Hands on with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 beta

At first, Microsoft seemed to think that Windows XP users didn't need a better Internet Explorer, despite IE 6's security holes and lack of browsing amenities --and despite the growing popularity of Firefox. Then, almost a year ago, the behemoth of Redmond declared that there would be an Internet Explorer 7 for XP and Win 2K.

IE 7 in its final form is still not here--Microsoft says it's now shooting for it to arrive at roughly the same time that Windows Vista does. (Which will be, in theory. late this year.) But I've been playing with a prerelease version for a few days. And today, Microsoft plans to make a beta version of the browser available at its IE site --the first time one's been available to anyone who wanted to take it for a spin. It's not up there at the moment, but should be soon.

Microsoft says that this preview version is aimed at developers and tech enthusiasts; another prerelease version meant for the masses will come later. In my browsing over the past few days, IE 7 has crashed a couple of times, but has mostly behaved itself--so if you're dying to try it, and not adverse to a little risk of things going awry, I say go for it.

But overall, IE is just not that big a whoop. Mostly, it brings an increasingly antiquated browser up to rough parity with Firefox and Opera, two products which have improved by leaps and bounds during the years that IE has mostly stood still. It does have a few nice features that its rivals don't, but none of them are life-changing experiences. And for me, at least, it retains some old annoyances--and introduces at least one new one.

That new annoyance is IE 7's weird attitude towards menus. One of the few Windows elements that's remained constant since Windows 1.0--in almost every significant applications--is that menus appear directly beneath the title bar. In IE 7, they don't. Actually, they don't appear at all by default; you can turn them on, but even then, they appear below the URL field, not above it.

How come? Microsoft says that for most common tasks, you won't need menus at all. And that's probably true...once you find where the tasks have moved in IE's newly-rearranged interface. But why Microsoft seems to think that millions of people who already know how to use menus would want to stop using them, I'm not sure.

And truth to tell, Microsoft hasn't really managed to make an IE that doesn't rely on menus: Click on some of version 7's snazzy toolbar buttons and you get...menus. Menus that offer some options that aren't in the old-fashioned menus, and vice versa.

As for why the menus appear below the URL field when they appear at all...well, I asked a Microsoft representative that question during a recent meeting here at PC World, and he said he wasn't sure. (I also wasn't able to get any insight from Microsoft's official IE blog.) For me, at least, it makes them hard to find; my mousing hand has many years of practice swooping up to a particular spot to use menus, and moving them on me means I need to pause for a split-second every time I need them.

This isn't just an IE 7 thing. The impending updates for multiple Microsoft products--IE, Office, and Windows Vista--all reflect the company's jihad against the menu. But each one does away with them in a different fashion, thereby eliminating a meaningful point of consistency from the Windows interface. (So far, Office 12 seems to come the closest to eliminating old-style menus in a coherent fashion.)

It's a little as if General Motors was simultaneously showing off new Chevys that put the brake to the right of the accelerator and new Pontiacs that put it on top...and it didn't have an explanation as to why the brake needed to move at all, beyond the fact that learning how to stop a car isn't a cakewalk.

I wouldn't be griping about this if IE 7 had an option that put menus back in the spot where every prior version of the browser--and every browser--has placed them. But it doesn't, at least not in this beta. End of rant.

As for other notable changes to the IE interface, the biggest one is probably tabbed browsing--a feature which every other major browser in the known universe has offered for quite awhile. Microsoft's take on tabs is pretty standard: You can add a tab with one click and bookmark a group of them at one fell swoop. You can't drag-and-drop tabs around as far as I can tell--not a tragic loss--but a feature called Quick Tabs, which lets you view thumbnails of every open window at once, is about the only striking addition to IE 7 that's not in Firefox or Opera. (It is, however, reminiscent of Mac OS X's Expose.) It's a handy way to bop between pages.

