Microsofts slow march to regain momentum in the Web browser market continues with the Jan. 31 preview release of Beta 2 of Internet Explorer 7. The beta shows a lot of good progress, but, as weve said with almost every new IE release weve reviewed, its still playing catch-up.
When the first beta of Windows Vista was released last year, Microsoft also gave the world a look at the next version of Internet Explorer. That first beta of Internet Explorer 7, however, was really more of an alpha that at best showed the direction that Microsoft was taking with its Web browser.
With the Beta 2 preview release of Internet Explorer, we now see a much more polished and true beta version, and so far we are impressed with what weve seen. Microsoft isnt breaking any new ground with Internet Explorer 7—as most of the features in the product were first introduced in Firefox, Mozilla and Opera—but the features in this beta release are well-implemented and will be welcomed by IE users.
As previously reported, IE 7 is still slated to be available only for Windows Vista and Windows XP with Service Pack 2. However, this current beta runs only on Windows XP with SP2. The IE 7 beta can be downloaded from here.
The main interface of IE 7 has seen some significant changes, with a more streamlined toolbar-oriented approach. We found this to be an intuitive and clean browser interface, but those who want to work with the familiar menus can choose the Classic Menu option in the Tools menu.
Tabbed browsing has been tweaked and now works in much the same way as with other browsers. For example, with Beta 2 of IE 7 we could save groups of tabs and control how tabs are opened and navigated to. From a toolbar item that looks something like a virtual screen tool, we could click a drop-down to manage our tabs.
RSS feed discovery has also been boosted in this release, with the most obvious change being that IE 7 now uses the same feed icon that other browsers and Web sites do. The page shown when viewing a feed now provides greater information and a Subscription button, and IE 7 also now supports Atom-based feeds.
One new feature in this beta (although one that has always been in Opera) is a zoom capability, making it possible to quickly zoom into a page. This will be useful for people with visual disabilities or those who just want a larger view of specific Web content. This feature was easily accessible from the bottom status bar.
The privacy and security features that Microsoft has been touting for IE 7 have also seen some changes in this beta release. The Delete Browsing History button provided granular options for removing the traces of a browsing session. We could delete just passwords, just cookies or just temporary Internet files, or any combination thereof. Of course, most users will simply click the Delete All button.
IEs anti-phishing capabilities have been more effectively exposed in this release, with a menu option to easily turn off automatic site checking. As in the previous beta, the anti-phishing feature works by checking a central list of suspect Web sites and by looking for phishing characteristics in the site being viewed. In Beta 2, IE 7 also adds support for International Domain Names. This standard, which Opera also uses, makes it possible to identify Web sites with spoofed addresses.
One thing we really liked in this release of IE is that the address of a site is always displayed, even for pop-ups. This makes it much easier to identify potentially problematic Web sites.
Similar to the safe modes in Firefox, Moxilla and Opera, IE 7 Beta 2 now includes a No Add-Ons mode that allows users to troubleshoot problems in the browser without loading plug-ins or other add-ons.
We were somewhat amused by the new custom-settings feature in IE. In the previous beta, users could choose among a set list of search servers, with all of the usual suspects listed. In Beta 2, we were directed instead to a Web page listing search engines that could be added to the browser search. Conspicuously absent from this list at the time of our testing was Google. Microsoft officials have said that this page will be updated in the future, and were guessing Google will make an appearance.
IE 7 Beta 2 demonstrates that Microsoft is continuing to slowly address standards issues. Beta 2 builds upon the CSS improvements made in Beta 1 of IE 7, although the browser is still very far from having what is generally considered good standards compliance.
For developers—really the main audience for this beta—several new features are available for testing Web site creation for IE 7. Aside from tweaks like an improved SELECT element, the biggest addition is native support for XMLHTTP, which was previously supported through an ActiveX control. XMLHTTP is used by AJAX applications for data interchange, and this native support will provide a more secure development model.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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