Retro browser smackdown: IE6 vs. Netscape in 2011

Can you surf the modern Web with two ancient browsers?

IE6 vs. Netscape

IE6 vs. Netscape

What would happen if you attempted to surf the modern Web using the much-maligned IE6 or the virtually extinct Netscape 6.1? Would your computer melt? Could you even load a Web site before getting hit by a virus? I had to find out.

Ten years ago, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6, one of its most enduring products. Improbably, IE6 is still the browser of choice for an estimated 12% of Web surfers (according to data from Net Applications), despite security flaws and the presence of better, more modern browsers. IE6's launch date was August 2001, the same month as the release of Netscape 6.1, distributed by AOL and based on early code from the Mozilla project. The market dominance of IE6 and its successors destroyed the Netscape business once and for all.

Just for fun, I decided to try to surf the modern Web with the original, pre-patched IE6 and Netscape 6.1, testing both on a Windows XP virtual machine ( see related article ). Here's what happened.

IE6 – not bad at first glance

Despite IE6's awful reputation, it looks fairly modern considering that it was built in 2001, and it is capable of opening the default home page, Today's Web surfers, particularly users of Google Chrome, might blanch at the large area devoted to the toolbar and menu buttons, but the wasted space is nothing compared to Netscape 6.

Netscape ? clunky at bes

Netscape – clunky at best

Sure, Microsoft had an unfair advantage because it could bundle IE6 with Windows XP. But opening Netscape 6.1 shows a browser bogged down with AOL add-ons and too much unused space, particularly in that big left-hand column. You can use the mouse to slide that column over and create more browsing space, but it's still not a pleasant browsing experience.

But do they work?

Now let's test these browsers on some real-world sites., one of the sites I visit most frequently, displays properly in IE6 but you get a big fat warning saying "Your Web Browser is no longer supported." The same site on Netscape is chopped up and, well, awful, with Netscape incapable of displaying ESPN's front-page articles.

No surprise, Netscape struggles on modern sites

Here's an example of how modern news sites tend to get chopped up by Netscape 6, as seen on the Huffington Post. The same site is better, but not perfect, on IE6.

Can an ancient browser tweet?

As you can see, IE6 has trouble with the new version of Twitter, displaying only the left column. Netscape, though, couldn't display anything in the new Twitter. Twitter's older version, which won't be around much longer, works on both ancient browsers.

Netscape dies, must be resurrected

Netscape dies, must be resurrected

After surfing the Web for a while with Netscape 6.1, the browser shut down and would no longer load any Web sites, displaying an error message and then closing. Uninstalling and reinstalling Netscape did not work. So I completely reinstalled Windows XP and moved from Netscape 6.1 to Netscape 6.2.1, a (slightly) newer version.

Adobe Flash content works on IE6

Adobe Flash content works on IE6…

Next up is Adobe Flash. My first attempt at downloading Flash on IE6 led to the browser closing, but I was eventually able to load Flash Player 10.2 and play videos on and YouTube, the latter of which urged me to "upgrade to a modern browser."

… but not on Netscape

Installing Flash onto Netscape seemed to work, but videos on YouTube and MSN would not play, showing up blank.

Java content

Java content

When setting up Java I got a warning saying "this is not a supported operating system," but with IE6 I was able to install the software and play an online version of an old favorite: Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. 3, running in a Java emulator. Trying the same operation in Netscape gave me this error message "The plugin performed an illegal operation. You are strongly advised to restart Navigator."

JavaScript test

JavaScript test

JavaScript pre-dates both IE6 and Netscape 6, so I tried to run a JavaScript benchmark on each browser. IE6 ran the test, scoring a 24 (Chrome on Windows 7, by comparison, scores 759). The JavaScript benchmark site wouldn't display properly on Netscape, however, so I couldn't run the test.

When all else fails… Google and Wikipedia?

Things were starting to seem unfair at this point, so I figured I'd finish off by lobbing a few softballs at Netscape. Facebook, which worked on IE6, caused problems for Netscape. I couldn't get past the login screen. But can you use Netscape to search Google and read Wikipedia? Yes, you can!

The final word

After spending a few hours surfing the Web with ancient browsers, it's clear that IE6 can load most sites, albeit slowly, while Netscape 6 is incompatible with much of the modern Web. Millions of Web users still run IE6 – but that doesn't make this old Microsoft browser a recommended option. Although I didn't run into any obvious viruses, the security problems alone should be enough to scare you away. Sure, we didn't need to actually use IE6 and Netscape to find out that they're not very good. But sometimes it's fun to take a look at old technologies , and remember just how far the tech industry has come.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.