When eWeek labs looked at Internet Explorer 6.0 more than five years ago, we were so disappointed in the browser that we said the only reason to upgrade to it was that it was free. Youd have to go back nearly nine years to find a release of the Microsoft browser that we found to be significant: IE 5.0.
But with the release Oct. 18 of IE 7, Microsoft is finally back in the Web browser game in a serious way: IE 7 takes major strides in reversing Microsofts neglect of its flagship browser.
During tests, we found IE 7 to be a major upgrade over recent versions of IE—and one that finally adds many of the features and capabilities that Web users have come to expect from current-generation Web browsers such as Firefox and Opera.
While we wouldnt yet call IE 7 one of the best browsers available today, Microsoft has greatly closed the distance between its browser and those of its competitors. Version 7 catches IE up with now-common browser features, such as tabbed windows. In addition, IE 7 offers improved Web standards support and is much more secure by default.
In fact, the biggest weakness in IE 7—and one that will always keep it behind competitors—is that it runs only on Windows systems. Not only that, the browser currently will run only on Windows XP with Service Pack 2. (The Vista version of IE 7 will ship with the new operating system).
Those interested in trying IE 7 can download it immediately at www.microsoft.com/ie. The update also will be available in the coming weeks through Windows Update.
Users upgrading to IE 7 will immediately notice the radically changed interface. We found the new interface intuitive and clean, but those who want to have the familiar menus can choose the Classic Menu option in the Tools menu.
Tabbed browsing works in much the same way in IE 7 as it does in other browsers, letting us save groups of tabs and control how tabs are opened and navigated to. We also liked the Quick Tabs feature that let us view all our tabbed screens in a virtual-screen-like tool.
IE 7 does a good job with RSS feed discovery, providing a descriptive summary page with detailed information about the feeds to which users are considering subscribing. Also new in IE 7 (although always available in Opera) are zoom capabilities, which make it possible to quickly zoom in to a page. This feature will be useful for people with visual disabilities or those who need a large view of Web content. The zoom capabilities are easily accessible from the browsers bottom status bar.
In our tests, IE 7s Delete Browsing History option provided multiple options for removing the traces of a browsing session. We could delete passwords, cookies or temporary Internet files, for example, or we could simply click the Delete All button.
We didnt have to wait long to see the much-talked-about anti-phishing capabilities of IE 7—the feature immediately launched screens asking us if we wanted to turn on the phishing controls (including an alert telling us that some information is sent to Microsoft). 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.
When it comes to security, one of our favorite new features in IE 7 is that the address of a site is always displayed, even for pop-ups. This makes it much easier to identify potentially problematic sites.
However, the way IE handles scriptlets and ActiveX controls has changed dramatically, and even sites tuned specifically for IE will run into some problems with IE 7.
We support these changes in general, as ActiveX is one of the main sources of IE-based security problems. In addition, IE 7 takes a pretty strong stand against ActiveX and scripting, turning off most instances by default and requiring users to step through hoops to enable all but the safest controls and scripts.
IE 7 presents a warning dialog when a site tries to load an ActiveX control, and, from within the new Manage Add-ons window, we could remove or disable ActiveX controls installed in our browser.
In addition, when we created a custom security setting that the browser considered unsafe, IE 7 color-coded the setting in red. If the color-coded settings arent enough to warn users, a dialog pops up to check whether users really want to continue with their unsafe security settings.
We also liked that IE 7 users who have configured and customized the browser to the point of instability and poor security can now fall back to the classic reset button, which returns the browser to a default state.
The custom search settings for IE 7s integrated search bar were very good, second only to Operas excellent search features. During initial setup, we could choose all the popular search engines we wanted to use in our browser. We also could add the search engine from any Web site. This didnt work on every site we tested, but it was a nice option.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Apple Computers Safari
The default browser on the Mac OS X operating system (www.apple.com)
Comes with most popular Linux distributions (www.konqueror.org)
The Mozilla Foundations Firefox
Has become the top IE alternative, with a strong feature set and flexible user interface (www.mozilla.com)
Mozillas Mozilla Suite
Doesnt see the level of updates that its Firefox sibling does but is still well-liked by many users (www.mozilla.org)
Opera Softwares Opera
The standards setter when it comes to innovation in Web browsing, Opera provides one of the best Web experiences of any browser on the market (www.opera.com)