Thinking of abandoning Internet Explorer? We take an in-depth look at the other browsers making waves.

It’s safe to say that your browser is probably Internet Explorer, since IE installs automatically with Windows or Office. The browser wars of the 1990s are long gone, and Microsoft won decisively.

But after the Netscape/IE struggle, a funny thing happened. With no serious competitor, Microsoft stopped development of IE. New versions appear from time to time, but it has been years since IE offered groundbreaking new features.

Meanwhile, development of other browsers has continued to the point where many consider them preferable to IE in performance, security, ease of use, added features and even help desk support.

This review looks at IE's principal competitors: Opera from the fjords of Norway and the fraternal twin children of Mozilla. All offer more features, run faster than IE and are available on a variety of operating systems, including Linux, Unix and Mac OS X.

The Mozilla twins

When Netscape gave its Communicator code to the public-domain, open-source Mozilla.com project, no one quite knew what to expect. The Mozilla Foundation's developers scrapped the original code and started over to produce efficient, cross-platform software.

The Gecko browser and layout engine appeared quickly after the 1998 handover. Since then, several Netscape-labelled browsers have been based on Mozilla code, but these have lagged behind the open-source beta track in features and performance. Mozilla's browser development culminated in the September 2004 release of Version 1.0 of Firefox.

The two major Mozilla products -- Netscape Navigator 7.2 and Firefox 1.0. -- are mainstream, and the availability of their open-source code can be a real plus for corporate developers.

Common characteristics

I really liked the tabbed browsing within Netscape and Firefox; it's easy to open up new tabs, keep numerous pages open simultaneously and switch quickly among them.

This is particularly helpful when using a search engine, since you can keep the search results in one tab while looking at pages in a new tab by just right-clicking on the link. Going back to the search page doesn't require a reload or refresh, as a page-back command would, just a switch in the display window. Also, the ability to open predefined groups of pages with one click can be a real convenience.

Another search aid involves the sidebar, an optional, multifunction panel to the left of the main window that can display bookmarks, history or search results. Just type a word into the sidebar's search box, and links appear below, with the first one opened in a new tab in the main window.

You determine which search engine does the fetching. Finally, from any Web page, you can simply highlight a word or phrase, right-click it and select "Web search" from the context menu. It's a fast, smooth operation.

Alike and different

Both Netscape and Firefox automatically import and set up my IE favourites list (a complex tree involving a couple of thousand pages) under the Bookmarks menu. Both browsers include a file manager that lets you download multiple files at once and pause or resume a download. The download managers keep track of all the files you download, with persistent information on date, size and status.

Both browsers offer automatic pop-up blocking, which keeps a lot of annoying ad windows at bay. This feature was available to IE users only in the form of third-party add-ins until the most recent revision of IE 6 (the upgrade inside the 250MB Service Pack 2 update for Windows XP).

The overall design of the browser window is very similar in both. Netscape opts for a rather bland and colourless scheme, while Firefox uses a simpler, cleaner interface with a tad more colour.

It's easy in both to apply different skins, though I wasn't impressed by any of the skins that are currently available. Netscape's display has more going on, with more options and apparatus inside the sidebar (including the AOL Instant Messenger buddy list). Firefox's slightly simpler sidebar was turned off by default.

One difference could be important: Firefox's menu took me directly to my current e-mail client, Microsoft Outlook, and the menu item even indicated when I had new messages. Under Netscape, clicking on mail opened up Netscape's own mail reader and then asked me to set up an account.

Firefox lets you set up "live bookmarks" with which to view rich site summary news and blog headlines directly in the bookmarks tool bar or bookmarks menu. When a site is enabled for live bookmarks, an orange RSS icon appears on the bottom right corner of the browser. To set up the link, click on the icon to bring up a dialogue for adding a new live bookmark.

Both Netscape and Firefox support a variety of extensions - add-in programs for new functionality - but many more are available for Firefox.

Overall, the differences between the two browsers are small. Firefox is more adaptable and less monolithic in its approach to non-browser functions, which might make it a better choice for some enterprises.

For Windows systems, Firefox 1.0 is a 4.5MB download, while Netscape 7.2 takes 11.8MB for the basic browser setup and 24.8MB for the entire package. Versions of both are available for Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris x86, OS/2, AIX and BeOS. Both browsers are also available in a variety of languages.

Opera

Opera started out as a research project at Norway-based telecommunications firm Telenor. In 1995, Telenor spun off Opera Software, which released the first public browser a year later. Since 2000, Opera has been a free download for personal use.

Opera began with different priorities. While its competitors became larger and more complex, Opera wanted its offering to be small and quick with a low memory footprint. Although Opera claims to be the fastest browser, I found that Netscape and Firefox both loaded pages slightly faster. All beat IE by a country mile.

Opera introduced the background loading of pages, batch opening of bookmark folders, and fast-forward and rewind functions, which anticipate where you might surf to next and fetch those pages before you request them. Opera adds notes, skinning to change the browser's look and session management that lets you close and restart the browser with all your previous pages automatically restored.

Early versions of Opera opened multiple browser pages inside a single parent window. Since 6.0, single-document and tabbed modes have also been available, plus a mode that integrates Web browsing into fixed presentations.

Opera's mouse gestures feature is interesting. To move back to the previous page, just hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse to the left. If you move right, you go forward a page -- a clever system.

I found Opera harder to learn than the other programs. For example, the process of importing IE favourites into the Opera's bookmarks isn't obvious. It's buried three levels deep in the menu structure, and when I did the operation, there was no indication that it had succeeded or failed, nor could I find where the program had put my links.

While setting up folders for quick reference, I found Opera's dialogue boxes attractive but often unclear as to what data they needed. The help files were only so-so.

Unlike the Mozilla twins, Opera makes you look at paid advertising banners. They're not obtrusive and don't affect performance, but you can buy an ad-free version for 34 Euros.

Opera 7.54 is available for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris. The basic Windows download is just 3.4MB, though adding Java brings it up to 16.2MB.

Recommendations

IE, the de-facto standard for Web browsers, has served us well for many years. If it suits your needs, perhaps there's no reason to change. I started using IE shortly after it first appeared and quickly preferred it to Netscape Navigator. Despite some problems, I was a steadfast IE user and Netscape sceptic for years.

I tried out Mozilla betas and Opera, but I always found that they either offered no big improvement over IE or made my heavily loaded Windows systems unstable. Unfortunately, IE has been riddled with security problems, and Microsoft's efforts to secure the browser have been only mildly successful.

About four months ago, I began using Firefox as my primary browser. With the September release of 1.0 (no longer beta), I can recommend Firefox without reservation. Opera is a good choice for many -- perhaps the best choice for an older computer that's light on memory or CPU power -- but I find Firefox easier to use.