11 min read

Review: Netscape Browser Beta Is Powerful But Buggy

The browser is sleek and cutting-edge, with top-notch password management and protection against spyware and phishing. However, it's probably still too buggy for most users.
Netscape is the Elvis of browsers. It started out lean, sexy, and breathtaking. But as it aged, it became a bloated, lethargic joke.

With Netscape 8, released in beta on Thursday, the King is back.

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The browser is sleek and cutting-edge, with top-notch password management, and protection against spyware and phishing. I've only been using it for a few hours, and it's already my default browser. However, it's probably still too buggy for most users, and I can't promise that Netscape will still be my default browser tomorrow. You might just want to wait to give it a try until the software goes into general availability in a few weeks. If you can't wait, the browser is a free download from Netscape, which is a business unit of America Online, which in turn is part of Time Warner.

Tabs And Popup Blockers

Netscape is based on Firefox. It supports tabbed browsing, the major feature that attracts users to Firefox. Tabbed browsing allows you to view multiple Web pages in a single browser window, similar to the way you can view multiple documents simultaneously in a single instance of Microsoft Word.

Netscape also includes a popup blocker. The popup blocker is actually too aggressive; I had difficulty switching it off for popups I actually wanted to see.

And Netscape supports many of the extensions that third-party developers have written to add capabilities to Firefox. Or so says an AOL spokesman; I didn't test it out.

One of the more distinctive features of Netscape is that it actually contains two browser engines: Gecko and Internet Explorer. For unknown and high-risk sites, the default is Gecko (which Netscape labels as "Netscape" in its configuration windows; I'll just call it "the Netscape engine" from this point forward, for simplicity's sake). For a select list of trusted sites, recognized by their URL, the default is Internet Explorer. The selection is easily user-configurable on a site-by-site basis, so you can easily switch the engine from Netscape to Internet Explorer if you find a page looks funny or doesn't work.

Great Security

Netscape is armor-plated for browsing on today's highly insecure Web. It includes warnings that appear when the user tries to access a known spyware or phishing site, and an easy-to-configure manager for passwords and online forms. Like Internet Explorer, Netscape divides all Web domains into three categories: Known safe, known unsafe, and the vast majority of sites, which are unknown.

The anti-spyware/phishing protection is a great idea — however, it doesn't seem to work all that well in practice. AOL and its partners maintain a list of known phishing sites. When a user attempts to visit one of these sites, a warning appears instead, with a button that can take the user to the suspect site if the user insists. If the user goes to the site, the browser automatically configures itself to maximum security: all popups are blocked, ActiveX and JavaScript are switched off, and the browser engine is switched to Netscape. The browser also displays a warning message just below the toolbar for the entire time it's on the suspected site. In the image below, it's the pale yellow strip above the HotWebSearch logo. Bold red letters spell out "WARNING"

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Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to work. I opened my spam folder and clicked on the URLs of the most recent half-dozen phishing messages I saw. None of them activated the warning. Eventually, I called AOL and had them point me to a couple of URLs that were known to be on their blacklist, so I could see how it worked. That suggests that most of the known phishing URLs do not appear on AOL's list — yet. Hopefully, they'll get more complete as time goes by.

The password and forms manager is quite impressive, and it's probably the main reason I switched my main browser from Firefox to Netscape. The following illustration shows what the user configuration looks like. Looking it over will tell you a lot about how it works:

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The first time you log into a password-protected site, the browser prompts you to decide whether you want to save your username and password.

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You have the option of creating a single, master password for accessing all the password-protected sites you use, and you can password-protect some of your logins. You can also set Netscape to never save some logins and passwords.

That sounds a little confusing, so let me try to explain with some real-life examples. Let's say many people have access to your computer. Many Web newspaper sites, like the New York Times, require registration, but don't charge you any money to join. So you might want to leave Netscape configured to automatically suggest the login and password for anyone who sits down at your computer and tries to access the Times.

However, if an unauthorized person accesses your account, or your account on other shopping sites, that person can end up costing you money. You can still automate logins to those sites, but you can password-protect all the logins for your medium-security accounts under a single password. You no longer have to keep track of multiple logins and passwords — just keep track of one password.

Finally, if an unauthorized person accesses your online banking account, that person can clean you out entirely. You'll want maximum security for that site, and sites like it. You'll want to set Netscape to never save any of the login and password information on those sites.

Site Controls Site Controls work similarly to Microsoft's Internet zones. They allow you to set the behavior of the browser on any individual domain, based on how much you trust the security of that domain. The browser comes pre-populated with settings for about two dozen trusted domains; the pre-populated domains are mainly big commercial sites including Yahoo,, and eBay.

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The list is by no means complete. For example, even Netscape's parent company, Time Warner, isn't on the list (an oversight which will be corrected when the browser goes into general availability, a company representative said).

