Software // Enterprise Applications
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1/7/2004
02:07 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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The Explorer: Torture Testing Netscape 6.0

Fred puts Netscape's latest browser through the wringer.

By now, almost everyone's heard about the preview version of Netscape 6. Some are calling it Netscape's ticket back to center stage in the browser wars.

Others are calling it too little, way too late. So what's it really like? You can try it for yourself by downloading a copy from Netscape.

But I don't recommend it; the "preview" is very buggy and crash-prone, and you may place your system's stability at risk. If you're really eager to give it a try, make sure you have full, current backups of all your essential data.

To spare you the hassles of playing with a buggy beta, the folks at Winmag.com and I have both separately test-driven the new browser for you. The Winmag.com review is a great place to start: It will walk you through the features and even gives you a "survival guide" you can use to help minimize potential troubles if you want to try the preview software for yourself.

I took a different tack: I put the beta browser through both the fast and full BrowserTune 2000 ("BT2K") test suites -- just as I've done for every major beta release of earlier versions of Netscape's and Microsoft's browsers.

Testing beta software can be instructive, but you have to regard the results with great caution: Beta software is by definition unfinished and will definitely change before its released. As such, beta tests can give you a rough indication of how a product is shaping up, but cannot and should not be regarded as the definitive and final word on a product.

The Two-Minute Torture Test
I started with BT2K's "Two Minute Torture Test." I ran it three times; the browser crashed once, and never succeeded in completing the complex script that BrowserTune uses to send the test results to you by e-mail. (Neither Internet Explorer nor Netscape 4.7 has any trouble with the script.) Still, using the on-screen display of the test results, a few interesting tidbits emerged: Netscape 4.7 identifies itself internally as "4.7 [en] (Win98; I)" while Netscape 6 (let's call it N6 for short) calls itself "5.0 (Windows; en-US)." It actually is a version 5 browser; the "6" is a marketing ploy designed to make N6 seem "higher" than Internet Explorer 5. FYI: IE5 does the same thing -- it's actually a generation four browser!

Browsers also use "user agent" strings to further identify themselves to Web sites that need to know which browser-specific elements to use, for example. N4.7's string is "Mozilla/4.7 [en] (Win98; I)" but N6 uses the much more complex "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; N; Win98; en-US; m14) Netscape6/6.0b1." That stuff at the end tells you the "Mozilla build" (14) and the marketing name of the browser (Netscape6, subversion 6.0b1).

The N6 home page trumpets that N6 supports JavaScript 1.5, an advance over N4.7, which supports JavaScript version 1.3. But Netscape's own script-version sniffer (which I incorporated into BrowserTune) reports that N6 supports 1.4, not 1.5. Something's wrong -- but I can't say what it is yet. Stay tuned.

The general scripting test results showed N6 running about 10 percent slower than N4.7 -- probably a result of untuned beta code. But the window-and-text scripting scores were way out of whack with N6 running a full 70 percent slower than version 4.7. That's a huge difference, and hard to explain away as a beta bug. There also were visual weirdnesses during these tests: The browser windows would open but remain empty until the tests were done. At first I thought this was a trick to improve the speed of the tests -- holding off on any window redraws until the scripts were done. But even with the delayed window-redrawing, the tests results were truly awful. This is something to watch in future versions.

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