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updated 11/2/2006 8:05:39 PM ET 2006-11-03T01:05:39
REVIEW

The long-awaited upgrade to Microsoft's Web browser is here, introducing the masses to features available for years in rival products.

My initial thought to Microsoft Corp.'s game of catch-up was "no big deal." But after trying out version 7 of Internet Explorer, the first major release since 2001, I found a number of improvements to like. Normally, those might provide enough reason to switch to IE7 — except rivals like Mozilla's Firefox have been pushing forward with new tools as well.

(MSNBC.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC.)

The most noticeable change in IE is a redesign that replaces menus like "file" and "edit" with task-oriented buttons for printing, searching and the like.

Just as Google Inc.'s novel, folder-less approach to e-mail took getting used to, Microsoft's new interface initially will seem odd. But in no time, I started questioning the old ways — why, for instance, was "print" under "file" and not "view"?

IE7 also introduces a built-in search box and tabbed browsing, which reduces clutter by opening multiple Web pages in a single window. That'll come as new to the 90 percent of Internet users who don't use Firefox and Opera, which already sport both features.

The new Microsoft browser also carries security improvements, including warnings when Web visitors try to go to known "phishing" sites that try to steal passwords.

Version 2 of Firefox, which came out last month a week after IE7, also added a phishing filter, while Opera Software ASA plans to include it with Opera 9.1, expected later this month (The current version, 9.0, came out in June).

I've been a longtime fan of tabbed browsing, first with Opera, then with Firefox, my primary browser these days.

Microsoft has a few unique features, including the display of small, thumbnail versions of all open pages at once. It catches up with Opera and Firefox in letting you save related tabs in groups to reopen at once. But IE7 lacks Firefox's and Opera's ability to reopen a tab you've accidentally closed.

Firefox gets points for search, offering the easiest ways to add search engines and organize them within your search box. In addition, as you start typing in your search, Firefox offers suggestions to finish the query.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has the clearest way to add obscure search engines for which a tool hasn't already been produced (Opera's is easier — but only after you figure it out). And IE7 lets you search recently visited sites based on their content rather than the title or address alone, a task for which I now need Google Inc.'s Desktop program.

The three browsers now support Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a technology for notifying users of new entries on their favorite news sites and Web journals.

Though Microsoft is catching up with IE7, it is turning RSS into a platform on which outside developers can build standalone applications. Few are available now, but I like the fact you'll be able to update feeds for all programs at once.

That said, Firefox 2 introduced the ability to add feeds to standalone applications or outside RSS services from Yahoo Inc. and others (though unlike with IE, adding to one won't add to all). Opera has a nice e-mail-like interface akin to what's available in standalone programs.

But the most useful feature comes with Firefox 2 and IE7. If you click on a link that is an RSS feed, you get a preview on the Web page along with easy ways to add it to your collection. With Opera, as with previous versions of Firefox, you get garble.

All three browsers now have easy ways to clear private data, such as cookies and browsing history, and to restore open pages the next time you use the browser.

IE7 now lets you enlarge and shrink images along with the text, a feature Opera had before. And IE7 matches Firefox's and Opera's ability to automatically shrink Web pages when you print so margins don't get cut off.

Microsoft introduced a number of security features _ a welcome development because it's often the target of hacking and other exploits given its dominant market share.

Active X controls, which are used to make Web sites more functional but can let in spyware and other malicious programs, are disabled by default. But there's a nice touch: Microsoft built in exceptions for well-known, trustworthy sites so most people will never have to turn Active X on _ only to forget to shut it off.

Other features include displaying the special codes behind non-English Web addresses, preventing a scam artist from substituting the "a" in the Latin alphabet with the "a" in Cyrillic, so users might think they are visiting the real PayPal site, for instance.

Time will tell whether the security initiatives are enough or even better than those Firefox and Opera engineers have developed — including the rejection of Active X completely.

Firefox 2, meanwhile, sports a universal spell checker. Misspelled words are underlined in red, whether you're composing an e-mail or a blog entry. There's also a feature called Live Titles that lets you see updated stock quotes and eBay auction prices in a bookmark title.

With Opera 9, you get support for an emerging file-sharing mechanism called BitTorrent along with widgets — Web-based applications for checking weather, soccer results or anything else. Plus, Opera lets you easily block individual images — like an annoying graphic — from specific sites, rather than being forced to block all or none.

All three browsers are free downloads, and Microsoft is pushing IE7 as part of its Windows Update service starting this month. Users will be prompted, even if their service is set to automatically install updates. Only Opera and Firefox have Mac and Linux versions.

There are things to like about each browser, and I recommend that IE users at least upgrade to version 7. They may find features to like in Firefox or Opera, but the gap is much narrower now, so IE7 may be satisfactory.

I'll stick with Firefox, however, because IE7 and Opera 9 don't offer enough novel features to break inertia. Firefox 2's improvements are minor but show that its developers aren't resting and waiting five years for the next breakthrough.

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