Internet Explorer 6 beta

IE 6 is not just for Windows XP - Windows 98 or later versions can support this program, but if you have Windows 95 you won't be able to use it.

Online installation involves an average download of 25MB, though this can range from 11 to 75MB depending on previously installed versions of Explorer. When upgrading from IE5, all your existing settings will be retained, so at first you won't see any difference.

The improved Explorer Bar, a small frame on the left of the main window, can display various types of information, including a browsing history and the files on your computer. It includes an MSN search box which remains in the bar, whatever your choices - however, if you object to this Microsoft product promotion, "the feature can be turned off. You can add new Explorer Bars, such as a bar for local news or a specific Web site. These can be downloaded from Microsoft or other sources, but you can't modify the bars from within Explorer itself.

The new Media Bar at the bottom of the Explorer Bar lets you control playback of sound, video and mixed media, either from the Net or from local drives. It supports MP3s and other popular file types. You can also save the location of local files or streaming Web media, such as movie trailers, which then appear listed in your Favourites menu. This is a pretty cool feature, though we'd prefer to see it take up less room on the screen.

This version of Explorer incorporates enhancements to privacy features. It's the first to support the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) standard, which can automatically negotiate the amount of personal information made available to compatible Web sites. However, there has been some criticism of P3P on the grounds that, since it is automatic, if widely used it has the potential to enable Web sites to collect information that you wouldn't normally give them. At present, very few sites are P3P-enabled, so the jury is still out on whether it's a plus or a minus. If in doubt, you can simply refrain from using it.

Although Microsoft has announced more sophisticated handling of cookies - those small files stored on your computer that can allow Web sites to identify you - in the beta release this consists only of the ability to choose whether or not to allow them. The more important issue of cookies being used by third-party Web sites to track your browsing habits has not been addressed, even though it's no difficult task. While plug-ins and utilities such as IDcide are available to relieve this problem, it's disappointing that Microsoft hasn't built this capability into the browser, despite its rhetoric about privacy protection.

In line with Microsoft's strategy of integrating its products, Instant Messenger is incorporated, with its own button on the standard toolbar. The toolbar itself can be easily customised with a simple Add/Remove menu that allows you to assign buttons for various functions such as Cut, Paste and Print Preview. In another step towards program integration, when you choose Source from the View menu, the Web page source code is automatically opened in Notepad. This enables convenient editing and saving, and is a neat enhancement for those who like to dabble with the "mechanics" of the Web.

Improvements have also been made to the way Explorer handles graphics. If a picture is too large to be displayed in the window, it is automatically resized so you can see all of it. A new Picture Bar appears when you move your mouse over a graphic, and gives you a choice of actions that can be performed, such a saving the picture or restoring it to full size.

The pre-release version of the program is somewhat unstable and has a tendency to crash - thus revealing another new feature. When it crashes, IE6 gives you the option to send an error report back to Microsoft to help solve problems, then quits and restarts itself.

Overall, the next version of Internet Explorer offers a promising range of new features that will tempt many users to upgrade.

Internet Explorer 6 beta

Price: Free; Supplier: Microsoft; Phone: 13 2058; URL: www.microsoft.com.au

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