In January, Microsoft released the Public Preview version of Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 Beta 2 (see my review), a pre-release version of its next Web browser. The Public Preview was described as feature complete from an end user standpoint, Microsoft says. In March, that product was updated with a refresh build that was described as feature complete for Web developers; the idea was that developers and Web site operators should use that build to test their sites in anticipation of the final IE 7 release, due in late 2006.

Flash forward to this week and Microsoft has shipped IE 7.0 Beta 2. This version isn't hugely different from the previous two pre-release versions, but the product has been fine-tuned quite a bit and is now quite close to the final version we'll see later. In fact, Microsoft is so sure of IE 7.0 Beta 2 that they're actually going to provide free phone support for this version: They want people to use this beta broadly and make sure everything is working properly before the final release. With that in mind, let's quickly examine what features you can expect in IE 7.0, note the changes in Beta 2, and discuss some of the other unique things that are going on around this release.

IE 7.0: The mile-high view

In my review of the IE 7.0 Beta 2 Public Preview, I stepped through most of the major functional changes in this release, so I don't want to simply rewrite that now. If you haven't already, please do read that review before continuing. Everything there still applies, though a very few small UI changes have also occurred.

The short version, however, is that IE 7.0 is a major software release. Unlike both IE 5.x and IE 6.0, IE 7.0 includes both major functional changes as well as major changes under the hood that impact both the security and stability of IE as well as how the product renders Web sites. This can only be viewed as a Good Thing: As I've written, again and again, IE 6.0 pales in comparison to modern browsers such as Mozilla Firefox from a functional standpoint and is, of course, one of the most insecure software products ever created. With IE 7.0, Microsoft seeks to address both of these issues. From my testing of the product this year, it's clear they've done a decent job. IE 7.0 isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn good, and will likely be enough to keep most IE users firmly in the Microsoft camp.

As for major new features, there are many. Some highlights include:

A major UI refresh. The old stacked toolbar approach has been completely overhauled for better or worse. IE 7.0 now features a Vista-style UI with the Back and Forward buttons, the Address Bar, and the search bar aligned along the top of the application, while the tabs and new Command Bar take up most of the second row of UI controls (Figure). Microsoft says that this layout takes up less space than the IE 6 toolbars, which may technically be true. But I think the new layout is less intuitive and point to Firefox's simpler UI as the way things should be done. For example, the navigational buttons in IE 7 are all over the place: Back and Forward are on the top row in the upper left, but Refresh and Stop are in the upper right. And Home is in the second row as part of the Command Bar. In Firefox (and previous IE releases), these buttons are all right next to each other. I find myself constantly mousing around trying to find certain controls in IE 7, and I think a lot of people will face some serious retraining before they get used to the new UI.

Some users might also be put off by the fact that IE 7 hides its application menu by default, but I think this reduces clutter and is ultimately a good idea. To view the menu, press ALT. Additionally, you can also configure IE 7 to display the application menu at all times if you'd like.

Tabbed browsing. Microsoft has finally implemented tabbed browsing in IE 7, and they've done a great job. All the expected functionality is there: CTRL+T opens a new tab, CTRL+W closes the current tab, and IE throws up a warning dialog if you try to close a browser window with multiple open tabs (Figure). IE 7 also adds a few unique features. There's a New Tab button for mouse users. The Close Window button for each tab is located right on the tab, right where God intended (A feature Firefox does not, but should use, and will reportedly be moving to.) And of course, there is Quick Tabs, which is technically a unique feature, but is related, so I'll mention it here (Figure). Quick Tabs let's you visually switch between open Web documents and it's a peach. Expect Firefox to copy it soon.

Integrated search. Like Firefox, IE 7 now features a prominent toolbar-based search box (Figure). Big deal, right? Well, how about this one: Microsoft even lets you easily change the default search engine to your favorite, including Google. And there's none of the stupidity you might suspect Microsoft of engaging in here at all. The company is even maintaining a Web site full of search engine providers so you can pick your favorite search engine easily and get on with life.

