The Internet Explorer (IE) team at Microsoft has been eager to get me to switch back to IE ever since I began writing about my use and advocacy of Mozilla Firefox, a Web browser that is much safer and feature-packed than Microsoft's current offering, IE 6.0. I haven't been particularly keen on doing so. Firefox works so well, and is so safe, that I've seen no good reason to switch. But with the upcoming release of Internet Explorer 7.0, the software giant finally makes a compelling argument. In this review, I'll examine the history of this new browser release, and discuss the features Microsoft has added in time for the Beta 2 Preview release, which is aimed at developers, tech enthusiasts, and early adopters. If you've been down on IE, as I have, you might be surprised to discover that IE 7 is a credible challenger to Firefox. Who saw that coming?

Note: This review is currently based on the IE 7 Beta 2 Preview release, which shipped publicly on January 31, 2006. The IE 7 Beta 2 Preview will be very similar to the eventual Beta 2 release, which will be aimed at the general public, so I'll simply update this review later to reflect any changes in the final Beta 2 release.

Firefox arrives, Microsoft scrambles

I was an Internet Explorer (IE) fan before it was cool, though I guess I could make the same claim for Mozilla Firefox (previously called Phoenix and, briefly, Firebird). Over ten years ago, I preached the wonders of IE 2.0, which resembled the Windows shell and offered a (very) few unique features when compared to then-market leader Netscape Navigator. Over the years, I watched as IE first matched and then surpassed Netscape with IE 3.0 and 4.0, and then walked away with the crown through subsequent IE 5.x and 6.0 releases, most of which were surprisingly lackluster. But, hey, Netscape was imploding under its own hype anyway. And when the dust settled, Microsoft literally owned the Web browser market. Today, there is IE and everything else.

One might debate whether Microsoft's dominance was based more on Windows integration---the subject of the company's lengthy antitrust battle with the US government--or on technical acumen. I'll say this much: When IE was the underdog, Microsoft practically reinvented Internet Time in a bid to compete with its younger, hipper rivals at Netscape. But once IE achieved market dominance, Microsoft gave up IE development and let the product languish for years. After all, there were no real competitors to speak of by that point anyway.

Then, something wonderful happened. In September 2002, a handful of developers from the Mozilla Foundation, which had been relatively unsuccessfully pushing a free successor to Netscape Communicator called Mozilla Browser Suite, shipped a free standalone Web browser. Based on the Mozilla Browser Suite, this new browser, at first called Phoenix, was everything Mozilla was not: It was lightweight and fast, and it included only those features that Web users would want. Tired of Microsoft's disregard for IE, I latched onto Phoenix immediately, and have been using the product--and its successor, now called Firefox--since the 0.1 milestone.

Today, Firefox is the best browser on the Web. Most important, it's starting to seize market share, albeit in relatively small numbers, from IE. And for the past few years, the sleeping giant of Microsoft has awoken to the Firefox threat. They've reconstituted the IE team, and have been actively developing new IE versions since 2003.

In 2004, we saw the first fruits of this labor, when Microsoft shipped a curiously unnamed update to IE 6.0 in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (see my review). This update included numerous new features, though most of them were security-related in keeping with the focus of SP2. No matter: Microsoft was planning a surprise: In early 2005, the company announced that it would ship an IE 7 version for Windows XP as well as Windows Vista. And contrary to its original plans, IE 7 would include a number of new features. Microsoft was back in the browser game, finally.

I've covered IE 7 a bit previously on the SuperSite for Windows. In February 2005, I wrote a preview of the product, and then in August 2005, I wrote a review of IE 7.0 Beta 1. Since then, IE 7.0 has been really fleshed out, and in its Beta 2 release, it's fine-tuned enough that virtually anyone could use it. Let's take a look.

IE 7.0 Beta 2 Preview

The version of IE 6 that Microsoft included with Windows XP SP2 was actually a pretty dramatic improvement over previous IE 6 versions, though most of the benefits were security-related. Microsoft learned a number of lessons from this IE version, however. All of its customers, even security professionals, were clamoring for new features, such as tabbed browsing, which have been offered in competing browsers for years. And even from a security standpoint, IE needed improvements to deal with new kinds of attacks, such as phishing scams, and to give users more control. With these ideas in mind, it's not hard to see how IE 7 is panning out.

