Internet Explorer 7 For XP Beta 1

Beta 1 of Microsoft's next version of IE provides tabbed browsing and Favorites-based RSS-feed viewing and bookmarking.

August 5, 2005

9 Min Read
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It's All In The Tabs
Beta 1 of Internet Explorer 7 has a simple, even unfinished look. It comes with five toolbars: the tabbed-browsing bar, address bar, the file-menu bar, the button-function bar (the only true "toolbar"), and the Links bar (which is turned off by default).

Beta 1 has a very clean, simple interface that actually looks a bit unfinished.Click to Enlarge

The tabbed-browsing bar is the single most important feature in IE 7.0. We suspect that, even after the other 75 percent of new features are added in the final version of this product, this statement will continue to be true. When you launch the browser, it displays one wide browser tab containing your home page, with a small dark gray button to the right of the tab. To add a new tab, you click the dark gray button, which always appears just to the right of the right-most tab. This works quite well, but isn't obvious to new users. Microsoft will almost certainly be building user-interface refinements to this basic functionality. As you add new tab windows, the width of all the tabs compresses, working something like the program buttons on the Windows Taskbar.

In Beta 1, right-clicking the dark gray button has no effect. But you can right-click any tab button or any empty space on the tab bar to bring up a context menu with New Tab, Refresh, Refresh All, Close Other Tabs, and Close options. Sorely missing is a simple way to close tabs without using a context menu or rearrange the tabs. Several Firefox extensions offer functionality that IE7 should adopt, including keyboard-mouse combinations for closing tabs (such as Ctrl-Click), the ability to rearrange the order of tabs by dragging and dropping, and the ability to save tab sets and reopen them later.

the small dark gray box to the right of the tabs opens a new blank tabbed page when clicked.

Click to Enlarge

This version of the browser offers only three basic configuration on/off settings, found on the Advanced tab of the Internet Options Control Panel:

  1. Always open pop-ups in a new window

  2. Always switch to new tabs when they are created

  3. Enable tabbed browsing

With the "Always open pop-ups in a new window" option turned off, you can right-click a hyperlink displayed on a Web page and select "Open in New Tab" to bring it up in a new tab. You can't, however, do the same thing with a link in your Favorites, an unfortunate omission that we hope Microsoft will remedy before the product ships.

The address bar contains the forward and back buttons, the URL type-in field, the merged Refresh/Stop button (a feature inspired by Apple's Safari browser), and the new Web-search field. The overall design of Beta 1's toolbar area is good, and the address bar is no exception. The Refresh/Stop button works well, but its placement to right of the address bar is awkward, since it's not near any other browser control buttons. In fact, the buttons that control IE7 are now spread out, something Microsoft should work to correct.

New built-in search field is located in the same place Firefox has its search field.Click to Enlarge

The address toolbar also includes Microsoft's new search field, in the same place that Firefox has its built-in search field. IE7's Web search defaults to MSN Search, but there is a drop-down list that lets you choose other search engines, including Google, Ask Jeeves, and AOL. According to Microsoft, the final version of IE7 will let users manually configure any search provider.The file menu bar, button-function bar, and Links bar are more or less unchanged from IE 6.0. The button toolbar is customizable, as in previous versions. The default button functions are Home, Favorites, History, (RSS) Feeds, and Print. (More on the Feeds button in a minute.) Unlike in previous version of IE, the basic browser buttons, back, forward, stop, and refresh are fully decoupled from the button toolbar. That might not be as good as it sounds.

Links bar aficionados might be concerned that the lengths of names for items on the Links bar can no longer be just three characters long, which allowed you to jam lots of oft-used Favorites or folders onto the displayable areas of the Links bar. Microsoft has moved to a default invisible button size for every Links bar item. So even though the name for an item can display as only three characters, it will still take up roughly 15 characters of space on the Links bar. We hope Microsoft rethinks that behavior, although this could well be that this is just another aspect of being an early pre-release version of the browser.

One of the strangest aspects of beta roughness, in fact, is that you cannot move the tab bar to the lowest of the three toolbar positions. So the file menu, button toolbar, and Links bar (when displayed), all appear below the tabs and above the Web window. In our opinion, good user-interface design dictates that the tabs appear just above the Web window, since their selection directly relates to that window. Very probably this is also just another early beta issue.

