Out with the Old, in with the New
It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen a major update for either Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Mozilla’s Firefox. In fact, the previous version of Internet Explorer came out just before Windows XP, back in August of 2001. Likewise, Mozilla’s last major update to their browser wasn’t very recent either; version 1.5 can out slightly more than a year ago. So, now that the next version of these popular browsers are out, you might be wondering if the wait was worth it, or not? So, without further ado, here’s how they compare:
As far as installation goes, installing Internet Explorer is quite a task. The installer recommends that all of the currently running applications be closed—a warning taking lightly by many, including myself, that really ought to be following for once. As part of the Windows Genuine (Dis)Advantage program, the installer will then check your system to ensure that you are really running a “genuine,” or legal, copy of the operating system. After all of that pans out, there is a lengthy install procedure, concluded by an annoying request to restart your machine. One of the reasons that Internet Explorer isn’t that easy to install is its deep involvement with the kernel of the operating system. Ever since version 4, back in 1997, Internet Explorer has been an important part of the file management system.
Firefox, however, is far less involved in the more trivial functions of the operating system, resulting in a much easier installation experience. After a quick download, the browser installs with minimal requirements: it will only ask for the previous version of Firefox to be closed down. It will then scan for compatible version of any plug-ins that you might be using, and will notify you of the search results, allowing you to immediately install any compatible plug-ins. Additionally, there is no restart request at the end of the procedure; simply hit finish, open the browser and surf away.
Both browsers look pretty good from a visual standpoint, although the Internet Explorer interface may take more getting used to than that of Firefox. Probably because it’s such a departure from what you may have come to expect from Internet Explorer over the years. After using it for a few hours, I couldn’t help feel like Internet Explorer 7 was desperate to catch-up with other more modern browsers like Firefox and Opera in terms of presentation.
Apart from the drastically different visuals, what stands out immediately in Internet Explorer 7 is the addition of tabbed browsing, which has almost come to represent a right of passage for this generation of browsers. Microsoft’s approach is very similar to that of Firefox and Opera, with the exception of a new feature called “Quicktabs,” which provides the user with a thumbnail view of all of the open tabs for easier selection. It’s similar to Opera’s thumbnails, which appear when the user hovers over the tabs with the cursor, but Quicktabs feels more refined.
Firefox already had tabbed browsing in its previous version, so its developers had plenty of opportunity to listen to the feedback it got from the existing tabbed interface, and they clearly listened. Each tab now has its own close button and for those power-users out there who like have more tabs open than ideally fit in the window, Firefox will now let you scroll left and right through the tabs, without making the tabs unidentifiably small. Not only is Firefox slightly easier to navigate, it also offers a ton of extensions for its users, which Internet Explorer currently doesn’t, but might very well in the future. There are also a ton of themes to choice from, which gives it another leg up on its main rival for those users seeking to customize their web experience.
Features & Usability
Internet Explorer 7 is a major leap forward compared to its predecessors. It includes tabbed browsing, better security, a slicker feel, and improved usability. The mark of a good, modern browser these days seems to have become its support and handling of RSS feeds, and in Internet Explorer that feature is pretty fleshed out. That’s to say that the RSS feed system is actually pretty decent. Microsoft has made it easy to see, sort, manage, and, of course, read feeds. The overall organization of the feed system in Internet Explorer is slightly better, but the feed detection isn’t always consistent, and for those of us used to Firefox, the iconic RSS symbol is not located in the address bar, but in the tool bar, among the rest of those trivial browsing functions.
Another nice feature that Internet Explorer 7 has over Firefox 2 is the afore mentioned “Quicktabs” feature. This allows a user who has a bunch of tabs open to display all the open tabs as thumbnails in a scrollable page. This feature may seem quite pointless, until you’ve opened up about twenty tabs and can’t remember what websites display. Quicktabs can be opened with via a keyboard shortcut (CTR + Q), or using an icon to the left of the tabs. Once open, the thumbnails are big and clear, and clicking on them will bring up the respective tab.
Firefox 2 feels pretty much the same as its first iteration, so the impact of the new features isn’t as pronounced as with Internet Explorer 7. Firefox doesn’t have anything like Quicktabs, but instead features some neat improvements to the tabbing system. The tab closing icon is now no longer only present on the right hand side of the browser, but in every single tab, making it easier to close down a specific tab. However, this feature is pretty pointless to any advanced Firefox user who might prefer to use the middle mouse button to open up tabs and close them.
One of the most noticeable new features is probably the in-line term suggestion when using the built-in search box. You can now type in a search term and the browser will automatically drop down a list of searches that you might want to perform. Unfortunately, this feature is not supported by all the search engines. It works fine when searching for something with Google, but with Wikipedia, for example, nothing is suggested—having the feature work with Wikipedia might have been more useful than Google, but that’s just my two cents.
This is one area that is often times hard to gauge without doing a series of benchmarks, so be prepared to take this with a grain of salt. It would seem that Firefox is still the faster browser, with Internet Explorer being only slightly more lethargic. One plus for Internet Explorer, however, is that the main code used to display the pages seems to be the same, meaning that since most pages are designed with IE in mind, the chance that you’ll encounter a page that will not display right in Internet Explorer is extremely small. Due to the afore mentioned reason though, Firefox users will still encounter an occasional page that simply will not render right; it might overlap text with images, or frame a page incorrectly, and then there is that extremely small percentage of pages that simply will not display at all with Firefox, due to ActiveX requirements.
