IE7 Vs. Everyone Else

Four tech experts battle over which is the best browser -- Internet Explorer 7, Firefox, Opera, or Maxthon. We take you on a visual tour of each, then let you

February 10, 2006

54 Min Read
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Are you an Internet Explorer traditionalist? An old-time Opera booster? A fervent Firefox enthusiast? Or an advocate of possible Next-Big-Thing Maxthon?

Now that Microsoft has come out with the public preview of its upcoming Internet Explorer 7 for XP, it is time to explore exactly why IE is still top dog, whether it deserves to bear that title, and which browsers may be closing in on its tail.

Getting Passionate About Browsers
Challenging IE is not an easy task — when a browser ships along with your operating system, and is the default for which most site owners design their pages, it's hard to challenge its primacy. And Microsoft knew this — for a long time, IE seemed to be resting on its laurels, ignoring such popular features as RSS readers and tabbed browsing.

However, in the browser race, if you stall, you fall, and some IE users were lured away by competitors' features. While Firefox still has nowhere near IE's numbers, and may have even stalled a bit recently, Mozilla's browser has made headlines by attracting a growing and incredibly loyal user base.And Firefox is not the only alternative out there. At one time, the role of David to IE's Goliath was acted by Opera, a feature-filled independent browser that was one of the original havens for those who wanted to avoid any entanglement with Microsoft. Other users who are less devout in their distaste for any software coming out of Redmond are trying out alternatives based on the IE engine, such as up-and-comer Maxthon.

Having realized its mistake, Microsoft decided not to wait until its upcoming Vista operating system premiered in 2007 to debut a new version of IE. Redmond previewed the first public beta of Internet Explorer 7 for XP on January 31, 2006. It's not the only browser that's busily upgrading, though. The final version of Firefox 1.5 hit the Web on November 29, 2005; Opera has just announced (but, as of this writing, not yet released) a technical preview of its latest 9.0 release, while Maxthon offered a major upgrade to 1.5.0 last September, and a tweaked version 1.5.2 at the end of December.

In an effort to attract users, these new browsers include (or are capable of including) everything but the kitchen sink -- and we wouldn't be surprised if at least one actually offered hot and cold running water. Tabbing, a choice of search engines, and RSS readers have become expected features. You can also start looking for thumbnails of tabbed pages (IE7 and Opera 9), BitTorrent downloads (Opera 9), hundreds of extensions (Firefox), and a "Collection Bin" for saving text and graphics (Maxthon).

Battling For The Best
So which is the best? We've asked four of our best and most opinionated writers to review the latest version of their favorite browser, and try to convince the rest of us to use it as well. We've got Ed Bott supporting Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 Preview For Windows XP, Scot Finnie advocating for Firefox 1.5, Dennis Fowler pushing Opera 8.5, and Ron White cheerleading for Maxthon 1.5.

However, just telling you about these four browsers isn't enough — we've decided to both show and tell, by including a visual tour of each browser and a side-by-side comparison of four of the most popular features: tabs, RSS readers, search engines, and extensions/add-ons. At the end of it all, we'll ask you to vote which one you think is best.So fire up your own browser and prepare to be convinced to either switch or stay.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

IE7 Beta 2 Preview For Windows XP
By Ed Bott

"I hate it. But I use it."

That was the ironic catch phrase that Listerine used in the 1970s to sell millions of bottles of mouthwash. It's also a perfect summary of the way many PC users feel about Internet Explorer, the browser that's built into every copy of Windows.

When TechWeb asked me to make the case for Internet Explorer 7, I was prepared to use the Listerine defense. I was all ready to grit my teeth and declare that IE7 is not so bad, not so bad at all. And then a funny thing happened. The more I looked at IE7, the more I found to like.I've been working with IE7 in a series of unfinished and still somewhat raw beta releases for several months. The latest CTP (Community Technology Preview) pre-beta release of Windows Vista build 5270 and the just-released public preview of IE7 for XP are the first that offer a real glimpse of what IE7 is all about.

It's not perfect. For that matter, it's not even a beta yet – the latest version, which is the one I'm reviewing here, is officially called the Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 Preview, and it runs only on Windows XP SP2. (The most recent test release of IE7 for Windows Vista uses a slightly older version of the IE7 code.) Still, even in these unpolished test releases, IE7 does some basic browsing functions better than any of its rivals, and it should continue to improve over the next few months. (And if you're nervous about replacing your current browser, it's worth noting that you can uninstall IE7 for Windows XP completely. That option won't be available in Windows Vista, where the new browser will be baked into the base OS.)

The techno-elite may prefer to browse the Web in a package that doesn't include the Microsoft brand name, but they're the exception. According to data released this week by, Internet Explorer is still the overwhelming favorite browser for Windows, with somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the population continuing to use it. And no wonder: It's convenient, it works with just about every site on the Web, and it doesn't require a lot of fussing. Despite well-publicized (and occasionally overhyped) security flaws and an aging interface, the overwhelming majority of Windows users continue to use Internet Explorer, even though some of them grumble about its flaws.