The key thing to remember about IE 7 is that there will be two versions: A standalone upgrade version that will ship for XP users--the focus of this review--and an enhanced version that will be integrated into Windows Vista. The Windows Vista version is a superset of the XP version. That is, it includes all of the features from the XP version, plus a few unique features. These features, described below, will make the Vista version of IE 7 the safest Web browser available to users on any platform.

New user interface

From its new icon to the strangely Vista-esque look of the application itself, IE 7 is clearly a big change from previous IE versions (Figure). On Windows Vista, the new application style looks familiar, because that's how all application and shell windows look, but on XP the look is jarring. The classic menu bar is gone (though you can toggle it by simply clicking the ALT key) and the Address bar is next to the Back and Forward buttons, and at the top of the window. Other often-used toolbar buttons are below that, and well over to the right. On the left, you'll see some new buttons and a single tab, representing the currently-loaded document. At first glance, this all appears as a jumble of awkwardly and almost randomly located user interface elements, but you'll get used to the layout for the most part. I still find myself mousing over towards the left in search of the Home button, however.

Once you get past the weirdness of the layout, what emerges is an interesting confluence of IE and Firefox. As with Firefox, you get tabbed browsing (described in the next section), an inline search box, which Microsoft calls the Toolbar Search Box, and a streamlined look and feel. However, credit Microsoft for at least trying. Even in those areas in which the company appears to be copying Firefox features, there are improvements. For example, the Toolbar Search Box can be customized to use any search engine, as with Firefox, but Microsoft also integrates a handy "Find on this page" feature to the search box, and integrates its searching functionality with the Address Bar. So, as with previous IE versions, you can type search queries directly into the Address Bar, and IE 7 will use your configured search engine to search the Web. With Firefox, you simply get the top search result when you search from the Address Bar.

Because the classic menu is gone, IE's Favorites feature has been replaced by the new and more powerful Favorites Center. Accessed by clicking the Star icon to the left of the tab, the Favorites Center is essentially an Explorer Bar that can be tacked onto the left side of the IE window (Figure). The Favorites Center contains the contents of the traditional IE Favorites folder, of course, but it also lets you more easily configure Favorites via a rich right-click menu. If you want to add a new Favorite, you don't have to open Favorites Center, however: Just click the "+" button to the right of the Favorites Center icon.

IE 7 also supports an awesome Page Zoom feature that augments, rather than replaces, the previous system, whereby you chose zoom levels by names such as "bigger" and "smaller." Now available via a Page Zoom button in the bottom right of the browser window, this feature lets you zoom from 10 percent all the way up to 1000 percent, or set a custom zoom level (Figure). Most impressively, it's a smart zoom: You don't just get zoomed text, as with previous versions; instead, the entire page is zoomed (Figure). It's an attractive effect and will likely be a huge boon to the vision impaired. You can zoom with the mouse button as well: Hold down CTRL and scroll in either direction with the mouse wheel.

Note that in Beta 2, this feature is slightly buggy: If you zoom above 100 percent and then return to 100 percent, the page is sometimes still slightly off-centered when you return, and refreshing the page won't help.

One of the biggest improvements in IE 7 is its printing functionality. Via the new Print Preview window (Figure), you can now easily switch between landscape and portrait printing modes, turn headers on and off, manually set margin width with cool new sizing widgets, and set manual zoom levels, including shrink to fit. Anyone who's ever printed a document from IE will smile knowingly when I tell you that the nightmare is over. IE 7's new printing functionality is top-notch and a complete 180 from the wretched experience in previous IE versions. Can I get a huzzah?

Tabbed browsing

Browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Opera have offered tab browsing for years, so I won't belabor the point: This is a feature I use every single day, and I can't imagine a browser not offering this crucial and obvious functionality. Now, IE 7 steps up to the plate with tabbed browsing, and it works as it should. You can open new tabs with the CTRL+T shortcut key, and close them with CTRL+W, as God intended. You can switch between open Web documents using CTRL+TAB, too, which is also the right way to do things.

