After virtually ignoring Internet Explorer (IE) for several years, Microsoft unexpectedly revealed in February 2005 that it would ship a new IE version, IE 7, for Windows XP users. This reversal of plans, which I discussed in more detail in my first Internet Explorer 7 Preview, touched off a year and a half of steady beta releases, each of which brought with it new functionality and features. Now, Microsoft is releasing the standalone version of IE 7. The browser is demonstrably better than its predecessor, and with few reservations, I think all Windows users should install IE 7 as soon as possible. And that's true for dedicated IE users as well as those who have moved on to alternative browsers.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. To understand why IE 7 is so good, we'll need to walk through the numerous enhancements built into this version. When I think of IE 7, two things spring immediately to mind: Functional improvements and security features. Let's start there.

Functional improvements

Even when IE 6 first showed up in Windows XP, I was disappointed that it adopted the XP look and feel but failed to offer any major functional improvements over the IE 5.x products. This disappointment continued over the years as IE languished in Microsoft's version of the Island of Lost Toys. But a surprisingly popular open source browser solution, Mozilla Firefox, caused Microsoft to wake up and start work on a new IE version. Not surprisingly, some of the best new IE 7 features seem to be directly inspired by similar Firefox features. That's not a bad thing, and it's no accident: Many people would like to stick with IE, but want some of the cool features offered by Firefox.

Improved user interface

IE 7 sports a radically different user interface than its predecessor, IE 6 (Figure). Maybe too radical: In a bid to adhere to the Windows Vista user interface guidelines, IE has Back and Forward buttons along the top edge of the application window, next to the Address Bar. But the application menu is hidden by default, and commonly used buttons like Home and Print are now incongruously located on a second specialized toolbar, called the Command Bar, that is located on the right side of the application window.

This design is unfortunate and will likely prove confusing to many users. Microsoft tells me that it's aware of the layout problem and is working on a possible solution for IE Next. In the meantime, we're stuck with a curiously designed application user interface, a rare misstep in what is otherwise an excellent product.

Partially because of the wrong-headedness of this design and partially because there are so many new features in this release, there's new UI all over the place in the IE 7 application window. If you're used to IE 6 (or even simpler browsers like Firefox), this can be a bit disarming. Below IE 7's title bar, you'll see the aforementioned Back and Forward buttons, the Refresh and Stop buttons, all of which work as in IE 6. (Well, almost. In IE 6, the Back and Forward buttons had separate history drop-downs, from which you could access pages you had recently accessed. In IE 7, there is a single Recent Pages drop-down, located to the right of the Forward button.)

To the right of the Address Bar, you'll see the first new feature: A dedicated Internet Search box, from which you can search the Web without first visiting a dedicated search service like Google or Live.com. On a clean install, IE 7 will use Live.com's Live Search service as the default. But since most users will be upgrading from IE 6, Microsoft engineered IE 7 to pick up the search engine that was previously configured. So if you've taken the time to pick a particular search engine, IE 7 won't override your choice. And using the pull-down next to the search box, you can easily specify other search choices or visit a Web site from which you can choose from a longer list of choices.

Below those controls, you'll see a second row of user interface elements. These include a few icons related to Favorites (see below), one or more tabs (again, see below), and the new Command Bar, which includes buttons such as Home, RSS (see below), Print, Page, Tools (similar to the old Tools menu), and Help. If you install an application or IE add-on that adds a toolbar button to the IE toolbar, that button will now appear on the Command Bar instead.

By default, the IE menu system is hidden by default. You can make it appear temporarily by tapping the ALT key. Or you can enable it for good by choosing Menu Bar in the Tools Command Bar menu. When the menu is displayed, it appears as a discrete row between the first and second row of UI controls. Note that even when the IE toolbars (for lack of a better term) are unlocked, you can't move the Command Bar into a new location, or next to the menu system.

Once you get used to, or get over, the new user interface, there's plenty of new functionality to explore. Moving on...

Integrated search

Like Firefox, IE 7 now sports an integrated search bar that is separate and distinct from the Address Bar (Figure). What's sort of astonishing is that the new search bar comes populated with a number of search engine choices, and doesn't force you to use Windows Live Search, which is, of course, the default, but only on new installs: If you upgrade from IE 6, Microsoft will retain your previously configured search engine.

The search bar works as expected: Type in a search query, hit Enter, and you're off to the races. To jump immediately to the search bar, tap CTRL+E.

Tabbed browsing

Tabbed browsing is the most obvious feature that's missing in IE 6 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 (typically 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 by literally selecting File and then New Window from the IE menu, using the CTRL+N keyboard shortcut, double-clicking a shortcut, or even right-clicking a hyperlink in the existing Web page and choosing 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 get grouped by the Windows taskbar. It becomes unmanageable very quickly.

Fear not, old-timers, 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. And as you add more and more tabs to a single IE window, they spread across the top of the window.

Fortunately, Microsoft implemented tabs correctly in every way and actually improved on the Firefox design. 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.