Now, the winner in this category should not come as a surprise to anyone. Firefox is well-known for its plug-in expandability. The selection of plug-ins for Firefox is almost endless; if you can think of it, it exists. There are plug-ins that will allow you to save your browsing sessions (much like in Opera), to takes notes on screen, to open instances of Internet Explorer in a new tab (for those rare pages that won’t load in Firefox), and there is even an extension similar to Quicktabs.
This expandability simply doesn’t exist in Internet Explorer as of yet, and the question to be asked is: should it? With its rough history of security oversights and exploits, it might not be such a great idea to be installing third party plug-ins left and right, as you never know what backdoors they might open into your system—this caveat extends to Firefox as well.
No browser is perfect, and these two are no exceptions. Even though both Firefox and Internet Explorer have incorporated a plethora of security innovations, the safety of the end user is still heavily dependent of surfing habits, which no browser can protect you from.
That being said, Microsoft has taken tremendous steps towards improving the security of its browser. Using a color coded address bar, Internet Explorer will warn users when it thinks they are on a potentially harmful site. Each URL that is visited is checked against a blacklist of known malicious sites, and the address bar will then turn red if such sites are found. The opposite is also true for trusted sites. The browser’s address bar will turn green when it encounters a secure, trusted page.
One of the biggest drawbacks to using Internet Explorer is that it is the world’s most dominate browser, meaning that the vast majority of exploits, viruses, spyware and attacks are aimed at Internet Explorer as opposed to something more minor, like Firefox or Opera. This fact in and of itself is one of the things that helps protect the users of Firefox, Opera, Safari and so on: they make up a smaller segment of the user group, making it harder (but, definitely not impossible) for a hack to yield results.
And the winner is…
…still Firefox. Although Microsoft has made a very commendable effort with Internet Explorer 7, Firefox 2 still remains the leader of the pack. Comparing the sheer number of changes and improvements to prior versions, Internet Explorer would win hands down. However, in overall usability and functionality Firefox takes the crown.
Complete, Annotated List of New Features
- IE is no longer integrated into the Windows Explorer shell, used to browse local content.
- For Windows Vista, there is a so-called “protected mode,” allowing the user to run the browser in a sandbox environment, so that its interactions with the main system are severely limited.
- “Anti-spoofing” protection of International Domain Names (IDN), intended to prevent phishing scams.
- ActiveX Opt-In, intended to block ActiveX controls unless allowed to run/install.
- “Phishing Filter,” if enabled, checks the visited URLs against a phishing blacklist so that the user can be informed of known hazards.
- One-click “Delete Browser History” designed to allow for easy history deletion. Will afford public computer users more privacy and security.
- “Fix My Settings” makes sure that the selected settings for the browser conform to the desires security levels, if not the user is informed. The user can also press a single button to make the settings safe(r).
- The address bar along with the status bar now appear in all windows, including pop-ups, disallow the disguising of malicious sites as trusted sites (as if often done in phishing scams).
- The address bar is now color coded, so that it will highlight the URLs of suspicious sites in red. Sites with security verification, certificates, etc will be highlighted in green.
- “No Add-ons” allows IE to be launched without any extensions.
- For Vista users, IE7 will support cipher strengths of up to 256-bit (as opposed to the 128-bit for XP).
- IE7 now supports tabbed-browsing as well. There is also a “Quick Tabs” feature, which will display thumbnails of the tabs to allow for quick selection.
- A search box has been added to the top-right of the browser. Windows Live Search is the default selection, but there is an option to add other search engines/services, like Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, etc.).
- A feed reader has been included for users to aggregate their web feeds such as RSS or Atom.
- When printing, the right-hand portion of the page is no longer cut off on certain pages.
- Print preview will allow users to adjust the margins and print size in real-time.
- The “Zoom” feature will enlarge the complete page, allowing for easier reading on high resolution displays.
- The “Refresh” and “Go” buttons are now one. When entering a URL the button will feature the “Go” function, and when enter is pressed to load the site, it will change to “Refresh.”
- The menu bar can be hidden from view to increase the amount of screen real-estate for to the site.
- Unlike Internet Explorer, Firefox had done security right from the beginning, and as such this section will be very short.
- “Phishing Protection,” which is designed to warn users about potentially threatening websites. This feature is based on the same concept as that of IE 7, it will check the sites against a list of known phishing sites. The list will be updated regularly to offer the best protection possible.
- The extension system has now been improved to provide better security awareness and allows for easier location of additional add-ons.
- Firefox 2 now features better search capabilities when using the inline search box. Term suggestion will now appear whenever Google, Yahoo, or Answers.com is used. Additionally, it will now alert the user whenever it comes across a new search engine that the user might want to include in the list of search engines.
- Tabbed browsing has been improved. Each link will now open in a new tab, as opposed to a new window as was previously the case.
- The history feature will now keep track of recently closed tabs so that a user can re-open a closed tab with minimal hassle.
- The browser now also supports a session saver, that will reload windows, tabs, text, and in-progress downloads after the browser has been closed and re-opened, a feature introduced by Opera.
- Improved feed handling will now allow users to decide how to handle their feeds. My Yahoo, Bloglines, and Google Reader are now pre-installed as Web service options.
- Inline spell checking will enable users to check their spelling when entering in data in any text form, without having to export their data to a word processor.
- Web sites that feature micro-summaries can now be bookmarked so that their bookmark information will remain as up to date as possible.
- An improved add-ons manager makes it easier for users to manage their existing extensions as well as adding new ones.
- The Windows installer has also been updated to make the installation process even easier.