Web browsers are a staple item on just about everyone's desktop. Currently, four primary players exist in the browser market space: Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox, Netscape, and Opera. Each offers unique features. For example, IE supports Microsoft's proprietary ActiveX and Active Directory (AD) technology. Firefox has a huge community of developers who create free add-ons that greatly enhance its functionality and appearance. Netscape lets you choose between the Firefox and IE HTML rendering engines. Opera comes with a built-in email client, contact manager, note-taking system, and the BitTorrent client peer-to-peer file-sharing tool. Let's take a closer look at what makes each browser unique—keeping in mind that I won't delve too deeply into compliance with commonly accepted Web standards and that I focus primarily on standard functionality rather than features that are available through add-ons or extended suites.

Opera 8.10 Preview 2 (build 7685)
I tested Opera 8.10 Preview 2 (build 7685) for Windows (and the other browsers) on a 750MHz Pentium II system with 256MB of RAM, a 4200 RPM disk drive, and a 1MB broadband connection. The skinny on Opera is that it's super-fast at rendering HTML pages and the standard installation package is jammed with features. This browser has a highly functional and fully customizable UI that supports tabbed browsing and custom menus, as Figure 1 shows.

Opera runs on any version of Windows, as well as on BeOS, BSD, Linux, Mac OS X, OS/2, Sun Microsystems Solaris, and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled cell phones. The browser can identify itself as IE 6.0, Mozilla 5.0, or Opera to Web servers, which Opera says can help with page rendering on sites that support only certain browsers. I set Opera to identify itself as Opera, then visited a federal Web site. I received a message from the site's Web server that said I must use IE to render the page correctly! I set Opera to identify itself as IE, then reloaded the page, which rendered perfectly. The same scenario reported itself for other Web sites (e.g., banking sites) that insisted I use IE.

One thing I really like about Opera's tabbed browsing is the ability to rearrange the tabs any way I want and even tile the tabbed windows. Another great feature is Opera's Quick Configuration (on the Tools pulldown menu), which lets you change settings on the fly for Java, Javascript, browser identity, cookies, pop-up windows, and more.

Opera's built-in mail client supports Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), spam protection that autolearns about unwanted messages, and a message-filtering system that works according to user-definable rules. This client is based on IMAP and POP3 and doesn't support proprietary connections to Microsoft Exchange Server. However, you can configure your Exchange mail account to use IMAP connections, after which you can use the Opera email client with Exchange. Opera also has a built-in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client. Chat sessions appear in a browser tab, so you can have a tab for each chat session.

The native voice subsystem add-on is a great feature. It reads Web pages out loud and lets you issue voice commands to the browser. You can also create your own voice commands to perform actions, such as navigating to a particular Web site.

One fantastic feature is the new BitTorrent client, which is a hugely popular peer-to-peer file-sharing system. On the downside, I could change the settings for the BitTorrent client only by editing the OperaDef6.ini file; I couldn't find any way in the GUI to change those settings. In the version I tested, the email client had to be enabled for BitTorrent downloads to work. (Keep in mind that I tested a preview release, so these limitations might be eliminated by the time you read this article.) BitTorrent downloads show up in the excellent download manager. When you position the mouse pointer over a BitTorrent download in progress, extra information (e.g., how many peers are reading and downloading the file) appears in a tooltip.

Opera's download manager and bookmark manager are similar to those in Firefox. However Opera's are a little better. For example, bookmark folders are listed in alphabetic order; in Firefox, you must manually select alphabetic ordering, which isn't the default layout. In Opera, both the download manager and bookmark manager appear in tabbed Windows; in Firefox, those items appear as new windows on the desktop. Opera also has built-in support (via context menus) for encyclopedia and dictionary queries through Infoplease, and a language-translation feature that works with Lycos's translator Web site.

Another nifty feature is the built-in Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Atom feed reader. Feeds show up as folders in the mail client or on a separate tab. When you enable Opera's email client, you can also send email to a feed item's poster if he or she has included their email address in the feed file. One feature I found missing in the preview was a way to import a list of feeds.

The note-taking feature lets you make individual notes. You can type whatever text you want into a note, or highlight text on a Web page, then right-click and send the text straight into the notes database for later referral.

The links feature lets you see all the links embedded into a Web page in one easy-to-navigate list. Opera also saves your session state when the browser closes, so when you reopen the browser, all the sites that were open when you closed it reopen on tabs. Another great thing about Opera is that in September 2005, the company removed banner ads and now makes the browser available for free.

Opera 8.10 Preview 2 (build 7685)
Contact: Opera Software * 47-24-16-40 00
Web: http://www.opera.com
Price: Free, with the ability to purchase Premium Support and versions for mobile devices
Summary
Pros: Bundled suite with email, chat, Web, RSS reader, BitTorrent client, and more; fast HTML rendering; compliant with common Web standards
Cons: No support for AD or Group Policy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Recommendation: This is a good product for home users, small businesses, and anyone else who wants an alternative to IE.


