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Internet Explorer 5 Reviewed

Users greeted Internet Explorer 4.0 with open arms and, indeed, that version of IE put Microsoft over the top: Internet Explorer now dominates Netscape Navigator in Web browser marketshare by a factor of almost 2-to-1. But all was not well with IE 4.0, which had to be distributed largely by CD-ROM or through bundling with Windows, America Online, and numerous Microsoft applications and servers. The problems were two-fold: IE 4.0 could be buggy (witness the two service pack releases and numerous other bug fixes) and it was ponderously slow. Even as IE 4.0 was unleashed in September 1997, Microsoft was working on the follow-up, a smaller, faster version of IE that would become known as Internet Explorer 5.0.

Think of IE 5.0 as IE 4.0 done right: All of the rough areas have been smoothed out and in the place of the IE 4.0 pig is a small, elegant, and yes, quick, Web browser that comes optionally bundled with a full suite of Internet applications that many people are going to find irresistible. And unlike IE 4.0, which was the first version of Internet Explorer to truly drive its tendrils into the heart of Windows, IE 5.0 offers a stable platform for future operating systems from Redmond.

Most people that install IE 5.0 manually will do so over the Web, using one of Microsoft's many download mirrors. The process is similar, though superior, to that employed by IE 4.0: The user downloads a small (~600KB) file that orchestrates the actually downloading of Internet Explorer (Figure). But this program is far nicer than its predecessor, as you can now optionally download IE only (and install from the hard drive at a later time) or install the program live over the Internet. If you choose the second option, the installation program will be able to pick up where it left off if your connection drops. Perhaps most surprisingly, there is even an option to "retain" your version of IE 4.0, so that you can run both IE 4.0 and 5.0 at the same time. A couple of caveats here: The 4.0 browser that's left on your system is not the same one you had before, but a "reference" IE 4.0 Web browser supplied by Microsoft. And none of your older tools--such as Outlook Express 4.0--will be retained at all if you upgrade them to the new 5.0 versions.

In any event, most people will probably welcome the new minimal install of Internet Explorer 5.0, which clocks in at a relatively light 6.5 MB (Compare this to the base install of Netscape Communicator 4.51, which requires a whopping 13.4 MB). And any user of Internet Explorer 5.0 will benefit from its new auto-install feature, which prompts you to download new bits on the fly if you don't have them. For example, you might hit a Web site that uses Macromedia Flash, a vector graphics add-in. If you didn't install Flash the first time you setup IE 5.0, the browser will ask you whether you'd like to get it then. It's a welcome addition and it's done right.

Setup allows you to determine which components to install through a dialog box with "Typical," "Minimal," and "Custom" options (Figure). This allows you to hand-tune your installation if desired, using a new Microsoft Installer-style expanding option tree (Figure), where you can check off each component you want. And as you check items off, the dialog displays a changing total size requirement of the components you've selected. After that, the dialog (which curiously changes title to "Windows Update") downloads the components (Figure), installs them, and configures your system (Figure). Then you reboot (Figure and you're good to go.

The only addition to your desktop will be an Internet Connection Wizard shortcut. From this simple Wizard (Figure), you can setup your Internet connection and any email accounts you may have. Once completed, the shortcut is deleted automatically. And Internet Explorer now boots into a nice tour page (Figure) the first time your use it, another nice touch.

Internet Explorer, the Web browser
It's likely that the Web browser--the single product we think of as "Internet Explorer"--will be the tool you use most often. And appropriately, it's been improved the most, with a host of new features, both cosmetically and under the hood. At first glance, Internet Explorer 5.0 is very similar to IE 4.0 (Figure); the toolbars and general style of the program are almost identical. But some of the most stunning changes are there if you look closely.

One of the biggest improvements is the new and improved Favorites, which features a new (and no longer HTML-based, as it was in early betas) Organize Favorites dialog (Figure), which allows you to organize your Web, network, and local shortcuts however you see fit. Notice I mention network and local shortcuts here: The Favorites feature is no longer limited to the Web. You can store links to files and folders anywhere your computer can connect to, be it on the Internet, the network, or your local system. And Organize Favorites allows you to move and copy shortcuts, create and delete folders and perform any other housekeeping chores you might think of. The interface is identical to that employed by the Favorites Explorer Bar (Figure), which was a smart move as consistency is usually something that eludes Microsoft on an ongoing basis.

