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There's something magical about the number seven -- take, for example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Will Netscape 7.0 benefit from that number's lucky reputation? In short, no. Netscape 7.0 delivers reliable, fast performance, ease of use, competent email and IM support. But the new browser spoils the soup with too many ad-related glitches. We're deeply disappointed that Netscape crowds its browser with AOL ads and, worse, omits one of Mozilla's best features: a pop-up-advert suppressor. At present, give or take a feature or two, Netscape 7.0 and Internet Explorer 6 are created just about equal, so version 7.0 offers no compelling reason to switch browsers or upgrade from version 6.x. Current Mozilla users should stick to Mozilla 1.1.
Code bloat seems inevitable these days, but it's out of hand in Netscape 7.0. The default installation weighs in at 30MB; meanwhile, the installer for Mozilla's browser, Netscape 7.0's foundation, is a comparatively svelte 10MB.
As a result, we emphatically recommend that you run the custom install instead of the default install (one of the installer's first screens lets you decide which one you want). That way, you can pick only the pieces you need. For example, we did away with Java 2.0, Winamp and RealOne Player, which brought the download size to a much more manageable 15MB. You probably already have Java and a bevy of media players installed on your PC, so there's no need to download them again as part of Netscape 7.0.
Aside from size, Netscape's installer proves the worst kind of ad dropper. We were utterly annoyed by the AOL advertisements that the Netscape 7.0 installer scattered onto our PC, including an AOL shortcut on the Windows desktop and an AOL ad in the Favorites list for Internet Explorer. We understand that even free software has to make money somehow, but we much prefer Opera's approach; in its free version, the browser contains an ad to deliver banner ads. As of version 6, Internet Explorer doesn't plague you with any ads, which is the best option of all.
Netscape 7.0's user interface doesn't differ much from that of Netscape 6 or the Mozilla 1.0 browser. Our favourite new touches, actually, are gleaned from the new Mozilla 1.1 browser.
For example, Netscape now features Mozilla's much-loved tabbed browsing; the browser window includes a row of tabs at the top that let you quickly switch between different Web pages. This feature is perfect for modern surfers who routinely visit many different sites, such as search engines and online brokers, during one session. And Netscape 7.0 improves the process. To open a new tab quickly, you simply click a handy little icon to the left of the tabs.
Once you have various Web pages loaded into a set of tabs, a new option in the Bookmarks menu, called ‘Bookmark this group of tabs’, saves all of your open tabs as a single bookmark, so you can reopen all the tabs at once just by clicking the bookmark. To make it easy to distinguish these group bookmarks from regular ones, the Bookmark menu gives them a different icon; instead of a single bookmark, it's a set of three bookmarks stacked on top of each other. Although tabs and group bookmarks might seem like minor changes, they make it much easier to browse multiple Web sites and save groups of related pages. Internet Explorer doesn't offer anything similar.
When Netscape released version 6, the company had completely reworked the browser from the ground up. As often happens with such a total revamp, some beloved features from the old program went away. We still miss the Netscape 4.x feature that let you right-click any GIF and save it as your Windows wallpaper, for example.
However, in Netscape 7.0, at least one old feature makes a return: Print Preview. This menu option (File > Print Preview) pops open a window that displays a facsimile of how your page will look once it's printed. Formatting buttons let you switch between the Landscape and Portrait modes or scale a too-wide page so that it fits within the margins of your paper. And from within the preview display, you can click the Page Setup button to create headers and footers with, say, page numbers and titles.
Although we love the feature itself, the new Print Preview doesn't always show an accurate representation of the printed page. For example, we tried Print Preview on the News.com front door, and a set of links that should have been on the bottom of the page appeared at the top. In fact, those links hid the main headline from view. Yet when we printed the page, everything was in its proper place.
Unfortunately, one of Mozilla 1.0's best features is completely missing in Netscape 7.0. As reported in ZDNet News, Netscape doesn't have Mozilla's ability to automatically block annoying pop-up ads.
Netscape 7.0's most significant improvements lie within its email client, Netscape Mail. The program launches quicker, and windows scroll faster than before. In fact, the new version of Mail seems snappier than it was in Netscape 6. It also appears much more stable; we experienced very few crashes with Netscape 7.0 but constantly had problems with the Netscape 6 client crashing without cause. Since the version 7 crashes occurred mainly when we ran both Netscape and Mozilla simultaneously, they may not be Netscape 7.0's fault.