Firefox 1.5 Beta 1
Firefox is the darling of the open source community. Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 sports a highly customizable tabbed interface (which Figure 2 shows) along with hundreds of third-party extensions and themes that are completely free of charge. You can easily add functionality to the browser to support various search engines (even Windows IT Pro's search engine), real-time weather forecasts, language translators, a full-blown FTP client, and more. In fact, the vast number of available extensions is one of the best features of Firefox.

Firefox is an offshoot of the original Mozilla browser source code. However, Firefox is smaller, faster, more efficient, and much more popular than Mozilla. Mozilla is a suite of tools that includes a Web browser, email client, chat client, and HTML editor, whereas Firefox is simply a powerful standalone Web browser. Firefox runs on just about any mainstream OS, including BSD, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. (Minimo is a scaled-down version of Firefox that runs on Windows CE-based handheld devices and cell phones.) Like Opera (and unlike IE and Netscape), Firefox handles all Web sites in one security zone, which means most browser settings affect any Web site you visit. Exceptions to that rule are for pop-up windows and cookies; you can create settings to manage those items on a site-by-site basis.

Firefox doesn't come with a built-in email client or voice capabilities, but those options are available as extras. Mozilla Foundation provides the standalone Thunderbird email client, and a third-party developer created the FoxyVoice add-on, which gives Firefox the ability to read Web content aloud. The voice extension requires the use of the Microsoft Speech software development kit (SDK)—which is a hefty 68MB download on non-Window XP systems.

Another benefit of Firefox is that the complete source code is available to anyone who wants a copy. You can audit the code for security concerns or modify it to suit your needs.

Overall, Firefox is fast (though not as fast as Opera in my tests), easy to use, and easily extended. Although the standard distribution of Firefox has far fewer features than Opera, there are loads of third-party add-ons available that introduce functionality similar to Opera's. It would be nice if Mozilla would package some of the better add-ons right into the distribution package, but plug-ins are available for RSS readers, FTP clients, dictionary and encyclopedia lookups, note taking, and hundreds of themes that let you change the browser skin. Extensions are written in JavaScript, so anybody can develop their own functionality without having to use a standalone program compiler. If you prefer an all-in-one suite that includes Web browser, HTML editor, email client, and chat client, you might want to take a close look at the Mozilla Suite, which is developed independently of Firefox.

All this makes Firefox my pick for best browser. By the time you read this article, the release version of Firefox 1.5 might be available. Firefox 1.5 Release Candidate 1—RC1—was scheduled for release in late October 2005.

Firefox 1.5 Beta 1
Contact: Mozilla Foundation
Web: http://www.mozilla.org
Price: Free
Summary
Pros: Easily extended using hundreds of third-party add-ons; compliant with common Web standards; multiplatform support
Cons: No support for AD or Group Policy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Recommendation: This great alternative to IE has the open-source community behind it (and the third-party extensions to prove it).


Netscape 8.0
Netscape 8.0 is primarily based on Firefox source code. However, Netscape lets users choose whether to use the Firefox or IE rendering engines. If you visit a Web site designed specifically for IE, you can quickly switch to the IE rendering engine to gain any necessary site functionality.

Most of the features you find in Firefox are available in Netscape, so I won't repeat them. However, you should be aware of one limitation: Netscape runs only on Windows platforms.

On the surface, Netscape's UI is much like Firefox's, although I found it to be somewhat cluttered and unpleasant to the eye. Even so, a notable security difference exists under the hood. Netscape offers security via Site Controls, which are similar to IE's Security Zones. You can define master settings that determine how the browser will behave for each site you visit. There are four master settings: I Trust This Site, I'm Not Sure, I Don't Trust This Site, and Local Files (equivalent to IE's Trusted Sites, Internet, Restricted Sites, and Local Intranet zones, respectively). For each zone, you can enable or disable various Web features, such as Java, JavaScript, cookies, and pop-up windows. And because Netscape supports the IE rendering engine, you can also specify whether to allow use of ActiveX controls. Figure 3 shows how Netscape takes the zone concept a step further than IE by letting you adjust Site Controls in a given zone on a per-site basis.

Another part of Site Controls is Trust Ratings, which when enabled cause the browser to rely on a third party to determine whether to trust a Web site's content and enter sensitive information at that site. Trust Ratings uses a catalog maintained by a third party and can be refreshed hourly, daily, or weekly. Just who this third party is remains unknown to me; my inquiries regarding this question (and future browser features) went unanswered.

Netscape also supports a nifty multibar feature, which lets you configure as many as 10 toolbars that can be accessed quickly. The feature also lets you scroll RSS headlines in toolbars. And like the other browsers I tested, Netscape supports an auto-fill feature that can save form field information and fill in those fields when you revisit a Web page.

