New Netscape Communicator boasts speed and smarts

The first update of Netscape Communicator to come from America Online instead of Netscape (now an AOL division) hit the Internet this week, and the proud new parent boasts that its entry is the smartest and fastest browser on the block.

Using Netscape's SmartBrowsing technology, the new Communicator 4.6 lets you quickly and easily find Netcenter listings and services such as local dining, movies, weather and sports. Simply enter keywords into the Navigator browser location bar.

The update, a free 15MB download, also adds RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2 streaming media player. Through a marketing agreement with RealNetworks, RealPlayer also supports SmartBrowsing functions. For example, if you type "new movies" into the Navigator browser location bar, the application generates a list of links to movie marketing Web sites that feature streaming media content.

Netscape says Communicator 4.6 also delivers peace of mind. Building a more stable product was a priority: Netscape developers eradicated more than 100 software bugs in preparing this release. And version 4.6 makes it easier for you to get digital certificates that ensure privacy and authenticity of buyers and sellers over the Internet. Also, tough new 56-bit encryption standards have been added to the suite to bolster security.

Not so smart on the road test

You can download the latest Netscape addition using its SmartUpdate (available to users of Communicator 4.5 and later). This lets you do without most of the heft of the 15MB download for the full Communicator suite.

Netscape then asks politely if you want to change your home page to Netscape.com and change your default search engine to Netscape's Netscenter -- a nice touch.

After a mandatory reboot of your PC, you are ready to go.

First, I tested Communicator's SmartBrowsing, which turned out to not be all that smart.

When looking for movie releases in major (US) cities, it performed like a genius, generating listings quickly and organising them by theatres and show times. But as soon as I entered generic place names Netscape's SmartBrowsing feature got confused. You can supposedly enter as many as 25,000 zip codes straight into the location bar to hone your search more precisely when you want information on small towns, according to Dave Bottoms, a Netscape product manager. That may be, but using postal codes didn't help my results any.

I found Communicator 4.6 a bit faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0. But still, if you ask me, they're both too slow. Bottoms says the update is 6 per cent faster than IE5 when rendering any of the top 100 Web sites, and 15 per cent faster displaying most popular portals.

As for reliability, it's too early to tell. But I do hope Netscape has put to good use all the bug reports I've e-mailed them using its TalkBack bug report form that pops up every time my Navigator browser crashes. Bottoms assures me he has.

Bring on the browsers

The good news is, if you haven't upgraded to Communicator 4.51 yet, here is a good excuse to download a more reliable version.

AOL's latest release might be ho-hum, but Communicator 5.0, which will feature the Gecko browsing engine, will be anything but routine, say experts. Communicator 5.0 will be more tightly integrated with the Windows desktop, so you can view files and folders much as you do with the Internet Explorer browser.

Netscape says the next Communicator will also be more modular and have better standards compliance.

The much-anticipated Gecko browser is due out later this year. While you're waiting, you can improve your Web viewing a bit by loading Communicator 4.6.

Netscape Communicator 4.6 will be included on the CD of PC World's July issue.

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