Internet Explorer 7 is a substantial rewrite, the first top-to-bottom overhaul of Microsoft's flagship browser in nearly a decade. The fact that it isn't finished yet makes it difficult to present an ironclad case for upgrading. But what I've seen so far convinces me that the final product will be worth waiting for.Security And Privacy
The biggest rap against Internet Explorer is its reputation as a vector for viruses and spyware. That's the argument you're most likely to get (usually accompanied by some serious table-pounding) when someone tries to convince you to quit using IE and adopt another browser instead.If you're still running a version of Windows from the last millennium, that advice is right on the money. But if you're using Windows XP with Service Pack 2, the criticism that IE is a Petri dish for malware is a bum rap. Improvements to Internet Explorer 6 in SP2 effectively eliminated the most serious security problems by fundamentally changing the way IE handles ActiveX controls and downloads.

When you use an up-to-date version of Windows XP, site designers can't confuse you by repeatedly popping up inscrutable dialog boxes that entice you to download and install a piece of unwanted software; instead, you see an unobtrusive notification in the InfoBar at the top of the browser pane, and you get to decide whether to allow the software or to ignore it. That same version of IE6 also blocks pop-ups and provides an add-on manager, so you can get rid of unwanted toolbars and ActiveX controls that you decide you really don't want after all.

Still not feeling secure enough? You might feel a little better when you take a look at IE7. The update includes a long list of security enhancements that should make life miserable for malware.

  • A new URL parser is designed to foil common exploits that use a "carefully crafted" URL to create a buffer overflow. It also restricts scripts from interacting between sites or across domains. This type of organic approach is the right way to think about security, because it tackles the root of the problem instead of reacting to exploits that have already been released.

  • Most ActiveX controls are disabled by default. You have to specifically approve the use of any ActiveX control, even if it's part of the operating system. That simple precaution goes a long way toward blocking a common path for browser-based attacks.

  • Instead of being buried at the bottom of the browser window, security information shows up alongside the Address bar. That's where you'll find the padlock icon, which indicates that you've connected to a secure site; if the site is using a High Assurance certificate, which indicates that the certificate owner has undergone an extensive identity check, the Address bar glows green. If the certificate doesn't match the current Web site address or has another flaw, the Address bar turns red.

    If a site doesn't have Microsoft's High Assurance certificate, the Address bar turns red. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

  • A new anti-phishing module promises some protection – it's too early to say how well it will work in practice – against sites that try to steal personal information. You can configure IE7 to check every Web site, or you can disable automatic checking and just submit individual pages that don't look right. In our tests, checking a site took up to 20 seconds. For a suspicious site, the Address bar turned yellow and displayed a warning label but still allowed data entry. For a site that had been flagged as a known phishing site, the Address bar turned red – well, pink, to be accurate – and replaced the contents of the page with a stern "don't go there" warning.

    Among IE7's security enhancements is a warning when you've hit a phishing site. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    All of those security enhancements are available for free when you upgrade to IE7 on a computer using Windows XP SP2. Toward the end of this year, when Windows Vista finally hits the streets, upgraders will get some additional goodies not found in the XP version.

    For starters, IE7 for Vista will work by default in Protected Mode, where it's isolated from the rest of the operating system. That means malicious Web sites won't be able to install software, muck about in the Registry, or change browser settings without explicit permission from an Administrator. By setting up Limited accounts for kids and technically naïve users, you can effectively limit their ability to install spyware, viruses, Trojan horses, and other malware. In addition, you'll have access to a full set of parental controls that you can use to restrict browser access and monitor which sites your kids are visiting.Tabbed Browsing
    The most fundamental change in IE7's basic browsing toolkit is the addition of tabs that allow multiple Web pages to appear in a single browser window. Power users will scoff that tabbed browsing is hardly an innovation, and they're right. But IE7's elegant implementation of this feature just might make up for its late arrival.

    In IE7 Beta 2 for XP, tabbed browsing is enabled by default. To open a new blank tab, click the New Tab button (a stub of a tab to the right of the tab bar) or press Ctrl+T. To close a tab, click the red X on the active tab. That's a big improvement over the out-of-the-box behavior of Firefox, which requires one or more extensions to properly tame the tabbed interface. You can save a group of tabs to your Favorites list under a single folder (so that you can open the group with a single click), and can designate multiple tabs as a home page group.

    The trouble with tabbed browsing, of course, is trying to find a particular page. After you've opened eight or ten pages, the text on the tab is reduced to a cryptic and not-so-helpful couple of characters. The solution? Click the Quick Tabs icon to the left of the first open tab to display a thumbnail view of all open pages. The visual cues are usually enough to help you find the right page; if not, a text label above each thumbnail helps identify the page. An X in the top right corner of each mini-page lets you close unwanted pages without having to leave the thumbnail view.You'll find a few rough edges when you look closely at the tabbed browsing feature. Clicking a link from Microsoft Outlook, for instance, always opens a new browser window rather than opening a new tab. You can't rearrange the order of open tabs. And when you've filled all available space on the tab bar — the exact number depends on your screen resolution — some tabs disappear from the display, with no way to scroll to the missing pages. The only way to access pages that have scrolled off the tab bar is to use the Ctrl+Tab keyboard shortcut, Quick Tabs view, or the drop-down list of open pages.

