Evaluating the desirability of an upgrade to a major piece of software is tricky. As we’ve seen in a recent TidBITS poll, many people stick with older software because it meets their needs, works better on older Macs, doesn’t require learning new ways of working, and doesn’t cost anything. Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 5.0, released today, offers users a interesting set of trade-offs when contemplating the upgrade.
(Microsoft also released Outlook Express 5.0.2, a minor update that improves performance in a variety of areas and ensures that the Progress window appears in the foreground when users run a schedule manually, but stays in the background when a schedule triggers automatically. Outlook Express 5.0.2 requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh with Mac OS 8.1 or later and 8 MB of available RAM (12 MB recommended); it’s an 8 MB download.)
Free & Easy — Internet Explorer 5.0 remains free, so you can visit Microsoft’s Web site and download a 6.8 MB copy to try out. Installation is as easy as before – just double-click the self-mounting disk image, and drag the Internet Explorer folder to your hard disk before launching.
If you want to keep both Internet Explorer 4.5 and 5.0 on your Mac for testing Web pages, do the following before installing Internet Explorer 5.0 to avoid possible crashes. First, from your Extensions folder, copy Microsoft Component Library and MS Font Embed Library (PPC), plus the entire contents (not the folder itself) of the MS Library Folder to the folder that contains the Internet Explorer 4.5 application. Then launch Internet Explorer 5.0 for the first time. Both versions cannot be active at the same time.
To revert back to Internet Explorer 4.5, delete Microsoft Component Library, Microsoft Framework, Microsoft Internet Library, and MS Font Embed Library (PPC) from your Extensions folder, then launch Internet Explorer 4.5 again to have it reinstall the libraries it needs.
If you’re currently using Netscape Communicator, the still-beta iCab, or another Web browser, the most Internet Explorer 5.0 will do is try to make itself your default browser in Internet Config, which is easily avoided or reverted.
Applying Makeup to Toolbars — The most obvious change in Internet Explorer 5.0 is its redesigned window trimming, complete with iMac-style horizontal pinstripes instead of a flat gray, and nine possible colors for buttons and other controls to match newer Macs – just pick your favorite color from the hierarchical Browser Color menu in the View menu. Whether or not you like the new look is a matter of personal preference.
Microsoft also redesigned Internet Explorer’s toolbars, creating new buttons and making the Button Bar customizable. When you choose Customize Toolbars from the View menu, Internet Explorer displays a special page from which you can drag buttons to the Button Bar. Hold down the Command key and drag buttons on the Button Bar to rearrange them, or Command-drag them to the Finder’s Trash to remove them from the Button Bar.
The Favorites Bar is mostly unchanged, but if you put a folder of favorites in your Toolbar Favorites folder, it appears on your Favorites Bar as a pop-up menu from which you can choose any of the enclosed favorites.
Missing from Internet Explorer 5.0 is the promised Media Bar, which would have made it possible to play streaming media more easily within Internet Explorer. Problems with the Media Bar caused Microsoft to pull the feature before release; presumably it will appear in a future update.
Internet Explorer’s toolbars eat screen real estate that could be used for viewing Web pages. You can still hide and show toolbars from the View menu, but there’s also now a button on the left-side Explorer Bar that, when clicked, collapses all the other toolbars that you normally have visible (click it again to expand them). This collapse button gives special treatment to the Button Bar, providing the Back, Forward, Stop, and Refresh buttons in the vertical Explorer Bar. Unfortunately, you cannot customize the four button slots in the collapsed Button Bar, and Internet Explorer doesn’t remember the collapsed state of the Button Bar when you open new windows or launch the program.
Alternate Navigation — Microsoft has made some subtle and welcome changes to the Address Bar, which displays the URL for the current page and accepts typed-in URLs for new pages to visit. Also, choosing Open Location from the File menu, or pressing Command-L, now activates the Address Bar instead of opening a superfluous dialog box. You can drag selected text out of it to other applications, or drag the icon that appears next to the URL to drag the entire URL. You can also drag URLs or their icons to the Favorites, Scrapbook, or Page Holder tabs on the left side of the window.
Microsoft also enhanced Internet Explorer’s Address AutoComplete feature, which kicks in as you type in the Address Bar. It searches both the URLs and titles of recently visited pages and items in your Favorites list, matching shortest URLs first and both guessing at a possible match and displaying a pop-up scrolling list of matching pages in alphabetical order by domain name as you type. At any time you can stop typing and use the arrow keys and Return or mouse to select and visit any of the listed pages, although this use of the arrow keys makes the text editing behavior of the Address Bar different from any other field in the application. The new algorithm for matching previously visited pages works better for me, but it takes time to become accustomed to. Most notably, I had to teach myself to guess at typing words in page titles as well as in URLs.
