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Internet Explorer 5.0 simplifies searches

Beta of the next-generation browser promises dramatically improved usability -- and delivers in part.

November 5, 1998
Web posted at: 1:45 PM EDT

by Yael Li-Ron

(IDG) -- When you check out a new browser, the most exciting aspect is usually not what it does but what it promises -- and the beta release of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 is no exception. Some of IE 5.0's new features are truly exciting. But many of them seem half-baked, as if the development team had a brilliant idea and then ran out of steam when it came time to carry it out. This will be a must-have upgrade, but it's still a work in progress. If you use IE 4.x, you won't need to spend hours learning the new version: Its enhancements are consistent with what you already know. Some features you might have expected to get in the older version are finally available in this one. For example, when you add a framed site to your Favorites collection, you save the actual page you want--not just the location of the external frame. And when you hit the Edit button, you get a choice of any of your installed HTML editors to use in editing the source code.

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But some of IE's longest-lingering problems, such as incomplete Web integration, are yet to be addressed.

IE 5.0 is scheduled to ship during the first quarter of 1999. If you're not comfortable with beta versions, you might want to wait. But my experience has been that shipping products (and not just from Microsoft) are just as buggy as betas. Since this version seems stable so far, you might want to give it a try. You can download it from Microsoft's site (see link below).

The much-improved Setup Wizard lets you pick any component or combination you may want to install. The minimum installation -- browser only -- will take up 22MB on your hard disk. A complete installation, including multimedia and authoring tools, takes up 65MB.

I tested IE 5.0 on a Windows 98 system, and the upgrade worked without a hitch. Below I discuss the browser's most outstanding features.

Searching gets meta

By far the best new feature is the overhauled Search bar (to see it, click the Search icon on the main toolbar). Formerly just a handy left-hand pane offering access to search engines, this has become an indispensable metasearch tool.

Type your query into a search field, then browse the results in any of nine available search engines. Can't find what you're looking for in the list of matches provided by AltaVista? Just click the Next button above the search results to see the results from Lycos, then HotBot, and so on.

Click the Customize button and you'll go to Microsoft's site, where you can tweak your preferences. Unfortunately, right now this pretty much amounts to0 checking off search engines you don't like; there's no way to add a site to the list. When we asked Microsoft about this, we were advised to use the free IE PowerToys, which lets users add any search engine, including site-specific ones. But this tool doesn't integrate with the Search bar (Microsoft promises that it will in a future build).

Another disappointing omission is Windows' own Find tool. With all the talk of "true Web integration," you'd expect IE to offer access to your local drive from within its interface, but it doesn't.

Still, the Search bar is chock-full of smarts. It even assigns common search types to appropriate sites: E-mail searches are sent to Internet directories; requests for maps go to mapping sites (well, to Expedia); and so on. You can also query Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, for free.

Advances in AutoComplete

When I first saw the new AutoComplete capabilities, I thought I was in typist heaven. IE 5.0 seems to anticipate my every move and attempts to complete my thoughts for me.

Unlike IE4's fill-in feature, which completes a partially typed URL with a match from recently visited sites, the new AutoComplete draws on the Favorites and History lists, and presents the user with a drop-down list of all possible matches. You can even start by typing a domain name (that is, skip the www), and AutoComplete will kick in. And you don't need to leave the keyboard to browse the list -- just hit your down arrow to scroll through the matches.

You can even assign short nicknames to sites in your Favorites list, then just type those names to get to those sites. This saves the extra steps of opening the Favorites bar, then drilling down through some folders to find the site you're looking for.

Fill forms faster

AutoComplete also kicks in when you fill in Web forms (with, say, your name and password on sites you visit frequently). And this tool's impressive memory isn't limited to one session. I typed some queries into AltaVista, and when I returned to that site on the following day and right-clicked the Search field, I got a list of the previous phrases.

Talk about promises: IE 5.0 adds support for the yet-to-be approved P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences) spec, which the W3C is still developing. This standard will make it easier to fill in Web forms, by taking your personal data -- stored in an encrypted file on the hard disk -- and "typing" it for you.

For example, the Wallet on IE5 stores your name, address, and credit-card number in a securely encrypted file, so that when you want to buy something online, this information can be polled by an equally secure server, if you give your approval. The problem is, right now only a handful of e-commerce sites support P3P.

Button up the toolbar

You can now -- finally -- customize IE's toolbars by adding or removing buttons. You also get two new buttons: A Go icon next to the Address field for users who don't remember to press Enter after an address or would rather use their mouse (you can disable the button), and a Folders button that launches a tree view of your local system in a left-hand Explorer Bar.

Unfortunately, you lose all this when you browse local folders (so much, again, for "true Web integration"). You don't see browser-related buttons such as Favorites, History, or Search; the only way to get to them is by typing a URL into a folder's Address box.

Another new -- and welcome -- toolbar tweak is a drop-down menu listing all the items you can't see when a toolbar is resized too small to show its entire contents.

Take work offline

IE 5.0 generally makes it simpler to work with Favorites (ditching IE4's confusing Channels in the process). And it's much easier to download Web pages for offline reading (you can now save an entire page, complete with all the images), though the process is spread across several menus, making it confusing at best.

If you want to save several layers of a Web site, you must add that site to your Favorites, then select Organize Favorites, click the site's icon, and click the option to make it available offline. This is clumsy, especially for a one-time download. Going through the File, Save As menu is more intuitive but you can't save more than one layer of a site that way.

Junk mail jive

Outlook Express adds a Junk Mail filter. Again, this is a potentially exciting feature -- until you use it.

The poorly labeled detector slide only lets you lean toward Catch Less or Catch More, and doesn't explain what those options are. Other new filtering options are more helpful, but the program still won't block all mail in which the To field doesn't contain your e-mail address (a common practice among spammers).

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