When eWEEK Labs looked at Internet Explorer 6.0 more than five years ago, we were so disappointed in the browser that we said the only reason to upgrade to it was because it was free.
That means you'd have to go back nearly nine years to find a release of the Microsoft browser that we found to be significant: IE 5.0.
But with the release Oct. 18 of Internet Explorer 7, Microsoft is finally back in the Web browser game in a serious way: IE 7 takes major strides in reversing Microsoft's neglect of the flagship browser.
• Click here to visit FOXNews.com's Home Computing Center.
During tests, we found IE 7 to be a major upgrade over recent versions of IE — and one that finally adds many of the features and capabilities that Web users have come to expect from current-generation Web browsers such as Firefox and Opera.
While we wouldn't yet call IE 7 one of the best browsers available today, Microsoft has greatly closed the distance between its browser and those of its competitors.
Version 7 catches IE up with now-common browser features, such as tabbed windows, and the new browser offers improved Web standards support and is much more secure by default.
In fact, the biggest weakness in IE 7 — and one that will always keep it behind competitors — is the fact that it runs only on Windows systems.
Not only that, the browser currently will run only on Windows XP with Service Pack 2. (The Vista version of IE 7 will ship with the new operating system).
Those interested in trying IE 7 can download it immediately at www.microsoft.com/ie/. The update also will be available in the coming weeks through Windows Update.
Users upgrading to IE 7 will immediately notice the radically changed interface. We found the new interface to be intuitive and clean, but those who want to have the familiar menus can choose the Classic Menu option in the Tools menu.
Tabbed browsing works in much the same way in IE 7 that it does in other browsers, letting us save groups of tabs and control how tabs are opened and navigated to.
We also liked the Quick Tabs feature that let us view all of our tabbed screens in a virtual screen-like tool.
IE 7 also does a good job with RSS feed discovery, with a descriptive feed summary page that provides detailed information about the feeds users are considering subscribing to.
Also new in IE 7 (although always available in Opera) are zoom capabilities, which make it possible to quickly zoom in to a page.
This feature will be useful for people with visual disabilities or those who need a large view of Web content. The zoom capabilities are easily accessible from the browser's bottom status bar.
The Delete Browsing History option in IE 7 provided multiple options for removing the traces of a browsing session. We could delete passwords, cookies or temporary Internet files, for example, or we could simply click the Delete All button.
We didn't have to wait long to see the much-talked-about anti-phishing capabilities of IE 7 — the feature immediately launched screens asking us if we wanted to turn on the phishing controls (including an alert telling us that some information is sent to Microsoft).
The anti-phishing feature works by checking a central list of suspect Web sites and by looking for phishing characteristics in the site being viewed.
When it comes to security, one of our favorite new features in IE 7 is that the address of a site is always displayed, even for pop-ups. This makes it much easier to identify potentially problematic sites.
However, the way IE handles scriptlets and ActiveX controls has changed dramatically, and some sites that think of themselves as tuned specifically for IE will run into problems with Internet Explorer 7.
We support these changes in general, as ActiveX is one of the main sources of IE-based security problems. And IE 7 takes a pretty strong stand against ActiveX and scripting, turning off most instances by default and requiring users to step through hoops to enable all but the safest controls and scripts.
IE 7 presents a warning dialog when a site tries to load an ActiveX control, and, from within the new Manage Add-ons window, we could remove or disable ActiveX controls installed in our browser.
In addition, when we created a custom security setting that the browser considered to be unsafe, it color-coded the setting in red.
If the color-coded settings aren't enough to warn users, a dialog pops up to check whether users really want to continue with their unsafe security settings.
We also liked that IE 7 users who have configured and customized the browser to the point of instability and poor security can now fall back to the classic "reset" button, which returns the browser to a default state.
The custom search settings for the integrated search bar in IE proved to be very good, second only to the excellent search features in Opera.
During initial setup we could choose all the popular search engines we wanted to use in our browser.
We also could add the search engine from any Web site. This didn't work on every site we tested, but it proved to be a nice option.
IE 7 still doesn't have perfect standards support, but it is much better than previous versions of the browser.
Check out eWEEK.com's Windows Center for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis.
Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.