I have a checkered history with Internet Explorer, and by this point, my relationship with Microsoft's controversial browser is so tainted, I have to admit that I approached this review with some trepidation. My history with IE dates all the way back to 1995, when Windows 95 first shipped and Microsoft released the first version of this browser.

At the time, IE was sort of a joke, and Netscape Navigator ruled the Web. Netscape was pumping out new browser versions every couple of weeks, it seemed, and Microsoft's first attempt seemed a bit sad by comparison. That said, I actually liked it: IE 1.x looked a lot like the Explorer shell in Windows 95, with compact, square buttons. It's hard to appreciate this now, but at the time, the Windows 95 look and feel was brand new and IE just seemed to fit in.

I actually switched to IE full time when IE 2 was released in late 1995, though in retrospect it's unclear what advantages it offered over 1.0. By early 1996, Microsoft began publicly discussing IE 3.0 and, at a developer show that simulcast to theaters around America, Joe Belfiore showed off IE 3.0 alpha features like frames, HTML layout, and multimedia support. I was hooked, and though early builds of IE 3 were difficult to use, the final version, released in August 1996, was a watershed event in the industry. IE, for the first time, bested the feature set of Netscape Navigator. And it would never look back: From that point on, IE began gnawing away at Navigator, and would soon overcome it for good.

In late 1996, Microsoft canceled its original plans for IE 4.0 and retooled after hearing that Netscape was going to try and replace the Windows shell with an HTML-based shell codenamed Constellation. The original IE 4.0 plans called for an evolutionary update to IE 3.0 that would have included features such as Site Map and an integrated FTP client. However, catching wind of Netscape's plans, Microsoft recast IE 4.0 as a major project called "Nashville" which would combine the Windows shell with the HTML rendering engine in IE, blurring the line between local content on your PC and remote content from the Web.

Nashville resulted in two products. The first was the standalone version of IE 4.0, released in late 1997, which included the expected browser, of course, but also a new integrated version of the Windows shell, an Active Desktop that combined the Windows desktop with a Web-based layer, and other controversial features. The second was Windows 95 OSR-2, which included these new IE-based integration elements, as would every future version of Windows, including, alarmingly, those based on Windows NT.

It was here that my support for IE began to flag and then, eventually, completely unwind. Bundling IE with Windows was one thing. Integrating it deeply into the Windows core was quite another. Unlike Windows and NT, IE was new code, and adding it deeply into Windows at such an early stage--and only because of a perceived competitive threat that, frankly, never materialized anyway--was just a bad decision. The ramifications of that decision are still with us today. IE is now one of the most obvious attack vectors for malware in Windows, and the weakest technical link in the so-called shield that separates hackers from your precious data.

Anyway. The next few IE releases were relatively uninspiring updates and an unintended omen of things to come. That's because IE was starting to pull away in the market, and Microsoft had fewer reasons to improve the browser, now that Netscape was imploding. IE 5.0 was "an incremental, evolutionary upgrade to IE 4.0" (see my review and my tech showcase) that sported an alarming number of proprietary Web features. IE 5.01, included with Windows 2000, set the stage for future IE versions by offering a huge array of security fixes (see my review). And IE 5.5--designed to coincide with Windows Me--was just as unexciting, with security and bug fixes, more proprietary Web technologies, and print preview. Yawn.

The last time I reviewed a standalone I version was in late 1999, over five years ago, and I wasn't too impressed. And though I did describe IE 6.0 as "wonderful" in my Windows XP Home and Professional Editions Review (see my review), I also noted that "it doesn't seem much different than the IE 5.x products it replaces." Since then, IE 6.0 stagnated for three years before Microsoft finally got around to updating it in XP Service Pack 2 (SP2, see my review). With SP2, IE finally got pop-up ad blocking and a simple plug-in management system, but not much else. I commented on its "laughable compliance with Web standards" and noted that I would continue using Mozilla Firefox, which I have. As a result, I have never suffered from a spyware or malware attack, a common occurrence for IE users. And, I've been beseeching people to use Firefox--which, in addition to better security, has a slew of awesome end-user features not found in IE--instead of Microsoft's buggy browser.

Then the IE 7 beta happened.

