· Communicator 4.0x
· Communicator 4.5
· Internet Explorer 4
· AOL, IE 3, or Navigator 3.x or older
· Under the bonnet of IE 5
· Communicator 5 - Coming your way
· Rants and raves
Microsoft leapfrogs Netscape with a faster, smarter Internet Explorer. But is it enough to hold off the highly anticipated Communicator 5?
You've come to a crossroads in your computing life. Is it time to upgrade to a new browser -- namely, Internet Explorer 5, with its sporty features and visible acceleration -- or should you stick with the old (somewhat) reliable browsing software you currently drive? That depends on how much time you spend day in and day out needlessly typing or waiting for pages to download. If those laborious tasks annoy you, you may appreciate IE 5's offerings, including improved AutoComplete for summoning URLs and passwords, a smaller download size and faster rendering (in our informal tests).
But before you shift gears, a word of warning: for months, the second beta of IE 5 we've been testing has performed admirably. We've seen no major bugs, just lots of little ones. Other users, however, have reported more substantial headaches, including difficulty uninstalling the program. Though we haven't been able to duplicate these problems on our own systems, a Pentium II-300 and a P-133, the notoriously buggy history of last year's model -- IE 4 -- and of browsers in general warrants caution.
Once you know your risk tolerance, it's time to comparison-shop. Here are our recommendations about whether to switch from your current browser (or suite, as in the case of Communicator and its embedded Navigator browser) to IE 5. The bottom line: IE 5, which is free and should be available by the time you read this, is a fine upgrade for certain folks, while other users should simply stay put.
If you're running . . .
You've got a reliable old workhorse. With IE 5, you'd get a smaller footprint and time-saving features.
Should you upgrade? Yep.
Communicator 4.0x had a honey of a browser when it shipped, but times have changed. Space-hogging features like push channels and conferencing tools have gone the way of tail fins. By comparison, IE 5's slim size and customisable features make it worth the upgrade.
To shrink IE 5's footprint, you can instruct it during install to skip components such as the Java Virtual Machine. (The basic install uses just 6.5MB of disk space, compared to 40MB for IE 4.) Later, when you first come upon a Java applet, IE 5 asks if you want to install tools to make the page display correctly.
To reduce repetitive clicking, IE 5 has a feature called persistent states. With it, the program recalls a Web page as you saw it, frames (extra windows) and all, rather than returning to the page's default frame set as both Navigator 4.0x and IE 4 do. As a result, when you use your bookmarks or history list, you won't waste time clicking links and icons to retrieve the exact page you want to see.
The combination of speed, size and features make IE 5 the browser to beat. Even so, if you're a diehard Netscape fan, you might want to hold off until the second quarter of 1999 for Communicator 5 before you download -- it has what looks to be a fast new page-rendering engine.
If you're running . . .
You've got fast searching and a reasonable download size. With IE 5, you'd get new search features and AutoComplete tricks.
Should you upgrade? Yes, unless you're a committed Netscape enthusiast.
Moving from Netscape's stable Communicator 4.5 is a stickier question. Navigator's Smart Browsing includes such attractive features as keyword searches via the address bar, plus it recommends sites similar to the one you're viewing. You can even refine these features without updating the whole program, since they come from a Netcenter database.
On the flip side, IE 5's AutoComplete is unique. IE 5 stores data from any field you've completed before -- such as a password -- and brings it up when you revisit the field. You can also summon a drop-down menu of previously visited sites when you type in your address bar.
Microsoft has other tricks up its sleeve. IE 5's new Search Assistant narrows search queries by allowing you to find a Web page, an e-mail or postal address, a company's information, a map, an Encarta encyclopedia entry, or a Dejanews newsgroup posting. The program accesses nine engines when searching and stores your searches so you can resubmit them later.
So, should you upgrade? As it stands, IE 5 is the better browser. Communicator 5 could surpass IE, but it's been delayed. Even if you're an unrepentant Netscaper, IE 5 should tempt you -- at least until Communicator 5 arrives.
If you're running . . .
Internet Explorer 4
You've got a working solution. With IE 5, you'd get better file transfers and improved AutoComplete.
Should you upgrade? Small but worthwhile refinements point to yes.
If you were expecting a completely new interface in IE 5, you'll be disappointed. Aside from having dumped the channel button and added an AOL-like Go button next to the address box, IE 5 closely resembles last year's model. Look deeper, however and you'll find significant changes.
IE 5 lets you sort previously visited Web sites by date visited, frequency of visit, or alphabetical order, whereas IE 4 sorted only by date, then alphabetically by domain. More significantly, the IE 5 History pane now includes a text box for searching words in a title or Web address.
