New Internet Explorer 7 Features Revealed

In the latest preview of Windows Vista, IE 7 offers some significant new additions. However, it's still a work in development.

October 31, 2005

12 Min Read
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While computer users are watching the slow release of builds of Windows Vista (which Microsoft calls the Community Technology Preview, or CTP), part of that anticipation includes the first new version Internet Explorer in several years. The latest widely distributed version of Windows Vista, build 5231, also known as the October CTP, is significant primarily because of the new features it delivers in Internet Explorer 7. (You can also read Scot's latest review of this version of Vista.)

Internet Explorer 7 First Impressions
We first looked at IE 7 in August, 2005, where we reviewed Beta 1 of IE 7 for Windows XP (which, except for some of the security functionality, is supposed to be nearly identical to the Vista version). Among the features we surveyed were two major additions: tabbed browsing and RSS features. Both the appearance and the functionality of those two features are upgraded in this version of IE 7.

Microsoft has added to its tabbed-browsing functionality with a thumbnail-tab overview feature called Quick Tabs, the ability to save and reopen sets of tabs known as Tabbed Groups, and a small new tabbed-browsing configuration dialog in Internet Options.

Quick Tabs is the most interesting of the new features. Although earlier Web browsers or plug-ins have offered something similar to this before, it's a first for Internet Explorer. Once you have two or more tabs open, an icon appears on the tabs bar, which, when clicked, replaces the Web page window with small thumbnail views for each of the Web pages you have open in tabs. It's very easy to click on any thumbnail to open a tabbed page or to delete it by clicking the close box in the thumbnail's upper right corner.

The new Quick Tabs feature in IE 7 promises to be one of the biggest productivity boosters in the new Microsoft Web browser. (Click for complete image.)

There are two ways we can see ourselves using Quick Tabs. The most common will probably be "Where, oh where, is that Web page with the cool stuff on it?" In other words, when you have 8, 15, or 29 tabs open, Quick Tabs will be the fastest way to find that page you were looking at three hours ago.

The other way some people will use this is as a visual tab manager. Whenever you call it a day on your computer, and you realize your browser has 14 open tabs, aren't there usually at least one or two you want to bookmark or save shortcut icons for? The easiest way to do that is to rapidly kill off tabs you know you don't need and then save the rest. And we can't think of a faster way to do that than Quick Tabs.

The Tabbed Groups feature lets you name, save, and then later re-launch sets of tabs (in other words,Web pages). (Click for complete image.)

The Tab Groups feature lets you save sets of tabs into a new folder in your Favorites list, and then later reopen them with just a few clicks. This feature will come in handy, but the implementation in Favorites is a little clunky. When I saved a folder there, IE 7 placed the folder at the bottom of the Favorites list. Microsoft describes the feature as offering one-click recall of the tab set, but that's only possible if you open the new Favorites Center in the sidebar. We don't know about you, but neither of us is likely to leave the sidebar open at all times. The Favorites Center
The new Favorites Center is an improved version of IE's Explorer Bar (or sidebar), which in IE 6 and earlier offers views of Search, Favorites, History, and Folders. In IE 7 from Vista build 5231, the Explorer Bar is recast as the Favorites Center, with alternate History and RSS Feeds views. The very best new aspect of this sidebar is that, by default, it opens over the Web page currently loaded, instead of pushing it to the side. When you click to select a bookmark to load, the Favorites Center closes automatically and the page is loaded in a new tab. Yes! Finally, Microsoft has thought this through. This is the way it should work.

Microsoft got the new Favorites Center right. It opens over the Web page, instead of pushing to the right, and when you click a clink to open a bookmarked Web page, Favorites Center closes automatically. (Click for complete image.)

If you want to keep your bookmarks visible, a small button in the sidebar makes the Favorites Center part of the main window, pushing over not only the main window, but the toolbar as well. (In this iteration, the button is merely a left-pointing arrow, which is a bit confusing. Presumably, this detail will be fixed later.)

Microsoft's new RSS features for IE 7 are very similar to Firefox's Live Bookmarks. IE 7 can display any RSS feed in a legible format, something Firefox can only do with the aid of the third-party Feedview extension. Like Live Bookmarks, IE 7 has an icon that lights up when an RSS feed is available on a Web page. When you click the RSS icon, you see a listing of the articles available from the feed, and you can click any of them to load a specific article page. What's missing in this rendition is a way to subscribe to the feed from one of the pages you've loaded in this fashion, although you can click a Subscribe button next to the RSS button to add the current RSS link to the Feeds folder in Favorites. It seems that Microsoft has progressed with the user interface for its new RSS features, but this doesn't appear to be the finished product. So we'll revisit this again in the future.

Toolbar Troubles
Microsoft's insistence on doing away with the main menus (File, Edit, View, etc.) by default in all Windows Vista Explorer windows, including Internet Explorer, is a usability no-no. Why would you take something millions of people already know how to use and hide it? The setting that turns this back on is also not immediately discoverable in either Internet Explorer or Windows Explorer. Microsoft, please think twice about this one. No user-experience philosophy du jour should put millions of people at disadvantage in an attempt to prove a point or teach us a "better" way to do things.

Both Firefox and Internet Explorer are currently able to increase the size of text on any Web page when you hold down the Ctrl button and use your mouse scroll button up or down. Internet Explorer 7 will match one of Opera's cool features and let you scale the size of the entire Web page, images and text together, with Ctrl-mouse scroll (or Ctrl plus the + or - keys). This Page Zoom feature is very powerful, and extremely useful. It's not just over-45 eyes that will find this a big advantage.

