Explorer still chasing the Firefox

Test of new browsers shows IE 7 has beefed up security but trails Firefox 2.0 in features and Web development compliance.

After five years in the making, IE 7 has a distinct new look and an improved security posture, but our initial test shows that the Microsoft browser still nips at the heels of Firefox's feature set and its Web development standards support.

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We focused on the browsers’ user interface changes, feature set and compliance with Web development standards that will directly affect how Web content is viewed within each browser. We held off on deep performance testing, because we wanted to make a more accurate assessment over a longer test run. We plan to publish those numbers in late November.

IE 7’s interface changes are pretty dramatic when compared to the overall UI polishing presented in Firefox 2. The common navigation button collection found in nearly any Web browser has been minimized in IE 7 to a Spartan row focusing on large back and forward buttons, an ample address bar and search box and two small icons providing page stop and reload.

While the UI upgrades for Firefox 2 are not as extensive as those made in IE 7, it does offer some new features like improved privacy options for its users, a built-in spellchecker, and features that help users navigate recently closed and saved tabs.

Spell checker

Acid2 – a test of Web development standards compliance – shows only the Opera 9 browser (top) displayed the image perfectly. Firefox 2, center, and IE 7, bottom, could not present the full image.

The position of the reload button took some time to get used to and made us focus on how often we use that function. We found that anyone doing Web development will miss the standard menu bar to do things like open local files or view sources. Fortunately, you can restore at least the drop-down menus of IE 7's interface back to a more classic style, but not all of the other aspects of the GUI can be restored.

Another obvious visible change in IE is the inclusion of tabbed browsing, a feature available in the competition’s presentation for years. IE 7’s tabbing system does have some nice polish including a surprisingly convenient, intuitive new tab button and a visual previewing mode.

Firefox 2 has a somewhat upgraded tabbing system in that you can more easily close tabs, create larger tab groups given the left-right scrolling tab strip and see recently closed tabs and reopen them if desired. Given the variety of Open Source tabbing add-ons available for Firefox, these additions will hardly represent a new experience for most Firefox fans.

IE 7 now supports Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed subscription directly in the browser. It is a welcome improvement to IE and should do much to increase RSS feed consumption, but it is nothing new in the browser world as Firefox has included native RSS support for sometime.

Another obvious change in IE 7 is the inclusion of a Web wide search bar. By default it is configured to use Microsoft search, but it is easy enough to add other search facilities that adhere to the OpenSearch format. Firefox already had this feature, but in its latest release it improves the search bar with Google Suggest-style instant-query feedback.

A nice change for IE 7 is the significantly improved printing engine. IE 7 will scale content to fit a page, provides a nice multiple-page preview and lets you customize how headers will print to remove ugly URL or date footers. Firefox 2 has all these features save the multipage preview, though a few areas could use some interface polish.

FireFox 2 give users customizable printing options.

IE 7 Gets a Facelift

As one of its significant user interface enhancements, IE 7 included the significantly improved printing engine. IE 7 will scale content to fit a page, provides a nice multiple page preview, and lets you customize how headers will print to remove ugly URL or date footers

While almost all the features that IE 7 introduces already existed in Firefox, Firefox 2 has some new, unique features. It has developer-focused information dialogs for viewing syntax colored page source or inspecting page details and a built-in spell checker for large text fields.

The real motivator for Microsoft to upgrade its browser is to address security concerns. To that end, IE 7 errs on the side of security over usability. IE 7 limits technology access, provides more control over possible dangerous settings, and it nearly always informs of suspicious activity. Default security settings close even esoteric holes, such as clipboard access via JavaScript shutdown by default. ActiveX controls and browser helper objects, the common root of security problems in past versions of IE, are now very easily managed directly in IE 7.

IE 7 copiously warns users about potential security problems. For example, IE warned about self-generated SSL certificates used for our own applications, a system we purposely have in place. In fact, IE aims to be so informative about things it even adds URLs to traditionally chromeless pop-up windows. While this may help users, it is likely designers will move to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)-based pop-up regions to avoid the ugliness presented.

Firefox 2 does not have any major security changes to it, but then again its users haven’t had to worry about security exploits to the same degree as IE.

Both browser vendors have taken on the scourge of phishing. In either case the browsers may be configured to automatically compare currently visited sites to a list of known bad sites and then issue a warning if a match occurs. The possibility for privacy abuse here is mind-boggling, but some users may opt to give up privacy for protection.

No Phishing allowed

Both IE 7 and Firefox 2 have taken pains to help users fall prey to phishing. Here, the Firefox 2 browser has been configures to automatically compare currently visited sites to a list of known bad sites and then issue a warning if a match occurs.

In terms of development, Microsoft did bring its platform a bit closer to W3C standards compliance. IE 7 addresses some of the biggest complaints users have had about Web design for IE including subpar support for CSS and Portable Network Graphics (PNG). IE 7 does fix PNG images and addresses CSS-based fixed positioning, min/max width properties, common CSS2 selectors and numerous annoying layout and parser bugs.

Because of these improvements some Web designers may initially curse IE 7, particularly if they used various CSS hacks and filters to make things work in the previous release.

However, the stark reality is that IE 7 isn’t even come close to where Firefox 2, or even earlier versions of Firefox, is in terms of Web standards support. Holes in older standards including even HTML 4 character entities can easily still be found. IE 7 failed miserably the Acid2 test for CSS conformance we employed. To be fair, Firefox 2 does not perfect the test either. A perfect score is only achieved by less popular browsers like Opera 9.

Firefox introduces a whole new version of JavaScript, revision 1.7, which includes a number of advanced programming language features often only found in functional languages, such as iterators, generators, let statements, array comprehensions and destructing assignments. These features and the ones planned for JavaScript 2.0 help bring the language to the level where it can be used more effectively in large application development. IE 7 lacks any major language changes with the only notable exception being the migration of the XMLHTTPRequest object from an ActiveX control to a native browser feature.

However, Web developers will find that IE 7’s JavaScript’s implementation no longer has the memory and performance problems as previous versions, and sports up to twice the performance as IE 6 in preliminary tests. However, it also can be up to twice as slow as Firefox in these early tests. We will fully quantify performance and standards support in a follow-up review next month.

IE 7 does represent a big change, but it is hard to give Microsoft kudos things its browser should have been doing right along. Firefox 2 is clearly the more advanced browser for now, and it is highly doubtful any Firefox converts will return to the Microsoft fold because of IE 7. However, if you are an IE user there are few reasons not to upgrade as soon as possible.

Powell is the founder of PINT, Inc. a San Diego based Web development and consulting firm. He is also the author of numerous books on Web development practices including JavaScript: The Complete Reference. He can be reached at tpowell@pint.com.

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Powell is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry, each bringing to bear years of practical experience on every review. For more Lab Alliance information, including what it takes to become a member, go to www.networkworld.com/alliance.

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