Comparing Betas

In the interest of brevity (Don’t count on it, today’s column is WAY too long) I am only going to compare two browsers. Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 beta 2 and Netscape Navigator 3.0 beta 6. These are the two browsers that have the most impact on the Web at this time but if you are a big fan of some other browser, please do not be offended. This column, titled BETA, is just that: information on the latest and greatest. My only disclaimer is this: When you’re on the bleeding edge of technology you’re going to bleed.

The bottom line in this story comes at the top.


The bottom line is that the best browser depends heavily on which platform you use. So let’s get this out of the way.

Platform Support:

Netscape is the poster child for cross platform software. They pride themselves on being cross-platform. They support all flavors of Unix, Macintosh, and Windows. They don’t make an OS/2 Warp version but no one really cares about OS/2 Warp. Netscape gives slight preference to Unix and Windows 95 when releasing their newest betas, but usually follows up quickly to keep each platform up to speed.

Internet Explorer from Microsoft has been giving extra special treatment to their own Windows 95 and 3.1 operating systems. The first version from Microsoft is always for Win95 and NT, (Surprise!) but lately Microsoft has been making an effort to develop cross platform browsers. A Unix version is expected late in the fourth quarter and Mac versions, athough delayed significantly, are available now on their Website. Given the fact that Microsoft hardly ever comes to market first with a product, I would expect all Unix and Macintosh versions of Internet Explorer to lag significantly behind their Windows brethren.

Platform Results:

For Windows 95/NT users: Keep reading
For everyone else: Type in www.netscape.com and start downloading.
** Stay tuned, Microsoft might read this and take thier Unix/Mac versions to market quicker. (Maybe not)

From this point on, I’m describing the Win95 versions of both browsers because Microsoft doesn’t believe any other system exists. OS/2 Warpers unite!!

Display Features:

The most important aspect to developers is features. How can I make my page look better? What does one browser look like when I do this neat trick? And why does this browser look like my color palette is from the crayola 16 pack. I’m not naming names but you know who you are.

Both Netscape and Internet Explorer support tables, bgcolor in the cells, frames, borderless frames, and a 216 basic color scheme (see color chart)

Results: Netscape Navigator has a problem in 256 colors translating hex codes into RGB. Its not a huge problem but its big enough that we have to redo our transparent .gifs with simpler HEX codes so Netscape doesnt freak out. This is a major problem for me as a designer but not a problem at all for my system which is 24-bit color.

Surprisingly, all of these color errors were non-existent in Internet Explorer. The color palette obviously matched my Windows system palette perfectly and made the hex-rgb conversion without any display problems. Internet Explorer won the color battle (Windows only, don’t forget).

Another visual advantage Microsoft has is the support for floating frames. Frames have been overused in the past so experimentation with floating frames might be slow. Netscape currently does not support free floating frames.

The most important potential no-no for Netscape is their reluctance to support W3C style sheets. It might just be a rumor, but one quote said that Netscape was planning on making their own standards. (Oxy-Moron?) Microsoft has given its support to the existing style sheet specs and plans to support them in the final release of 3.0. Isn’t this a strange turn of events?

Speed:

I find that Internet Explorer manages the cache better than Netscape and reloads pages faster. Java seems to come up equally slow on both browsers, even with both of their JIT compilers. Loading up they both take a year. As we all know, speed is relative. And the Internet is relatively slow.

The one bright spot on the horizon seems to be ActiveX which makes scripting easy with VBscript. Right now Internet Explorer supports Java and ActiveX while you need a plugin (which works 50% of the time) to use ActiveX in Netscape. ActiveX in my opinion will be used with a variety of languages including Java to make Websites come alive with functionality. These details will be hammered out in the coming weeks.

Email and News:

Netscape email and news suck. Let’s face facts. In email the folders are hard to manage, there is no filtering system. The only redeemable things about it are the little envelope on the left bottom corner of the browser that alerts you to new email and the support for embedded html. The email system for Netscape is an embarrassment and I hope they fix it in 4.0. Their news program blows equal chunks. It’s hard to use, has no search features and can’t decode files.

Microsoft released a separate mail/news combo package for free on their Website. At its first beta it wasn’t anything special but in its latest incarnation it establishes itself as a powerful email/news reader. The news has a very easy system for finding newsgroups and reading through threaded messages. It has a search engine through the groups and automatically converts encoded files to attachments. The mail has full filtering options and supports embedded html. The file structure could be more intuitive, but it definitely shows promise. There are only Windows versions of the freeware so…well, if you don’t have Windows you should be at Netscape‘s site by now.

Audience:

If you are a designer this is a major consideration. Right now 75% of the Web uses Netscape as their main browser. This is a strong recommendation for us to use and design for it. But some omnious deals have taken place in the last few weeks. AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and AT&T Worldnet have all made deals with Microsoft making Internet Explorer the default browser come this fall. This means that a large chunk of users will be seeing the Web through MS shaded glasses.

Usability:

This is a personal category that each of you will have to decide on your own. I have both browsers and lately, I have been choosing MS Internet Explorer over Netscape. It’s easier to customize, and it has a slightly bigger window. It’s growing on me. And I think it’s getting better. I think it’s growing on the Web.

Well, the Windows using Web anyway. Everyone else… to Netscape you go!

This column could be A LOT longer. But it’s getting ridiculous, these programs are so freakin big. It’s like the Internet. A bunch of people connected together and it was fun. Now it’s huge and corporate and takes a long time to download. Oh please, let cable modems or ADSL come soon, PLEASE!

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