IE 7 is clearly unfinished in the toolbar area, so it's possible that what's wrong will be fixed when Vista ships. We'll hold off further discussion of the toolbars for now. They appear to be a work in progress, but we're not sure the direction is the right one. The IE toolbar of the IE 4 through IE 6 era has been one of the best things about the program.Phishing Filter in Action
We had two different views of the Phishing Filter, Microsoft's new anti-phishing protection feature set.

As you surf, you'll want to keep an eye on the bottom of the display, which now offers an icon informing you when it blocks pop-ups and cookies. You can click on these icons to see exactly what was stopped. There's also an icon that fades in and out like Casper the Friendly Ghost as each new page loads. It shows that IE 7 is checking a page you've just loaded for possible phishing characteristics. When the icon in the status bar winks out, a yellow warning icon is placed beside the URL address bar if the site is deemed to be "suspicious." No yellow warning means that Phishing Filter has deemed the site to be okay.

I took IE 7 to an obvious phishing URL I had recently received (you know the type: "PayPal Notification of Limited Account Access"). The yellow warning appeared; when I clicked it, IE 7 displayed this message: "Phishing Filter has determined that this might be a phishing website. We recommended you do not give any of your information to such websites." I was also given the option to click on a link to a Microsoft Phishing Filter Feedback page where I could report whether I thought this was truly a phishing site.

I decided to play the part of a really stupid user, so I ignored the yellow URL and proceeded to put a name and password (false, of course) into the form. I was immediate taken to another page that told me my credit card was reported as lost or stolen, and asked me to fill in unimportant information such as my name, credit card number, PIN, social security number, banking ID, billing address.... Again, the "Suspicious Website" notification came up.

This is useful stuff, but I'm not sure it's enough. It took at least a full minute for the notification to come up (during which time most decent typists could have had the form filled in and sent), and the yellow button displacing part of the Address bar isn't really all that noticeable. If Microsoft really wanted to stop innocent users from giving personal information to scammers and other nasty folk, a more prominent "Are you sure you want to type personal information into this Web page?" notice would have been nice.Scot:

The other side of the coin could present issues for businesses. When I loaded my Scot's Newsletter site, I found virtually every page on my site (hundreds of pages) caused IE 7 to display the yellow "Suspicious Website" warning. When you click the yellow button, there's a link for Webmasters and site owners to notify Microsoft that their sites are incorrectly labeled this way. To submit a page for human examination, you have to fill out ten separate fields, including personal information. Then you send it off to Microsoft.

The first time I did this, I assumed Microsoft would check over the entire site when it realized its mistake. But, no -- what it did was to agree with me that the page in question didn't represent a phishing threat, turning off the yellow suspicious Web site warning for just that one page. I got an auto-generated message 24 hours later letting me know of the company's decision. There's no way to reply to the message.

The submission form doesn't let you submit any more than one page at a time. So I thought, I'll submit another page and ask them in one of the five free-form fields to examine every page on my site. I got the exact same auto-generated email response as I did with the first submission, and again, Microsoft had turned off the warning for just that one page. The third time around I put the same request in every field asking for all the pages on my site to be reviewed. It took about five days for this to occur, but at last Microsoft got it right. Every page but one was free of the yellow warning. I just submitted that one page and it, too, was free of the warning the next day.

I interviewed three of the folks at Microsoft who are responsible for the Phishing Filter about the issues I experienced as a Webmaster/Web site owner. They readily agreed that blog and newsletter sites have tended to be a problem for the Phishing Filter, and said that this is something they will have fixed by the time the IE 7 ships. But they stopped shy of saying that they would make it easy for entire Web sites to be submitted for review. Their fear is that phishing scammers will set up domains, have them reviewed as safe, and then add the malicious tools after Microsoft has blessed them. I can understand that problem. But it points out to me that the technology they're using might need to be improved. It's too soon to say that for sure in this early beta, but it's something to keep an eye on.

I should add that we have found very few sites on the Internet so far that seem inappropriately tagged with the Suspicious Website tag. So, by and large, Microsoft has gotten this right. But they need to make it easier for legitimate businesses whose Web sites are their front doors to free themselves of Microsoft labeling them as phishing scams when they're not. If you're going to set yourself up as final arbiter when the ruling could be potentially damaging to another company, you better get it right -- or make it easy to set it right.Security and Out
There's quite a bit more security in IE 7, too. The Windows Vista version of IE 7 will provide a Protected Mode that gives the browser sufficient rights to browse the Web, but not enough rights to modify user settings or data. Protected Mode will only be available to Vista users because the functionality depends on the reworked user account system in Windows Vista. Vista's version of IE 7 will also be able to automatically install security and other updates; that will not be the case in the XP version. New parental controls will be available for Limited accounts (we were unable to make the Windows Parental Controls control panel work). There's also a new "ActiveX Opt-in" feature that's apparently in the 5231 code but we haven't been able to prompt it into action.

We'll weigh in with insights and opinions about how much better IE 7 is when the beta 2 code is released; it's expected around the middle of December.

Scot Finnie is Editor, TechWeb and Pipelines; Barbara Krasnoff is Reviews Editor, TechWeb and Pipelines.

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