You can even drag tabs left and right and arrange them the way you want. Microsoft compares this feature to the way you can drag and drop slides in PowerPoint. And if you have multiple tabs displayed and attempt to close IE, the application warns you about the open tabs.

There's more. 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.

Microsoft also correctly puts the Close Tab button on each tab, and doesn't use a single Close button at the far right of the browser window, as does Firefox. 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 selected 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.

I use tabbed browsing 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 a Web search engine 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.

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, IE doesn't hide the tab bar when you only have one tab open, as does Firefox, though that's not a big deal.

Overall, however, tabbed browsing is just nicely implemented IE 7. This is a killer feature, perhaps my favorite, and I recommend you try it out.

Favorites Center

In previous IE versions, Microsoft utilized a simple Favorites menu, similar to the Bookmarks menu in older Netscape versions (and in Firefox today). IE does away with this scheme (though the old Favorites menu is still accessible) and replaces it with the new Favorites Center, which is a centralized location for Favorites, Feeds (see RSS Support, below), and browser history (Figure). Favorites Center is implemented as a pop-up pane, but you can also attach it to the left side of the browser if you don't mind giving up a bit of onscreen real estate. Anyone who's familiar with the way Favorites work in IE 6 should have no problems moving to the Favorites Center, and the additions of Feeds and History to the mix are somewhat logical as well, since both deal, essentially, with lists of browser locations.

RSS support

If you're not familiar with it, RSS (Real Simple Syndication) 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 now using 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 Microsoft Outlook 2007 and Mozilla Thunderbird. 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. More interesting, however, is the news that that Microsoft has ported 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 is much more powerful than it would have otherwise been. Third party applications, and other Microsoft applications, will now be able to access your subscribed RSS feeds and provide you with new experiences.

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 Command Bar will light up, or colorize (it's usually grayed out), indicating that you can do something with this feature (Figure). If you click on the icon, IE will switch into its Feeds view, 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. 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). If a site offers more than one RSS feed, you can access individual feeds from the drop-down menu next to the Feeds button.

Once you've subscribed to one or more feeds, you can access them through the Feeds section of Favorites Center. 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 one 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. I'd like to see the Feeds view offer different styles, as the default style is a little bland looking.

Printing improvements

IE's printing capabilities have always been an embarrassment, with most Web printouts magically erasing the rightmost third of each document. But no more: In IE 7, Microsoft has fixed virtually every single IE printing problem, and it's now as easy to use as it should have been four or eight years ago. If you just click the Print Command Bar button, you won't see any changes: The current document just prints to the default printer as you'd expect. 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 an option off the hidden File menu or via the drop-down menu below the Print Command Bar button (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 printing modes. And, with the simple click of a single toolbar button, you can finally remove all header and footer text. Sweet.

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

Zoom improvements

While previous IE versions let you adjust the size of text in Web pages, IE 7 uses an intelligent zoom feature that you will likely find quite impressive. Controlled via a small widget in the lower right corner of the browser window, IE 7 zoom works with both text and graphics and should be a boon to the eyesight impaired. You can click on the widget to cycle the zoom level between three presets (100 percent, 125 percent, and 150 percent) or use the pop-up menu for more fine-grained control (Figure).

ClearType enabled by default

In a somewhat controversial move, Microsoft has enabling ClearType rendering by default in IE, even if the user has not enabled ClearType at the OS level. In the unlikely event that you're not familiar with ClearType, the short answer is that it effectively triples the horizontal resolution of text by using a technology called sub-pixel rendering. ClearType generally improves the readability of text by a wide margin, but some users complain that it makes text look blurry, especially on CRT displays. You can disable ClearType rendering in Internet Options if it bothers you. Frankly, I wouldn't use Window without this feature: It makes text looks wonderfully smooth on LCD displays.

Security features

Once Microsoft knocked out Windows XP Service Pack 2 (see my review), I suspect the company realized it was going to have to do more to protect XP users from the many security issues that continue to do the OS. Porting IE 7 back to XP was a smart move, since most security exploits enter Windows through the gaping hole that is IE 6. Interestingly, IE 7 for Windows XP (and XP x64 and Windows Server 2003) lacks a couple of useful IE 7 for Vista features (parental controls integration and IE Protected Mode). But it's still much, much more secure than its predecessors.

Integrated anti-phishing filter

Microsoft's phishing filter was recently found to be the most highly rated anti-phishing solution currently available. Curiously, it's off by default in IE 7, though you're presented with an opportunity to enable it the first time you run the browser. (Why is it off, you ask? It turns out that privacy concerns are the culprit. In certain cases, the phishing filter has to communicate with Microsoft servers in order to do its magic, and the Privacy Nazis would have a field day if Microsoft simply enabled it by default.) My advice is simple: Enable it immediately.

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. 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. Naturally, you can visit that site anyway if you know it's OK.

