Explorer 4.0 is easy to launch, unstable in use

Not long ago, character-based MS-DOS hid behind a Windows 3.x facade that sometimes
crashed without warning in dreaded General Protection Faults. Internet Explorer 4.0
doesn't go that far, but it does follow the unstable, old-fashioned model of a shell on
top of an operating system.


When I made a full installation of IE 4.0 on a factory-fresh PC that had been working
flawlessly for a week, Win95 began to hiccup and cough. IE 4.0 did launch with gratifying
speed, though, about three times faster than IE 3.02.


The browser can have two interfaces: the standard screen resembling the previous
Explorer or a special full-screen display that maximizes screen real estate, dropping the
title and menu bars and covering the Win95 taskbar whether you want it to or not.


In use, IE 4.0 is on par with its Netscape Communicator cousin. Both have an auto-fill
feature that guesses at the next Web address you're going to visit as you type it.


During browsing, IE 4.0 had problems. Some pages appeared with graphics half present or
somewhere else on the page. Scrolling sometimes destroyed the page's integrity.


The glitches arose from drivers for the PC's Accelerated Graphics Port video card.
Though compatible with Win95 and the PC's other applications, the video drivers did not
like IE 4.0. Or perhaps IE 4.0 didn't like them. A new set of beta drivers improved the
situation but didn't eliminate the problem.


You've probably heard about the IE 4.0 Channels, which let you subscribe to Web sites
that download proactively to your PC. You needn't click to go to a site; it comes to you.
But it still eats some of the designated hard-drive cache.


Push technology pulls down the Web page data without your intervention. It can be
convenient, but the interface and dialog boxes are confusing, especially when you want to
schedule when the browser should pull down information. Either user or channel can specify
the schedule.


In practice, I found some channels didn't change and others would not update even when
I ordered a data refresh.


Once you've subscribed to a few channels, your browser suddenly starts sucking more
bandwidth. The network administrator has to start policing how much bandwidth you get, or
special software must be bought to do that job.


I recommend against selecting the Channel screen saver, which is supposed to pop up
your subscribed channels whenever your screen saver engages. In addition to crashing my
machine, my IE 4.0 screen saver failed to show any channel information at all, insisting I
hadn't subscribed.


The Active Desktop is where IE 4.0 crosses the line and invades the OS, dropping one or
more portals onto your desktop. These portals are small Web pages showing weather maps,
stock tickers and scrolling news. Click on one to get more complete information.


Active Desktop crashed repeatedly in use, and it became one of the more irritating
aspects of IE 4.0. Any stray click on the desktop PC might launch something. I've
suggested to Microsoft officials that they should build in a shield against this
inadvertent activity.


The new Outlook Express, replacing separate e-mail and news readers, works adequately
and has more power than the previous version. It's nowhere close to the power or charm of
Outlook 97, but it's free with IE 4.0.


Outlook Express can check mail from more than one account, which is handy for people
who have multiple e-mail addresses. But when you click Reply, the response always comes
from a single primary account.


The new Windows Address Book is slightly more robust and standalone. Working in concert
with Outlook Express, the Address Book can create a vCard--a virtual business card holding
all the information you include.


In the past, the so-called signature at the bottom of messages was a calling card
showing the sender's name, address, e-mail address and other data.


Now vCards transfer that information better and import quickly into contact databases
that have the proper filters.


IE 4.0 makes looking through your hard drive like browsing the Web. The icon and text
additions are harmless but take up more real estate and work slower.


To avoid a couple of bugs in IE 4.0, download a patch at http://www.microsoft.com/ie to update the browser
to 4.01.


Another way to avoid any problems is to install just the browser, Outlook Express and
Address Book. Choose the Standard Installation and respond with a No when prompted to
install the desktop OS enhancements.


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