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CWSApps: Netscape 6 [Review]

Nov 14, 2000, 22:10 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Forrest Stroud)

By Forrest Stroud, CWSApps

Just when you thought the browser wars were long over, Netscape returns from the dead with the official release of Netscape 6.0. With the new release, Netscape has decided to leapfrog version 5.0 and jump directly from v4.x to 6.0.

The question on everyone's mind is whether the jump is purely a marketing ploy, or has Netscape leapfrogged its main competition Internet Explorer 5.0 in number as well as in terms of features, performance, usability, and standards compliance. We put the first preview release of v6.0 to the test to see just how it compares to Internet Explorer 5 as well as to its predecessor, Netscape 4.

New Features in Netscape 6.0

Netscape 6.0 is the first major new release from Netscape in more than two years, and as such, should be expected to include a significantly enhanced interface to go along with a variety of feature additions and enhancements. If the initial preview release is any indication of the final product, Netscape 6 certainly doesn't disappoint in either respect.

The first change that jumps out with the new release is its dramatically different interface. Long-time users of Netscape will be quite surprised upon viewing the new interface for the first time. The new interface is much more basic, yet at the same time, it's more streamlined and intuitive than previous interfaces. Still, although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, it would be a stretch to call the new interface beautiful by any definition.

As far as features go, the My Sidebar stands out immediately from an impressive collection of new additions and enhancements. My Sidebar is a collection of tabs that can present all types of information, including Web Search Results, stock and news reports, a Buddy List, a What's Related list of Web sites, weather forecasts, and much more. The sidebar resides on the left-hand side of the screen and can easily be minimized if desired. Web developers can also create their own customized tabs which can then be added to a user's My Sidebar.

Additional new features in Netscape 6.0 include an integrated Instant Messaging client (based on the AOL Instant Messenger client), Password and Cookie Managers, skins support (with a downloadable skins gallery still to come), support for multiple POP mail accounts (finally!) and AOL e-mail accounts in Netscape Messenger, a redesigned address book with a three-pane layout for quickly viewing contact information, the ability to search for sites directly from the URL bar, instant message icons in e-mail messages, AutoTranslation tools for translating Web sites from one language to another, and an integrated Net2Phone (v10.2) client.

Feature Comparison

Compared to the most recent official release of Netscape, Netscape Communicator 4.72, Netscape 6.0's feature additions alone make it worthy of the upgrade. Support for multiple POP mail accounts is a much-needed addition that still begs the question of why it has taken Netscape so long to implement. Unless you just can't stand the new interface -- or you're tied to Netscape Communicator's 4.72 interface for another reason -- there won't be many arguments for not upgrading to v6.0 once it's officially released.

But when compared to Internet Explorer 5, Netscape 6.0's new features really don't stand out as revolutionary changes. Although the new Password and Cookie Managers are useful additions that you won't find in Internet Explorer 5, the My Sidebar is actually little more than a customizable knock-off of Internet Explorer's sidebar which has been available since version 4.0. Additionally, sites like Hotbar.com have made skins available for Internet Explorer since last year.

On the mail side of the equation, Outlook Express remains superior to Netscape 6.0's Messenger client, despite Messenger 6.0's addition of support for multiple POP mail accounts and AOL e-mail. Outlook Express's filtering capabilities are second to none, and its enhanced security via S/MIME support, Junk Mail SPAM filtering system, and Stationery wizard only put more distance between itself and the new Messenger.

The only area Netscape 6.0 really stands apart from IE5 is the inclusion of a built-in Instant Messaging client. If you've been looking for a Web browser with instant messaging capabilities, Netscape 6.0 is the only Web browser to currently do so. Additionally, Netscape 6.0 throws in a copy of the AOL-owned Net2Phone, so users looking for a browser with Internet phone capabilities will also find Netscape 6.0 of significant interest.

Overall, we'd be surprised to see any converts being led back to Netscape 6.0 based on its feature additions and enhancements. Internet Explorer 5 retains the lead for now, despite carrying a lower version number than Netscape 6.0.

