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Although everyone's talking about Mozilla's imminent version 1.0 release, Netscape refuses to be left behind. Hence, Netscape has released a preview of its next-generation browser, Netscape 7. We got our hands on Netscape 7 Preview Release 1 and were pleasantly surprised. This browser keeps the best of the recent Mozilla builds, including the browser itself and the email client, while adding some useful tools, such as an integrated, full-featured version of AOL Instant Messenger. If the final release (due out later this summer), stays this solid and scores high on our official performance tests, it might finally out-surf Internet Explorer.
Netscape 7 looks a lot like version 6, but underneath the surface, it's mostly Mozilla, which means it also performs like Mozilla. In our informal testing, Netscape displayed Web pages just as fast as IE did (check back later in our final review for official ZDNet Labs' tests). And the other applications in the suite, such as the email client and the HTML editor, launched without the huge delays we saw in the original Netscape 6 release.
Unfortunately, however, Netscape's code trails a few versions behind that of Mozilla's current preview release. For example, the Netscape preview release we tested can't reject cookies from inside an email message, whereas Mozilla has just added this feature to version 1.0 RC 2. But by the time Netscape 7 ships this summer, it should have the full Mozilla 1.0 release inside.
The browser also includes two features first seen in Opera: tabbed windows and a one-click search. We love the tabs, which sit just below the menu bar and let you switch among unlimited open Web pages (open too many, though, and the tabs become unreadable). If a Web site includes a custom icon, that icon appears on the tab as well.
As for the one-click search (where Netscape searches the Web for any word on any Web page), perhaps Netscape should have paid more attention to Opera's version. In Opera, you merely double-click any word within a Web page, and a little menu pops up with an option to search the Web for the word you've just selected. In Netscape, however, you must select a word, then right-click to get a similar drop-down menu. Although Netscape adds only one step to the process, we prefer Opera's double-click support. Fortunately, Netscape 7, like Opera, also lets you choose which search engine to use for the Web search. Netscape.com's engine is the default, of course, but it's simple to switch to, say, Google. Go to Edit > Preferences > Navigator > Internet Search. In the resulting drop-down search engine list, select the one you want and click OK.
Netscape's new AIM application also strikes a chord. Integrated instant messaging is nothing new for Netscape -- the 6.x versions contain a handy, slightly disabled AOL IM (AIM) client that lets you chat with your AIM buddies. However, Netscape 7 ships with a full-featured AIM client that allows you to pick unique buddy icons for each of your friends, for example, and transfer files back and forth with your AIM pals. As with the previous version, the client lives in a little tab in the left-hand sidebar.
You can also configure this full AIM client to launch independently of Netscape when your PC starts up. To set this in action, go to Netscape 7's Edit > Preferences menu and click Instant Messenger and the check box next to ‘Launch automatically at system start’. Even better, this AIM version lets you log on to the ICQ network so that you can talk with ICQ pals, too. Unfortunately, you'll have to log out of one IM to access the other -- there's no three-way chatting with friends from the two IM networks. It's no substitute for a cross-network IM client such as Trillian, but it's handy enough if all you need to do is switch between the two networks.
Unfortunately, when we attempted to install Netscape and Mozilla on the same PC, we were plagued by problems. On both our Windows XP and Windows 2000 test PCs, the browsers ended up sharing the same list of tabs for their respective sidebars. Add a tab in one browser, and it shows up in the other one. We might overlook this anomaly, except that when Netscape's Buddy List tab shows up in Mozilla's sidebar, it doesn't actually work -- you get an error because Mozilla can't find the tab code.
The two also share email configurations -- again, add an account in one email client, and it shows up in the other. But like the shared tab list, the duplicate accounts don't quite work. Netscape 7 let us easily add an account for our Netscape WebMail, but when we tried to use that account in Mozilla's email, it couldn't retrieve our messages.
Nonetheless, Netscape 7 Preview Release 1 impressed us. For IM fans, AIM's new ICQ support lifts Netscape above the competition. Also, if you really want to wean yourself from the Microsoft bottle, Netscape 7 will be your best alternative. Stay tuned for our final review.