Microsoft announces IE 7

It's important to understand that Microsoft had effectively killed IE. That is, the original plan for Windows Vista, the next major version of Windows (see my Beta 1 review), called for IE to be subsumed completely into the Windows shell. There were to be no more standalone IE updates.

Two things changed those plans. First, hacker attacks on IE 6 reached record levels, with Microsoft releasing IE 6 patches constantly over a three year period. Second, the Mozilla Foundation, which rose out of the ashes of Netscape, developed the aforementioned standalone browser, Firefox (originally called Phoenix, and then briefly Firebird), which, amazingly, began eating away at IE's market share. At the time of this writing, Firefox is closing in on 10 percent of the market, with all of that market share--all of it--coming at IE's expense. In certain technology-oriented circles, Firefox's share is actually much, much higher than that, and it actually outstrips IE in some cases.

When you combine these factors with Windows Vista's constant delays--now due in late 2006, the product was first aimed at a 2003 release--it was pretty clear that Microsoft had to do something. As I documented in my first IE 7 Preview, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates announced that his company would ship IE 7 for Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2; and, as it turned out, for Windows XP x64 and Windows Server 2003 with SP1) by the end of 2005, and include the browser in Windows Vista. Since then, IE 7's feature set has been dribbling out of Microsoft at a very slow rate. But as of now--August 2005--we have our first beta, as well as a version included in Windows Vista Beta 1, and the feature set is pretty well known.

Two IE 7's for you

Before we get into the details, let me clear up one thing. There are going to be two versions of IE 7, and I'll touch on both in this review. The first, which I'll call IE 7 Vista, will be included with Windows Vista only. The second, which I think of as standalone IE 7, will be made available to XP/XP x64/WS03SP1 users as a free download. IE 7 Vista will be a superset of standalone IE 7 when the products are finalized. However, as of now, in Beta 1, the standalone version of IE 7 actually includes one feature not found in IE 7 Vista. I'll explain what these differences are as needed later in the review.

A quick tour IE 7 Beta

The user interface for IE 7 Beta 1 is virtually identical on both Windows Vista and XP (Figure). As you can see, Microsoft has made some UI changes since IE 6.0 and, frankly, not all of these changes are good. The Back and Forward navigation buttons, the Address Bar, and the new Search bar are now all located at the top of the IE window, above the menu bar, in violation of today's Windows User Experience guidelines (but, it should be noted, in keeping with the general UI style in Windows Vista).

I like that there is a Search bar now, as in Firefox, and that you can change it to use Google or other search engines. I don't like that Back and Forward are so severely separated from other navigational buttons, like Home, however. In all other browsers, including Firefox, Back, Forward, Refresh/Stop, and Home are all found in the same general area, which makes sense, since they're related. In IE 7, these buttons are inexplicably scattered all around the UI, which is both confusing and illogical. Furthermore, when you customize the standard toolbar (which included the Home button), you can't add certain key buttons that used to be found there, such as Go. Grr.

IE 7's menu bar and toolbar are on the same horizontal row now, which is OK, but they're further separated from the Back and Forward buttons, and the Address Bar, by a new UI element, the tabbed browsing interface. I'll look at this feature later in the review, but Microsoft's curious placement of the tabs--away from the browser content pane, and above the menu bar and standard toolbar--is also quite odd and, it should be noted, quite different from Firefox and Apple Safari, two other well-designed browsers that feature tabbed browsing functionality.

Other than that, the basic IE interface is unchanged. It's still a Web browser, after all. But I have to think that XP users, especially, will be confused by the layout of controls and other UI elements in IE 7, while Windows Vista users will probably adapt more quickly because it's similar to the way the Windows shell looks in that release.

IE 7 Beta 1 feature drill-down

OK, let's look at some of the new features in IE 7 Beta 1.

Tabbed browsing

Ah, tabbed browsing, the most glaring UI feature that's missing in today's IE versions and the thing you most often hear about--after security problems, of course--when people complain about Microsoft's browser. Well, I'm here to tell you that the hype is true: Tabbed browsing has forever changed the way I browse the Web, and I'll never again use a Web browser that doesn't support--nay, correctly support--this crucial feature. Indeed, now that Microsoft is adding tabbed browsing support to IE 7, this feature will finally reach a mainstream audience. So what is it?