Advantage: Internet Explorer 5 over Netscape 6 by a significant stretch, and Netscape 6 over Netscape 4.72 by a huge margin

Performance Under Netscape 6.0

This is the issue that will be of most concern to the majority of our users, and for this reason we wanted to take the time to fully test Netscape 6 against its competition. Netscape has been touting its new release as much faster and more efficient than previous releases, a claim we decided to put to test immediately upon first running Netscape 6.0 and being less than impressed with the results.

A caveat applies here, though; these tests were performed using the Preview Release of Netscape, which may or may not be tuned for performance. Because much could change in regard to performance between now and the official release of Netscape 6.0, we will revise this section accordingly as necessary.

We tested Netscape 6 on two computers. Computer A is a Pentium II 300 MHz desktop running Windows 98 with 256 MB of RAM and a 600 Kbps Cable Modem Internet connection. Computer B is a Pentium II 266 MHz laptop running Windows NT 4.0 with 128 MB of RAM and a 56 Kbps analog modem Internet connection. Netscape 6.0 was tested against Netscape Communicator 4.72 and Internet Explorer 5.5 Beta 1 on Computer A, and Netscape Communicator 4.72 and Internet Explorer 5.01 on Computer B.

While we expect results to be roughly similar for the browsers across the Windows platforms, performance may be vastly different when the browsers are run under other operating systems like the Macintosh and Linux. For this reason, our opinions of Netscape 6.0's performance apply only to our test case scenario which was conducted in an all-Windows environment.

Performance Comparison Results

When we first got our hands on Netscape 6.0, we were surprised to find that the browser seemed even slower than previous releases of the browser. After all, with more than two years to redevelop the browsing engine from the ground up, we'd expect the new release of the browser to be significantly faster than previous editions.

We first tested loading times for each of the browsers. Each browser was set to open to a blank screen (i.e. no home page) with no additional plug-ins beyond those included in the typical installation. On Computer A, Internet Explorer 5.5 loaded 480% faster than Netscape 6.0, while Netscape Communicator 4.72 loaded 16% faster than the 6.0 release.

The results were similar for Computer B, with IE 5.01 loading 224% faster than the new release of Netscape, and Netscape 4.72 again loading 16% faster than the newer release. Under Computer B, the average loading times for IE 5.01, Netscape 4.72, and Netscape 6.0, respectively, were 3.355, 9.365, and 10.875 seconds.

Our second test was conducted to determine typical page loading times for each of the browsers. We tested each browser on a set of 15 Web sites that differ greatly in type and amount of graphical, text, and scripting content. (While sites with JavaScript were included, those with Java were not, so these results do not take into account Java performance.)

Internet Explorer was again the clear winner in our second round of tests, with Netscape 6.0 trailing IE 5.5 by 50% and Netscape 4.72 trailing IE 5.5 by 33% on Computer A. On this test Netscape 6.0 lagged behind its predecessor (v4.72) by nearly 13%.

Computer B's results were again similar, although not as dramatic. IE 5.01 performed 21% faster than Netscape 6.0 and 14% faster than Netscape 4.72, with Netscape 6.0 trailing Netscape 4.72 by 8%. Under Computer A, IE 5.5 had an average page loading time of 6.8521 seconds, Netscape 4.72 had an average time of 9.1007 seconds, and Netscape 6.0 averaged 10.2479 seconds.

From these two tests it is clear that Netscape 6.0 is indeed slower than the browser it succeeds and is much slower than the one it has leapfrogged in number. Again, this is a real surprise considering Netscape has spent the past two years redesigning Netscape from the ground up with two major objectives in mind -- making the browser faster and smaller.

While it's possible Netscape is saving the performance enhancements for later releases of Netscape 6.0, the performance results of 6.0 Preview Release 1 are eye-opening to say the least.