But as with other IE features, Microsoft has examined the ways in which Firefox works and then taken it up a notch. For example, once you open two or more tabs, you'll notice a few changes to the IE interface. First, a third icon has appeared next to the Favorites Center and Add/Subscribe icons. This icon, called Quick Tabs, puts IE into a new mode where each open Web page is displayed in a tiled format, so you can easily tell, at a glance, which window you'd like to open (Figure). And from the Quick Tabs view, you can close individual tabs, refresh any or all open documents, or, right-click an individual tab and tell the browser to close all other tabs. It's pretty impressive.

Another neat feature, and one that Firefox would do well to imitate, is that Microsoft puts the Close Tab button on each tab, and doesn't use a single Close button at the far right of the browser window. If you have just a single tab open (the default), you won't see this button. But once you open two or more tabs, you'll see a Close Tab button right on the select tab, where it belongs.

Once you have a group of tabs open, you can save the group as special kind of Favorite called a Tab Group, and you can even specify a Tab Group as your home page; that's right, you can configure IE to open multiple documents every time you start up. That way, you might choose to visit a number of news sites first thing in the morning, and run through them over coffee. It's a great feature.

Overall, IE 7's support of tabbed browsing is top-notch. They may have been late to the game, but Microsoft really nailed it with IE 7.

RSS Platform

Last summer, Microsoft made a lot of noise about the RSS platform they were building for Windows Vista. I'll assume that most SuperSite readers are familiar with RSS (Real Simple Syndication), but the short version is that RSS is an open standard for publishing and subscribing to text and other content over the Internet. Most blogs utilize RSS so that readers can access their content via their Web site or an RSS client. But many traditional Web sites are utilizing RSS as well, because its push-based technology attracts users who don't want to manually look for new content. For example, while you may consume the contents of this Web site via a Web browser, I do offer an RSS feed from the front page that alerts readers when new content is added to the site.

There are basically three kinds of RSS clients. Some browser makers like Apple have elected to provide RSS capabilities directly inside their browsers. Others are adding RSS capabilities to email applications like the next version of Microsoft Outlook. A third category is the standalone RSS client. We can debate the merits of each approach, but my take is this: Though email is a semi-obvious way to access push content, most of the content in RSS feeds, as RSS subscriptions are called, is Web based. Thus, I prefer to access RSS content in a Web browser.

Not surprisingly, this is the approach Microsoft is taking in IE 7. What's news, however, is that Microsoft is also porting its entire RSS platform, once expected only in Windows Vista, to the XP version of IE 7. This dramatic change means that IE 7 for XP will be that much more powerful. More to the point, third party applications will now be able to access your subscribed RSS feeds and provide you with new experiences. This, folks, is an exciting development. One beneficiary of this change will be the XP version of Windows Sidebar, which will include an RSS viewer. (I'll have more to say about my experiences with Windows Sidebar when the Windows Vista February CTP hits next month.)

In any event, from an IE 7 perspective, you can now detect, read, and subscribe to RSS feeds with IE. Here's how it works. If you navigate to a Web site, such as the SuperSite for Windows, that offers an RSS feed, the Feeds icon in the IE toolbar will light up, indicating that you can do something with this feature. If you click on the icon, IE will switch into its Feeds view (which doesn't actually have a name, so that's what I'll call it), providing you with a friendly way to access RSS content (Figure). The feed for this site offers just minimal content: I'd prefer for you to access each story from the Web site. If you view a feed with a lot of content, you'll find that Microsoft's Feeds view offers a ton of capabilities. For example, you can sort in various ways, and perform inline searching to filter the results list down (Figure). You can also click the Subscribe to this feed link to bring up a dialog that should be familiar to Favorites users, though RSS Feeds are stored using the new RSS platform store, not in Favorites (Figure).

Once you've subscribed to one or more feeds, you can access them through the Feeds section of Favorites Center (Figure). And if you right-click on an individual feed and choose Properties, you can set advanced configuration options, including how often the subscribed feed is updated (Figure). The default is 1 day, but for more-frequently-updated feeds, you can set it as low as every 15 minutes. You can also determine how many older items are kept. This is important because it can quickly become unmanageable to sort through hundreds of feed items.

