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CWSApps: Netscape Communicator v6.0 PR1 [Review]

By Forrest Stroud, CWSApps

Just when you thought the browser wars were long over, Netscape
returns from the dead with a new preview edition 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, Netscape 6.0 took 83%
longer
to load than Internet Explorer 5.5 and 14%
longer
than Netscape 4.72.

The results were similar for Computer B, with the new release of
Netscape taking 70% longer to load than IE 5.01
and (again) 14% longer than Netscape 4.72. 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 33%
and Netscape 4.72 trailing IE 5.5 by 25% on
Computer A. On this test Netscape 6.0 lagged behind its predecessor
(v4.72) by more than 11%.

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. However, 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 barely 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

New in v6.0
PR1
:
My Sidebar; integrated Instant Messenger client;
Password and Cookie managers; support for multiple POP mail
accounts and AOL mail; completely redesigned, simpler (albeit less
attractive) interface; smaller download (with new setup tool);
ability to search directly from URL bar; AutoTranslation tools;
integrated Net2Phone client; full support for XML, XUL, CSS1, W3C
DOM Level 1, and JavaScript 1.5; Release
Notes