As with tabbed browsing, Firefox and Opera already let you read RSS feeds, and IE 7 is just catching up. This is one place where each of the big three of browsing take a distinctly different path: Firefox's Live Bookmarks turn feeds into menu items, while Opera's RSS uses an e-mail-like interface.

IE 7 takes yet another approach. If a site that offers RSS feeds is set up properly, IE 7 will notice and its Feed icon will light up; click it, and you can add a feed to your Favorites. (Embarrassing full disclosure: PC World offers RSS feeds aplenty, but our site doesn't alert browsers when you show up at our home page; you've got to navigate to a feed to bookmark it.)

IE 7 turns feeds into simple Web pages, somewhat like Apple's Safari does; it won't replace a full-blown reader for hardcore RSS fans, but it's simple and effective, and it's something Firefox doesn't do.

Firefox stores your feeds in the Bookmarks menu, a clever, efficient way to put them at your fingertips without them taking up space. IE 7, on the other hand, only lets you navigate them in a sizable window that pops up to the left of the Web-page window. Which approach you prefer is going to be a matter of taste.

If you install IE 7, Microsoft's RSS engine--also to be built into Windows Vista--gets installed in Windows; Microsoft hopes that other developers will use it to build RSS capabilities into applications of all sorts. If they do, great; stay tuned.

One IE 7 advantage over Firefox and Opera is kind of hidden at the moment: It supports OpenSearch, a standard (spearheaded by Amazon's wonderful A9) that lets any search engine send results to any application that supports the standard. IE 7 uses OpenSearch to power its new built-in search field, which sits in the upper right-hand corner a la the Firefox search field. But IE 7 seems to provide easy access to only a tiny fraction of the engines that support OpenSearch. If they were all a click or two away, this would be a boon to serious search fanatics; maybe they will be by the time IE 7 is finalized.

Other significant new stuff in IE 7? It's got a nice print-preview feature that lets you turn off headers and footers with a click, drag margins around, and print part of a Web page by selecting it; overall, these are probably the best printing features in any of the major browsers.

It also has a smart zoom feature, similar to one in Opera but missing in Firefox: When you zoom in or out on a page, the graphics grow or shrink along with the text, so the whole page scales appropriately.

Oh yeah, one other thing--security. The widespread abuse of Microsoft's ActiveX technology to launch hacker attacks is one big reason why a lot of folks have switched to Firefox or Opera. Among IE 7's new security features is the fact that it essentially doesn't trust ActiveX; when sites use it, you'll generally get a heads-up and will need to give your OK. (When Microsoft demoed IE 7 to us, it showed how a site that was able to dump spyware on a PC via IE 6 couldn't do so through IE 7.) Also new in this version is a phishing filter. We'll see what happens when lots of copies of IE 7 are out there and bad guys begin to bang on them; at the very least, IE 7 users should be safer than anyone who sticks with IE 6.

One other way in which IE remains annoying, at least to me: Its "Internet Options" preference dialog remains a surging sea of confusing configuration possibilities. Firefox and Opera both let you find tweakable settings a lot more quickly. And I wish that IE put its field for searching a Web page's text at the bottom of the page, like Firefox does: It still lives in a dialog that's prone to cover up the text you're trying to find.

So what's the bottom line here? In most ways that matter, IE 7 is a better browser than IE 6. It's no great leap forward for either IE or browsing in general, though, and (warning! rant relapse!) the fact that it treats menus in a nonstandard, inconsistent manner--and doesn't let you opt for the old way--is a completely unnecessary drawback.

I can't imagine many folks who have already dumped IE for Firefox or Opera feeling the need to go back. And with a preview version of Opera 9 already out and Firefox 2.0 in the works, it's possible that the alternative browsers will evolve further before IE 7 is finally out of beta. But once IE 7 is the default Windows browser, it's possible that fewer people will find it necessary to flee IE for an alternative. We'll see.

If you try the IE 7 preview out, have fun--and come back here to let us know what you think.