One new feature Internet Explorer 5.0 picked up from recent versions of Netscape Communicator is a Show Related Links command in the Tools menu. It queries the Alexa database for pages that are similar to the one you’re viewing, but unlike Netscape Communicator, which displays the related pages in a What’s Related pop-up menu, Internet Explorer displays the related links in the Search tab of the Explorer Bar.
Slow Search Assistant — Microsoft significantly revamped the way the Search tab works, providing five radio buttons for different types of searches. By default, the available searches are for a Web page, a person’s address, a business, previous searches, or a map; click the More link to see additional options, including searching in newsgroups, for a picture, or to look up a word. For each type of search, Internet Explorer knows about several different search engines and will perform the search in the first one when you click the Search button. Clicking the Next button sends the search to the next search engine available for that search; you can customize the order to your liking, though you cannot add search engines, which means you can’t use the Search tab with the popular search engine Google, which has a Mac-specific searching option.
This Search Assistant is actually a page loaded from Microsoft’s MSN site, which theoretically means that it could be updated. The downside is that it’s slow to load the first time and sometimes fails entirely. Plus, the contents of the Search tab look nothing like the rest of the application, and the Customize Search Settings dialog is beyond ugly. Worse, although you supposedly can customize the AutoSearch search engine (the one used if you type ? and a search phrase in the Address Bar), in reality, your settings don’t stick at all and you’re stuck with MSN Search. Microsoft is clearly fumbling in the right direction, though the Search Assistant’s glacial speed and awful interface may hinder expert users who try to use it as much as the basic approach should help novices.
Keeping a Scrapbook — New to Internet Explorer and extremely welcome is the Scrapbook tab in the Explorer Bar. If you’ve done research or placed an order on the Web, you’ll appreciate the utility of the Internet Scrapbook. Instead of storing links, as happens in the Favorites and History tabs, the Internet Scrapbook stores entire pages, exactly as they appeared. So, if you want to flip between several different Web pages while researching something, first click the Add button in the Internet Scrapbook or drag their page icons from the Address Bar into the Scrapbook tab. Then click their links in the Internet Scrapbook to display the pages from your hard disk. That’s great for research, since you can just throw pages out when done, but it’s even better for storing order confirmation pages from ecommerce sites. Since those pages are dynamically generated, there’s no way you could recreate them, and in the past, your only option has been to print the page or save its contents to your hard disk.
The Internet Scrapbook displays a yellow bar above the stored page when you’re viewing it in the main window so you realize it’s a copy and can see when you created it.
Tracking the Gavel — Another major new feature in Internet Explorer is the Auction Tracker, which appears to offer a solid set of features for tracking the status of ongoing auctions on popular auction sites like eBay. I say "appears" because I’ve only participated in a handful of online auctions. To use the Auction Tracker, go to a page for an item you want on eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, or another supported auction site. Then choose Track Auction from the Tools menu, enter your auction site userid, and click the Track button. You can also customize options for how Internet Explorer tracks the bid status of the item and notifies you of changes. The main thing you’ll want to modify for each item is the name; at least on eBay, the item names were pulled from the page titles and thus weren’t at all descriptive. Luckily, they’re easily changed.
To view the status of the auctions you’re watching, choose Auction Manager from the Tools menu. The Auction Manager window lists the name of the item, the time remaining in the auction, and the current high bidder, although this last column seems only to list your name if you’re the high bidder or "out-bid" if you’re not.
I’m impressed with Auction Tracker, which puts a solid Macintosh interface on top of dynamic information from the Web, an approach the Search Assistant would do well to emulate. I can’t say how well the Auction Tracker will work in heavy use, and I hope it doesn’t run afoul of changes on the auction sites, but it’s worth checking out if you participate in online auctions.
Technology Support — Microsoft has made much of the level to which they support Apple technologies such as QuickTime, Apple’s implementation of Java, Internet Config, and more. Internet Explorer 5.0 adds support for two more Apple technologies: Navigation Services and drag & drop text.
Internet Explorer now supports Apple’s Navigation Services, which is nice, though not particularly compelling. In a neat touch, however, Internet Explorer enables you to select and open multiple files simultaneously in the Navigation Services Open File dialog box; just Shift-click to select them.
