Netscape’s New Navigator

Navigator 3.0 is the latest incarnation of Netscape's trend-setting and industry-leading Web browser.

Jonathan Chau

October 31, 1996

7 Min Read
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The evolution of the Web and the corresponding development ofNetscape's Navigator Web browser have been exciting and fast paced. Holding thecoveted position of industry leader, Netscape has been able to easily redefinethe Web at will. Some say Navigator 2.0 put the Web in a position to enter popculture.

Navigator 3.0 is the latest incarnation of Netscape's trend-setting andindustry-leading Web browser. Facing sudden stiff competition from Microsoft,Netscape piled on the features to turn an otherwise minor update into afull-blown, major upgrade.

For familiarity's sake, Netscape chose to not revise the UI in Navigator3.0. So if you've used Navigator 2.0, you'll feel at home with Navigator 3.0.Unfortunately, Navigator 3.0 also inherits the previous version's UI quirks andflaws, such as inconsistency with the underlying OS's menus.

Although the UI remains the same, Netscape added functionality and tighterintegration within the browser. Navigator consists of three applications (thebrowser and Netscape's mail and news clients) that share an interface, rightdown to the menu options. The line between the browser and the mail and newsclients is blurred with this latest release. For example, you can now view HTMLdocuments, which retain all HTML formatting codes, in email messages.

As for customizing the browser, however, Navigator 3.0 is downrightmedieval compared to IE3. Whereas IE3 lets you customize the entire browser UIfrom a central dialog, Navigator's options are in several dialogs and menuoptions. You can resize and remove Navigator's toolbars, but you can't move orminimize them.

Navigator is also inconsistent with regard to the Windows OS menu paradigm.For example, the context menu behavior lacks common features (such as theability to copy data from a Web page to the clipboard). Although this designgoes against Microsoft's UI guidelines­and could possibly extend thelearning curve­the inconsistency is understandable considering Netscape'scross-platform support. Netscape also wants you to spend most, if not all, yourtime in Navigator, which diminishes any concern about UI inconsistency.

Navigator 3.0 also includes a universal resource locator (URL) helper,which is useful if you frequently access a site in one session. With this tool,you can simply type a domain name (such as winntmag), and Navigator 3.0automatically places the www and com tags around it.

For HTML rendering, Navigator 3.0 is probably the fastest Web browser forNT. Graph 1 in the main article compares Navigator's and IE3's load times.Although testing performance measurements is difficult because of the number ofexternal variables (such as connection speed and video performance), Navigator3.0 was clearly faster than IE3 across the board on a local intranet. Navigatorwas approximately 30% faster than IE3 in rendering seven pages of text andimages (JPEGs). If you connect to the Internet with an analog modem, differencesin speed will be less dramatic because bandwidth becomes a bottleneck.

Of course, speed is moot if the browser monopolizes your CPU time. Earlierversions of Navigator could use 100% of the CPU time during page loading andrendering. I monitored Navigator 3.0's CPU usage with NT's Perfmon. Navigatornever claimed more than 25% of the CPU during complex page rendering.

With Navigator 2.0, Netscape pioneered the third-party plug-in extensionsmodel for Web browsers. Its support for infant Java scripts and plugins provedto be a turning point in Web browser development. Third-party developers quicklyjumped on the plug-in bandwagon and released a lot of plug-ins that extended thebrowser's capabilities in ways that even Netscape couldn't have imagined. Fromaddress books to interactive chat to time schedulers, plugins revolutionized theWeb.

As an example of how the Web has changed from a static hybrid of text andgraphics documents to a multimedia interactive environment, Navigator 3.0 nowships with plugins that support several external media types: Live3D for VirtualReality Modeling Language (VRML) browsing, LiveAudio for playback of embeddedaudio files, and LiveVideo for inline QuickTime and AVI video support. All threeplugins seamlessly integrate with Navigator in a way that's similar to theintegration of IE3 and ActiveX controls.

Netscape chose not to support ActiveX controls. This lack of support can bea problem for ActiveX developers and organizations that have bitten the ActiveXbullet. NCompass's CaptiveX plugin (available from www.ncom fillsthat void by providing third-party support for ActiveX controls to Navigator.When Navigator loads a page with an embedded ActiveX control, ControlActivetakes over and loads the control inside the plugin. Although this method isclumsy compared to IE3's native ActiveX support, Navigator users now can havethe best of both worlds.

