Review: Netscape 8.0 Is Better Than Firefox

Mitch Wagner finds that Netscape 8 is a superior browser to Firefox and Internet Explorer, although an early security patch problem did make for an embarassing launch.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

May 20, 2005

10 Min Read

Netscape 8 is a sleek and cutting-edge browser, with top-notch password management and protection against spyware and phishing. It also has a much better user interface than Firefox or Internet Explorer, with myriad small improvements that, combined, make the browsing experience faster and more convenient than alternative browsers.

I like it so much that I'm making it my default browser, even though I've been using Firefox more than a year.

Download it for yourself from The software shipped Thursday.

The browser is pretty much the same as its public beta version, which was available March 3, with one big exception: Stability. The beta software was so buggy that it crashed once or twice an hour, but the current version is rock solid. I've been running it continuously for 12 hours, since I downloaded it and installed it, without a significant glitch.


Installation went smoothly, but the way Netscape tries to push adware on you makes a bad first impression. The installation software tries to get you to sign up for a couple of partner downloads: a weather package from the Weather Channel and a set of games software. It tries to get you to sign up for two screenfuls of marketing updates, presumably e-mail, and many of the boxes are checked by default and need to be un-checked. On one of those screens, the only obvious way to opt out of the marketing info is to check each box one at a time. I just closed the window without clicking anything.

None of this is wrong, but it still creates a bad impression when you're installing software that's supposed to protect you against adware, spyware, and phishing. It's like your doctor giving you sugary donuts at the office -- eaten in moderation, junk food isn't bad for you, but you don't expect to see it at an MD's place of business.

And speaking of creating a bad impression: Netscape patched the browser within 12 hours of its initial release. Again, that's not actually bad, but it doesn't look good for a product that's touted for its super-security.

Two Engines

The most interesting element of Netscape is going to be invisible to beginning users: The software has two browser-rendering engines built in: the Microsoft Internet Explorer engine and the Firefox engine. The Firefox engine is less susceptible to the current wave of attacks on the Web. But Internet Explorer is still the standard browser on the Web, and some sites don't work right when rendered with the Firefox engine. Firefox users find themselves occasionally falling back on Internet Explorer, which is inconvenient. The user interface for the two browsers is different, which can get confusing, and you have to maintain two sets of bookmarks.

Netscape solves the problem by building both engines into its browser. The default for most sites is Firefox. But the default for trusted sites is the Internet Explorer engine. Users can control on-the-fly which engine gets used, and Netscape will remember the user's choices, either on a site-by-site basis, or across the Internet.

Who designates which sites are trusted? Netscape maintains its own list, in conjunction with TRUSTe, the security and privacy accrediting organization. And users can also manually override the lists, adding secure sites and reducing the trust level of others. Tabbed Browsing

Netscape 8 supports tabbed browsing, as do Firefox, Mozilla, Opera, and several add-ons for Internet Explorer. Bare-naked Internet Explorer, straight from Microsoft, doesn't support tabs.

Netscape has a great implementation of tabs, which demonstrates a point I made earlier: The browser is an aggregation of good design choices, most of which individually are pretty trivial, but taken together they make the browsing experience faster and more pleasant. Let's take a look:

Click anywhere to the right of the row of tabs, and you'll open a new tab. You can do the same thing by clicking the little plus-sign to the left of the tabs.

Click on the arrow to the left of the plus sign, and the sidebar opens, containing your bookmarks, history, weather, stocks, or any of several other things you can put in the sidebar. Click the arrow again, and the sidebar closes. That's another one of the small things that make a big difference.

Now let's get a close-up of one of those tabs.

The green shield tells you what security rating the domain has. Of course, Netscape says its own site is perfectly safe, so the shield is green with a little checkmark. The vast majority of sites will be unknown to Netscape, and on those sites, the shield will be blue with three dots in it.

You can click on the X to close the tab, or click on the shield to change the security settings for that particular site. That calls up a control panel that lets you change which security zone the site falls into. There are three zones: "I trust this site," "I'm not sure," or "I don't trust this site." From that control panel, you can also control the behavior of Netscape's built-in pop-up blocker, and designate whether the site should be rendered using the Internet Explorer or Netscape engine.