In previous IE versions, IE is what we call a Single Document Interface (SDI) application in the Windows world. That is, each IE window can contain just a single document (a Web page in IE's case). If you wish to open a second or third Web page with IE, you need to instantiate a new IE window. That is, you can literally select File and then New Window from the IE menu, use the CTRL+N keyboard shortcut, double-click a shortcut, or even right-click a hyperlink in the existing Web page and choose Open in New Window. Each IE window--and thus, each Web page--gets its own button on the task bar. And if you open too many IE windows, they group. It becomes unmanageable very quickly.

IE 7 still supports this model. So if you like having separate IE windows, each one with its own Web page loaded, go nuts. But IE 7, like Firefox, also supports a new Multiple Document Interface (MDI) design, which lets you open multiple documents (Web pages) in a single IE window. Now, such a system requires new navigational features, and IE, like other browsers, lets you switch between separate Web pages in a single browser window through a tabbed-based interface, where each Web page gets its own tab. As you add more and more tabs to a single IE window, they spread across the top of the window (Figure).

Fortunately, Microsoft implemented tabs correctly in every way. That is, they've accurately emulated the way this feature works on other browsers. So, for example, you can now open and close new tabs with shortcut keyboard commands (CTRL+T and CTRL+W, respectively). You can right-click links and choose to open them in new tabs. Most crucially, you can switch between open tabs using the CTRL+TAB keyboard shortcut, which is a nice take on the normal ALT+TAB shortcut used to switch between running applications.

Tabbed browsing is a wonderful feature. I use it regularly to open interesting links in the background, and then I go through each of the pages I opened in sequence later. It's great for researching as well. If you go to Google.com and search for something, you can open each link you want to investigate in a separate tab, and then move through them more easily all at once.

In Beta 1, tabbed browsing features are configured through a few options at the bottom of the Advanced tab in Internet Options (Figure). By default, IE 7 opens pop-ups in a new tab, not window (unwanted pop-ups are still blocked of course), and opens new tabs in the background (that is, a new tab won't grab the focus when it's created). And tabbed browsing is enabled by default. You can change all of these options. However, there are some tabbed browsing options that IE 7 does not support for some reason. You can't hide the tab bar when you only have one tab open, as you can in Firefox, though that's not a big deal. What is a big deal--a deal-breaker, really--is that IE 7 Beta 1 doesn't warn you or prevent you from closing an IE window in which there are multiple tabs open. Imagine you're doing research and have opened 14 links in new tabs. As you navigate from the first tab to the second, you inadvertently close the IE 7 window, decimating all of your work. In Firefox, you're warned when you do such a thing. IE 7 just closes right down with no warning. Ouch.

Overall, however, tabbed browsing is well done in IE 7 Beta 1. This is a killer feature, and I recommend you try it out.

RSS integration

In late June 2005, Microsoft announced that it was adding deep support for RSS (Real Simple Syndication) to both Windows Vista and IE 7, While I'll refer you to my Longhorn RSS Support showcase for more information about RSS in general, in this review, I'll highlight the very basic RSS support we can see now in IE 7 Beta 1.

IE 7 Beta 1 sports a new toolbar icon called Feeds that lights up red when you navigate to a Web page that supports RSS (Figure). From here, you can click on the Feeds icon to subscribe to the feed (Figure). This displays a friendly version of the XML-based RSS feed (Figure), similar to what Apple offers in the Safari version that ships with Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (see my review). This friendly view provides a link that lets you add the feed to IE's Favorites menu, but not much else.

There's not a lot going on here. In Beta 1, there is no way to be alerted when RSS-based Favorites are updated, so you still need to manually navigate to sites to see if there is new content (which, when you think about it, is contrary to the goals of RSS). But RSS support in IE 7 Beta 1 is not complete by any means. In future builds, Microsoft will add the promised RSS platform support to Windows Vista, and will add the Common RSS Data Store, Feed List, and Sync Engine. Again, see my Longhorn RSS Support showcase for more information.

Integrated Web searching

Like Firefox, IE 7 Beta 1 now sports an integrated Search bar that is separate and distinct from the Address Bar. What's sort of astonishing is that it comes populated with a number of search engine choices, and doesn't force you to use MSN Search, which is, of course, the default. However, you can even configure Google or your search engine of choice to the be the default (Figure). It works as expected: Type in a search query, hit Enter, and you're off to the races.