As with tabbed browsing, Microsoft's support of RSS is top-notch, though the Feeds view is arguably derivative of a similar feature in Apple's Safari. Also, I'd like to see the Feeds view offer different styles, as the default style is a little bland looking.

Web developer features

While this won't be of interest to most SuperSite readers, IE 7 will offer middling improvements to various Web developer-related technologies. For example, it will include better support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), including some rendering changes. Microsoft is even removing some, but not all, IE-specific CSS hacks, though it will document workarounds so that Web developers can keep compatibility (remember, that's the point of this release). IE 7 will finally support transparent PNG graphics. And Microsoft will ship a new developer toolbar for IE 7.

Security features

Not surprisingly, some of IE 7's best and most needed features are related to security. And let's be honest here for a moment: The reason I wouldn't touch IE 6 with a ten foot pole is that it's the most insecure component of Windows and the leading attack vector for malware. With IE 7, Microsoft is trying to remove that risk. While it will be months or maybe even years before we know how successful those efforts are, from a cursory look over the security features the company is adding to IE 7, it's quiet clear they're really trying to cover all the bases.

First up is the Microsoft Phishing Filter, which flags Web sites that are suspicious or known bad. Phishing attacks are all the rage these days. This is where you get an email that purports to be from PayPal, a bank, or some other institution, and provides links to malicious Web sites in the hopes that you'll cough up your passwords, credit card numbers, or other personal information.

There are two ways in which the Microsoft Phishing Filter can pop-up in IE 7. If you visit a suspicious Web site, IE 7 will change the color of the Address Bar to yellow and display a yellow warning (Figure). If you click on that warning, IE will tell you why the warning has appeared (Figure), and give you the option report whether the site in question is dangerous or not (Figure). Web site owners can use this report to exonerate themselves.

Known phishing sites are simply blocked. These blocked sites are indicated by a special Web page and a red coloring of the Address Bar (Figure). As with a yellow warning, you can click the red warning to find out more (Figure).

Microsoft's anti-phishing technology is well-done, though I'm surprised by how slowing the warnings and blocks appear in Beta 2. Hopefully, the speed will be improved by the final release. However, Firefox, for what it's worth, does not have any anti-phishing technology built-in, so this is one area where Microsoft takes the lead (I do, however, use a free Netcraft toolbar to block phishing sites in Firefox).

IE 7 also features a one-click cleanup tool called Delete Browsing History that lets you easily delete such things as Temporary Internet Files, Cookies, History, form data, or passwords, either individually or all from a single button (Figure). This feature is conveniently located right on the Tools menu.

New International Domain Name (IDN) spoofing protection will help ensure that malicious Web sites which mix character sets in order to spoof financial Web sites will fail. The idea is that sites that mix characters sets (similar to, but more advanced than, simple tricks like replacing the letter 'O' with the number '0') will be blocked. IDN spoofing is like the new frontier for malicious attacks, and IE 7 is ready.

IE 7 also supports something called High Assurance Certificates, though the technology has not yet been accepted as an international standard. You may be familiar with the concept of the SSL icon that appears in browsers today; supposedly this icon identifies sites that are safe and encrypted. The problem is that anyone can get an SSL certificate, and what you might be doing is simply encrypting your communications with a malicious Web site. In IE 7, all of today's traditional SSL sites are considered low assurance, because they can't be proven safe (Figure). To obtain a high assurance cert, Web sites will have agree to supply a wealth of verifiable information about the site and its owners. We'll see how that pans out in the future, but again, IE 7 is ready.

There are a number of other security improvements. Microsoft is requiring an Address Bar in every browser window, including pop-ups. An ActiveX Opt-In feature will prevent malicious ActiveX controls from infecting your system, so that even if you attempt to install one, the installation will fail. The Manage Add-ons feature now lets you delete certain ActiveX controls for good (though known-good ActiveX controls are still managed through Add or Remove Programs). And IE 7 will integrate more closely with Windows Defender, which should see a Beta 2 release soon.