    Quick Tabs offers thumbnails of all your open (tabbed) pages. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    IE7 includes other features stolen, er, borrowed from other browsers, including an integrated search box that supports the OpenSearch standard and a one-stop option to clear personal information (cached pages, cookies, saved passwords, and so on). But the biggest innovation in the new IE interface is what you don't see. By hiding the classic menus and shrinking toolbars to a bare minimum, IE7 leaves more room for the browser window itself than any of its competitors, including older versions of Internet Explorer. Most important functions are available from the standard toolbar, which includes a pair of efficient drop-down menus. (Miss those old-school menus? You can make them reappear temporarily by tapping the Alt key, or bring them back for good by adjusting an option on the Tools menu.)

    The most welcome feature of all — at least in terms of getting rid of an everyday annoyance — might be the subtle improvements in the Print menu. When you print a page in IE7, the width automatically scales to fit the paper. No more printouts with the right margin cut off.Favorites And Feeds

    Internet Explorer's rudimentary tools for keeping track of your favorite Web sites haven't changed much in the past nine years, and neither have those of its rivals. IE7 adds a new, smarter approach to this essential task, consolidating the previous mishmash of menus and sidebars into a single pane called the Favorites Center.

    The Favorites Center button, a white star in a pale yellow circle, sits unobtrusively below the Back and Forward buttons. Click it once to display the Favorites Center as a menu that disappears after you make a selection and click in the browser window. You can also dock the Favorites Center along the left side of the browser window for full-time access. To add a Web site (or an entire group of tabs) to the list of favorites, click the Add/Subscribe button.

    The Favorites Center lets you access your Favorites, RSS Feeds, and History list. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    Two of the three views of the Favorites Center will be familiar to any longtime user of Internet Explorer. Click the Favorites button to rearrange the order of shortcuts and organize them into folders, or click History to view and search pages you've previously visited.

    The real star of the Favorites Center, though, is the new Feeds button, which turns Internet Explorer into a full-strength RSS reader. Here's how it works:

    1. When you visit a Web page that contains an auto-discoverable feed in RSS or Atom format, IE7 lights up the orange Feeds button. Click that button to open the feed in the browser window (if the site has more than one feed available, you can choose from all available feeds by clicking the drop-down arrow). You can also click directly on an orange XML icon or any link to an XML-formatted feed. The formatted feed page opens in the browser window, with a block of explanatory text at the top of the page.

    2. Click the plus sign to subscribe to the feed. This action adds a link to the Favorites Center and configures the feed for automatic synchronization.

    3. Right-click the feed icon in the sidebar and choose Properties to configure options. You can rename the feed's shortcut, control the frequency of synchronization (once a day is the default), specify whether to download enclosures such as podcast files, and tell IE how many items to keep in its cache for each feed.

    When you revisit a feed after subscribing, you can use the box on the right of the page to sort and search feeds or to show only those you haven't yet read. If the site author has tagged posts with categories, you can filter the list by category as well. Or create your own filter by entering any text into the search box.Killer Features
    If Internet Explorer 7 has a killer feature, this is it. The built-in set of feed-reading tools comes closer than any other Windows browser to offering a full-featured feed reader without being overwhelming. It's a vast improvement over the Live Bookmarks feature in Firefox, which shows only the title of each item; you have to click through to the bookmarked site to get any meaningful content. And don't worry about compatibility with other feed readers: IE7 includes the capability to share feeds by importing and exporting feed lists in industry-standard OPML format.

    The most surprising news is that IE7's feed-reading capabilities aren't just limited to the browser window. Instead, they're part of a larger platform for dealing with RSS-formatted data. That means other applications can tap into the management tools and extend the reach of feeds you've subscribed to. A Web-based group calendar, for example, might use RSS to share meeting requests and updates, and a program like Microsoft Outlook could tap that same flow of data to keep your calendar up to date on multiple PCs, PDAs, and smart phones.Keeping It Simple
    There's no doubt that Microsoft's developers are playing catch-up on some key browsing features that others did long ago, and they also have a long way to go to erase the perception that Internet Explorer is inherently insecure. But the closer you look at Internet Explorer 7, the more you realize it's not just a copycat.

    The overwhelming majority of Windows users still use Internet Explorer. When IE7 is finished later this year, that will still be true. The difference? They just might like it.

    Firefox 1.5
    By Scot Finnie

    Let's cut to the chase: Firefox lets you "stick it to the Man." And you know who that is, right?

    It would be a mistake to discount the strong, incalculable appeal of bucking the software establishment, but Firefox doesn't exactly have a corner on the market. You could, for instance, accomplish the same act of rebellion with that all-but-forgotten hairshirt, the Lynx text browser.So what's the other key factor behind the ascendancy of Mozilla's upstart Web browser? It's straightforward, really. Firefox is a refreshingly simple application that's a delight to use.

    The reason for Mozilla's success isn't much of a secret. From the start, it gave strong consideration to the overall user experience, and baked that thinking into its product design goals. Since the mid-1990s, when Netscape began to confuse a large, bloated, chock-full-of-enterprise-features "browser suite" with success, no other standalone Web browser but Firefox has offered a level of usability that could compete with Internet Explorer.

