The evolution of the Web and the corresponding development of Netscape's Navigator Web browser have been exciting and fast paced. Holding the coveted position of industry leader, Netscape has been able to easily redefine the Web at will. Some say Navigator 2.0 put the Web in a position to enter pop culture.

Navigator 3.0 is the latest incarnation of Netscape's trend-setting and industry-leading Web browser. Facing sudden stiff competition from Microsoft, Netscape piled on the features to turn an otherwise minor update into a full-blown, major upgrade.

Usability
For familiarity's sake, Netscape chose to not revise the UI in Navigator 3.0. So if you've used Navigator 2.0, you'll feel at home with Navigator 3.0. Unfortunately, Navigator 3.0 also inherits the previous version's UI quirks and flaws, such as inconsistency with the underlying OS's menus.

Although the UI remains the same, Netscape added functionality and tighter integration within the browser. Navigator consists of three applications (the browser and Netscape's mail and news clients) that share an interface, right down to the menu options. The line between the browser and the mail and news clients is blurred with this latest release. For example, you can now view HTML documents, which retain all HTML formatting codes, in email messages.

As for customizing the browser, however, Navigator 3.0 is downright medieval compared to IE3. Whereas IE3 lets you customize the entire browser UI from a central dialog, Navigator's options are in several dialogs and menu options. You can resize and remove Navigator's toolbars, but you can't move or minimize them.

Navigator is also inconsistent with regard to the Windows OS menu paradigm. For example, the context menu behavior lacks common features (such as the ability to copy data from a Web page to the clipboard). Although this design goes against Microsoft's UI guidelines­and could possibly extend the learning curve­the inconsistency is understandable considering Netscape's cross-platform support. Netscape also wants you to spend most, if not all, your time in Navigator, which diminishes any concern about UI inconsistency.

Navigator 3.0 also includes a universal resource locator (URL) helper, which is useful if you frequently access a site in one session. With this tool, you can simply type a domain name (such as winntmag), and Navigator 3.0 automatically places the www and com tags around it.

Speed
For HTML rendering, Navigator 3.0 is probably the fastest Web browser for NT. Graph 1 in the main article compares Navigator's and IE3's load times. Although testing performance measurements is difficult because of the number of external variables (such as connection speed and video performance), Navigator 3.0 was clearly faster than IE3 across the board on a local intranet. Navigator was approximately 30% faster than IE3 in rendering seven pages of text and images (JPEGs). If you connect to the Internet with an analog modem, differences in speed will be less dramatic because bandwidth becomes a bottleneck.

Of course, speed is moot if the browser monopolizes your CPU time. Earlier versions of Navigator could use 100% of the CPU time during page loading and rendering. I monitored Navigator 3.0's CPU usage with NT's Perfmon. Navigator never claimed more than 25% of the CPU during complex page rendering.

Extensibility
With Navigator 2.0, Netscape pioneered the third-party plug-in extensions model for Web browsers. Its support for infant Java scripts and plugins proved to be a turning point in Web browser development. Third-party developers quickly jumped on the plug-in bandwagon and released a lot of plug-ins that extended the browser's capabilities in ways that even Netscape couldn't have imagined. From address books to interactive chat to time schedulers, plugins revolutionized the Web.

As an example of how the Web has changed from a static hybrid of text and graphics documents to a multimedia interactive environment, Navigator 3.0 now ships with plugins that support several external media types: Live3D for Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) browsing, LiveAudio for playback of embedded audio files, and LiveVideo for inline QuickTime and AVI video support. All three plugins seamlessly integrate with Navigator in a way that's similar to the integration of IE3 and ActiveX controls.

Netscape chose not to support ActiveX controls. This lack of support can be a problem for ActiveX developers and organizations that have bitten the ActiveX bullet. NCompass's CaptiveX plugin (available from www.ncom passlabs.com) fills that void by providing third-party support for ActiveX controls to Navigator. When Navigator loads a page with an embedded ActiveX control, ControlActive takes over and loads the control inside the plugin. Although this method is clumsy compared to IE3's native ActiveX support, Navigator users now can have the best of both worlds.