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, you can do all that and more from a single menu item off of the Tools button in the Command Bar. Curiously, it's titled "Delete Browsing 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. The resulting dialog lets you pick which items to delete, or you can just whack them all at once (Figure). Very nice.

IDN spoofing protection

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.

High Assurance Certificate support

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. 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.

Group Policy support

IE 7 supports Active Directory (AD) Group Policy, making it highly manageable in corporate networks. More specifically, it's possible for IT administrators who do choose to rollout IE 7 in their environments to pick and chose which new features are enabled. That's a smart move on Microsoft's part, since it should increase the rate at which IE 7 is adopted in the enterprise.

Other security features

There are a number of other security improvements. Microsoft requires an Address Bar in every browser window, including pop-ups. An ActiveX Opt-In feature prevents 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 integrates more closely with Windows Defender if it's installed.

Web development improvements

Though Web standards gurus argue that Microsoft hasn't done enough to make IE 7 more standards compliant, the new browser does include support for such thing as transparent PNG files, better CSS consistency, CSS 2 fixed positioning, and International Domain Names (IDN). Chris Wilson, the lead program manager for IE, told me previously that IE 7's Web development-oriented features are aimed largely at fixing the most egregious problems in previous IE versions.

In its defense, Microsoft says its support of Web standards is both better than it's ever been and not as bad as its detractors claim. The company is also wary of attempting to quantify how well it conforms to various Web standards, despite requests to that effect. And of course Microsoft is already looking ahead to future major versions of IE, which it says will ship in a timelier manner than did IE 7.

Regarding Web site compatibility, Tony Chor, a Group Program Manager for IE, told me during a recent briefing that IE 7 offers two rendering modes. The first, called Quirks Mode (or Compatibility Mode), renders Web pages almost exactly like IE 5 and IE 6; this is the mode that IE 7 operates in by default due to the millions of internal and public Web sites around the world that rely on particular IE behavior. The second mode, called Standards Mode (or Strict Mode) is what Chor calls "our best standards-based implementation." To access this mode, Web sites need to add a special !DOCTYPE tag to the top of their HTML files. This is identical to the tag sites could use to force IE 6 into backwards compatibility as well.

Problems with IE 7

I can't stress this enough: IE 7 is a dramatic and important upgrade that all Windows users should seriously consider. But it's not perfect. Some users will experience various Web site compatibility issues and if these occur on critical Web sites, it could cause people to uninstall IE 7 and go back to IE 6.

I'm not a big fan of the crazy layout of controls in IE 7, though I've been told that Microsoft is looking into this and hopes to offer various fixes by the next browser release. These fixes could include more configurable toolbars that let you drag and drop buttons and move items wherever you'd like. Stay tuned.

There are also a number of features I miss from Firefox, such as inline find, which opens a handy and less obtrusive Find toolbar instead of the annoying IE Find dialog. This concern is partially offset by the IE Addons Web site and a new generation of small downloads that improve IE's functionality, however. This site is similar to a site the Mozilla Corporation provides to Firefox users, giving IE users a centralized location for finding add-ons. The site, which replaces a previous sub-site on Windows Marketplace, includes both Microsoft and third party add-ons. You can access IE Addons directly from IE 7 via a shortcut in Favorites.

Availability and pricing

Internet Explorer 7 is available for Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or higher (all 32-bit versions), Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, and Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 or higher (all versions).

Microsoft's deployment plan for IE 7 is somewhat controversial, but it shouldn't be: The company announced its plans last July in order to get its customer base ready. Essentially, Microsoft will be offering IE 7 for automatic distribution over Automatic Updates (AU), but to individuals only. It will go out as a high priority, but in a special mode. That is, AU will automatically download IE 7, but it won't install the browser, even if you've configured AU to automatically install critical updates. Instead, you'll see a welcome screen that will describe the benefits of IE 7 and ask if you'd like to install the browser. There's no implicit consent: If you close the dialog and simply ignore it, Windows won't surreptitiously install IE 7.

Automatic distribution will begin in about three weeks, and will be throttled so that the distribution occurs over time. Microsoft tells me it could take 2 to 3 months to get it out to everyone. However, users who wish to manually download and install IE 7 can do so now. See the download links on the right for details.

Incidentally, corporations that wish to block the automatic download can do so with a free blocker tool, available from the Microsoft Web site. This tool will not expire.

Like previous IE version, Internet Explorer 7 is free.

Conclusions

Internet Explorer 7 is an absolute no-brainer: If you use Windows, you should almost certainly upgrade immediately: IE 7's security features are top-notch and its functional improvements are nicely designed and greatly appreciated. For the short term, certain people may run into occasional Web site compatibility issues with IE 7, but I think those problems will fade quickly. Certainly, most major Web sites have already been upgraded to work correctly with Microsoft's latest Web browser. I've had a field day in the past making fun of IE, but with IE 7, the browser has finally turned the corner. This is one product that Microsoft should be quite proud of. My only question, really, is what took them so long? Seriously, download it now. Highly recommended.