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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Browser Report 2006: Attack of the Shiny Tabs

By now, it's old news that both major browser vendors launched their latest versions this week. Microsoft took the wraps off Internet Explorer 7 after many months of release candidates. Originally, Microsoft was to hold off releasing IE7 until Vista ships early next year, but they decided to move it up in order to stave off continual defections to Firefox.

And speaking of Firefox, version 2.0 of that baby -- which I've eagerly anticipated for months -- was also unleashed this week. I've upgraded to both of the latest versions, and have had a few days to play with them.

My immediate takeaway is that tabs in both browsers are really shiny. Actually, that's about the extent of my analysis: shiny tabs. Thanks for visiting. Not much else to see here. Or is there?

While neither browser has knocked my socks off with the upgraded features, there is much to like with both releases. Tabbed browsing is now universal, as are welcome additions like phishing detection and other whizzbang stuff that was unheard-of just a few years ago. Browser innovation has come a long way, and I applaud Microsoft and Mozilla for reigniting the browser wars. I think we're all winners in this race.

Here's what I specifically like with both:

Internet Explorer 7.0 Review

1. New interface: I still don't know how I feel about the radically redesigned toolbars in IE 7. The toolbar motif has become tired in recent years and until now, browser makers haven't found very effective ways of utilizing the increased screen real estate offered by these big fat monitors everyone seems to have. In Firefox, toolbars are far more customizable than IE, but it's still basically the same old stuff (File, Edit, View, Bookmarks, Address Bar, etc.) Thankfully, Microsoft is pushing the envelope here by totally rethinking where buttons and functions are placed. I'm not sure if I would agree with how they've grouped things, but again, I like the thinking here and look forward to further improvement in the years to come.

2. Font effects: For years, Bill Gates has been promoting his ClearType font rendering technology that makes even jagged fonts seem smooth. Now, ClearType is turned on by default, and again, Microsoft is to be commended for pushing improvements that don't necessarily excite people but are actually an improvement over what come before. I believe ClearType will also be enabled by default in Windows Vista. As a web designer, I've never been sure what to make of this font technology. On one hand, as a reader, it does make fonts easier to read and more pleasing to the eye; but as a designer, a font can look very different under ClearType, and until now, it was not very widely used. I suspect ClearType will gradually become the standard font effect, and web designers will take advantage of this to build even better website interfaces.

3. Miscellaneous good things: The tabs are of course a welcome improvement, but nothing new year. We Firefox users have enjoyed tabbed browsing for years. And before that, Netcaptor was my tabbed browser of choice. It feels like a massive step forward, however, now that in a matter of a few months perhaps 90% of IE users will begin using tabs. Will the world ever be the same. Yeah, probably so, but information consumption is about to spike. That's one small tab for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind. Or something.

The zoom feature is a welcome addition, as well. Just click the magnifying glass, and you'll see a larger view of a site. The image quality is remarkably good here. I don't think I will be using this feature often, but it is nice to have.

Printing is vastly improved in IE 7. It's much more similar to Firefox's printing capabilities. But the best thing is the simple one click that removes the headers and footers that always clutter up printed web pages.

The integration of RSS in IE 7 was another big feature that I thought would lead to an avalanche of interest in a godsend of technology. Sadly, I don't think that will happen, at least not because of IE 7. After all, I can't even get IE to recognize our very own RSS feed at Traffick. What's up with that! Based on previous reviews I've read, other folks don't think IE's implementation of RSS feeds is very well done and isn't likely to lead to a huge increase in RSS readership. Still, the revolution is coming, and will be syndicated.

Want more? Take a tour of the new IE.

Firefox 2.0 Review

There are fewer fun, new features in Firefox 2.0, sadly. But it's no wonder: Firefox 1.x was very nearly a perfect product, so when you're that good, you don't have much improving to do. Full release notes are available, but here are some of my favorite new things:

1. Inline spell check. Yippee! Now Firefox detects misspellingss in form fields automatically. No more having to click a button on the Google toolbar. This is a relatively small thing, but it feels like a big win if, like me, you type into lots of web forms.

2. Improved add-ons manager: Firefox 2 streamlines management of extensions and themes. This is a nice thing to have if you use lots of add-ons.

3. Session restore: If, by chance, FF crashes on you, never fear: your tabs will be saved. I've used the Session Saver extension for a long time, and it's saved my butt more than a few times. Now this functionality is built-in.

There are a few other small things to like, but it's nothing earth-shattering. The bottom line here is that if you use IE 6, you definitely want to upgrade to IE 7 (although in a few weeks, I believe it will automatically upgrade itself anyway). If you're a Firefox user, you don't have a compelling reason to upgrade just yet, especially if you're a heavy extension user. You'd think by now most extensions would be compatible with FF 2, but such is not the case (so what are you waiting for, you lazy developers of free extensions! Get out there and fix my extensions! ;) )

Verdict: Internet Exploder has definitely come a long way, but it's still a notch or two below Firefox, mainly because of the ability to extend Firefox's functionality with thousands of useful -- and free -- extensions. It's doubtful that Microsoft will ever open up IE in this way, and that's likely to ensure a loyal following for Firefox by power users for years to come.

Firefox wins this round again, although IE 7's tabs are awfully high on the bling!

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




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