The latest beta of Netscape’s Navigator 6 is scheduled to be available for download Tuesday, and our first look at the browser finds enhanced security and Web mail support. But be cautious: a stable final release is still a ways off.
Built on the efficient Gecko browsing engine, Netscape 6 Preview Release 2 promises to be the phoenix that brings Netscape from the browser ashes. Once the undisputed king of the browsers, Netscape now controls about 36 per cent of the market, while Internet Explorer owns virtually all of what remains.
This newest beta follows up on the release of the compact (a 16.5MB download with Java) browser that debuted in April. Improvements include a password manager that offers privacy control and automatic form completion on Web sites, as well as additions to the My Sidebar tool, a customizable collection of small tabbed windows to the side of the browser with searching, instant messaging, and related links.
Despite these enhancements, this is a buggy beta. With another preview slated before a final release later this year, you may not want to dump Communicator or Internet Explorer just yet.
Beyond its customizable features, the beta version of the browser comes with a choice of themes that alter the look and feel of the interface.
"Changing the theme is not like putting a different color on your cell phone," says Sol Goldfarb, group product manager at Netscape. "When you select an alternate theme, the user interface changes across the product from the geometry of the software to all the buttons and effects."
Preview Release 2 comes with only a classic theme (which makes the interface resemble Netscape 4.x versions) and a modern theme. Netscape plans to sponsor a theme contest to encourage developers to create many more designs for the final release, Goldfarb says.
Many people enjoy the convenience of Web-based e-mail, but miss the fancy functionalities that an email client affords. Netscape 6 gives users the ability to access Netscape WebMail within Netscape Mail or through the browser.
"People like the access from anywhere of Netscape WebMail but miss the rich e-mail client," Goldfarb says. "Now when you're at your computer you get all the functionality of an email client right in the browser."
You can also access Netscape Mail, AOL Mail, and even POP3 or IMAP4 accounts.
First seen in the early beta of the browser, the My Sidebar feature is a customizable collection of tools and content that remains accessible while you surf. It also includes tabbed windows for Netscape Instant Messenger, stocks, CNN, and a "what's related" area with links to sites similar to the one you're on. A search window offers anytime search using a choice of five search engines: Netscape Search, Google, CompuServe Search, AOL, and ICQ Search.
With Preview Release 2, users of Netscape's branded version of AOL Instant Messenger can now initiate group chat, Goldfarb says. Additional third-party My Sidebar tabs from the likes of the New York Times, EBay, and MapQuest are available at My Sidebar Central.
With site registrations and multiple email accounts, keeping track of passwords can be tricky. The second pre-release of Netscape's updated browser builds upon the Cookie Manager of the earlier release, adding a handy password manager for Web pages, email, and instant messaging.
When you hit a password request on a site or email account, Netscape 6 asks if you want the password remembered right now, never "for this site," or "always," according to Goldfarb. You can also store credit card and personal information in the form manager to make filling out those tedious shipping and billing forms easy.
But storing personal information isn't always safe, especially if you're not the only person who uses your PC. For added security, Netscape 6 has a master password option.
"You can set a master password as the key to your password or form database," Goldfarb says. "It encrypts the data in your hard drive; you need to supply the master password only once to unlock your passwords for that session."
Netscape 6 features an HTML editor, Netscape Composer, which uses the Gecko layout engine to render documents just as they will appear on the Web. In Preview Release 2, Netscape Composer offers better table editing and the ability to drag and drop images, links, and code into a document.
Already available in Netscape Communicator 4.06 and above, this version supports Internet keyword browsing. Here you can see the AOL influence on Netscape's design. With keywords, you type a particular product, category, name, or city into the browser and retrieve a selection of sites from Netscape and America Online's services.
With Netscape 6 Preview Release 2, Netscape primarily focused on rounding out the feature set, Goldfarb says. "For Preview Release 3, we'll work on enhancing stability and fixing bugs," he adds.
Meanwhile, Netscape continues to update the Communicator family now on version 4.74 (there will not be a Version 5). Perhaps with the final release of Netscape 6 due later this year, Netscape will deliver the revolutionary Gecko browser it has promised.