Printing improvements

IE's printing capabilities have been an embarrassment, but no more: In IE 7 Beta 1, Microsoft has fixed virtually every single problem I've had with IE printing, and it's now as easy to use as it should have been four years ago. If you just click the Print toolbar button, you won't see any changes: The current document just prints to the default printer. Likewise, choosing File and then Print will also result in a similar experience to what you see in IE 6: You get the Print dialog box.

To see the IE 7 printing changes, you need to go into Print Preview, which is available as before as an option off the File menu (it's also a hidden toolbar icon if you want to enable it) (Figure). There are a few things going on here. First of all, by default, any print job from IE 7 will be set to the new "Shrink to Fit" option, which finally--FINALLY--lets you fit pages, both vertically horizontally, onto a single page when possible. But wait, there's more. IE 7 also lets you switch between portrait and landscape (Figure) printing modes. And, with the simple click of a single toolbar button, you can finally remove all header and footer text (Figure). Woo!

This is, perhaps, the one area where I can unequivocally say that Microsoft has finally gotten it completely and utterly right. Nice job.

Phishing Filter

I mentioned previously that the Windows Vista version of IE 7 would be a true functional superset of standalone IE 7 when the products were finalized, but that now, in Beta 1, the standalone IE 7 has a single feature that can't be found in IE 7 Vista Beta 1. This is that feature. Dubbed the Phishing Filter, it tries to prevent you from navigating to malicious Web sites that are designed to steal your personal data.

Here's how a phishing scam typically works. You get a HTML email that purports to be from a bank or a major e-commerce site like eBay. The email tells you that there's been a security problem and that you should go change your password to protect yourself. The provided link appears to be from that financial institution or other trusted site and, sure enough, when you click on it, the browser opens and what appears to be the Web site for Citibank, eBay, or whatever appears.

There's just one problem. The site isn't legitimate; it's a hacker front-end to malicious code that is trying to steal your personal data. So if you enter your logon and password, you've just given hackers the key to your financial data.

I currently use and recommend the Netcraft toolbar for Mozilla Firefox to prevent phishing attacks (there's a version for IE as well). But Microsoft's implementation of the Phishing Filter in IE 7 is the first example I've seen of a browser maker actually integrating this functionality into the browser itself. When you consider that IE also includes other anti-malware technology, and a nice pop-up blocker, that inclusion actually makes a lot of sense.

Like the pop-up blocker, the Phishing Filter is on by default, and I can't imagine why you'd want to turn it off. The filter reacts to suspicious sites in one of two ways. If you visit a Web site that meets certain suspicious criteria, the Phishing Filter will trigger a yellow warning and warn you that the site looks suspicious (Figure). If you hit a Web site that is known to be malicious, however, you get a red warning and are blocked from visiting the site (Figure). Naturally, you can visit that site anyway if you know it's OK.

Now, you may be wondering how IE 7 figures out that a given site is "known" to be malicious. Think back to the way Windows AntiSpyware (see my preview) works: With that application, which came to Microsoft as part of its purchase of Giant Company Software, Microsoft has established a community of sorts where users of the product report back to a central database about whether individual applications can be trusted. IE 7's Phishing Filter will work in the same way.

Now, what happens when a legitimate e-commerce site is somehow identified as malicious? Microsoft is building an interface into IE 7 that will let Web service providers provide information about themselves and the site to the company. Users can also use this interface to report suspicious sites (Figure).

The Phishing Filter interface is clearly not complete in Beta 1 (and, as previously noted, it's not even present in IE 7 Vista Beta 1). There is a Phishing Filter sub-menu off of the Tools menu (Figure) that lets you perform various actions, including reporting suspicious sites. But the Phishing Filter Settings choice loads the Advanced tab of the Internet Options dialog; only when you scroll all the way to the bottom do you see a few lonely choices related to the filter (Figure).

I've not been able to fully test how well this feature works compared to the Netcraft toolbar, but I suspect I'll have more data by the time Beta 2 hits. In the meantime, I applaud Microsoft for adding this functionality to the browser. If it's as good as the pop-up blocker, it should be hugely successful. So far, so good: The handful of known phishing sites I've come across have accurately been detected by the Phishing Filter.

