Last Saturday, Netscape released the first public beta of Netscape Navigator 2.0. This beta of the "for export" version of Navigator weighs in at about 2 MB (binhexed) and comes with a single setup program that can install a 68K, PowerPC, or fat binary version. As noted in TidBITS-297, Netscape has seven FTP sites, so if this URL refuses connections, put the number 2 through 7 after "ftp" in the site name below to access a parallel site. This public beta is set to expire on 15-Dec-95.
Before you ask, no beta version of Navigator Gold - the promised edition of Navigator with Web authoring tools - is available, and there's no public indication as to when it might appear.
What's New -- Here's a rundown of some new features and changes in Navigator 2.0:
Integrated email and newsreader: Though current versions can send mail and perform as a basic newsreader, Navigator 2.0 can send, receive, and store mail (i.e., serve as your primary Internet mail client), and offers enhanced newsreading in a separate, three-paned window. The newsreader follows threaded discussions, manages newsgroup subscriptions, displays news posting with "live" URLs, and features columns and panes that can be dragged to suit your tastes. These features don't compare to dedicated, evolved products like Eudora and NewsWatcher, but they allow Netscape to promote Navigator as a "complete" solution.
Bookmarks and Address Book: Navigator 2.0 features a separate, modeless window that contains an hierarchical, outline-like display of bookmarks. Bookmarks not only contain a title and URL, but can have optional descriptive text associated with them, and you can search on all these items. Navigator 2.0 also has a similar built-in Address Book for email addresses. Items can be dragged from these windows to other applicable areas of Navigator's windows and other drag-savvy applications that accept text, but (alas) not to the Finder.
Expanded HTML tags: Navigator 2.0 implements more of the HTML 3.0 specification, and incorporates new Netscape-specific tags for superscripts and subscripts, logical font size, and font color. Probably the most radical change is Frames, which allows the creation of multiple, independent, scrollable regions within Navigator windows. Each frame, or cell, can contain a separate HTML document, and frames can be named and targeted by links in other frames or documents. Needless to say, pages using this feature can be incomprehensible if viewed in a browser other than Netscape.
Interface changes: Netscape's preferences have expanded to consume a series of tabbed dialog boxes, the Help menu commands have (finally) migrated to Apple's Help Menu, and there's now a Window menu to create and manage windows. Netscape's transfer window now appears for all file transfers, allowing users to browse while downloading files.
Under the hood, Navigator 2.0 implements new networking code which hopefully improves reliability on SLIP/PPP connections (although I've seen mixed reports), includes support for progressively-rendered inline JPEG images, supports HTTP file uploads (so forms can now prompt for files), and has a new, faster, disk caching mechanism.
One change that may surprise Netscape aficionados is that the HTML parser is more rigorous and requires proper use of quotes within links and other HTML tags. Previous versions of Navigator had a more forgiving parser; many people who bootstrapped their way into HTML coding using the "looks fine in Netscape" technique might be in for unpleasant surprises, including missing text, missing or broken images, or items that draw (or over-draw) other elements onscreen. A quick survey shows many Web pages - including some of Netscape's own - display these errors.
What's Not New -- But wait, you're saying - where's the support for Macromedia Director playback, Hot Java, QuickTime, Acrobat PDF, and other technologies you've talked about in previous issues of TidBITS? Three features promised for Navigator 2.0 - plug-ins for third-party technologies, support for Java applets, and Netscape's scripting language - are nowhere to be found. Well, okay - it's the first beta. But "pre-beta" quality Java implementations are included in the Windows and Unix releases of Navigator 2.0b1, primarily for developers using Java and doing compatibility testing. Why not the Mac?
Also missing is support for Open Transport. Netscape says Navigator 2.0 doesn't work reliably with any version of Open Transport. Also, there's no indication of improvements (or even changes) to Navigator's AppleScript support.
First Impressions -- As with all beta software, this version of Navigator has rough edges, both in terms of its interface and outright bugs. It's probably worth going over the release notes before running the beta.
The most impressive thing about this version is its speed. Navigator still uses four simultaneous TCP connections to load Web pages, but the new disk caching mechanism and improved streaming noticeably improve performance. My rough timings using a 28.8 Kbps modem connection indicate this beta of Navigator can be as much as 10 to 15 percent faster than Navigator 1.1N on some HTML documents, although it's not a global improvement.
The new bookmark interface is both useful and usable, but not outstanding. Manipulating and managing items using drag-and-drop is straightforward, and I especially like using the Find command to locate items quickly. But these new capabilities only emphasize the sorry state of managing large numbers of URLs and online references. Numerous third-party bookmarking applications are appearing, and though Navigator has moved forward, I want something about a mile further ahead.
The beta of Navigator claims it will transparently handle preferences and bookmarks from any version of Navigator except the non-public alpha releases of 2.0. I haven't seen problems with importing bookmarks, but I have seen numerous reports of problems handling preferences from pre-2.0 versions (some of which I can attest to firsthand), so I recommend backing up and removing existing Netscape preference files before running this release. Navigator 2.0's prefs aren't backward-compatible with earlier releases, so if your existing preferences are important, save a copy before trying the beta.
This version's RAM allocation remains at 3 MB and that seems adequate for casual use, but it's a tighter fit now, so increase the allocation if you use multiple browser windows, the newsreader, or routinely deal with sizable graphics or HTML documents. What's more, plan on running this beta with at least a 4 MB disk cache, since using a small disk cache (or no disk cache) rapidly makes the application unstable.
If you depend on Netscape Navigator, stick with a previous release that's been stable on your system. If you try the beta, frequently save work in other applications, and don't throw away your previous version. Netscape has set up a Web-based form as well as an email address for handling bug reports; see How To Give Feedback on the Help menu for details. If you have a problem and need a solution in a hurry, check the newsgroup <comp.sys.mac.comm> where people are already discussing this beta.