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Netscape's Two-Headed Monster

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Like something out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, the programmers at Netscape have resurrected a browser that most Internet users had left for dead. At the same time, they have created a two-headed monster of a browser in the new Netscape 8, which lets you choose to view pages as you would either in the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox version 1.0.3 or in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6.

Unlike other browsers Netscape 8 features both the Firefox and IE engines; with a single click you can switch between the two browser views. And if you happen to visit a Web page that has problems opening in the engine you're currently using, Netscape will automatically reload the page with the other browser engine. How accommodating can one browser be?

Unfortunately the news about Netscape 8 is not all positive. The browser loses much of Firefox's simplicity and a few of its useful features, while gaining plenty of extra heft: Netscape 8 takes up 35MB of hard-drive space on my test PC, compared with less than 16MB for Firefox. Surprisingly, Netscape 8 uses Firefox 1.0.3, not the more recent 1.0.4 build that corrected recent security breaches. According to AOL, the vulnerability that 1.0.4 plugs didn't affect Netscape 8, so no update was required.

The browser is available as a free download.

One of the first things you'll notice when you open the new browser is the icon on the far left of the Status Bar at the bottom of the screen, which indicates whether the current page is loaded in Firefox or IE. If you click the down arrow located next to that icon, you'll see options for displaying the page in the other browser engine. (The engine is the core part of the browser, which instructs the Web page elements on where and how to display.)

This icon also allows you to open the browser's Site Controls. You might expect to be able to add the current page to your list of trusted sites automatically from the Site Controls dialog box, but no such function is offered there (you have to use the option on the page's tab). In fact, when it comes to trusting sites, with Netscape 8 it's an all-or-nothing proposition: You either go with all of the company's Trust Ratings (sites verified by Web security firms Truste and VeriSign as trustworthy or unsafe), or none at all. You can't add or remove sites manually from either list.

Likewise, Netscape 8's method of choosing which engine to use when opening a particular Web page is determined by a whitelist of safe sites as verified by Truste and VeriSign, and a blacklist of risky sites that Netscape claims to update three times a day. Sites on the whitelist open in Internet Explorer, with ActiveX and all other functions on. If you visit a site on the blacklist, you see a warning. If you click through the warning and open the page anyway, the browser blocks cookies, Java, and other potentially unsafe functions automatically.

Any site that isn't on either list will open in the Firefox engine by default. If you decide to view a page in the engine other than the one Netscape picks for you, the browser will remember your selection the next time you visit that page.

Netscape 8 shares many of Firefox's features, including automatic pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing, which puts each open page under its own tab in a single window. One big difference between the two products, however: While Firefox takes pride in offering only the functions you need for browsing, the feature-creep in Netscape 8 is readily apparent.

One important feature missing from Netscape 8 is Firefox's great pop-up controls, which let you create a list of sites for which pop-ups are allowed. No such option is available in Netscape 8; nor does the new browser let you list the sites that are permitted to install software or load images, as Firefox does.

Netscape 8 outshines Firefox in one area: custom toolbars. Firefox lets you add items to toolbars simply by dragging them from the Customize window onto the toolbar itself. Netscape 8 extends this functionality to news feeds, travel and weather information, shopping sites, and even movie times. To remove the item, just drag it off the toolbar and back into the Customize window. You can even create your own custom toolbars--called "multibars"--on which you combine your personal toolbars. (Just remember to leave enough room in your browser window for the Web page itself to be seen.)

Even with the ability to reload misbehaving Web pages in either the Firefox or IE engine with a single click, the new Netscape browser feels like a case of subtraction by addition. The features added to Netscape 8 may make it look more like a conventional browser, but it loses Firefox's simplicity (and some of that browser's most useful features) in the process.

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