The new Quick Search feature also caught our eye. This little box sits at the top of your email list. Just type in a few letters, and Netscape will sort your email using any subject line or email address that matches your search term. It's fast, too -- faster than Microsoft’s Oulook, certainly.
We're also fond of 7.0's vastly improved instant-messaging (IM) client. As with Netscape 6, the IM client in Netscape 7.0 defaults to AOL Instant Messenger. But Netscape 7.0 now also supports ICQ. Unfortunately, you can't log onto both IM systems simultaneously; the client allows you to pick only one or the other. If you need to have chat windows open on multiple IM services, then you'll need something like Trillian.
Equally disappointing, the IM client displays ads at the bottom of its window. Although these little ads are innocuous, they update constantly, so even if you're not doing anything in the IM window, you'll still encounter a steady stream of ads.
The raw performance of Netscape browsers has always lagged behind that of the competition. Opening new windows or displaying new Web pages traditionally takes longer on Netscape than on competing browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Opera. With Netscape 7.0, performance tests delivered a mixed bag, but this version now holds its ground against Internet Explorer, with an edge in a few features. Our performance tests found that Netscape's HTML load speed (the time it takes to load a simple Web site) was actually about twice as long as that of IE, but the difference is barely perceptible over most dial-up or lower-speed broadband connections. Anecdotally, we found that Netscape 7.0 renders most Web pages as fast as, if not slightly faster than, IE. However, IE is still a touch speedier at launching its email client, Outlook Express, than Netscape is at opening Netscape Mail.
Netscape fared a bit better at handling complex HTML/DHTML/CSS pages, which means that the browser can draw Web pages as the designer intended. We noted a few minor problems; some text colours did not appear to render properly, for example. Still, Netscape is much improved, thanks largely to its Mozilla engine, and it deserves high marks for effort.
Security holes, including the recently discovered flaw that could expose your credit card to malicious Internet thieves, have posed a huge problem for IE. So far, Netscape browsers have largely avoided such issues -- probably because of Netscape's smaller market share. There may be some as-yet-unannounced security flaws in the Netscape browser.
Hence, we regard Netscape 7.0's Password Manager with some trepidation. Whenever you log onto a Web site -- say, your online bank -- Netscape 7.0 pops up a window asking if you'd like it to save your password. If you answer yes, the browser will automatically fill in your username and password the next time you visit the site. This means that your passwords are stored with the browser files. Because of that potential security risk, we recommend that you store only nonessential passwords, not vital ones such as the password to your online bank account. Internet Explorer 6 offers a similar password feature, and we issue the same recommendation: use it for convenience but don't use it for important passwords.
We give a thumbs-up, however, to Netscape 7.0's Cookie Manager (Tools > Cookie Manager > Manage Stored Cookies). Whereas similar tools in previous Netscape versions made you hunt through menus to find various cookie-management options, the new manager is far more localised. With it, you can remove unwanted cookies that some Web sites plant in your browser or block cookies entirely from a selected Web site.
Unfortunately, you can't perform all cookie-management tasks within this dialogue box. You'll have to turn to the Preferences dialogue box (Edit > Preferences) to configure Netscape 7.0's cookie policies, such as whether to accept cookies at all or whether Netscape should prompt you before accepting new cookies. For true consolidation, Netscape needs to bundle all cookie features into a single window, but we do appreciate the wide range of cookie control. Netscape's cookie-handling features are a little better than IE 6's. For example, IE offers a button to delete all of your cookies at once, but it lacks an equivalent to Netscape 7.0's ability to let you pick and choose individual cookies to delete. Instead, IE makes you hunt down the Cookie folder on your hard drive and delete cookies manually.
When we looked at an earlier preview release of Netscape 7.0, we had high hopes. Netscape built on the speedy and stable Mozilla browser, then added several cool features, such as its more compatible IM client. Unfortunately, Netscape also added a number of things that we don't appreciate, such as omnipresent advertising. And Netscape removed one of Mozilla's best features: the ability to eliminate annoying pop-up ads. Mozilla users, unless you really need dual-IM support, should stick with what you have. And for those of you using Internet Explorer, the Netscape 7.0 and IE 6 browsers are still neck and neck, so if you're happy with one, there's no reason to try the other -- except, perhaps for the tabbed interface. Before we recommend that anyone switch to the Netscape browser, it will have to be significantly better than its rivals.