May 19, 2005

Netscape 8

As a fairly early adopter of Mozilla Firefox (back in the Firebird days), I have been browsing happy for well over a year. Complains about it not rendering certain sites correctly were not shared by me, for the most part. I only needed IE for Windows Update, and that was it. So when I heard that Netscape 8 would support both the Gecko rendering engine (that Firefox uses), as well as the Trident engine (that IE uses), I didn't particularly care.

So Netscape 8 could only possibly win me over by providing an overall user experience superior to that of Firefox, which is a fairly tough challenge. Ultimately, it failed miserably.

Installation
The installation of Netscape 8 was quite smooth, conveniently prompting the user with various options while it was installing the core features in the background. I've wondered in the past why other programs don't do this; you don't need to wait for me to tell you that I want the core parts of the program installed; if I didn't want to install them, I would not have run the installer.

During the setup, it also asked what theme should be used, which was nice in that it brings about awareness of the themability. There were options to install a couple of extra programs, one being a weather program which I hear is spyware, and another offering from RealNetworks; I never download anything from them. Touting itself as a secure browser, I find it quite bizarre that it would try to push these products.

It then asked me about importing my settings from Firefox or whatever other browser I used. It crashed during the import process.

First Run
When the splash screen showed up, it was quite nostalgic. I've always liked the fact that IE and Firefox don't have splash screens; I think a browser is such a central part of a users computing experience that it doesn't warrant announcing itself like that. I open and close my browser like I might open Explorer, or Control Panel, or something like that. I don't want a fancy graphic telling me that I just opened Control Panel.

The default theme, Fusion, is hideous. Netscape decided that it was a good idea to put the menu on the right side, get rid of the standard Windows titlebar, and throw as many buttons on the screen as possible. This is why it's important that they emphasize the themability right from the installation; people need to know that they're not stuck to this disgusting thing. I imagine few people would ever want to surf in this mess.

The highly-touted "Multibar" is kinda neat, though most of the content is annoying. The concept is a good way to fit a lot more content on a page without sacrificing screen real estate. What sucked, though, was the fact that the content was very America-centric by default, and the weather component only accepts zip codes (US only) for setting its location. The "Personal" bar allows instant access to a variety of Webmail clients, which is a nice feature.

What really turned me off was the default implementation of the tabbed browsing. When opening a new tab, it will open it to the same page as the current tab, which is not what most people want when they open a new tab. It would also open tabs in the foreground by default, and they would show up immediately to the right of the current tab. This gets somewhat confusing when navigating, particularly when you want to open up a bunch of search results. Fortunately, all of this is configurable by an interface which looks much like the Tab Browser Preferences Extension for Firefox. But for people who still use IE as their main browser, I don't think this implementation of tabs would impress them; if anything, it may turn them away.

Security
The Security Center allows controls on a per-site basis. For sites it deems trustworthy, it will load the page in the IE engine, and for potentially unsafe sites, it uses Gecko. This really won't help the cause of those who are pushing for web standards. The interface is straightforward, though it is a bit intrusive; they'll put a little shield icon on each tab to set the site controls for the page on that tab, and there's also another button on the toolbar for the security center, and of course, it's available from the menu in a couple of places. This seems to be overkill.

The Passcard
Netscape 8 has an integrated feature for remembering login information and filling forms on a per-site basis; they call them "Passcards". The feature works well in my limited testing, but the interface for configuring it is highly confusing. There are multiple nested tab controls inside the config menu, which is quite bizarre. It is organized fairly well, however, and I imagine that if I were the type of person who saves form information in my other browsers, I would find this thing useful. Personally, I never save login information into my browsers, except for on a couple of sites.

Performance
Like all things Netscape, this browser is kinda slow and bloated. Even without the integration of a mail client, calendar, and Composer, the interface is still extremely busy and slow. And while they didn't see a need to integrate a mail client, they decided to keep AIM and ICQ built in. For those of us who never use those IM clients, it's a pain that we have to load it up in the first place. They would better be served as options in installation, or maybe as Extensions. (Netscape supports the same Extensions framework as Firefox, being from the same codebase.) I personally liked the old Netscape mail client, and it was one of the key reasons I stayed with Netscape back in the day. Before Thunderbird came of age, I was considering downloading Netscape (or Mozilla Suite) just for the mail client. Removing the mail client will also discourage current Netscape users from upgrading, methinks.

Page loading is nothing spectacular, though with broadband connections, I've never really had problem in page-loading time in any browser really.

Overall outlook
The one person I know who still uses Netscape as their primary browser doesn't plan on upgrading to Netscape 8. I doubt Firefox users or IE users will switch either. So I'm not too optimistic about the future of this thing. Nice try, but they haven't quite figured out, it seems, why Firefox became popular in the first place. I switched to Firefox because it did only what I needed it to do, and nothing more. The default settings were such that I was comfortable with it the first time I loaded it up on my old Win95 machine. I've never looked back since.

Netscape 8 is worth checking out for kicks, but I imagine few will adopt it as their primary web browser.

3 comments:

  1. That was an excellent review. I'm surprised I read all of it, considering I probably would have never have tried it even if you had given it a good review.

    I have both Firefox and IE in my quick launch, but I can't really bring myself to use Firefox much. I'm not sure why, because I understand how it is superior to IE.

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  2. I wrote my name^. That's weird.

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