Speaking of Explorer Bars, the new Search Assistant (Figure), which also reveals itself as an Explorer Bar, offers a stunning improvement over previous versions. Instead of specifying a default search engine (Alta Vista, Excite, or whatever), the new Search Assistant now searches all of the search engines you specify and returns the results into the Explorer Bar. So there's no need to move from search engine to search engine when you're trying to find something: Search Assistant does it for you, offering each engine's results via a drop-down list (Figure). And as with most other things in Internet Explorer, the Search Assistant is fully customizable (Figure), so that you can include or exclude search engines as desired or configure the way it works with a variety of search services. This is an amazing addition.

Microsoft's IntelliSense technology also rises to the challenge with a host of new features, including a new type of address bar auto-complete that provides a drop-down list (Figure), instead of trying to finish the URL right in the address bar as IE 4.0 and Communicator 4.x do. The benefits to this approach are obvious after only a few uses, making it far simpler to find the page you're navigating to. The address bar also offers an auto-correct feature for the types of misspellings (such as htpp:// or http:/) that can happen again and again. And the auto-complete feature optionally extends to form fields as well. Tired of typing the same name and address information in every time you fill out a form? If you let it, IE 5.0 will remember the information you supply and fill them in automatically in similar forms, reducing repetitive typing. The security-wary can simply choose not to use this feature; it will ask you the first time you fill out a form.

In IE 4.0, a feature called Subscriptions would save selected Web pages in a cache for offline use. This has been replaced with the less-obtrusive "Make Available Offline" feature, which identifies those sites you'd like to revisit while offline (Figure). And if you are offline, IE 5.0 will now detect that automatically and respond accordingly: Hyperlinks that aren't available will display a "no access" cursor as you mouse-over them, while those links that are available will behave normally. This is probably a good time to mention that the much-hated Channels feature and corresponding Channel Bar have been almost completely exorcised from IE: Existing Channels will be carried over to a "Channels" folder within Favorites, but no new Channels features are being worked on. Finally, common sense wins out over one of the most bizarre features ever added to Windows.

When prompted to save a Web page to your hard drive (Figure), IE 5.0 now gives you the option to save the complete Web page (including all HTML and graphic files), an HTML email-friendly version, the HTML only, or a text file containing only the content on the page. This is an order of magnitude more powerful than anything offered by competing browsers.

One of the less successful, though understandable, features is the new way that error messages appear. In other browsers and previous versions of IE, for example, you might see occasional error dialogs open when a page can't be found or an error occurs for some reason. IE 5.0 does away with the error dialog and instead loads a friendlier message into the browser display pane. While I welcome the change to plain English error messages, there are two problems with using the browser window for this error message: One, it wipes out whichever page you may currently be viewing. Secondly, the address bar text is replaced with an inscrutable DLL message. This is particularly painful when you type in a long URL by hand, only to have it wiped out by that stupid (and pointless) DLL message. And the DLL message text that is printed in the address bar is contrary to the reasoning behind the plain English error messages to boot. Strange.

Other nice touches to the browser user interface include the ability to choose a default HTML editor, the ability for HTML editors to add themselves to the list of choices in the Edit button drop-down list (Figure), and a Go button next to the address bar. The Go button allows you to paste a URL into the address bar and then click the button without ever taking your hand off the mouse, a nice touch. And the IE 5.0 toolbar is fully customizable (Figure), offering a wide range of view styles (Show text labels, Selective text on right, and No text labels, mixed with small or large icons) and toolbars. And a new Radio toolbar (Figure) allows you to tune into the online radio shows that are popping up all over the place. If you just moved from say, Boston to Phoenix, and miss the hard rock station there, it's probably online; it's like you never left. On the other hand, this type of feature would have been better left to a separate program, perhaps something that integrates into the tray notification area on the taskbar.

