Back in April, we took a look at Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 Beta 2 (see my review) for Windows XP, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, and Windows Server 2003, a product Microsoft described at the time as being feature complete. Since then, the company has been updating IE 7 in several ways, and we can see the results of this labor in Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 3, released on June 29, 2006, and the version of IE 7.0+ that's included in Windows Vista build 5456 (see my overview and screenshot gallery).

Because IE 7.0 Beta 2 was feature complete, there's little point in going over the many advances Microsoft has baked into that release. Instead, check out my Beta 2 review if you're not familiar with IE 7, and in this review we can focus on what's new in Beta 3. As with previous IE 7 releases, I'm happily surprised by what Microsoft's come up with here. I'm no fan of previous IE versions, especially the lackluster 5.x and 6.x versions, but IE 7.0 is shaping up to be a must-have upgrade. I still feel that most users would be better off with a more feature-packed browser like Firefox. But the reality is that most people use IE and will continue to do so. All of those people should be upgrading to IE 7.0.

New features in Beta 3

As noted above, IE 7.0 Beta 2 was described as feature complete. However, over the ensuing months, Microsoft was able to add in a few features that were at the top of user requests. So Beta 3 does, in fact, include a few new features, one of which is significant.

The most important new feature is drag and drop tab reordering. Now, you can move your tabs around with the mouse easily (Figure) and position them as you'd like. Then, when you save a tab group, they will be in the order you prefer. Microsoft compares this feature to the way you can drag and drop slides in PowerPoint. And it's worth noting that this functionality is only available in the normal display mode: You can't drag and drop the panels around in Quick Tabs, which is a static view.

During the development of IE 7, Microsoft examined all of the features, icons, and other widgets that were in IE 6 and trimmed out the ones they felt were being underused. One of the dropped features was the Read Mail toolbar button, but it turns out that many very vocal people actually use this feature. (Indeed, I'd gotten several queries about it myself.) So based on user feedback, the Read Mail toolbar button is back (well, it's a Command Bar button now), though it's not on by default: To enable it, you need to summon the Customize Toolbar dialog (which, again, is misnamed) (Figure).

Microsoft has also improved the new zoom functionality to include a horizontal scroll bar. In the original implementation of this feature, only a vertical scroll bar would appear, stranding some users on pages with wide left-to-right content. Now, it's possible to see the entire page while zooming, even on massively horizontal Web sites.

Under the covers, IE 7 has also been improved in numerous ways with better Web site compatibility and all of the IE-based security fixes that Microsoft shipped as part of its June 2006 patch day. If you're running IE 7.0 Beta 2 and want those fixes, you'll need to install Beta 3.

Additionally, IE 7.0 Beta 3 includes a lot of fit and finish work. Icons and graphics have been updated, and the whole thing as a new polished look to it.

Installing IE 7.0 Beta 3

If you're already running IE 7.0 Beta 2, you will need to uninstall that product and reboot before you can install IE 7.0 Beta 3. It's worth doing so: Beta 3 offers plenty of small improvements over Beta 2 and the latest security fixes. IE 7.0 Beta 3 is stable enough to run on production machines. And if you do choose to uninstall it, you'll get IE 6 back automatically when you reboot.

Internet Explorer 7+ for Windows Vista

Since shipping IE 7.0 Beta 2, Microsoft has announced that the version of IE included with Windows Vista will be marketed as Internet Explorer 7+ to differentiate it from the version users will be able to download for other Windows versions. Many but not all of the Beta 3 changes listed above are also present in build 5456 of Windows Vista, and one might expect the remaining changes to show up in a future Vista build. IE 7+ will not be made available separately for other operating systems.

Availability

Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 3 is available for Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, and Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 (SP1). It is completely free and will ship in the same number of language versions as its predecessor. Some localized versions will ship in a week or so.

Looking ahead, Microsoft intends to ship more public beta releases of IE 7. The next one, due in "late summer," will likely be labeled as Release Candidate 1 (RC1). Microsoft still intends to ship the final version of IE 7 right around the same time as it completes Windows Vista, so think October/November 2006.

Conclusions

Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 3 is a solid, feature-packed browser that all IE users should flock to immediately. While it's not enough to make me switch from Firefox yet--I still love certain Firefox features such as inline search--it's no longer an object of ridicule either. IE 7.0 Beta 3 includes huge functional and security advantages of IE 6 and is an absolute no brainer for anyone choosing to stick with IE. If you are an IE user, head over to the Microsoft Web site and pick up IE 7.0 Beta 3 today. Unless you have specific Web sites you visit regularly that are still not working properly with IE 7.0--an increasingly rare problem--even the Beta 3 version is ready for prime time.