Netscape browser gets an overhaul

Netscape’s new browser impresses with its revamped look and new functionality. We dissect the beta version.

Netscape's latest browser, available in a limited-release beta version, puts you in control. It lets you establish security settings site-by-site, manage multiple open pages more easily than you could with any previous browser, and – for sites that require Internet Explorer – you can decide for yourself whether to view the page in a Netscape-style window or an IE-style window.

The new browser is available only to preregistered beta testers – the registration period has closed. It is officially named version 0.5.6+, and is based on Firefox version 0.9.3. Mozilla released version 1 of the Firefox browser last month.

New look

The browser boasts a revamped look since its most recent previous update, Netscape version 7.2, which was released last August. The Netscape banner and the toolbar area feature shades of green and a corrugated design. The Standard toolbar (File, Edit, View, and so on) is located on the top right of the screen next to the minimize/maximize/close buttons rather than on the top left.

The redesigned navigation toolbar features icons with drop-down menus for managing pop-up blocking; choosing Passcard options; handling automatic form filling; clearing the history, cookies, and cache; and printing. You can't drag the address bar out of this toolbar or resize it the way you can in IE and other browsers, but this isn't a major flaw.

The optional Personal toolbar shows you local weather (based on the zip code you entered during program installation) and news feeds in various categories: headlines, money, sports, entertainment, and Slashdot. The toolbar is easy to customize – to add a component, just drag it from the Customize dialog box to the toolbar and let go. Likewise, you can remove a newsfeed or other toolbar item by dragging it from the toolbar back to the Customize dialog box. Or right-click the toolbar and uncheck Personal Toolbar to make it go away and free up space in the main browser window.

Tabbed browsing

The Netscape Sidebar pops open along the left side of the browser window when you click its icon. Like previous versions of Netscape, the update offers you a choice of tabs. Tabs let you open multiple Web pages and switch between them with ease rather than requiring a separate browser window for each page, as IE does. The default selections are Search, Bookmarks, and Latest News. Other choices include What's Related, History, Stocks, CNN, and MapQuest. Or click Customize to add other tabs for business, international, travel, music, TV, real estate, and other special interests. You can even create your own tab with links to any sites or files on your local machine.

If you prefer to browse without the sidebar, to maximize viewable area, you can put Netscape's tabs in the top left, under the Personal Toolbar. Anybody who has struggled to manage multiple open Internet Explorer windows will appreciate Netscape's tabs, which make moving between several open Web pages a snap. Tabs aren't new, nor are they specific to Netscape, but this beta takes them to a new level of functionality. The drop-down menu for each tab lets you control the security setting, cookies, pop-ups, and other options for that site.

For sites that require IE, you have the option of displaying the site as Internet Explorer. For example, you can't get Microsoft's Windows Update to work in any browser other than IE. With this new Netscape function, you can update Windows or access these IE-specific features without having to switch browsers. This is possible because the browser uses both the Gecko engine of Firefox and Microsoft's own Internet Explorer engine.

There are new drop-down options for closing tabs. You can close all tabs for that site, all tabs to the left or right of the one currently displayed, just the active tab, or all but the active tab. Not even Firefox has tab options to compare with this.

Still in beta

This is a beta product for sure. On our version, the text overlapped on one of the Netscape site's own pages. Previous versions of Netscape have conveniently permitted pop-up ads for AOL and other Time Warner properties to slip unfettered through the browser's pop-up blocker. The new pop-up control options in this browser may make it easier for people to block even AOL-approved ads.

There's a good chance, however, that AOL will find similar ways to monetize this browser, so it's far too soon to pass judgment. Still, a quick first look indicates that the next Netscape browser will be well worth taking for a test run, once it's available to the public.

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