Version 7 of Microsoft's dominant Web browser packs in interface changes, many new features, and plenty of under-the-hood updates. It also arrives just before version 2 of the up-and-coming Firefox browser, which may be just days away. So which new browser is your best bet?
Firefox 2 offers no radical changes compared with version 1.5, which came out a year ago. It's a measured step, purposely non-jarring for current Firefox users. A built-in antiphishing tool makes its first appearance, but most other changes simply refine many of the same features that are new to IE 7. Version 2 polishes tabbed browsing, newsfeed support, and add-on management. Regrettably, you'll still find some sites written specifically for IE that don't look right in Firefox 2. However, you can add a plug-in that will let you view a site in IE to get around the problem; my favorite is IE View. You can download a near-final release candidate 3 Wednesday from Mozilla's Web site. The final version should be available at the same site within a week, and existing users of the browser will receive a notice about version 2 once Mozilla has made a minor update to version 1.5 a few weeks after version 2 is out.
Microsoft had further to go to bring IE up to par with the competition (IE 6 was released in 2001), and so IE 7 is a more thorough overhaul of its predecessor. You can't miss the new user interface, with tabbed browsing, integrated searching, and newsfeed support. Microsoft also added an antiphishing tool and boosted IE 7's security in response to seemingly never-ending IE 6 holes. Over a few months, the company will prod users to get version 7 via Automatic Updates; you can also download it from Microsoft's site. (A final version for Windows Vista will ship with Vista early in 2007.)
For this story, we evaluated feature-complete release candidates of both browsers, IE7 RC1 and Firefox 2 RC2, prior to their final release.
IE 7's new streamlined look resembles Vista's. The back, forward, and favorites buttons, and the address bar, are all compressed into two rows up top, along with a new search box you can customize with your choice of search engine. You won't see a menu row with standard XP options like File, Edit, or View (you can bring it back if you want). But you will see welcome new tabs--which you can drag and drop to arrange as you wish--for viewing multiple pages within one IE window.
You also get a new session-saver option: When you close the browser, you can click a box to have IE remember your open tabs, then open the same ones next time. This small but highly useful feature could gradually make a big difference in your daily browsing.
The tabs don't get their own row, however, so they can start to appear somewhat squished if you have many open at once. To navigate, you can click a small button that shows thumbnail previews of all your open tabs on a new, temporary page, and then click one of the thumbnails to activate its tab. You can also select from all open tabs via a drop-down list accessed via a small button to the left of the tabs.
While less obvious, Firefox 2's tab updates are generally a step ahead of IE's. For example, you can configure Firefox to always save your last session for future use; with IE 7 you have to click a box every time. Firefox also lets you reopen closed tabs via the History menu or by right-clicking an open tab.
As in IE's implementation, each Firefox tab has its own closing button. However, Firefox provides no thumbnail previews of open tabs.
RSS feeds offer a great way to quickly check news and updates from different sites without visiting them all. RSS support is new to IE 7, and upgraded in Firefox 2.
In IE, if you browse a page with an associated feed, an icon to the right of the tabs will light up. Click it, and you'll see the latest headlines from that feed along with an option to subscribe. Once you subscribe, you can check it via the feeds button in the new Favorites Center, where you'll also find your browsing history. However, you have no way to quickly preview the feed's contents without opening the feed's rendered page in IE, which somewhat defeats the purpose--you may as well visit the regular site. Microsoft says that it deliberately designed IE's feed support to be bare-bones because it is meant as a platform for future RSS reader applications.
Using Firefox 1.5's Live Bookmarks, you can bookmark a feed and then preview all its headlines at once. If you click a headline, you go to that story on the relevant site--but if you click a link that opens the feed itself, you see only Web-code gibberish. Firefox 2 makes the raw feed understandable, and offers a range of new subscription options. For example, you can now add a feed to a personal Bloglines, Google Reader, or My Yahoo page, or to a stand-alone RSS reader, though it may not work with all readers.