Printing advances. How's this for impressive? IE 6 is, perhaps, the poorest application in the world when it comes to printing, as anyone who's printed a Web page can tell you: The rightmost third is often cut off completely, rendering the printout useless. Well, IE 7 turns this equation completely on its head: IE 7 now features one of the very best document printing features I've ever seen, and it's easy to ensure that you print exactly what you want, with or without headers and footers, and with variable margin widths (Figure). It's astonishing.

Favorites Center. Microsoft has replaced its Favorites and History features with the new Favorites Center, which aggregates these two document lists with the new RSS (Real Simple Syndication) support. So from this single interface, you can now access all of your favorite Web sites, your browser history, and your subscribed RSS feeds (Figure).

ClearType. In a somewhat controversial move, Microsoft is enabling ClearType rendering by default, 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.

Text Zoom. 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 (Figure).

Major security features. IE 7 is simply brimming with new security features, and while it will be several months before we know whether this is enough to turn the tide on IE's security ills, you have to at least be impressed by the effort. ActiveX Opt protects your system from virtually all ActiveX controls, ensuring that only those controls you explicitly OK are allowed to instantiate. ActiveX controls and other browser add-ons are managed through the updated Manage Add-ons interface, which now lets you uninstall many ActiveX controls (Figure). The new Phishing Filter protects against dangerous phishing Web sites, which typically masquerade as financial institutions, ecommerce Web sites, and other related sites. Stupidly, the Phishing Filter is optional. This feature should be on by default.

A new Fix My Settings feature triggers an Information Bar alert when you manually change the security settings so as to make the browser less secure (Figure). In a wonderful nod toward actually making IE 7 secure, this Information Bar will not go away until you fix the problem, which I think is fantastic. And the Information Bar makes it silly easy to return the browser to its default, secure state. A Delete Browsing History dialog lets you delete your temporary Internet files, cookies, history, form data, or passwords, all from a single window (Figure). Or, click a single button, and they're all deleted at the same time. Nice.

Platform/developer changes. Microsoft is finally getting around to fixing the many problems that were caused by the horrid rendering engine in previous IE versions. To that end, IE 7 will have better support for Web technologies like Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2.1, AJAX, RSS, and transparent PNG images. To help Web site creators combat the resulting compatibility issues, the company is also providing an Internet Explorer Compatibility Toolkit and Internet Explorer Compatibility Evaluator (see below for details).

Enterprise features. IE 7 supports Active Directory (AD) Group Policy, making it highly manageable in corporate networks. This functionality includes controlling unique new IE 7 features like the Phishing Filter.

Again, for more information about most of these features, please refer to my IE 7.0 Beta 2 Public Preview review.

What's new in Beta 2?

So now we've got Beta 2. What's changed since the January and March releases? Well, not much. But that's part of the plan, right? Back in January, Microsoft issued a public preview that it described as "end user complete," so it's not surprising that the UI or feature set hasn't changed dramatically. The March release was described as "Web developer complete," meaning that the features in that release were aimed at content creators and Web site operators that needed to make sure their sites would be compatible with IE 7.

With the final Beta 2 release, Microsoft will be promoting IE 7.0 broadly from its Web site, though the intended audience is still technology enthusiasts. As Microsoft Director of Windows Product Management Gary Schare told me in a recent briefing, "Beta 2 can be broadly used. We think anyone who hears about it and gets excited to test it are the right people. We feel very good about this release."

New to Beta 2 is expanded platform support. While previous pre-release versions of IE 7 only ran on 32-bit versions of Windows XP with SP2, Beta 2 now installs and runs on XP x64 Edition and Windows Server 2003 with SP1 as well. The initial release will ship in an English language version only, German, Arabic, and Finnish version will ship May 3, followed by Japanese on May 8.