More useful is Internet Explorer’s new support for drag & drop text and much-improved text selection (something that Web browsers have always done badly). You can double-click on a word to select it, triple-click to select a line, or quadruple-click to select a paragraph. And once you have text selected, you can drag it to any drag-aware application, including the Finder. Oddly enough, when you drag text to the desktop, Internet Explorer creates a SimpleText file instead of a text clipping, which is what I would have expected.
What’s most interesting about the Tasman rendering engine, though, is that it’s resolution independent when displaying text – you can tell it to render text at different resolutions and font sizes, whereas before you could only change font size. Tasman defaults to a 96 dpi resolution, the same as the default in Windows and thus Windows Web browsers. The 96 dpi resolution is a recommendation from the W3C, although it’s yet to be publicly documented. (Currently, CSS2 recommends a default resolution of 90 dpi; the CSS2 errata should eventually indicate the change.) The next version of Netscape Communicator will also use a 96 dpi default for rendering text; future versions of Opera and possibly iCab will be heading in the same direction.
Tasman’s goal is a good one – to eliminate the discrepancy between how Web sites look on the Mac versus how they look under Windows – but the upshot is that when you use Internet Explorer in 96 dpi resolution, text may appear larger than it would in all other Macintosh Web browsers. You can set the font size and resolution to approximate more closely what you’re used to, but the fact remains that while Microsoft says the goal of Tasman is to make "Web pages just work right," Microsoft’s definition of "right" may not match yours.
You’ll want to fiddle with the font and resolution settings in the Language/Fonts panel of the Preferences dialog box, and then be aware that you can increase and decrease the size of displayed text using the items in the hierarchical Text Zoom menu in the View menu (or the keyboard shortcuts of Command– and Command-+, or the Smaller and Larger buttons you can add to the Button Bar).
Some problems that Tasman has with rendering are more obvious. Link underlining incorrectly cuts through the descenders of letters like the lowercase g and p. Leading vertical white space is significantly different from other browsers, which may or may not be correct, but will result in different layouts of existing pages. Tasman also sizes some tables and table cells differently than other browsers.
Future Features — As much as Microsoft has tried to solve some of the basic problems Web users face with major features like the Internet Scrapbook and the Auction Tracker, there are a number of relatively subtle features that would make Internet Explorer even more useful.
I’d like to see Microsoft surround dragged or copied URLs with angle brackets if the Option key is down during the action, since it’s good form to enclose URLs in angle brackets when sending them in email.
Internet Explorer has long stored usernames and passwords for Web sites; why not integrate this with Apple’s Keychain?
The History tab and window remain essentially unchanged, and still don’t allow sorting by any criteria (especially date and time). Addition of features along the lines of those in MacUser’s Web Ninja utility, which provided better sorting and selection of previously visited Web pages, would be relatively simple (since most of the functionality is already present in the Address AutoComplete feature). Then, for instance, Internet Explorer could use the visit statistics to keep certain pages cached.
Although Internet Explorer has long been smarter than Netscape Communicator about zooming windows to an appropriate size, I wonder if this task couldn’t be automated in some way. It’s a pain to fiddle with window size constantly.
Command-clicking to open links in new windows is wonderful, but it would be even better if, like Eudora, Command-clicking would open those slow-loading windows in the background, rather than on top of the current window. Command-Option-clicking isn’t available; that’s a shortcut for adding a link to the Page Holder tab.
The Auction Manager tracks the name of the item, the time remaining in the auction, and the high bidder, but not the current price, which would seem most relevant.
Should You Bite? I think the upgrade is definitely worth your time, thanks to features like the brilliant Internet Scrapbook and the Auction Tracker, plus niceties like the improved Address AutoComplete feature and better text selection. Microsoft claims that Internet Explorer 5.0 is faster and more reliable than previous versions; if there are differences in speed and stability, they haven’t bowled me over, and my experience with Web browsers is that everyone’s perception of speed and stability varies.
That said, Microsoft has room to add obvious functionality like Keychain support and polish existing features such as the miserable Customize Search Settings interface. But Internet Explorer is free, its system requirements are only slightly more onerous than those of Internet Explorer 4.5, and the benefits of the Tasman rendering engine will eventually outweigh the initial irritations of being pushed toward a Windows-like view of the Web.
Internet Explorer 5.0 requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh running Mac OS 7.6.1 or later, with 8 MB (12 MB recommended) of available RAM. Also required are QuickTime 3.0 or later and Apple’s MRJ 2.1 or later. You can download Internet Explorer 5.0 for free, or you can order it on CD-ROM for $10.