    And while Firefox's star was rising, IE's was sputtering to a halt. As we moved into the new century, Microsoft stopped adding anything to its browser except security and look-and-feel parallelism updates, apparently out of something like baseball's late-inning "defensive indifference." Or, to put it another way, the software giant preferred to focus on other projects. Internet Explorer became dowdy, tedious to use — in short, a killjoy. The current version is so busy saving you from your own security "ignorance" that it's more like a jail sentence than a good time.

    Firefox's use of tabbed-window browsing attracted many tabless Internet Explorer users. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    For example, Internet Explorer's lack of tabbed-window browsing, first introduced in the Opera browser, spawned an entire field of Internet Explorer "overlay," or add-on, browsers that use the IE browsing engine but overlay custom look-and-feel and features. Virtually all of these IE-based browsers, such as Avant Browser and Maxthon, provide tabbed browsing. Mozilla, meanwhile, accurately gauged that tabbed browsing was the pivotal feature it must deliver in Firefox.Instant Gratification
    Most people who try Firefox like it, even if they don't adopt it as their primary browser. It's a likable application. It delivers several features (such as shrink-to-fit printing) that you can't get in Internet Explorer 6. It's very good about displaying Web pages as they would appear in Internet Explorer, so long as those Web pages don't rely on ActiveX or other proprietary aspects of IE. And if the page doesn't load properly, a very popular Firefox extension, IE View, makes it two-click easy to reload the current Web page in Internet Explorer.

    Firefox feels light and fast. Mozilla achieves that light feel in part by being discriminatory about the new features it adds. The product doesn't need every little feature idea and wish-list item suggested on the Internet. It does need the features that most people want, however. Mozilla hasn't implemented all those features yet, but it's working on them.

    One of the best aspects of Firefox is that while Mozilla is taking its time to get the browser just right, there's a direct avenue of instant gratification for people who want it to do a lot more. Mozilla's Firefox Extensions site currently lists more than a thousand add-ons for the browser, nearly all of which were developed by third-party sources or individual Mozilla programmers. Some might better be described as powerful mini-applications; others extend the user interface in some small, specific way. (See Firefox Essentials: 10 Must-Have Extensions for a list of add-ons that no Firefox user should be without.)

    With that many extensions already available and more on the way, chances are very good that if you find yourself wishing that Firefox could do this or that, at least one extension already offers a solution. For a lot of browser power users, that flexibility is the final piece of the puzzle that makes Firefox not just an alternative browser, but their preferred browser.

    Chances are very good that if you find yourself wishing that Firefox could do this or that, at least one extension already offers a solution. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    Other important features Firefox shipped with from the start include pop-up blocking, an integrated search field in the toolbar area, RSS support with bookmarking, third-party skin support, and third-party browser-customization extensions. All of these features played an important role in helping Firefox to win over so many users in its first year.

    The current 1.5x version of Firefox added automatic program upgrades, with improved update notification and the ability to do incremental upgrades with much smaller download sizes. (Firefox users recently had their first experience of that feature with the release of the version of Firefox, a security and stability update.) Firefox's Extensions Manager is now able to check extension updates for all installed extensions simultaneously. The Extensions Manager also handles unsupported extensions more gracefully.

    Other new features in version 1.5 include a new cache for the Back and Forward buttons that hastens the display of recently loaded pages. You can reorder the tabs using drag-and-drop when you have multiple open Web-page windows. The new Clear Private Data feature lets you quickly and easily delete all the personal data the browser keeps for you, such as user names, passwords, cookies, and browse history. Mozilla also completely redesigned the Options area (although without any major advantage to the end user).

    Clear Private Data feature lets you quickly and easily delete all your personal data. (Click image to see the Image Gallery.)

    For a comprehensive list of all Firefox 1.5 updates, see the Unofficial Firefox 1.5 Changelog.Security Truths

    From the start, one of the more important perceived — and realized — benefits of Firefox has been added protection from spyware, some types of phishing, and Internet-carried worms and viruses.

    The main thing that makes Firefox more secure is that it doesn't support Microsoft's ActiveX and VBScript. In addition, you're very likely better insulated from Web-based drive-by spyware and malware while using Firefox merely because Internet Explorer is a victim of its over-85 percent browser market share. Spyware is big business, and if you're a spyware programmer (and if you are, get a new profession, please), the Web browser that has the big bull's-eye on it is the one that most people are using: Internet Explorer. I have purposely visited known spyware-inflicting Web sites with both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and I can vouch for Firefox's comparative immunity.

    Firefox offers standard security precautions; it's made safer by the fact that it doesn't support ActiveX and VBScript. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    Don't think for a second, though, that Firefox is completely immune. I believe there are other aspects about Firefox that make it potentially more vulnerable than the Mozilla community admits to. Mozilla talks about how "the Firefox community of developers and security experts works around the clock to monitor security issues and release updates." Well, okay, but Microsoft does the same thing. There is nothing inherently more secure about Firefox or the way the open-source Mozilla development community works on security vulnerabilities.