You can control the security of all your sites on a control panel called, sensibly enough, "Site Controls."

Security Warnings

That leads us to one of the biggest disappointments in Netscape. The developers supposedly maintain a list of sites that are security risks, based on Netscape's own research and information from TRUSTe. When you visit one of those risky sites, you're supposed to get a big fat warning.

However, the list of risky sites seems to be woefully underpopulated. To test the warning feature, I sifted through my spam, clicking on links in blatant phishing e-mails. I went to pages that anti-spyware sites had warned against. I searched Google for dangerous sites. I was trying hard to find a page that would trigger the danger warning so I could see what the warning looks like. Finally, I had to resort to a URL that Netscape supplied me with when I ran into the same trouble evaluating the beta.

This is what the warning looked like:

Click on the "Continue Anyway" button and this is what you see -- note the yellow horizontal warning bar between the toolbars and the browser window itself:

The list of recommendations is going to have to get lots better before this feature is of any use.

Passwords And Forms

Netscape 8.0 has the best password controls I've seen. Firefox and Internet Explorer will remember your passwords for you, but once they go in, it's hard to get them out again. And the only way to change the passwords is to visit the sites one at a time.

You can set Netscape's Passcard Manager (as Netscape calls it) to simply fill in the passwords for you on most sites. Then, for sites where you want more security, you can set up a single master password to control multiple sites, and have individual, unique passwords for each site in that group. And you can set some sites as super-secure, and instruct Netscape to never remember passwords for those sites. Here's what the Passcard Manager looks like:

You can set the Passcard Manager to automatically fill in the passwords without your intervention, or to prompt you first. Here's what the prompt looks like:

Form Fill works similarly: You can set it up to automatically fill in your name, address, e-mail address, credit-card number and other frequently requested information on Web forms. Unlike the Firefox extension with similar capabilities, you can set it up with multiple identities -- different names, phone numbers, addresses, credit card information, and so forth. And you can password-protect some or all of the information. Multibars, Personal Toolbars, Trays -- Huh?

Another disappointing feature in Netscape is known as "Multibars." Or, the "multibar." I'm not quite sure which. And that's the point -- it's a good idea, but the implementation is confusing.

Most browsers have a toolbar at the top, in which the user can park buttons for bookmarks to favorite sites.

Netscape goes further: You can have multiple toolbars, and rotate among them. That sounds great.

But here's the problem: You can only add bookmarks to one of the toolbars, called the personal toolbar. Other toolbars contain navigation buttons to all sorts of content provided by Netscape partners, ranging from news headlines to maps to yellow pages to shopping sites. Most of that stuff is useless; I already have my favorite mapping service and places to shop, and I don't need Netscape's pushy suggestions.

Moreover, the language Netscape uses to describe its multiple toolbars is confusing. I had to pore over the user interface, online documentation, and then call Netscape's PR department -- and I'm still not sure I get it.

The feature itself is called "multibars," which is also the name for all the toolbars taken as a group. Except a toolbar is sometimes also called a "tray." And there are two kinds of toolbars, a "Navigation Toolbar" and a "Personal Toolbar." I have no idea what the difference is, if any, between a Navigation Toolbar and the Personal Toolbar.

Netscape says this will be fixed in an upcoming dot release. I hope so -- it looks like it could potentially be pretty handy.


While Netscape has its flaws, it is a big step forward in browsing technology. Its use of both the Internet Explorer and Firefox rendering engines, its implementation of tabbed browsing, and password protection and other security controls make it a faster, sleeker way to use the Web than ever before. It's now my default browser.

Of course, I've said that before. When I reviewed the beta, I said I was making it my default browser then. But at the time, it had a big problem: It was too buggy. I noted in my review that I might well abandon Netscape the very next day. And that's what happened.

Well, the bugs are gone from the production version of Netscape 8. This time, I think I'm keeping it as my default browser forever.

Or until some other browser leapfrogs Netscape's abilities.

Whichever comes first.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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