Also new: Microsoft is providing free phone support for Beta 2 and will provide an in-place upgrade path from Beta 2 (and subsequent interim releases) to the final version of IE 7. Schare told me that this decision highlights how confident Microsoft is in Beta 2. "This is all part of an effort to encourage people to use IE 7," he said. "Even at this stage, we want people to adopt it and use it." Schare said there would be at least a few more interim builds of IE 7 after Beta 2, probably this summer, and that one would likely be called Beta 3. However, we shouldn't expect any major new features before IE 7 is finalized. Regarding the upgrade path: It doesn't apply to Beta 2. If you've installed a previous pre-release version of IE 7, it will need to be uninstalled before you install Beta 2 (the Beta 2 installer automates this process, thankfully).

As for the build itself, there are a few minor UI changes, including some toolbar work and bug fixes. Overall, it's very close to the previous beta builds, but more stable and refined. The installer has been updated somewhat as well and now walks you through a nicer Welcome site in which you can set certain features.

Problems with IE 7.0 Beta 2

Microsoft wants users and Web developers to test IE 7.0 Beta 2 with the Web sites they most frequently visit so they can fix any remaining compatibility issues. Schare told me that a handful of high profile Web sites are still using old fashion user agent string detection technology, which incorrectly identifies IE 7 as IE 2. And of course, some sites will exhibit smaller problems.

When Beta 2 is ready for public download, Microsoft will also issue tools that will help people deal with these incompatibilies. One tool, for example, will let you change the IE 7 user agent string so you can access sites that aren't doing the right thing.

In my own experience with IE 7.0 Beta 2, I've seen few problems. When I tried to publish a book using MyPublisher.com's IE-based client tool, a blank page greeted me during the purchase phase, for example, forcing me to try again with IE 6 on a different system (where, naturally, it worked fine). Other sites, like that for the Mercury News, display incorrectly in IE 7 Beta 2. And some secure Web site, like that for Wells Fargo, still have problems.

IE 7 isn't perfect. It is missing key features that I find essential, though with Microsoft now actively developing IE again, these things could be fixed in a future release. For example, IE 7 lacks the useful inline find and Download Manager features I rely on in Mozilla Firefox. Some features can only be found in the Windows Vista version of IE 7.0. With XP, XP x64, and 2003, you don't get the safer Protected Mode functionality or parental controls that Vista users will enjoy.

Other IE 7.0 announcements

To support IE 7, Microsoft is also announcing the creation of the IE Addons Web site. This site will be similar to the Mozilla Addons Web site that the Mozilla Corporation provides to Firefox users, giving IE users a centralized location for finding add-ons (Figure). The site, which replaces a previous sub-site on Windows Marketplace, will include both Microsoft and third party add-ons, and Microsoft promises you'll see at least a few new add-ons when the site goes live this week (though they will be third-party add-ons, not new Microsoft add-ons). You can access IE Addons via a new shortcut in Favorites.

Schare told me that Microsoft plans to ship IE 7 sometime around the time that Vista is finalized. That's late October 2006, by the way, though he wouldn't pin down the exact date. "It will be out in the market at least 60 days ahead of Vista," Schare said, meaning Vista's January 2007 consumer availability date. "We're confident that we can ship this in the second half of 2006."

Conclusions

Internet Explorer 7 may not be enough to satisfy the demands of the truly technical users who have turned to Firefox, but let's face it, that's not really the audience Microsoft is going after here. IE 7 is a monumental improvement over IE 6 in both security and functionality, and will likely impress most typical Windows users. That audience, of course, is humongous. Since most normal people would never even consider switching from IE (let along understand that such a thing is even possible, let alone potentially desirable), IE 7's improvements are all the more striking. Microsoft could have phoned it in on this release and just improved security and added a few token new features. That they didn't do that, and have instead created a product that actually exceeds my beloved Firefox in a few key areas, says a lot about the integrity of the people working on IE these days. IE 7.0 Beta 2 is stable enough to use on production PCs and servers, and if you're wondering what the future is going to look like, dive right in. Die-hard Firefox users may not see enough to switch back, but everyone else will likely be quite impressed.