Why Two Browsers are Better than One

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By now you may have heard that the makers of the two leading web browsers launched their latest totally free editions, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 and Mozilla's Firefox 2, within a week of each other. Feature-wise, most news reports have already declared a winner: the long-awaited IE7 may be a vast improvement over its predecessors, but the new Firefox leaves it in the dust. While that's mainly true, here's what you need to know about each one, and why you should have them both on your Windows PC. (Firefox 2 is available for Mac users, although Internet Explorer is not.)


Microsoft's IE developers knew that they were up against Firefox's very successful earlier versions, so they plucked a few key elements for the IE7 design. For starters, the navigation bar of the browser takes up very little room, allowing more space for the websites themselves. The familiar buttons—refresh, home, favorites and one-touch print—are all nestled in, but when you start it up, IE7 doesn't display the "menu bar," containing all of the deeper options people tend not to use on a daily basis.


IE7 now boasts tabs for browsing, which has been integral to Firefox for a while. Tabbed browsing allows you to open multiple websites in a single window, reducing screen clutter. It's well intended, but I don't really think it's all that. My main complaint pertains to both both IE7 and Firefox: when multiple sites are open in a single window, that window bears the label of the website on top. The other open sites are, in essence, hiding behind it. You will see all the tabs if you click on the window, but if you have many other open windows, it might take you a while to find what you want. At least in Firefox 2, if you don't see a tab and accidentally close it, you can go to the "recently closed tabs" menu and pull it back quick.


Phishing filters are more crucial, and tend to be of great help to the less savvy web surfers. Phishing is the malicious art of capturing people's personal information by making them think they're at one website—a bank or favorite shopping site—when they're really at another. Microsoft and Mozilla have created constantly updated databases of known or suspected phishing sites. Both browsers employ those databases to block a user from surfing into danger. The feature is invisible if you are in safe waters, but when you land on a phishing website, the browser will alert you.


IE7 has a search box in its navigation bar, and like even the earlier editions of Firefox, you can choose from a large number of search engines or retailers. Both browsers have done this to reduce the reliance on Google and Yahoo! toolbars, which may be nice but definitely take up space. Firefox 2 actually borrowed a cool effect from Google's toolbar. As you begin typing your search terms, Firefox anticipates your intention. For example, if you type "c-o-f-f", Firefox adds the "e-e" and even suggests "break" and "tables" and other terms to pinpoint your investigation. It's a great one-up on IE7, but Microsoft actually has a search trick that Firefox doesn't. If you would like to add a search engine to the toolbar, Firefox directs you to a page that only someone with a few years of college computer science classes would understand. Microsoft, on the other hand, gives you a clear three-step instruction. In seconds, I added Froogle, Google's web-shopping comparison site, to IE7's list of search engines.


For a few years, the best way to get news fast has been through RSS readers, small programs or sites that pull the latest headlines from your specified list of favorite news sources (like, for instance, Time.com's Gadget of the Week). When you visit a news site, Both new browsers let you quickly add feeds-constantly changing lists of news headlines—to their own favorites (or bookmarks) menus with a click or two. Firefox gives you an additional option, allowing you to add feeds to your own custom RSS website on Bloglines, Google Reader or My Yahoo!


Perhaps the greatest Firefox 2 feature has the boring title of "Session Restore." If you have a bunch of websites open, but unexpectedly have to shut down (maybe your computer crashes, or you're installing software that needs a restart), Firefox remembers the pages you had open and goes right back to them. Firefox also comes with a smart new spellchecker. If you're typing in an e-mail, blog entry or online comment form, it puts a little red line under dubious spellings. Right-click the word to see correctly spelled suggestions. Ironically, it just like using Microsoft Word. It worked in Hotmail, although it didn't work in AIM's web mail program. Mozilla says its up to webmasters to enable or disable the feature.


There's still an advantage to having IE7 handy, mainly because, as the dominant browser, programmers occasionally build sites that work better or exclusively with IE. The best example is Kodak EasyShare Gallery (kodakgallery.com). You can do everything you want to do on the site with any browser you want to use, but if you have 120 pictures from your 5-megapixel camera, the easiest way to upload photos is with the blatantly named "Easy Upload for Internet Explorer." I doubt it's a case of collusion—there are other examples of this kind of bias around the Web—but it is a valid reason to keep IE7 handy, even if you plan on using Firefox 2 most of the time

You can download Firefox 2 for Windows, Mac OS and Linux at getfirefox.com. You can get IE7 for Windows (only) at www.microsoft.com/ie.