The browser comes with three "Master Settings," equivalent to Zones in Internet Explorer. They are: "I Trust This Site," "I'm Not Sure," and "I Don't Trust This Site." The Master Settings are configured by default when you install Netscape; you can customize them to your liking. I have a quarrel with the way that some of the settings were set by default — for example, I'd just as soon that pop-ups be allowed on the "I Trust This Site" setting, because some sites really require pop-ups to function. Likewise, I'd prefer that Internet Explorer never be designated the default browser engine; if I need IE, I'll configure things that way on a site-by-site basis. However, those settings are easily changed to get them to your liking.

Features And Faults

Importing settings: On start-up, the browser offers to import bookmarks, cookies, and history from other browsers. I had it import settings from both IE and Firefox, and the browser was able to manage that successfully.

Configurable toolbars: Netscape allows you to set up ten different personal toolbar rows — the company calls them "Multibars," and each row is a "Custom Toolbar" — configurable by clicking on buttons marked with numerals. Each custom toolbar row can include buttons that take the user to different sites. That's very useful for users who have a lot of URLs they visit regularly, but don't like the conventional means of managing bookmarks.

The preconfigured Custom Toolbars contain a lot of clutter — Netscape's people would no doubt call it "branding" — mixed in with useful tools. For example, you can have the local weather displayed automatically in a Custom Toolbar. By default, Netscape also shows you a box marked "Shopping," which takes you to an online store. Some of that stuff will be annoying to some users; it's user-configurable. If you don't like it, get rid of it.

One particular feature tool I liked: You can view a single news headline, changed at intervals of seconds. Ever since 9/11, I like to check mainstream news frequently; I have my clock radio set to go off in the morning on National Public Radio news. I'm not so much interested in what's happening as what's not happening. If the headlines are dominated by the Michael Jackson trial — as they were while I was testing Netscape 8 — then there's nothing really scary happening in the world today, except for the usual. (Although, now that I think of it, Wacko Jacko is pretty scary.)

Any search engine you want, so long as it's Netscape's: The default search engine is Netscape's own, and it can't be changed. A Netscape spokesman said that'll be user configurable in the general release of the browser; 'til then, it's easy enough to bookmark Google or the other search engine of your choice.

No mail client: Will anyone miss it?

RSS reader: The browser includes an RSS reader, which I didn't test.

Privacy: A one-click privacy button clears page history, cookies, cache and puts the browser in anonymous mode.

Boy, is it buggy: It's important to note that this is a buggy beta. The browser crashed every couple of hours. When I was viewing the news aggregator site Bloglines, Netscape eventually ate all my system resources, slowing my PC to a crawl until I killed it with Task Manager. (I got Bloglines working flawlessly by switching the browser engine from Netscape, a/k/a the Gecko engine, to Internet Explorer. That's weird, because Bloglines works fine under Firefox, which is also Gecko-based.) Netscape crashed every time I tried to access Wired News.

Tab controls: The tab controls are significantly better than Firefox's native controls. Each browser tab has an option to control that domain's individual site settings (default engine, permitting ActiveX, JavaScript, etc.), an X to close that tab, and a drop-down menu with more controls for bookmarking and closing tabs. The row of tabs has a button for opening a new tab.

Even with the built-in Internet Explorer engine, Netscape might still be incompatible with some of your business applications. I was never able to get it to work right with my company's InterWoven TeamSite application, which is used to publish our Web sites. Then again, TeamSite is incredibly fussy; I've never gotten it to work with any browser other than IE, and it'll even break if you use the wrong version of IE, or have certain patches installed.

And Netscape wasn't able to entirely take default browser status away from Firefox. When I clicked on a link in an external program, such as Microsoft Outlook, the link came up in both Netscape and Firefox.

If you can put up with all those bugs, you'll find Netscape 8 to be an attractive alternative to other browsers. If you can't stand the bugs, wait until Netscape becomes generally available in a few weeks.

The Browser Market Heats Up

Netscape will be particularly interesting to corporate users who are looking for an alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer and who find open source applications such as Firefox and Mozilla unacceptable. Netscape, on the other hand, might be acceptable because it is a proprietary application, albeit based on the open source Gecko browser engine used in Firefox.

Netscape 8 is also an alternative to IE for users who need a browser that supports ActiveX. Firefox doesn't support ActiveX, but Netscape does. Users can manually designate which sites they should permit ActiveX to run on, or they can let Netscape make the decision for them.

ActiveX support is important because many business applications require ActiveX to run, and those applications have been a roadblock for corporate users who might otherwise want to ditch Internet Explorer and adopt alternative browsers.

This is an exciting time for browsers. For years, the only option for the overwhelming majority of users has been Internet Explorer. Last year, Firefox 1.0 emerged as a superior option to IE, and users started switching. That woke Microsoft's browser division up from its long nap, and they're promising a new version by summer. With the Netscape 8 beta looking so promising, it appears users will soon have yet another great browser choice.