Microsoft's second public beta release of IE 5 has hit the Net (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/default.htm), and, at first glance, you'd be hard put to tell it from IE 4.x. But look a little deeper, and you'll discover a host of convenient new features. Some of these design tweaks, such as simpler off-line browsing and a new, improved AutoComplete feature, make browsing easier. Others, including revamped search tools, more customisable toolbars, and a spam filter, make Internet Explorer more powerful than ever.
But while Microsoft calls its latest Web browser Internet Explorer 5, I'd prefer to think of it as Internet Explorer 4.5. The new version does not represent the same revolutionary leap that IE 4.0 (and its controversial integration with Windows' desktop) made over IE 3.x. IE 5's improved searching and navigation tools make it what IE 4.x should have been. Exciting as some of the new features may be, however, many are still half-baked, as if the developers had a brilliant idea and then ran out of energy before carrying it out.
Searching for a reason
By far the best new feature is the overhauled Search bar. Type your query into the search field, and IE 5 will send it to any of nine search engines. Can't find what you're looking for in the list of matches from AltaVista? Just click the Next button above the search results to see the results from Lycos, then HotBot, and so on. The Search bar is smart enough to assign different search types to the appropriate sites: E-mail searches are sent to Internet directories, requests for maps go to mapping sites, and so on. You can also query Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia for free.
Microsoft has also substantially revamped the AutoComplete tool, which saves you keystrokes by filling in partially typed Web addresses. When I first saw a demonstration of the new AutoComplete capabilities, I thought I was in typist heaven. Unlike IE 4.x, which suggests matches from a list of recently visited sites, IE 5's AutoComplete tool draws on the Favorites and History lists, and presents its findings in a drop-down list of possible matches. You needn't leave the keyboard to browse that roster -- just press your down arrow and scroll through the matches. AutoComplete is also smart enough to let you skip the "www" and just start typing the domain name. You can even assign shorthand names to sites in your Favorites list -- "ms" for www.microsoft.com, for example -- to avoid the hassle of opening the Favorites bar and drilling down through your folders to find the site you want.
The password is...
Autocomplete can also kick in when you're filling in Web forms -- it'll insert your name and password, for instance, at sites you visit frequently. And the tool's memory isn't limited to a single session. One day I was searching from AltaVista; the next day, when I returned and clicked the Search field, I got a list of the previous day's queries.
With version 5, Internet Explorer's toolbars are finally customisable, letting you add the buttons you want and remove those you don't. There are also two new buttons: A Go icon next to the Address field (for users who forget to press Enter after an address -- others can disable it); and a Folders button, which launches a tree view of your local system in the left-hand "Explorer Bar." Another nice toolbar tweak: If you resize the toolbar so that it is too small to display its entire contents, you get a drop-down menu that features all the items you can't see.
Now the bad news
In other areas, good ideas are sabotaged by poor execution. For example, Microsoft has tried to make it easier to download Web pages for offline reading. And, indeed, saving an entire Web page, complete with its images, is a relatively intuitive matter of using the File-Save As dialogue box. But if you want to save several layers of a Web site, you need to first add that site to your Favorites list, then select Organize Favorites, click the site's icon, and choose the option to make it available offline. Few users would think of going through the Favorites menu for a one-time download, but that's the only way Microsoft will let you do it.
Similarly, while Outlook Express now includes a Junk Mail filter, it's confusing to use: A poorly labelled detector slide allows you to "Catch Less" or "Catch More," but it fails to explain what those options entail. The program comes with several filtering options, but it doesn't permit you to block all the messages whose To field doesn't contain your e-mail address -- a handy antispam technique.
While the improved search tools are nice, they have one glaring deficiency: You can't add a search engine to Microsoft's default list of nine. When we asked Microsoft about this flaw, the company advised us to use the free IE PowerToys utility (available from Microsoft's Web site), which will let you add any search engine you want. Too bad Microsoft did not include this in IE itself.
Another disappointing omission from the Search palette is Windows' own Find tool. With all the talk of integration with the operating system, you'd expect IE to let you search your own hard drive from within the same interface. When you browse through local folders from within IE, though, you don't have quick access to your local Favorites or History folders; the only way to get to them is by typing their locations into the Address box.
In short, Internet Explorer 5 offers terrific new tools as well as some lingering annoyances. Netscape's Navigator 4.5 is no match for IE 5, but nobody knows yet what Netscape's Communicator 5 is hiding up its sleeve. Netscape could be waiting to see what IE 5 looks like so it can include similar functionality in the next generation of its flagship browser. Netscape and IE users should stay tuned.