And finally, there's a cool new FTP folders option, which makes navigating an FTP site almost identical to accessing local folders on your hard drive (Figure). You can drag and drop files back and forth between these sites and your hard drive just as you would locally. IE beta testers will remember a very early version of this feature, which was added to the alpha versions of IE 4.0 in the fall of 1996. It's back and, as you might expect, better than ever.

Problems in Paradise
Though Internet Explorer is a stunning achievement, there are niggling problems, including a bizarre regression error that I tried, unsuccessfully, to get Microsoft to fix. I'm hoping that enough complaints about this will get this one thing turned around. It goes like this: The first IE window you open will open at the size and location of the last IE window that was closed. This makes sense: You might spend time positioning and sizing the window to your own preferences and it should remember this information. But when you open a second window, everything falls apart. The second window opens at its own size and location. And neither is optimal. The company says that people were confused when they used multiple windows in IE 4, so they wanted to make sure that new windows were set off somehow from the original. The result, however, is a mess. And no amount of futzing with it will fix it. This "feature" is the one major problem in IE 5.0, and it's a painful one if you use a lot of windows simultaneously.

Perhaps an example will help explain this better. Let's say you're using IE, and you've got the window sized and positioned exactly how you want it. Now you open a new window (Figure). This one opens over in the corner somewhere and it bears no relation to the size of your original window (Figure). So you resize it and move it, perhaps, to make it more useful. Then you open a third window. This one also opens at the original size of that second window. Frustrated, you close the window and open a new one. Same thing. You can work around this (and, my God, this is cruel) but opening a second window, sizing and positioning it as desired, and then closing it. Now, as long as that original window is open, all subsequent new windows will open at the same size and position. But as soon as you close the first IE window, it's all lost again.

There is a special dark place in my heart reserved for the people associated with this "feature." It's something that will affect me almost every single day of my life until (or, I should say, unless) it's fixed. No amount of mindless explanation will ever change the fact that this program should at the very least figure out that I'm constantly resizing my windows and maybe, just maybe, do something about it. Even a beginning programmer could write Visual Basic programs that are more user-friendly. Even a Web browser I wrote myself does this. It's not hard.

But the problems don't stop there. 

Sometimes, you you attempt to load a Web page and it gives you a new friendly "page is not available" error. But then you try to reload the page and it works fine on the second or third attempt. I have no idea why this happens; It's sporadic and hard to track.

The third serious problem with IE 5.0 is even more insidious: You type in a URL, say something bogus like IE 5.0 whirs for a bit, attempting to load the page, and then it throws up a "page not found" error message. But it also replaces the URL you typed with "res://shdoclc.dll/dnserror.htm". This is infuriating, because most of the time you make a typing mistake like this, you're only off by one letter. But when IE 5.0 replaces the text you type with this ridiculous string of garbage, you are forced to retype the whole URL again. There is a workaround: This bug only surfaces when you do not type "http://" at the beginning of the URL. If you do type this, your URL will not be overwritten with the garbage string. Granted, this is a lame workaround, but it's good to know.

Since this review first appeared, I've received word that the IE team is, indeed, working to fix at least two of these bugs. If you've downloaded IE 5.0 or you just want to make a difference, please write the IE 5.0 team at Microsoft and tell them you want these problems fixed! And tell them I sent you. They'll get a real kick out of that.

Thanks to Bruce McKee and everyone else that wrote in about these issues. 

Changes to the shell
Unlike IE 4.0, Internet Explorer 5.0 doesn't make wholesale changes to the Windows shell. There are a few small improvements, however, but they are welcome additions rather than curious and obtrusive changes. For example, you can now customize the Start menu far more easily than before, with new right-click menu choices such as "Rename" and "Sort by Name" (Figure). One of the bizarre things that used to happen in IE 4.0 is that you would add a new folder to the Programs group, for example, and it wouldn't alphabetize properly for some reason. If this happens with IE 5.0, you can simply resort the whole menu by name, if desired. And best of all, every time you make a change (such as a rename, or moving a shortcut), the Start menu stays open! This was another little problem in IE 4.0 that's been fixed.

