By Scott Spanbauer Who needs another browser? Even Microsoft has run out of meaningful ways to improve Internet Explorer, which an overwhelming majority of Web surfers use. Then why should you consider switching? Well, you might want a non-Microsoft browser. Or you might be a chat fanatic and a streaming-media hound looking for one-stop surfing.
Either way, three new major alternatives are here: Mozilla 1, Netscape 7, and RapidMedia Networks' RapidBrowser XP. (A fourth alternative is Opera. For our assessment of Opera 6--the most recent significant upgrade of this inexpensive browser--see our review.)
FRATERNAL TWINS.Mozilla 1 and Netscape 7, which are closely related, offer few features that IE doesn't--the only obvious one is the novice-friendly Composer Web-design module. But they have one thing Microsoft's browser will never have: the open-source cachet. Designers involved in the Mozilla project have labored for years to build, from the ground up, an Internet suite (browser, e-mail, and chat) that takes little room, loads pages fast, supports Internet standards zealously, protects your privacy, and doesn't clutter your system with unwanted add-ons or come-ons. Although Mozilla has no frills and still contains some very minor bugs, it largely delivers on that promise. If you want a grassroots alternative to Microsoft's vision of what the Web should be, this browser is it.
Netscape 7 (I looked at Preview Release 1) is Mozilla plus extra chrome, tail fins, flashing lights, and a few noticeable interface bugs. Based on the Mozilla source code, most of Netscape 7's features are identical to Mozilla's and do not differ much from those offered in Netscape 6.2.
Version 7 incorporates various small improvements, but the new features most Netscape 6.2 users will notice are the Opera-style tabbed browser interface (which lets you display and switch among multiple pages in a single open Netscape window), new search options, an Internet radio player with a cleaner interface than the included (and more powerful) Winamp player has, and the ability to save whole Web pages in a single step for offline viewing. And Composer's ability to upload files to servers finally works, too.
Netscape differentiates its browser by building in links to its services (the My Netscape portal, for example), replacing Mozilla's generic Internet Relay Chat client with Netscape Messenger (an AOL Internet Messenger clone), and bundling Net2Phone's Internet telephony client. You can customize the look of Mozilla or Netscape 7, and you can display the tabbed MySidebar window (it's called Sidebar in Mozilla) on the left side of the browser screen to organize and display bookmarks, searches, AOL Instant Messenger buddy lists, news, and stock tickers.
ANOTHER CONTENDER.A third new browser, RapidBrowser XP from RapidMedia Networks, builds on Internet Explorer, transforming it into a multimedia portal geared to broadband users. The tabbed page interface allows you to move quickly among multiple Web pages, but at a cost: Each open page is a freestanding instance of IE, so opening more than six pages that contain animation (as most banner ads do) can severely bog down your PC. If you get tired of closing windows, just turn the tabbed interface off and view all pages in a single window.
RapidBrowser XP's impressive bundle of tools includes notification about incoming e-mail; a universal chat and instant messaging client that supports the AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo systems; audio and streaming video players that integrate into RapidBrowser XP's main window; and extensive privacy settings that block both pop-up and pop-under ad pages, encrypt cookies, and erase your browsing history, cache, and search text. It also handles videoconferencing and records video from a PC's TV-tuner card.
All this costs $30, but RapidMedia Networks offers to pay you $10 for each person you refer who also pays the $30 fee--a marketing scheme that is sure to endear you to your friends and relatives. In addition, this browser requires you to log in to the company's portal server every time you want to use the software, which should set off your internal privacy alarm. RapidMedia says, however, that the company doesn't track individual user browsing habits. That sounds very much like a Web site's disclaimer, and RapidBrowser XP is basically the front-end software to RapidMedia Network's browsing, chat, and multimedia portal.
One key browser feature is how well it renders such difficult Web content as complex tables and layouts. I compared the new offerings with Internet Explorer 6 by browsing through dozens of sites, and found that all four performed about the same. The Mozilla-based browsers omitted several Active Server Page elements (both graphics and drop-down menus) on Microsoft's home page, undoubtedly because those elements weren't written with a standard Web technology. (This could happen on any similarly written Web page as well.) And none of the three offers the flexibility of IE's drag-and-drop toolbar.
Fortunately, if you want to experiment, you don't have to choose one over another--I ran all four concurrently on my computer and didn't experience much trouble. From the September 2002 issue of PC World magazine