One-click browser history deletion

In IE 6, if you want to cover your electronic tracks, so to speak, you have to go into Internet Options and click three separate buttons to delete temporary Internet files, cookies, and the browser history. Now, in IE 7 Beta 1, you can do all that and more from a single menu option. Curiously, it's titled "Delete Browser History." I say curiously, because it does much more than delete the history. It also permanently deletes all currently saved cookies, Web form data and passwords, and temporary Internet files. Fortunately, there's an "are you sure"-type dialog (Figure) to make sure you really want to take this drastic step.

Web development features and standards compliance

This is where things get less positive, at least from my standpoint. I've literally spent years railing against IE's less than stellar support of Web standards, and while IE 7 will improve matters somewhat, it's just not enough in my opinion. Here's what the company has pledged to support in IE 7: Transparent PNG files, CSS consistency, CSS 2 fixed positioning, and International Domain Names (IDN). Chris Wilson, the lead program manager for IE, told me recently that IE 7's Web development-oriented features would be aimed largely at fixing the most egregious problems in current IE versions. "We're going to fix or add the things that people really wanted," he said. "We have a strategy to combat compatibility issues, to prevent current sites from breaking when we change behavior."

Fortunately, IE 7 isn't the end of the line. There will be point releases to IE 7 in the future and, yes, an IE 8 is schedule for down the line as well. "Our job isn't done in the browser space," Wilson added. "We don't want to just improve IE's UI and security. A lot of the advancements in IE over the last four years have been security focused. Now, we're seeing a demand for improvements that add features that are not security features. So we won't be done after IE 7, but will continue to evolve to the platform." Referring to a recent article in which I took Microsoft to task about its lack of support for modern Web standards, Wilson said, "We would love to win you back." You never know.

What's next: Features we'll see in the future

IE 7 Beta 1 is not feature complete. We'll see more new IE features at the Professional Developer Conference (PDC) 2005 in September and then again at Beta 2, which is currently scheduled for later this year.

So what's missing in Beta 1? Well, the RSS functionality is going to be more fully fleshed out in the future, and made into a powerful platform that third parties can leverage. The UI will also be much richer with word-wheeling RSS search. I write about some of these features in my Longhorn RSS Support showcase (link).

In Windows Vista, IE 7 will always run in what's called protected mode, which will likely make IE the most secure browser available anywhere. Currently, the Windows Vista security model forces applications to run with reduced security privileges, a change that will make the system more secure overall (today, applications in XP typically run with elevated administrator-level security privileges). In Vista, IE 7 will run with fewer privileges than any other application, because it will have fewer rights than even a Limited User account. This isn't happening in Beta 1, but it will be added in the future.

Too, IE 7 Vista will support something called IE 7 Safe Mode (though that name could change). Actually, there's an early version of this (called IE No Add-ons in IE 7 Vista) in Beta 1 (Figure). This mode allows you to run IE 7 without any add-ons loaded at all. Microsoft tells me it foresees three instances when this will be desirable: When IE has been compromised by spyware and you wish to remove it from the browser; when the OS itself has been compromised and you wish to download a patch using a safe tool; and when you are performing a critical financial transaction online and you want to make sure your any data you enter isn't stored by the browser or an add-on.

Finally, IE 7 will have a drastically improved interface for managing add-ons. Today, IE's Manage Add-ons interface (which is also available in IE 7) provides a bare-bones interface to add-ons that Microsoft feels is good for power users but daunting to most people.

There's probably more coming, but that's what I know about right now.

Availability and pricing

The standalone version of Internet Explorer 7 will ship in late 2005 or early 2006 and will be a free download for users of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, or Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 (SP1). Microsoft will also ship Windows Vista with an integrated version of IE 7 in late 2006.

Conclusions

The current Beta 1 release of IE 7 is too buggy to use as an everyday browser but it shows promise. I've crashed the browser hard several times in Windows Vista Beta 1, and the standalone version won't retain its window size and doesn't display the standard toolbar by default for some reason. But IE 7 will be an important release for Microsoft, and the question now is whether it will be enough to stem the flood of defections to Mozilla Firefox. My guess is that it will be good enough, though of course time will tell. In the meantime, my advice is to stay away from IE 7 Beta 1--especially on XP, where it overwrites the more stable IE 6.0--and wait for Beta 2. If my suspicions are correct, IE 7 could surprise a lot of people, including even me.