Another important difference in this latest version: IE 5 heeds the call of users who don't want their browser to change the look of their operating system and it doesn't take over Windows 95 the way IE 4 did. Windows 98 lets you browse your desktop files and applications with IE 5, but the only way to get Web integration on Windows 95 with IE is to install the new version over IE 4.
Combine the hands-off approach towards your desktop with features to reduce repetitive typing and it's time to trade in IE 4 for the newer model.
If you're running . . .
You've got a simple, fast alternative browser. With IE 5, you'd get the latest features.
Should you upgrade? No. You chose Opera for a reason -- and it's still a good one.
In the age of free browsers, faithful Opera lovers pony up $US35 to register for this nimble shareware application. The program is speedy, simple to use and small. IE 5's minimum installation is more than three times larger than Opera's. But the compact size of Opera (1.7MB) requires some sacrifices. For example, you won't find fancy add-ons like IE 5's full-featured mail client, Outlook Express. Instead, Opera offers a newsreader, but its mail client is send-only.
Although earlier versions of Opera hiccuped when displaying pages, version 3.51 measures up well against IE 5 in page fidelity. More important, the program performs well on older computers that have little memory. If your needs and your system are low-fi, Opera continues to perform in a class by itself.
If you're running . . .
AOL, IE 3, or Navigator 3.x or older
You've got the convenience of what you know. With IE 5, you'd get cleaner page formatting and speed.
Should you upgrade? Probably yes, but the convenience of your existing solution may overshadow new IE 5 features.
Under the bonnet of IE 5
Easy searching and navigation
[insert IE5stores.eps.tif and IE5stores2.eps.tif]· IE 5 Stores the exact frame set you see when you bookmark so that you can retrieve the exact page you want when you return. In this example, the specs on two cars appear with IE 5 (upper left), but are lost with IE 4 (lower left).
· Long URLs have become easier to handle with IE 5. Begin typing the first few letters of a Web address and a pop-up menu appears. Press the down arrow to cycle through the list and select a site.
· Utterly customisable but somewhat overwhelming, IE 5's interface could use a little slimming down. On the positive side, you can choose which of five panes you want to view, decide how to position them and remove unneeded toolbar icons.
· New sort tools in IE 5 let you easily organise recently visited sites. A drop-down menu sorts sites by date, name, frequency of visit, or date visited; and a new search tool compares the keyword you enter against a record of the domain names and page titles of Web sites you have visited previously.
Coming Your Way
Communicator 5 is the best-kept secret on the Net. Netscape has shown its Gecko Browsing engine, which should be faster than version 4.5's engine. It's small -- when compressed, it fits on a floppy -- and supports Web standards such as HTML 4.0 and extensible markup language, as IE 5 does. The new revision is modular like IE 5, so you can choose which elements to support. Netscape is designing an improved, more intuitive interface but won't say whether it will be a radical change. And because Netscape made its source code publicly available, Communicator 5 will incorporate contributions from developers worldwide. As a result, no one knows what the final version will include, though it should have lots of popular features, such as a version of IE 5's AutoComplete. Sources say a public beta could be available as early as May.
Netscape's merger with America Online probably won't change Communicator anytime soon. Analysts say Netscape will be integrated into the AOL client -- as soon as AOL's savvy CEO can make a case for it.
Rants and raves
IE 5 Is the browser many love to hate. Like a pup that looks cute at the pound (or in this case, sounds good in the marketing materials) but later reveals a penchant for gnawing expensive shoes (or trashing your system), it's guaranteed to frustrate you. Here are some things about IE 5 that deserve a thwack on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper -- and a few others we find irresistible.
IE 5 rants
· Image toggling
Give us one toolbar button to turn images on and off, so we can speed downloads of slow, graphic-heavy sites. And don't point us to the Power Tools utility. Build it in.
· Organise Favorites
The AutoComplete integration with Favorites wins a thumbs-up from us, but the awkward interface for organising, moving and sorting bookmarks does not. It's far simpler to find the Favorites folder on your hard drive and make changes from there.
· Outlook Express 5
IE's Internet mail client, a competitor to Netscape's Messenger, still has a long way to go before it's perfect. Though the interface is simpler than the version in IE 4, it's still confusing in spots and its wide range of powerful features can be overwhelming.
IE 5 raves
· Web form AutoComplete
A dramatic reduction in repetitive typing compensates you generously for the slight unease of knowing that all your best secret words are stored in a local file. Remember: they're encrypted.
· Smaller footprint
Apparently someone was listening after all: now you can ditch the push channels, choose your own e-mail client and get Java when you need it. A 6.5MB minimum size makes this a beta you can download in your lifetime.
Finally, no more navigating through endless frames just to rediscover information that you found on a previous expedition. Go straight to the treasure trove by using persistent states.