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IE7: Has Firefox Met Its Match?

The rise of Firefox got the competitive juices flowing over at Microsoft, and the impressive result is Internet Explorer 7. But is it enough to win back Firefox defectors?

This time next year, if you find yourself using and liking Internet Explorer 7, thank the volunteers at the Mozilla project. The release of Mozilla Firefox 1.0 roughly 18 months ago marked the beginning of a downhill slide for Internet Explorer in both market share and mindshare. After a series of solid and reliable updates, Firefox is, in nearly every category, a better browser than Internet Explorer 6.

The rise of the open source browser was a wake-up call for Microsoft's developers. Having Firefox as a target inspired sweeping changes for Internet Explorer, whose basic interface and core features were overdue for an overhaul. IE7 is a serious attempt to close the gap with Firefox with one long stride. With the official release of IE7 Beta 2 for Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows XP Professional 64-bit Edition, and Windows Server 2003, Microsoft has unveiled a browser that looks much more polished than the beta label suggests. The final release of IE7 is set for later this year.

How well did Microsoft do in its attempt to lure back those who defected to Firefox? For the answer to that question, I compared IE7 Beta 2 on Windows XP with the most recent general release of Firefox, version 1.5.0.2.

Buttons And Bars

By efficiently mixing buttons and menus in a single command bar that shares a row with the tab bar, IE7's page layout provides a bit more room than IE6 or Firefox for viewing the contents of a current page. The traditional top-level menu is hidden (it reappears temporarily with a tap of the alt key). The standard toolbar vanishes, too, shrinking to a much smaller and more compact set of buttons.

The Favorites Center in IE7 combines the Favorites menu and the Explorer Bar in a single drop-down list that can be pinned to the left side of the browser window. Printing is smarter, shrinking pages to fit on a single sheet of paper and offering a preview. One especially innovative feature in IE7 is the Zoom button in the corner of the browser window. Clicking it zooms the entire page, both graphics and text, from 100% to 125% and then 150%. Or you can pick custom zoom levels up to 10 times the original page size.

In these everyday-task areas, IE7 wins. It has a cleaner look than Firefox and is easier to navigate.

One advantage of coming in late to the tabbed browsing party, as Internet Explorer has, is that you get to improve on the ideas of those who've gone before you. IE7's controls for opening, closing, and managing tabbed windows are simpler than those in Firefox, with a button on the tab bar to open a new window and a red X to close the active Web page. Closing a Firefox tab is a potentially awkward two-click operation--annoying enough that most Firefox experts install a tab-browsing extension.

IE7 also provides an easy way to manage a dozen or more open pages. Click the Quick Tabs button to see a thumbnail view of all open tabs. From this window, you can close any tab you no longer need and then switch to a new active tab with a single click. To get similar functionality in Firefox, you need to install an extension such as Viamatic foXpose.

Souped-Up Security

The most powerful argument in favor of Firefox is that it's more secure and less vulnerable than IE to infestations of spyware, viruses, and other forms of malware. Technically, at least, IE7 should level the playing field a bit.

It includes the latest updates to code introduced in Windows XP SP2, which blocks downloads, including ActiveX controls, unless you specifically approve them by clicking the Info Bar and selecting the appropriate menu.

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