probably not far off.

Overall, the changes in the new version of IE are good, and they should make browsing easier for most people. As with any major face-lift, longtime IE users will need to relearn how to do certain things. Once they have adjusted though, they should be able to do them a bit faster.

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., www.microsoft.com

Fielding Firefox

One difference we noticed right away with Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox 2.0 was how much faster it can be installed'less than a minute in our test, with no reboot. Firefox leaves many of the more aesthetic features as separate downloads, keeping the main browser program as lean as possible.

Mozilla touts various improvements to the look and feel of Firefox, but these are very minor. The interface is similar to the prior version, with all the buttons and menus pretty much in the same places.

Firefox has long had many of the features, such as a quick search field with AutoComplete, recently added to IE7. Those features have been updated in Firefox as well. Firefox's integrated search field offers access to Google, Yahoo and Answers.com, as well as such specialized providers as Amazon, eBay and Creative Commons. You can also add your own choices.

While Firefox has had tabbed browsing for quite some time, Version 2.0 comes with a few improvements. When selected, individual tabs can be closed by clicking on the 'x' that shows up on the right side of the tab (in earlier versions, the 'x' appeared rather ambiguously on the right side of the browser). Unfortunately, when several tabs are open, the processor time to open another tab becomes significant. With as few as 10 tabs open, the overhead opening another becomes apparent. Admittedly, that is more tabs than a typical Web browser will usually have open, and at lower numbers the overhead is not noticeable, but we felt it was worth mentioning.

Because Mozilla decided to go with a more modular approach, Firefox has more than 1,000 add-ons available from its Web site. Some are functional extensions that allow Firefox to support additional activities, such as clients for File Transfer Protocol and Internet Relay Chat. Others are themes that let you change how the browser interface looks.

One of the major complaints about Version 1.5 was the weakness of security in some areas. Mozilla has apparently corrected these flaws in Version 2.0 and added additional security. When you are about to load a suspect page, for example, an automatic phishing filter will pop up a warning giving you the option to go instead to your home page.

The incredibly fast load time and small storage space footprint of Firefox 2.0 are good things, as are the security improvements. The browser is only marred by the relatively heavy overhead it can put on the processor when compared to IE 7.

Mozilla Corp., Mountain View, Calif., www.mozilla.com

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