Fit To Print
It's a small feature, but many people will find it to be a boon. We tested IE7's new "shrink to fit" print feature, which reformats Web pages so that they will print comfortably on a letter-sized sheet of paper, and found that it worked very nicely. The TechWeb home page, which invariably goes past the right-hand margin when we print it in IE6, was printed completely from IE7.

The new Feeds icon on the button toolbar turns red to signify that the Web site currently loaded and active in IE7 offers an auto-discoverable RSS feed. Whenever the Feeds button is red, you can click it to see a drop-down list of available feeds; when you click one, it will display the current contents of the feed on a headline page with clickable links to individual stories. There's also a small gray box on the headline page that invites you to choose the "Add to Favorites" option. When you click that link, a box opens, letting you edit the name of the RSS URL Favorites and choose a folder in Favorites to save it to. Click on the latter, and you can immediately and painlessly add the feed to the sites in your Favorites list.

1. When the Feeds icon turns red, you can find an auto-discoverable RSS feed by clicking on it.

2. Once you display the RSS feed, a link invites you to add it to your Favorites. (click to enlarge image)

3. When the Favorites box opens, you can put the RSS feed anywhere among your saved URLS -- which could be confusing.

In Beta 1, there is no differentiation between RSS feeds and sites, so we wound up creating a Favorites folder called "Feeds." (Windows Vista Beta 1 comes with a preconfigured "Web Feeds" folder, but that's a little confusing.) We think Microsoft would do well to differentiate RSS feeds Favorites from Web page Favorites. Also, users have enough trouble managing Favorites. We recommend that a default "RSS Feeds" folder be created in Favorites, and that all RSS URLs saved to Favorites default to that location.

Warts and all, as constituted in Beta 1, Microsoft's RSS feed functionality for IE7 is a near clone of Firefox's Live Bookmarks feature. Even so, it's a very workable system for casual RSS access. We wish, though, that Microsoft would enter the dedicated RSS reader client area. One caveat: We had trouble with the IE7's Feeds icon not turning red when it should. It worked with most sites, but not all -- including some sites that we have intimate familiarity with.In addition, there may be problems with some third-party RSS support applications. When we went to Gizmodo's RSS feed, which uses FeedBurner (a service that routes independent RSS feeds through its own server), the feed registered with the browser, but the "Add to Favorites..." box was missing from Gizmodo's image-filled feed page.

Another pet peeve: The list of RSS feeds you get when you click the red Feeds icon is not right-clickable, so you can't open feeds in a new tab or even a new window.

Microsoft is emphasizing the increased security of IE7. One example of this is the Microsoft Phishing Filter, which, according to the company, automatically checks Web sites for suspicious content as well as against a list of reported phishing sites and either warns you against them (when there's a possibility you've loaded a phishing site) or doesn't let you access a page (when it's a confirmed phishing site). The anti-phishing filter is an item offered on the Tools menu, where there are also some basic configuration options.

IE7 automatically checks the sites that you visit and warns you if they might be phishing sites.Click to Enlarge

We purposefully went to several obvious phishing sites (such as the links found in omnipresent "EBay Billing Department" e-mail scams), but didn't get any warnings from IE7. It wasn't a scientific test, and this is Beta 1. We'll test it again when the product is further along.Microsoft has also made it a little easier for users to quickly dump personal data from the browser. The Tools menu now offers a "Delete Browsing History..." menu item which, when clicked, asks if you want to "permanently delete all currently saved cookies, history, and form data and passwords, and temporary files." This panic button is a good thing to have around.

There are some other security features that Microsoft is building into the Windows Vista version of IE7. (Please see our forthcoming review of Windows Vista for more details.) The reason they won't be in the XP version of IE7 is purely because they are dependent on functionality provided by Vista.

We can hardly draw conclusions about IE7 for Windows XP based on Beta 1 code, but so far, so good. Both of your authors are relatively recent Firefox converts. We can't say we're going back to IE, but we like the features we've seen so far.

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