Product Review: Explorer reveals strong enhancements

When we looked at the beta version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 last year (see our review at www.infoworld.com/printlinks) we didn't see many changes to the browser itself. But dozens of minor improvements and changes included in that version made the end-user's Web experience a little better.

The shipping version, which is available for free, stays true to that mission. The final code I tested offers greatly improved usability; further it has improved and added significant features, such as AutoSearch, Search Assistant, and Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) 5.0. These improvements were enough to make me finally switch from Netscape Navigator to Explorer 5.0.

At first glance, Explorer 5.0 did not look much different from Explorer 4.0, but using it just for a few minutes revealed some significant improvements. Improved usability, ease of deployment, and price are three compelling reasons to upgrade to this version of Explorer. The only flaw I could find in this version of Explorer was that it will be available to all platforms except Macintosh. A Macintosh version will follow soon.

Flexible customisation

As a network administrator, what really impressed me was IEAK 5.0, an improved utility that offers a simple way to let me build and deploy customised Explorer installation configurations for different groups of people. Using a set of comprehensive wizards, I was able to configure and then publish a custom Explorer installation. The wizards took me through the process step by step; I could choose the platform, language, and location for the finished installation and a lot more. I was even able to replace graphic elements within the browser such as the rotating globe in the upper-right region of the browser.

With this type of control I could easily set up a number of test configurations to deploy. One configuration, for example, had the Content and Security Tabs locked from users and another configuration gave users control over their settings.

One of the features of the custom configuration I liked most was that I could choose to have custom versions of Explorer installed invisibly, so that when users clicked to upgrade they were not prompted to enter information into dialog boxes.

Stronger searching

A brand-new installation wizard allowed me more flexibility to determine which browser components were installed, and settings and bookmarks from the previous version of the browser were imported without damage.

Further, anyone who has used the Web to find relevant information knows that it's as hard as folding a pillow into a cigar box; thus, users will like the improvements made to Explorer's search tools. The AutoSearch, for example, allows users to specify which search engines to use and in which order to use them when a search is requested. You can customize AutoSearch using a simple point-and-click interface. When I looked at the product, I selected AltaVista, Excite, and Yahoo as my search engines and then moved Yahoo to the top of the list.

Pressing the Search button opens a familiar pane on the left side of the browser, revealing a new Search Assistant that allowed me to get more accurate results by using the search engines optimized for specific types of information. I could choose to look for a Web page, a person's address or e-mail, a newsgroup, or even an item in an encyclopedia.

Filling in blanks

Explorer includes an improved version of the AutoComplete feature, which makes getting to sites easier. While typing a URL into the address bar, the AutoComplete feature drops down a list of previously visited sites that matched the spelling. In addition, when filling out forms on often-used sites, AutoComplete pops up a list of previously used entries. For example, when a user types in the first letter of their log-in on a protected site, a drop-down list shows previously entered log-in names; choosing the right one automatically enters the password in the password field. This dramatically simplifies the process of filling out lengthy address forms. My only wish is that if I could have edited the list containing this information, it would have been helpful when I made some errors filling out forms. Instead, my only option was to delete it.

Previously, Explorer users could download an Alexa client, a Web navigation service designed to aid navigation, provide information about sites currently visited, and make site recommendations. Explorer now sports an integrated Alexa client, which puts it on par with Netscape Navigator, which offered this feature in Version 4.5 of its browser.

The Explorer browser offers a lot of other features and enhancements. These include autocorrection to correct typing mistakes in URLs and error messages that are simpler to read, instead of the standard HTTP error messages.

One of my favorite features, though it certainly is not a productivity booster, is Windows Radio Toolbar, which let me listen to Internet radio from around the globe with radio controls easily accessible on the toolbar. I could also download entire Web sites, including image files, save them in folders rather than caching for later viewing.

I was an avid Navigator user in the past; however, the combination of speed, usability, and price has finally convinced me to switch to Explorer 5.0, and I would strongly recommend the same to all organisations.

Andre Kvitka is a technical analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at andre_kvitka@infoworld.com.

The bottom line: very good

Internet Explorer, Version 5.0

This version of the popular browser is a much better tool for users to mine the Web. The Internet Explorer Administration Kit 5.0 (IEAK 5.0) and the price, or lack thereof, make it a worthwhile upgrade for all organizations.

Pros: Improved usability; fast; stable; refined search tools for Web navigation; IEAK 5.0 for deployment of custom Explorer versions.

Cons: Lack of Macintosh version.

www.microsoft.com

Price: Free

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