    But so long as you understand that Firefox's added layer of security is not intrinsic to the program, and could be ephemeral, there's no reason not to take advantage of it while you can!Indirect Benefits
    Elsewhere in this feature package you'll find an impassioned argument for Internet Explorer 7, the forthcoming version of Microsoft's Web browser. But please keep this mind: If Firefox weren't as good as it is, Microsoft would probably be planning a minor IE 6.1 release for Windows Vista with few — if any — new features.

    So there's an additional benefit of the Mozilla Firefox browser. With something like a 7 to 10 percent browser usage market share, it's the only browser that has shown any potential to make inroads on IE's vast market-share majority. The likelihood that Firefox will eventually make significant inroads isn't high, but the threat was enough to prod Microsoft to start developing Internet Explorer 7. That's good for everyone.

    Just in case you're wondering: It's no problem to install two or more browsers on your Windows computer. And you don't have to uninstall Internet Explorer first. You can only have one "default" browser at a time; but you can have as many browsers installed on your computer as you want. All major browsers offer a setting somewhere in options that directs the program to ask whether you'd like to make it the default browser at launch. For more information about setting a default browser, see these links:

  • Microsoft: How To Make Internet Explorer the Default Web BrowserA Dark Side?
    Firefox is not perfect, and the release of the 1.5 version of the browser in late November, 2005, washed a wave of problem reports my way from Scot's Newsletter readers. Just before the holidays, I wrote an in-depth news/technology article on InternetWeek about some problematic behaviors of Firefox 1.5. The follow-up InternetWeek story, Firefox 1.5 Stability Problems? Readers And Mozilla Respond, offers the deepest detail on the subject.In a nutshell, a small but apparently growing percentage of Firefox 1.5 users have experienced some or most of these problems:

    • Firefox's use of physical and virtual memory is exceptionally high.

    • CPU usage spikes to 100 percent.

    • The browser freezes up for seconds, minutes, or permanently.

    • The browser won't launch until you remove an errant "firefox.exe" process in Task Manager.

    • The browser crashes suddenly (usually while loading a Web page).

    • Browser performance slows down.

    • The initial launch of Firefox loads slower.

    • Third-party application hyperlinks (such as a link in an e-mail message) take a very long time to open a new Firefox tab or to launch the browser.

    When, back in December, co-author Matt McKenzie and I interviewed Mozilla's Mike Schroepfer, VP of engineering, and Chris Beard, VP of products, about the detailed reports we'd received from readers, the response was not encouraging. Mozilla had at that time identified only one of the problems we were talking about: the high memory usage. There was no commitment on the part of the two Mozilla execs to look further into the information we were passing along.

    Since then, there have been at least half a dozen Bugzilla bug reports (such as here, here, and here, that seem to corroborate several of our reader reports. Mozilla appears to be describing some of the symptoms as memory leaks. Several of the reports have been ganged up into one thread and a programmer has accepted the challenge. So a fix, or series of fixes, may be on the way.

    Mozilla released Firefox on February 1, 2006, and it included several memory leak fixes, although it's unlikely that the bullet-point issues above were addressed, since the changes for the release were reportedly frozen around January 10. It's too early to say for sure.

    Some Firefox user have reported extremely high memory use. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    This is the only dark cloud appearing over the otherwise stellar Firefox. Mozilla is certain to fix these problems. But will it fix them fast enough? In order for the browser to succeed, users must be able to trust its reliability. Mozilla's developers should listen to and work with the user community.

    I believe Mozilla may be relying too heavily on its Bugzilla online bug-reporting site. What's the percentage of Firefox users experiencing problems like this who will take the time to fill in an intimidating form and face questions directly from developers? It's got to be a fraction of a percent.What's Next?
    Mozilla took almost exactly a year to issue the Firefox 1.5 release after the initial debut of its Web browser. However, the open-source organization currently plans to go from 1.5 to 2.0 much more quickly. Until only a few days ago, Mozilla's Firefox: 2.0 Product Planning: Draft Plan wiki document showed it was planning a late June release. Other documents mentioned a new version no later than third quarter of 2006. The latest version of this document notes only that Alpha 1 of Firefox 2.0 is expected on February 10.

    A sub-page on the Firefox 2 Planning wiki offers insight into what Mozilla hopes to deliver in the 2.0 release, including a major revision of the bookmark system that could change the bookmarking paradigm. Also on the list is a significant update to the tabbed-browsing system, which could include tab-session saving and undo-closed-tab functionality. Other features planned for refresh or improvement include RSS support, extension security and management, search, online patching, anti-phishing, auto-complete, and spell checking.

    One specific improvement for Firefox 3 that Mozilla has mentioned is "major architectural advances in graphics and content languages." Not much else is known about the 3.0 release, but Mozilla had internally planned it for the first quarter of 2007. Documentation to that effect was recently amended, and the projection is less clear, but Mozilla is still working toward a 2007 release. (As always, all of Mozilla's public documents about future releases are subject to change.)Mozilla's ambitious upgrade plans are encouraging. They show a committed development community with no tendency to rest on its initial laurels.