Netscape slightly modified Navigator 3.0's plug-in interface, so you haveto download new versions of your plugins. Most third-party developers haveupdated their plugins to take advantage of Netscape's LiveConnect architecture,so obtaining new versions won't be a problem. LiveConnect is a scriptinginterface that exposes embedded objects, letting plugins, Java applets, andJavaScript scripts communicate with each other.

Other than Sun Microsystems's (nearly obsolete) HotJava browser, until ayear ago, Navigator 2.0 was the only Windows- based browser that included a Javainterpreter. Now Java seems to be popping up all over the place. So seeing arefined implementation of Java in Navigator 3.0 is no surprise. Unfortunately,Navigator's Java support isn't as fast as IE3's.

Like IE3, Navigator 3.0 includes a JIT compiler that translates theplatform-independent Java byte codes into native Win32 code. If an applet usesmachine-intensive operations such as mathematical equation calculations, the JITcompiler can speed the applet's performance. However, not all compilers areequal: My benchmarks (see Graph 1) show Navigator's Java support lagging behindIE3's by as much as 60%. Using Pendragon Software's CaffeineMark Javabenchmarking tool (available at, I found that IE3 is10% to 15% faster than Navigator 3.0 at loading and executing complex Javaapplets. Under a benchmarking load and execution times for simple applets (suchas the ticker-tape bar), Navigator 3.0 trails behind IE3 by 50% to 60%.

Integrated Clients
Like IE3 and Navigator 2.0, Navigator 3.0 ships with Internet mail andnewsgroup clients. These bundled clients are less capable than dedicated mailand newsgroup clients, but they aren't far behind in features.

Consistency across applications is clearly Netscape's strong suit. You canlaunch clients from clients, and they all share familiar menu features.

Netscape goes a step beyond traditional mail clients by adding HTMLsupport. You can now send a pointer to a Web page to a peer, and the page willload in the email message. In contrast, Microsoft's Internet Mail client usesHTML codes for its text formatting, but this client is limited to displayingfont styles. Screen A shows a sample email message that incorporates HTML codes. The oneshortcoming to Netscape's design is it doesn't load the Web page backgroundimages and colors. Pages viewed within the Mail and News clients display with agray background. Navigator's HTML mail support is the centerpiece of Netscape'spromotional offerings; The New York Times, CNET, and the Gartner Group,among others, offer free content directly through email. Consider it theelectronic equivalent of newspaper delivery.

Navigator's mail client also handles attachments gracefully. For example,you can view image attachments in the body of the message, rather than spawningan external viewer.

Pick Your Poison
Which browser is right for you? Both Navigator 3.0 and IE3 are maturethird-generation browsers that bring new features to the Web. IE3 offers ActiveXsupport and is free for the download, but Navigator's speed and stability makeit an attractive alternative to Microsoft's slightly memory-hungry browser.However, Navigator has several irritating anomalies and bugs. For example,Navigator 3.0 often leaves phantom processes running--processes that run withouta console window but still consume system memory.

NT Workstation users who need Web authoring and publishing tools will wantto consider Netscape's Navigator Gold 3.0, which was not released at press time.It includes excellent Web authoring tools and is more cost-effective than, say,Microsoft's FrontPage (which comes with NT Server 4.0).

Navigator 3.0 is an evolutionary step toward making the OS irrelevant.Indeed, Netscape hopes independent software vendors will writeplatform-independent applications (like Java applets) that will run inNavigator. Navigator 4.0 (code named Galileo), will be another step toward thatgoal. Galileo will have messaging and collaboration tools­similar toMicrosoft Exchange and Lotus Notes­that could eventually replace theapplications we use every day.

Navigator 3.0 is a solid addition to Netscape's product line. Whether it'sworth the price compared to the free IE3 is hard to say. Corporations running NTand Windows 95 exclusively may find paying $49.00 per user ($79.00 for NavigatorGold) tough, when IE3 does most of what Navigator can do. Netscape makesNavigator available across multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS, OS/2, and 11flavors of UNIX), so it is a good choice to standardize on if you have or planto install multiple platforms. Evaluate both browsers. If you're looking for arock-solid browser with excellent HTML authoring tools, I highly recommendNavigator Gold 3.0.

Navigator 3.0Navigator Gold 3.0

Netscape * 415-937-2555Web: home.netscape.comPrice:Navigator 3.0: $49; Navigator Gold 3.0: $79

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