IE7 gets closer to its official debut

The browser wars are back. Microsoft has released another public beta of Internet Explorer 7. Beta 3 for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 has a few new features and is as polished as most final releases. Here are the details.

They’re not making beta software like they used to.

Today, Microsoft released Beta 3 of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP (Service Pack 2 required), Windows XP Professional x64, and Windows Server 2003. (Direct download link is here.) A version based on the same core code and including the same new features is available in interim builds of Windows Vista but won’t be available for public beta testers until the RC1 candidate due later in the summer.

Microsoft has certainly picked up the pace lately. IE7 Beta 1, billed as a developer-only release and richly deserving of the many stern warnings, shipped in late July 2005. A preview of Beta 2, considerably more polished but still only for the brave or foolish, was made available for public download six months later, in late January 2006. The official Beta 2 release arrived roughly three months later, and it’s been a mere two months between Beta 2 and Beta 3.

So what’s new? Of course, bug fixes and performance improvements are at the top of the list, but those are hard to measure. Beta 2 was supposed to be feature complete, but a few new features managed to sneak into this build. Here’s the short list:

  • You can reorder open webpages by dragging tabs left or right (a tabbed-browsing feature that Firefox has had for some time). If you regularly keep a large number of pages open, that feature helps you keep from being confused. (Note: you can’t reorder pages in the Quick Tabs window.)
  • The Mail icon is back on the standard toolbar – but only if you add it by customizing the toolbar layout.
  • There are a few changes in the way IE7 handles RSS feeds. Most notable is a new Refresh All option on the shortcut menu, which is useful if you want to update a large collection of feeds.
  • You can scroll a page horizontally if you zoom in close enough to cut off the right edge of the page. In previous beta releases, you had to zoom out again to accomplish that task.
  • Most importantly, this beta includes all the security fixes included with June’s batch o’ patches, making it a must-have for anyone running the Beta 2 release.

Like the last beta, this one will only install if your copy of Windows passes through the Windows Genuine Advantage gauntlet. In fact, IE7 ups the ante on on previous WGA tests. Before, you only had to validate your computer when you downloaded a piece of code from Microsoft’s website. Now, anyone can download the software, but you have to authenticate your copy of Windows during the setup process. If your PC fails the WGA validation, IE7 won’t install.

I’ve spent the past few days looking at this build of IE7 and can recommend it enthusiastically. In fact, when I fired up a copy of IE6, it felt practically primitive in comparison. Even Firefox 1.5 feels a little rough and unpolished next to IE7. These days, I’m using IE about 80% of the time and Firefox the other 20%. A year ago, those numbers were reversed. Tabbed browsing is better, IE7 has an impressive set of security features, and it works well with most websites. It still fails, though, when lazy web designers code their pages to sniff out specific browser versions. It’s also a problem with some secure websites (including Wells Fargo) that block users running IE7 because the new browser hasn’t been properly certified.

When I reviewed the last two beta releases of IE7 back in April, I pointed to two areas where Firefox has an indisputable edge over IE: its thriving developer community has turned out thousands of extensions, and it has a much more polished set of tools for managing credentials for logging on to password-protected websites. But extensions come with a price in stability, and the superb RoboForm add-in for IE (also available as a Firefox extension) handles passwords perfectly.

Oh, and about that “beta” label… Normally, you’d be well advised to think twice about installing beta code. But this release is different. The IE7 development team is justifiably proud of its accomplishments so far. When Beta 2 was released, the IE7 blog included this pitch:

We believe that IE7 - even at this beta stage - is a significant improvement and we want as many people as possible to try it and use it. IE7 is feature complete and has been through significant compatibility and reliability testing. People (especially technology enthusiasts) will have a good experience with it.

Beta 3 is better. And if you’re not happy, hey, the uninstall works really well.

What's next? One or more release candidates, followed by a final release around the time Windows Vista is ready to ship. Coincidentally, that's also when Firefox 2 is scheduled to be complete, which means things really will heat up in the fall.

Next week, I’ll look in more detail at the security features in IE7, including its anti-phishing filter. Stay tuned.