    Page Loaded
    Firefox is simple, safe, free, and a joy to use. It's also not Microsoft Internet Explorer, which for some of us holds an added benefit. And, perhaps subjectively, it's the very best browser you can get today, and probably tomorrow.

    With over 100 million downloads and a near doubling of market share over the last year or so, according to Net Applications, Firefox is the fastest-growing Web browser by a very high margin. This is an important year for Mozilla, which must work hard to sustain at least some of that growth. That won't be easy with Microsoft now fully awake and fighting back, and the release version of IE7 expected by the fourth quarter this year. Internet Explorer 7 includes tabbed browsing and other Firefox-inspired features. Will that kill Firefox's growth?

    To merge two Magic 8-Ball answers: Reply hazy, try again later.

    But let's not go back to a one-browser world.

    Opera 8.5
    By Dennis Fowler

    Opera was born in 1994 as a project by the Norwegian telecommunications firm Telenor. In 1995, version 2.1 was released to the public by Opera Software ASA, and I was immediately seduced by Opera's security and speed.

    Over the years, Opera evolved, added features, and gained fans. In 2003, ten million copies were downloaded, making it a serious competitor on a stage dominated by Internet Explorer. The free version supported itself through banner ads, which you could lose for a modest registration fee.

    Not that Opera was easy to get along with. It could be as temperamental as Maria Callas when it came to configuration. But heck, it ascended the heights like the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Magic Flute, so I put up with the tantrums when trying to motivate it to do what I wanted it to do the way I wanted it done.

    Then, last year, Mozilla Firefox debuted to rave reviews. It was good, it was fast, and it was free. For a time, I was distracted by this new diva's vivacity, not to mention all the hype. I gave it an audition and then a place on my desktop. Even when Opera 8.50 was released, dispensing with the ads and registration fee, I stuck with Firefox.

    Until I was asked to do this review — and rediscovered what a virtuoso performer Opera had become. It matches Firefox on the basics, and adds some trills and runs that Firefox lacks.

    I've rejoined the Opera fan club.

    Tabs, Toolbars, And Panels
    Tabbed browsing is a feature of most browsers these days, and Opera does it well. Each tab has a "close tab" button on it. Using drag and drop the tabs can be re-ordered, and dragging a tab to the Personal Bar turns it into a bookmark.

    In addition to the usual Main Menu across the top, there are eight toolbars available which contain a wide variety of icons and input boxes, some duplicated on more than one toolbar. Besides the usual Main Toolbar (icons for file open, print, save, home page, etc.) and the Address Bar (which has the URL entry box, the forward and back arrows, stop and reload icon, etc.), there is the Personal Bar, which is a place to put bookmarks I don't want buried on the bookmark list, and which has input boxes for searches, such as and Google.Then there's the Page Bar (where the tabs appear), the Status Bar (which shows how a page is loading), the Start Bar (which offers a quick way to navigate certain Web sites, such as the Opera home site), the View Bar (with icons to bring up the bookmark list, top ten list, home page, and toggle the loading of images on or off), and the Navigation Bar. On all of these toolbars, icons can be resized from 40 percent up to 200 percent, in 10 percent increments.

    Opera's panels offer a way to access a variety of handy applets, such as notes or a chat window. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    One of Opera's distinctive features is its panels, which consist of a pair of windows, one a menu, the other containing a variety of data types. There's a panel for notes, a history list (configurable up to 10,000 entries), a list of all the links on the page you're viewing, a chat window, etc. By default there are a total of 11 panels to choose from; you can also turn a bookmark into a panel, or download additional panel formats from the Opera Web site.

    Configurable And Then Some
    As you can imagine, if you turned on all the panels and toolbars, your viewable browser window would be down to the size of an early tintype. Fortunately, everything in Opera is configurable to an almost unlimited degree. Panels can be turned on and off with a single click, and configured to be on the left or the right. You can select which toolbars you want to use, and set them to be visible only if needed. Buttons can be reordered within a toolbar or moved from bar to bar. By dragging buttons and entry fields from one bar to another I'm down to three toolbars.

    Everything is configurable, such as how cookies are treated, what you want in the way of pop-up blocking (block all, block unwanted, open in the background, accept them all), allow or deny Java and JavaScript, let GIF animations run or not. You can even have Opera identify itself as Firefox or Internet Explorer to try to trick fussy servers.Until recently, configuring anything in Opera was a nightmare. At one time (sometime around version 7.0), my list of bookmarks was eating up a big chunk of screen on the left side of the window and I could not figure out how to turn it off. All the configuration options were listed in a single, confusing menu. It took forever to find anything, and longer to figure out how to change it.

    That's changed. The folks at Opera have gathered all the configuration tools under the Tools selection on the main menu, and categorized them. Now you can find what you need, and understand what to do, and for the most part the default settings will suffice. I'd like to see them add an easy way to edit the list of search engines, a way that sticks. It can be done by editing Opera's search.ini file, but it's an unsupported tweak, and if you upgrade, your changes vanish.

    Configuring Opera has become much easier than it used to be. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    Safe And Secure
    As fast and safe as ever, Opera is stable as a rock, and smoothly integrates a raft of plug-ins like Adobe Reader, Windows Media Player, Flash, Microsoft DRM, and QuickTime; it even takes the Mozilla Default Plug-in.