Overall,Netscape is a slick Web browser. Even so, I prefer Firefox for day-to-day Web surfing, primarily because there aren't many extensions or themes available for Netscape. (Netscape uses the same extension architecture as Firefox uses, so many of those extensions would probably work, but you might need to edit the extensions' code manually.)

Netscape 8.0
Contact: Netscape Communications * 650-254-1900
Web: http://browser.netscape.com/ns8
Price: Free, with the ability to purchase premium support and versions for mobile devices
Summary
Pros: Uses both Firefox and IE rendering engines; excellent security features; multiplatform support
Cons: Runs on Windows platforms only; no support for AD or Group Policy
Rating: 4 out of 5
Recommendation: This IE alternative offers the best of Firefox and IE in one browser interface. A good product if you don't care too much about extensions and themes.


Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 1
Microsoft's next version of IE, IE 7.0, was still in Beta 1 testing at the time of this writing. IE 7.0 promises to be a vast improvement over earlier versions of the browser.

Last I heard, IE 7.0 might actually be released as an update to XP (by the end of 2005) but will definitely ship as a standard part of the upcoming Windows Vista OS. On the downside, the fact that Microsoft considers the browser to be an official part of the OS means that IE 7.0 will be back-ported for use only on Windows Server 2003 and XP. Microsoft said that porting the browser to earlier Windows versions would be too difficult.

It's been a long time since Microsoft added any significant non-security features to the browser. As such, IE has a lot of catching up to do with the likes of Opera, Firefox, and Netscape, and the company isn't wasting any time in mirroring many of those browsers' most appealing features.

New IE features will include support for RSS and Atom feeds so that other applications on the desktop will be able to share those feeds. IE 7.0 will also make it simple for users to delete all Web use history, Web form data and passwords, temporary files, and cookies. Other improvements include better compliance with widely accepted Web standards such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which means the browser will be more compatible with progressive Web sites.

IE 7.0 will also have a slightly different UI than its predecessors, finally offering direct support for tabbed browsing along with a search engine located near the address bar (a feature similar to the other browsers I tested). A key feature of IE is that, at the time of this writing, it's the only browser that you can thoroughly control by using Active Directory (AD) and Group Policy, which makes it attractive for midsized and large enterprises.

Like the other browsers in this report, IE is customizable. Functionality can be added by using registry entries and Dynamic HTML (DHTML) or by developing add-ons in C, Pascal, and other programming languages. Although far more add-ons are available for Firefox, IE users enjoy a wide selection of add-ons that introduce various types of functionality, such as the MSN Search Toolbar, Google toolbar, Yahoo! Toolbar, weather site interfaces, mass-downloading tools, Voice over IP (VoIP) tools, and more.

As expected, IE 7.0 will offer stronger security. That's good news because IE has long been a prime target of vulnerability hunters and intruders, and as such has seen many security patches over the years. In fact, Beta 1 is focused primarily on security. But there is a caveat associated with the improved security: You won't get the full advantage of the final release version without upgrading to Windows Vista.

One new security feature will be No Add-ons Mode, which causes the browser to operate with all ActiveX controls, toolbars, and add-ons disabled. A new add-ons manager, which is somewhat similar to the managers in Firefox and Netscape, will let users view installed add-ons and ActiveX controls and enable or disable any of them with a click of the mouse.

Another security feature will be protection against phishing attacks. When you visit a site, the browser will perform a real-time URL lookup against a database (maintained by Microsoft) of known and suspected phishing sites. If you're visiting such a site, the browser will warn you, as Figure 4 shows. This feature is similar to the functionality found in Netscape's Trust Ratings.

IE will also provide a Protected Mode, in which the browser will be unable to modify files and system settings. In this mode, the browser will be isolated from the OS and will communicate with the underlying OS by using a broker process. In addition, Protected Mode will severely restrict COM objects and the browser will be able to write only to the temporary Internet files directory. These features will help protect the system against infiltration by various forms of malware.

IE 7.0 is only in its preliminary testing stages and therefore additional features aren't set in stone yet. Microsoft says that it expects the browser to undergo changes continually until the final product is released.

Internet Explorer 7.0 Beta 1
Contact: Microsoft
Web: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/IE
Price: Free for beta testers and will eventually be free for users of Windows 2003 and XP
Summary
Pros: Numerous security enhancements, tabbed browsing, RSS reader, improved Web standards compliance
Cons: Runs on Windows 2003 and XP only; not as compliant with Web standards as competing browsers
Rating: 4 out of 5
Recommendation: This browser is great for companies that rely on AD and Group Policy to manage browser configuration and for anyone who regularly uses Web sites that include ActiveX controls.


Summing Up
All four of the browsers I tested are powerful, flexible, and packed with features. Each browser is a reasonable choice for everyday use, depending on whether you prefer open-source products or need AD integration. I prefer Firefox because of its huge base of community support, multiplatform support, and available features.