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Which browser works best under Windows XP?

Which browser works best under Windows XP? In this edition of Windows Advisor, we’ll take a look at several of the top browsers available for the new OS and rate them accordingly, both on how they work under XP and by their respective benefits and drawbacks.

Internet Explorer 6

Internet Explorer 6, which ships with Windows XP, does offer improved privacy features such as the ability to block third-party cookies, as well as the ability to see a report about which sites attempt to override the cookie-blocking protocol. It can be more than a little eye opening to see how many different Web sites attempt to plant cookies on your system, so this feature, which no other browser offers as of this writing, is a definite plus in the IE 6 column.

One annoying change in IE 6 under XP is the loss of support for Netscape-style plug-in modules. There’s just no good reason for this other than the ongoing mission to eliminate all other browsers from the marketplace. I hope Microsoft rethinks its position on this with the next release of IE.

The Netscape plug-in snafu notwithstanding, since both Windows XP and IE 6 are creations of Microsoft, Bill Gates’ company holds an obvious lead in browser compatibility. And it shows. Internet Explorer rarely (if ever) crashes under XP, and does run a bit faster on my Windows XP system than it did under Windows 98. Besides that, though, there aren’t yet a whole lot of advantages in running the browser under Windows XP over Windows 98. Future versions should change that.

Netscape 6.2

OK, Netscape 6.2 is a lot better than 6, which crashed just about every time you looked at it funny. But there’s not a whole lot more you can say in support of it. It runs just as well under Windows XP as it does under Windows 98, but even with the new memory-resident Quick Launch feature, it still doesn’t quite match IE’s speedy start-up and page-loading times. In fact, aside from fixing some major stability issues, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between 6 and 6.2, and adding Windows XP to the mix doesn’t seem to add (or subtract) from the equation.

That doesn’t mean that Netscape 6.2 is a complete waste. It handles multiple e-mail accounts and organizes bookmarks better than IE, and the overall look and feel of the browser isn’t quite as crowded and cluttered as it was just 0.2 generations ago. Future editions will probably improve on the best of 6.2 and should take advantage of the new OS, but as it stands IE probably is your best bet in terms of browser functionality under Windows XP.

If you’re already running Netscape but felt cheated by version 6, you should definitely upgrade. While the browser doesn’t really benefit from running under Windows XP, it doesn’t prove to be a deficit either. Essentially, it’s a wash. It is, of course, always nice to have at least one non-Microsoft product on your computer’s desktop.

Opera 6.1

Opera was supposed to be the next big browser that would revolutionize everything; it just never happened. Users were just satisfied enough with their original choice of browsers not to want to go to the trouble of making the switch. Opera 6.1 is, however, a viable alternative to Internet Explorer and Netscape, and it’s managed to capture a small niche in the browser market simply by being different.

Opera 6.1 runs smoothly and efficiently under Windows XP, and you can even notice a small improvement (which is probably due to XP’s better memory handling) with loading time as compared to Win98. Of the three browsers tested, however, Opera was the most buggy. In an interesting twist of events, Opera recognizes all Netscape-style plug-ins but fails to give credence to IE plug-ins such as Windows Media Player. Cached pages also load slower under Opera than under either Netscape or IE, more or less negating the speed bonus while running under Windows XP.

The biggest complaint about Opera is that it’s ad-supported. In other words, if you don’t pay for the ad-free version, you’re forced to view even more ads than you normally would as you browse the Internet. Opera doesn’t have a revenue stream even remotely approaching that of Internet Explorer or even Netscape, but it’s still annoying. That said, the ad-free version of Opera costs only $39, which is a small price to pay to encourage third-party browsers.

So which one is best?

Whichever browser worked for you under Windows 98 should work equally well, if not a little better, under Windows XP. Until a new browser comes along (see sidebar) everything pretty much remains as it was. Internet Explorer bests the competition by a field goal, but only because it has the home-field advantage. None of the three browsers reviewed here is significantly better under Windows XP than under Windows 98, and whatever differences there are don’t amount to enough to make a browser switch. Just use whatever works best for you and keep an eye out for version 7 browsers in 2003.

Mozilla roars

Mozilla is an open-source Web browser from the folks at Netscape. This means that anyone who wants to can view (and alter) the source code. And that’s where the fun begins. Additions and modifications to the program are sent to the site daily, and the best of the bunch go into the finished product. As of this writing, Mozilla is in Release Candidate 2 stage and already looks more stable than Netscape 6.2 or Opera.

The browser builds on what the original Netscape did best: functionality. The program is intuitively easy to use, while having enough bells and whistles to impress even the most jaded power user. Probably one of the nicest features of Mozilla is tabbed browsing. Everyone knows how cluttered your desktop can get if you have more than a few browser windows open at once. No more. Mozilla’s tabbed browsing feature enables you to open as many browser windows as you wish while keeping them all together behind your original window. Just click the tab of the open window that you want to look at and, voila, you’re there. No more alt-tabbing!

So how does Mozilla operate under Windows XP? In a word, beautifully. Because part of the browser is loaded into memory upon boot-up (like Netscape 6.2), opening the browser takes less time than even Microsoft’s very own Internet Explorer. On my machine, my home page was up and running on the desktop within seconds of clicking the Mozilla desktop icon. How cool is that? And because XP handles memory a bit better than its older OS cousin, having part of the program memory resident doesn’t present any of the problems (or cause your overall system to slow down) than it might have on 98.

Mozilla should ultimately prove that open-source architecture is the way to go in creating a superior product. I’m already using the program as my main browser and it isn’t even in public release yet. If things keep improving and evolving with Mozilla, this Netscape cousin could give Internet Explorer a run for its money for the position of dominant browser in 2003 and beyond.

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