Advantage: Internet Explorer 5 by a huge margin over both Netscape 4.72 and Netscape 6.0, and Netscape 4.72 over Netscape 6.0 by a sizable margin

Usability Comparison

The first thing most users will notice about Netscape 6's new interface is the larger buttons for navigation and the overall streamlined look. Users will find fewer toolbar buttons and less clutter overall, which results in a larger viewing window (when the My Sidebar feature is hidden) for browsing sites. And although the new browser no longer carries the Communicator moniker, the interface for Netscape 6.0 is similar enough to Communicator that users won't face a learning curve with the new release.

The new interface also features a taskbar at the bottom of the window with quick access to other functions of the suite, including the Netscape Messenger mail and newsreader, Instant Messenger client, Composer editor, Netscape Address Book, and a calendar utility. There are also menus on the taskbar for finding Web sites in business, recreational, shopping, and software tool categories.

One new feature in Netscape 6.0 that should be a boon to inexperienced users is the ability to search directly from the Web URL bar. All the user needs to do is type in one or more keywords, and Netscape will automatically contact its search engine and display a list of results in the browser window.

Overall, the new release of Netscape is perhaps the best browser we've encountered in terms of catering to new and inexperienced users. Internet Explorer, on the other hand, is better suited for experienced users who need quick access to advanced configuration options and a bevy of customization capabilities.

Advantage: Netscape 6 over both Netscape 4.72 and IE5 for new and inexperienced users, and Internet Explorer 5 over Netscape 6 and 4.72 for advanced users

Standards Compliance Comparison

With the core technology for Netscape 4.x being more than two years old, it should come as no surprise that both Netscape 6.0 and Internet Explorer 5 are far more advanced when it comes to support for the latest Internet standards and Web technologies.

Thanks to the Netscape Gecko engine, Netscape 6 adds full support for XML, XUL, Cascading Style Sheets Level 1 (CSS1), W3C DOM Level 1, and JavaScript 1.5 standards. Internet Explorer lacks JavaScript 1.5 and XUL support, but it does offer full support for XML, CSS1, and WSC DOM Level 1. (Then again, does it completely support these standards? According to the Web Standards Project, IE5 doesn't.) In terms of strict standards compliance, Netscape 6.0 has to date adhered to the accepted third-party standards much more closely than IE5.

Netscape 6.0 has, for the most part, finally caught up to Internet Explorer 5 in terms of support for the latest Web technologies, but it certainly hasn't surpassed IE 5 like one might expect from a browser carrying a 6.0 label. There are still a very large number of Web features and technologies supported in Internet Explorer 5 that aren't shared by Netscape 6.0. These include filters and transitions, windowless and transparent frames, borderless tables, popup technology that allows HTML content to be displayed outside the boundaries of the browser window, colored scroll bars, page zooming, and HTML+TIME.

One advantage Netscape 6.0 does enjoy over Internet Explorer is its cross-platform compatibility, with versions already available for all 32-bit Windows platforms, the Macintosh, and Linux. The Netscape Gecko engine has also been designed with the ability to be easily integrated into new computing devices as they become available. Gecko is embeddable, free, and open source, and has a cross-platform architecture that makes it easily portable across platforms and devices.

Advantage: Netscape 6.0 edges Internet Explorer 5 due to its adherence to existing Web standards and its cross-platform compatibility. Both browsers leave Netscape 4.72 in the dust in this area.

The Final Grades

When the results for each of the four key areas are taken into account, we can't help but feel that Netscape 6.0, judging by the current preview release, suffers from a case of too little, too late. We will of course be tracking the new browser closely as it evolves to see if the situation changes. But for now, Internet Explorer 5 takes the crown despite the attempts of Netscape 6 to leapfrog the current market leader.

Final Grades: Netscape 6: B- Internet Explorer 5: A Communicator 4.72: C-

Pros: · Strict adherence to accepted Web standards, · Interface is intuitive and easy to use, · Support for multiple POP mail accounts, · Solid feature additions & enhancements

Cons: · Performance lags far behind IE5 and even trails Communicator 4.72, · Lacks a number of IE5's features and technologies, · New interface could be more attractive

Version Reviewed: 6.0
Reviewed by: Forrest Stroud

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