    Security was always good and has improved. User control over cookies, Java and JavaScript, pop-ups and the like is solid, and the default settings err on the side of safety. A Norwegian import, it has always offered the strongest encryption available. It's now got a security feature I hope I never need: If my system is in danger I can, with two mouse-clicks, close all windows; delete all cookies; delete password-protected pages and data; get rid of the cache; and clear my record of downloads, visited pages, visited links, typed-in addresses and bookmark visit times (but without deleting the bookmarks).And that's just the default setting. This "nuclear option" can be configured to be less drastic, or I can extend it to wiping away all stored e-mail passwords and the Wand info (Wand is where you can keep personal data to fill out forms). Creating A Splash
    The Opera developers listen to their users. That has to be why they replaced the usual decorative, but useless, splash screen with a startup dialog asking if I want to open my last session, open a saved session (or two or three), open my home page, or go with no page at all.

    I love it! A "session" includes all the pages you had open and the history of how you got there. Like most of you, I often finish the work day before I've finished a project, and I may have several projects going at once. Using this dialog, I can reopen Opera right where I was, and I can even click the back arrow to retrace my steps from the day before.

    Then there's the mouse menu. Clicking the left button doesn't only select the word, sentence or paragraph you've clicked on, it also pops up the right-button menu with additional useful and fascinating choices, such as copying the selection to a note, searching the selection using Google or another search engine, looking up the selection in an online dictionary or encyclopedia, or translating it to or from English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, or Spanish.

    Then there are mouse gestures. Holding the right mouse button down and moving the mouse from right to left is just like clicking the back arrow. There are a host of gestures that combine with key combinations to do all sorts of things.But Wait — There's More!
    Opera also includes a POP3 and IMAP e-mail client, a mailing list manager, a Usenet newsgroup reader, an RSS reader, and IRC chat. Yet the complete installation file runs only 3.66 MB — that's about 25 percent smaller than Firefox. (The current install of IE7 Beta 2 requires about 11.5 MB.)

    Opera includes a variety of features, including a newsgroup reader and an RSS reader. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    If you want voice navigation, or would like Opera to read a selected word or passage aloud, you can download Opera Voice, which runs 10.5 MB. This is available only in the Windows version. Opera also comes in Mac, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, OS/2 and QNX versions, and in a host of languages.

    Support for Opera has always been excellent. There's an active Opera Community Web site, as well as e-mail assistance.

    Can Opera Survive?
    If there's a fly in the ointment, it is the question of whether Opera can survive as a free program up against Firefox and IE.

    Obviously Opera Software ASA can't depend on distributing free consumer copies of the browser for its income. For mobile users, Opera Mobile is available for download to cell phones for a 14-day free trial, with a $29 registration fee to keep it. Opera Mini is available for cell phones that don't have enough memory to handle Opera Mobile, and a beta version of Opera was just released for the Windows Mobile Pocket PC. There are also versions that are marketed to — a deal was recently struck with Industria, a leading broadband communication solutions provider and IPTV systems integrator based in Iceland, to use Opera 8.5 for devices in their set-top boxes.

    In the end, while IE and Firefox keep swinging at each other, Opera just soldiers on. It has none of the flaws that dog IE, and lacks the hint of insecurity that the open-source community continues to contend with. Opera is a mature, tested product with a well-established, loyal user base. Furthermore, it offers features unavailable anywhere else, which should continue to attract and captivate new users. And its upcoming version 9 promises even more, with support for BitTorrent downloads and widgets, an ad blocker, and thumbnail previews of tabbed pages. (Check out my review of Opera 9.0 Technology Preview 2.)

    As the old saying goes, "The Opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," and she's not even warmed up yet.

    Maxthon 1.5
    By Ron White

    The first rule of Maxthon is, "Don't talk about Maxthon."If Firefox and Opera are underground favorites among Web surfers, then Maxthon must be the double-dog double-secret browser. Over the last four years, Maxthon has quietly developed a base of devoted — and tight-lipped — users who make the Illuminati seem like exhibitionists. How obscure is Maxthon? It's so obscure that, despite more than 46 million downloads, even Google barely knows about it. When I did a search for Firefox, Google yielded some 412 million hits, while a search for Maxthon returned a scant 4 million. I can get more hits than that off my own name. (Of course, it helps if you share a name with a well-known comedian.)

    Usually such obscurity is well deserved. But in the case of Maxthon, it's as though Jack Nicholson never made it out of B horror flicks. Maxthon is simply the most powerful, and yet the simplest, browser to be used anywhere, anytime, by anyone.

    Assessing The Competition
    I say this after years of surfing against the tide with Microsoft's ungainly Internet Explorer. That was followed by thoughtful testing of fledgling browsers that looked promising, such as Avant Browser and Netcaptor, both enticing me with tabbed interfaces. I had the usual youthful experimentation with Opera (which also aims to become the browser for TV and your cell phone), and with every rebel's favorite software for the Internet, Firefox.

