New Internet Explorer browser worth a look

Plugged In

October 19, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

When hundreds of millions of people rely on software that grows more complex with each release, publishers find it harder and harder to get updates out the door - as Microsoft knows all too well.

Windows Vista, the long-awaited revision of Microsoft's flagship operating system, won't be ready for consumers until early next year - years behind schedule and a couple of months too late for the Christmas shopping season.

Luckily, Microsoft won't make us wait quite that long to update its Web browser. Internet Explorer 7, the first face lift for the program since 2001, is available for downloading today, and it looks pretty good.

Of course, IE7 has to compete with a couple of other free Web browsers these days: an open source project called Mozilla Firefox and a Norwegian entry known as Opera. Over the past few years they've taken a chunk out of IE's overwhelming market share - particularly among experienced Web surfers. And with good reason. They were faster, more versatile and more secure than Internet Explorer 6.

To give credit where it's due, Microsoft has largely caught up with the competition.

Windows XP users can download the IE 7 update from Microsoft's Web site. Unfortunately, users of earlier Windows versions are stuck with the IE6, Firefox or Opera - a situation that they will undoubtedly complain about. If Microsoft's update cycle were shorter, I might be sympathetic, but anyone who's been running a computer for seven years ought to be thankful that it's working at all.

IE7's new features (which will be in the Windows Vista version, too) fall into two categories - usability and security.

Chief among the former is tabbed browsing, a feature the competition has offered for years. It means that IE7 allows you to open multiple Web pages in the same browser window and switch among them instantly by clicking labeled tabs on the command bar.

The previous version of IE allowed multiple windows, but the best it could do was layer them on top of one another and allow you to click down through them.

Tabbed browsing is much neater and quicker. For example, one of the first things I do each day is check what's in The Sun, The New York Times, The Washington Post and four or five other papers, along with Google and Yahoo news pages.

Now I can put links to all of those sites into one entry in IE7's favorites list and open them simulatenously in tabbed windows with a single click. I can do the same for other categories of Web pages, too. It's great for heavy Web users.

Here's another cool feature that saves time - by clicking a Quick Tab button at the top of the browser Window, a user can view thumbnails of all open pages and select the one he wants to view in the full window.

Elsewhere, Microsoft has redesigned the menus, buttons and icons at the top of the screen in an effort to streamline IE's command center and devote more real estate to the contents of the Web site you're browsing.

No doubt about it, the look is cleaner - only two lines of buttons and menu items at the top instead of three or more. But rearranging the furniture doesn't always make it easier to navigate the room.

For example, in IE6, the forward, back, stop, refresh and home page icons were all at the top of the toolbar. Those are the buttons I use all the time and bunching them together at the top left made sense.

In IE7, only the forward and back buttons remain where they were. Stop and Refresh are on the right of the address bar, and the other important buttons have migrated to the lower right side of the toolbar.

Even after using a beta version of IE7 for two months, I can't get accustomed to that change - every browser I've used has the Home button at the top left, and this one makes me search for it. A small issue? Maybe, but I now have to think about something I used to do automatically 200 times a day, and that's annoying.

On the upside, a built-in search box at the upper right of the tool bar makes it easy to launch a direct Web search without visiting the search engine's Web page. By default, IE7 uses MSN search, but it's easy enough to add others to the list or change the default to Google, Yahoo or another search engine.

In fact, whenever the browser needs help from an external server - for maps or whatever - IE7 will default to Microsoft's Live offerings. This alone will bring Microsoft's Web sites millions of eyeballs that now land on competitors' sites. The question is how many surfers will switch from whatever they're using now.

Microsoft also has done a good job of integrating RSS feeds into the browser's everyday operations. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication - a publishing system that allows your browser to to update regular features or categories of news from Web sites that support it.

For example, in my day job here at The Sun, I'm the science and medical editor. With RSS feeds, I can aggregate health and science news from a variety of sources with a couple of mouse clicks. Very convenient.

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