Not coincidentally, these changes apply to the Favorites menu in the browser as well. Another small bit of consistency in an otherwise inconsistent operating system.

One thing that's a little bizarre--and I didn't realize this until after this review was originally published--is that if you don't already have IE 4.0 on your system, IE 5.0 will not install the Active Desktop, the shell enhancements (Quick Launch toolbar on the taskbar, the new My Computer toolbar, etc.) or any of the other features that IE 4.0 users have become used to. If you're an NT administrator, you might want to go right from IE 2.0 to IE 5.0 on a Server install, and forego all of that stuff; individuals, however, may like the IE 4.0 shell enhancements. If this is the case, I recommend installing IE 4.0 before IE 5.0.

Outlook Express 5
Microsoft's free email and newsgroup client, Outlook Express, has been extensively updated for version 5.0. In fact, with a new interface and support for simultaneous multiple accounts, Outlook Express could very well take the place of Outlook 98 for most users. A new Outlook Today-style entry screen (Figure) welcomes you with information about your unread messages, newsgroups, and address book, while an almost infinitely configurable user interface (Figure) beckons with various view panes and toolbars. You can choose between Outlook bars, folder lists and bar, and a new views bar that switches the view filter used on a per-folder basis (Figure). This is a major improvement over OE 4.0, which offers views only on a per-activity basis (where newsgroups all shared the same view style, for example).

Outlook Express is a tremendous email and newsgroup client and I strongly recommend installing this component and at least testing it.

Other tools
As expected, Internet Explorer ships with a variety of other tools and features, including Windows Media Player 6.0 (with new Real Audio codecs), NetMeeting 2.11, Chat 2.5, FrontPage Express 2.0, and the like. Power users are going to want to spend some time in the custom install portion of setup, making sure to grab the bits they want. I recommend getting at least the excellent Media Player, the Offline Browsing Pack if you're still on a modem connection, the Internet Explorer Core Web Fonts, Visual Basic Scripting (VBScript) support, and the additional Web fonts. The total package can get surprisingly huge (I think the install I performed was over 50 MB), but it's all good stuff.

Well, what can I say? Internet Explorer 5.0 is it. Aside from the bogus "new window" problem and a few other minor glitches, IE 5.0 is a world-class suite of Internet applications and a fine addition to any Windows system. I recommend this product without any reservations, though I'd suggest that the bandwidth-deprived order the CD version and go with a more complete installation then they'd be likely to download. Like an automobile, IE 5.0 is at its best when decked to the gills, at least on desktop systems.

With this release, Internet Explorer finally lives up to its tag line. This is, indeed, the Web the way we want it.


This is the Setup window you'll get if you order the CD-ROM version.

The final version number of IE 5.0 is 5.00.2014.0216.

IE 5.0 setup walks you through a simple wizard-like interface.

In the recommended custom install, you can choose which components to install.

The Internet Connection Wizard allows you to setup your connection and email accounts.

If you can, take the time to browse through Microsoft's IE 5.0 tour.

It's here! Internet Explorer 5.0.

The new Organize Favorites dialog box.

The Favorites Explorer bar allows you to display all of your shortcuts while browsing.

The Search Assistant has been dramatically improved.

Navigate between search engines easily with the Search Assistant.

The Search Assistant is fully customizable.

The new auto-complete feature is a god-send, far nicer than the similar feature in IE 4.0.

The "make available offline" feature replaces IE 4 Subscriptions.

You can now save Web pages in a variety of useful ways.

The Edit button on the toolbar is fully customizable as well.

The entire IE toolbar is highly customizable.

The new Radio toolbar allows you to listen to live Web broadcasts.

The new FTP Folders option lets you navigate an FTP site as if it were on your hard drive.

Here's my desktop, with IE the way I want it.

And here's the new window Microsoft gives me. Thanks for nothing.

The Windows Start menu is far more customizable, thanks to IE 5.0, and changes don't cause the menu to close.

Outlook Express takes a step into the big leagues with version 5.0.

As is usual with IE 5.0 apps, OE 5.0 is highly customizable.

The views bar allows you to filter the view style for each folder.
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