    Then I discovered Maxthon. At that time it was named MyIE2 — until 2004, (when, most likely, Microsoft's trademark lawyers called). Whatever the name, my browsing for a browser was done.Of course (as the other writers in this roundup will tell you), Firefox and Opera have their good points — mainly, they're not Microsoft. Until lately, when Firefox and Opera began to spring their own security leaks, the two browsers could claim better security than the hole-ridden Internet Explorer. Just as importantly, not being Microsoft made their adoption, particularly by open-source adherents, an ideological issue and marketing ploy as much as a technology choice.

    Maxthon, on the other hand, maintains an alliance with the Dark Side by using Microsoft's Internet Explorer engine. By outfitting the engine with new APIs, Maxthon creates new features that run on the basic browsing engine, and new ways to use old features.

    What sets Maxthon apart is pure brawn. To say it browses is misleading. It blitzes the Internet like a cybertank wrapped in armor plate and studded with heavy-duty weaponry. To be sure, some of the same battlements are available with Firefox and Opera — although they require a lot more assembly than the ready-to-serve Maxthon. They even have features Maxthon lacks, such as Opera's gee-whiz voice commands. But despite their niftier features, the two together can't come up with an arsenal like that of Maxthon. A Safari With Room Service

    When you install Maxthon, it emerges on your screen fully decked out in an array of features and tools and conveniences, as if to say "We've anticipated everything you could possibly need for your surfing." It's like being on a safari with room service.

    Maxthon endows its tabs with more capabilities, including the ability to add them to groups. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    Tabs are no longer something new in browsers (unless you're Microsoft). All the other browsers have them too, but Maxthon endows them with more capabilities. With Maxthon, you can rename, edit, alphabetize, protect, set for automatic refresh, and juggle the position of the tabs on the page. One of the best things you can do with the tabs is to add them to "groups," collections of pages that you feel belong together. So if you're doing Web research, the system lets you assign one group to, say, sites devoted to investments, another group to job hunting, still another to reference book sites, and so on, until you're able to call on a powerful, specialized scheme for whatever job's at hand. Opera does something similar with its "panels," but their existence isn't obvious and setting them up is awkward.

    Almost anything you find in Firefox, Opera, and IE, you find in Maxthon, only in an industrial-strength version — sometimes in several versions. For example, all three of the other browsers have Google toolbars. Maxthon has a Google toolbar, and then some. A Maxthon plug-in modifies the Google results page to give you one-click access to the same search at Yahoo, MSN, and other sites.

    Maxthon lets you simultaneously search, Google, Yahoo, Teoma, Alltheweb, Ixquick, Wisenut, Killer Info, and any other search engine you want to invite to the party. And that's just for general searches. On another menu, different engines are joined for specialized, all-out, simultaneous searches for images, multimedia, software, multimedia, news, and others. Maxthon makes it easy to roll your own combination of search tools. A Plethora Of Tools

    Maxthon's approach to searching is typical of its helpful overkill on many fronts. It provides two extra ways to call up a URL: You can give the URL an alias that takes fewer keystrokes (AM for, for example) or you can assign the URL to a function key. You get a half-dozen ways to move among tabbed pages, including assorted buttons, mouse-button chording, and mouse gestures, which are sort of like sign language for computers.

    Like other browsers, Maxthon lets users read and save RSS feeds. (Click image to enlarge and to see the Image Gallery.)

    Other tools in Maxthon are valuable exclusives. Maxthon has the Simple Collector, which lets you select text or graphics and add them to a common collection bin for later offline perusal. If you happen upon a page in, say, Korean, Maxthon gives you an automatic translation link for Korean and 11 other languages, most of them two-way. I suppose it's possible in Firefox and Opera to concoct add-ins that display, with a single click, the local weather, your PC's file tree, Web-based bookmarks you can access anywhere, RSS feeds, and more. In Maxthon, they, and others, come installed and ready to use.Even when a feature in Maxthon is basically the same as one of its rivals', Maxthon takes an extra step in the direction of ease of use. Both it and Firefox have drag-and-drop, which lets you launch a search by selecting a word in the current page. Only thing is, Firefox makes you drag the word up to the search bar and drop it there. Maxthon lets you drop it anywhere.

    So Why Haven't I Heard About It?
    All this invites the inevitable question, "If Maxthon is so smart, why do Firefox and Opera get all the press?" Could it be that, while Firefox and Opera have the clout of free-world capitalism behind them, Maxthon is the creation of one man, working mostly alone, in the warehouse of a company in China? (Really.) There are no PR people pushing Maxthon at CES. No advertising. No press kits.

    This lack of big-time accouterments hurts Maxthon in a few ways, besides the simple fact it is distributed free (donations welcome). The documentation is lacking at times. And support is provided by fellow Maxthon users through forums. (Although, considering the state of professional software support these days, forums are looking mighty good.)

    I suspect being small and obscure has helped Maxthon become the powerful program it is. In my book, the most innovative software is always the concoction of a single person. Committees and marketing executives inevitably make for mediocre software. A marketing genius might have come up with a better name than Maxthon. (The "h" is silent.) But the best, gathered resources of American industrialism haven't come up with a better browser.

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