Unique features IE 7 in Windows Vista

While the Beta 2 Preview release will be made available only for Windows XP, it's worth noting here that the IE 7 version for Windows Vista will include some major features that won't be made available for the XP version. The most important of these features, Protected Mode, ensures that IE 7 will be the safest Web browser on any platform. And if you're interested in security, it's reason enough to upgrade to Windows Vista. Essentially, Protected Mode runs IE 7 in a security context that is even lower than that of Limited User, making it the most restricted application in Windows Vista. Coupled with a sandboxing feature that ensures that IE can only write to the Temporary Internet Files folder, Protected Mode effectively hobbles IE as a hacker's entry point into your system. It's a feature I'll be looking at closely in subsequent Windows Vista CTP reviews.

IE 7 vs. Firefox: And the winner is...

I've met with the IE team several times since last summer, and while we've joked about my supposed call to revolution, I know they're eager to see whether I'd consider switching back from Firefox to IE. Right now, I'm non-committal, though even that should be somewhat surprising, given my advocacy of Firefox and years of use. IE 7 is an impressive upgrade, and it seems to match or surpass most Firefox functionality while fixing most of IE's security concerns and offering the best Web site compatibility. Indeed, for most Windows users, IE 7 is a no-brainer: It's the Web browser most people should use.

I'm not most people, of course. And part of my productivity relies on things working a certain way. And right now, I'm not quite ready to make the switch, though I will certainly keep evaluating IE 7, especially the Vista version. Let me provide one example of a feature that I absolutely love in Firefox that has no correlation in IE 7: Inline, find-as-you-type search.

When you open a Web page in Firefox and attempt to search for text within that page (typically by typing CTRL+F), Firefox doesn't open a dialog box, as does IE, as this small window can often get in the way of the text you're trying to find. Instead, Firefox opens a small search pane at the bottom of the browser window. As you type, Firefox searches through the current document, highlighting the first instance of text that matches your search query (Figure). To find other instances of this query, just keep hitting Enter. This feature is so wonderful, so useful, that I'm pretty sure I can't live without it. And I'd love to see other applications, like Microsoft Word, offer a similar feature.

What's interesting is that each Web browser handles this feature differently. In Apple Safari, for example, APPLE+F brings up a Find dialog, yes, but once you've found what you're looking for, you can type APPLE+G to find other instances of your search query text in the document. On the low end of the comparison is IE: CTRL+F brings up a Find dialog, and to find subsequent query text instances, you have to keep the dialog open. It's unwieldy, and I don't like it.

That said, I admit that this is a power user feature and not one that most people would care about. So as I said, IE 7 is likely the best choice for most Web browsers. I'm just not sure--at least not until I've been able to use Vista on a daily basis--whether I can make the switch myself. I'll keep IE 7 on my XP systems, but I won't be using it as my regular browser.

Availability

Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 2 Preview is now available for public download from the Microsoft Web site. It requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), and is aimed at Web developers, tech enthusiasts, and early adopters. A Beta 2 release is expected later this quarter: That version will be aimed at general consumers and will be more stable. Microsoft plans to ship IE 7.0 later in 2006 for Windows XP. A version of IE 7 will also be included in Windows Vista, currently due in late 2006.

Conclusions

Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 2 is a monumental improvement over the lackluster IE 6.0, and a credible competitor for Mozilla Firefox. Whether IE 7.0 beats out Firefox from a technical or features standpoint is somewhat moot: Through sheer force of market strength, IE 7.0 should quickly trample its competition and march to the top of the Web browser heap. That said, users could do worse--much worse--than IE 7.0. The browser is full featured and appears to be quite secure, though of course that latter claim will need to be tested over time. For myself, and for many technical users, Firefox will likely remain a better choice than IE 7.0, at least for a little while, as Firefox includes certain power user features, such as inline search, that just aren't available in IE 7.0. But market share isn't predicated on power user trends. When it comes to mass market appeal, IE 7.0 comes up big, and personal preferences aside, it's clear that the world will be a lot safer with IE 7.0 than it is today with IE 6.0.