Just Browsing?

The computer browser may be the best tool ever given away. But which should you use?

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The best things on the net, as in life, are free. That's especially apparent to those of us milking the cow that Microsoft and Netscape are fighting over. The cow, in this case, is the browser--that vaunted piece of software that allows one to navigate the Web. Control the browser and you get to influence the experience of anyone using it. That's why Netscape and Microsoft have been competing so strenuously for your patronage. And that's why we're getting some of the most exciting and useful tools ever created, for absolutely nothing. If only carmakers behaved this way.

On Monday, Netscape is giving its developers a look at the guts of its upcoming Navigator 5.0. No word yet on when we, the people, will actually see the final product, but a spokesman told me that the next Netscape/AOL browser will feature, for the first time, a completely rebuilt "layout engine"--the dynamo that melds the images, text and other media of a Web page and paints them on your screen. The new model is expected to load pages considerably faster, while taking up significantly less hard-drive space. That's a good thing since Navigator's current browser package (including a mail and calendaring program) uses around 20 megabytes of space. By comparison, the kit going out to developers on Monday fits on a 1.44-megabyte floppy disk.

For now, members of the Netscape religion must content themselves with the portly Navigator 4.5, which came out in October. The browser is arguably better than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 and includes a number of useful innovations, including Smart Browser, which is a kind of built-in 411. Don't know Delta Air Lines' address on the Web? Simply type "Delta Air Lines" into the browser and it'll take you to the easy-to-forget www.delta-air.com If the place you're looking for isn't in Smart Browser's database at Netcenter (Netscape's portal on the Web), Navigator automatically looks it up in its search engine and takes you to the results page.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft responded last month by releasing the beta (or final test draft) of its Internet Explorer 5.0. Normally, I wouldn't review beta software in this column since prerelease code can be buggy and raw. (IE 5 is supposed to be commercially released by March.) But I believe that this beta is stable enough--and interesting enough--to recommend to anyone who's comfortable around a PC. Note that comfortable means you've been a Web user for a while and don't require any Microsoft support.

In synch with its borrowing style, Microsoft adopted the Smart Browsing concept for its own 5.0 browser, evening the score on that point. It one-upped Netscape, though, by vastly improving the way the browser handles search, bookmarking and history. Both browsers work equally well in Windows, by the way. And both include free mail programs: Netscape comes with Messenger and Microsoft gives away Outlook Express, which has been upgraded. Again, I prefer Microsoft's offering: Outlook looks snappier and offers a great way to handle junk mail. Microsoft's beta, however, is no Ally McBeal: it takes up 15.4 megabytes just for the browser; 49 megs if you install the mailer and other add-ons.

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