Netscape slightly modified Navigator 3.0's plug-in interface, so you have to download new versions of your plugins. Most third-party developers have updated their plugins to take advantage of Netscape's LiveConnect architecture, so obtaining new versions won't be a problem. LiveConnect is a scripting interface that exposes embedded objects, letting plugins, Java applets, and JavaScript scripts communicate with each other.

Other than Sun Microsystems's (nearly obsolete) HotJava browser, until a year ago, Navigator 2.0 was the only Windows- based browser that included a Java interpreter. Now Java seems to be popping up all over the place. So seeing a refined implementation of Java in Navigator 3.0 is no surprise. Unfortunately, Navigator's Java support isn't as fast as IE3's.

Like IE3, Navigator 3.0 includes a JIT compiler that translates the platform-independent Java byte codes into native Win32 code. If an applet uses machine-intensive operations such as mathematical equation calculations, the JIT compiler can speed the applet's performance. However, not all compilers are equal: My benchmarks (see Graph 1) show Navigator's Java support lagging behind IE3's by as much as 60%. Using Pendragon Software's CaffeineMark Java benchmarking tool (available at www.webfayre.com/cm.html), I found that IE3 is 10% to 15% faster than Navigator 3.0 at loading and executing complex Java applets. Under a benchmarking load and execution times for simple applets (such as the ticker-tape bar), Navigator 3.0 trails behind IE3 by 50% to 60%.

Integrated Clients
Like IE3 and Navigator 2.0, Navigator 3.0 ships with Internet mail and newsgroup clients. These bundled clients are less capable than dedicated mail and newsgroup clients, but they aren't far behind in features.

Consistency across applications is clearly Netscape's strong suit. You can launch clients from clients, and they all share familiar menu features.

Netscape goes a step beyond traditional mail clients by adding HTML support. You can now send a pointer to a Web page to a peer, and the page will load in the email message. In contrast, Microsoft's Internet Mail client uses HTML codes for its text formatting, but this client is limited to displaying font styles. Screen A shows a sample email message that incorporates HTML codes. The one shortcoming to Netscape's design is it doesn't load the Web page background images and colors. Pages viewed within the Mail and News clients display with a gray background. Navigator's HTML mail support is the centerpiece of Netscape's promotional offerings; The New York Times, CNET, and the Gartner Group, among others, offer free content directly through email. Consider it the electronic equivalent of newspaper delivery.

Navigator's mail client also handles attachments gracefully. For example, you can view image attachments in the body of the message, rather than spawning an external viewer.

Pick Your Poison
Which browser is right for you? Both Navigator 3.0 and IE3 are mature third-generation browsers that bring new features to the Web. IE3 offers ActiveX support and is free for the download, but Navigator's speed and stability make it an attractive alternative to Microsoft's slightly memory-hungry browser. However, Navigator has several irritating anomalies and bugs. For example, Navigator 3.0 often leaves phantom processes running--processes that run without a console window but still consume system memory.

NT Workstation users who need Web authoring and publishing tools will want to consider Netscape's Navigator Gold 3.0, which was not released at press time. It includes excellent Web authoring tools and is more cost-effective than, say, Microsoft's FrontPage (which comes with NT Server 4.0).

Navigator 3.0 is an evolutionary step toward making the OS irrelevant. Indeed, Netscape hopes independent software vendors will write platform-independent applications (like Java applets) that will run in Navigator. Navigator 4.0 (code named Galileo), will be another step toward that goal. Galileo will have messaging and collaboration tools­similar to Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes­that could eventually replace the applications we use every day.

Navigator 3.0 is a solid addition to Netscape's product line. Whether it's worth the price compared to the free IE3 is hard to say. Corporations running NT and Windows 95 exclusively may find paying $49.00 per user ($79.00 for Navigator Gold) tough, when IE3 does most of what Navigator can do. Netscape makes Navigator available across multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS, OS/2, and 11 flavors of UNIX), so it is a good choice to standardize on if you have or plan to install multiple platforms. Evaluate both browsers. If you're looking for a rock-solid browser with excellent HTML authoring tools, I highly recommend Navigator Gold 3.0.

Navigator 3.0
Navigator Gold 3.0
Netscape * 415-937-2555
Web: home.netscape.com
Price:
Navigator 3.0: $49; Navigator Gold 3.0: $79