AOL Browser review

Browsers: turn your back and up pops another one. This time it’s AOL, which has been in browser limbo for years. It owns Netscape, yet its online client has an unnatural reliance on Internet Explorer (IE), and if you look closely at the underpinnings of its first standalone browser, you’ll find it’s built on IE too. It’s a double-edged sword, as it’s susceptible to the same flaws and hacks as the Microsoft edition, but at the same time will benefit from automatic patches and upgrades through Windows Update. It also addresses many of IE’s shortcomings that have let Firefox prosper.

AOL Browser review

The most obvious one is tabbed browsing, a key Firefox selling point. But where Firefox is well behaved and only opens a tab when asked, AOL uses them by default, ignoring tags that pop up new windows and instead showing them in a separate tab in the same browser window. Thumbs up for keeping our Desktops tidy, but it isn’t entirely well done, as it leads us on to the first of our two complaints. Spin-off windows are often smaller than the page that spawns them, with designers slipping in lines of code that shrink them to suit the size of their contents. This works great in a standalone window, but when it resizes something in a tab, the whole application contracts. So, when you switch back to one of your full-size pages, you then have to resize the browser. Firefox, on the other hand, ignores these size commands when opening pages in tabs.

Far more irritating, though, is that opening a regular link in a tab, so you can continue browsing your current page, puts the new tab on top. This breaks your flow and you have to click back onto the page you were originally reading. Hopefully, by the time this beta is finished, AOL will realise that we open pages in tabs because we want to read them when we’ve finished the page we’re on right now.

But that’s where the gripes peter out. Not only does this browser look good, it works incredibly well. Pop-up ads are blocked by default, but can be uncovered en masse or on an individual basis. A counter on the status bar tallies blocked windows in a far subtler manner than the yellow banners of Firefox and post-Service Pack 2 IE.

Hovering over a tab brings up a thumbnail of the page it contains. So does passing your mouse across your Favourites list, and holding your mouse over the forward and backwards buttons not only brings up a list of the pages you’ve been clicking through, but again pops up an image of each page. It’s surprising how far you come to rely on these visual cues – when you switch back to a browser that works on text and icons alone, you quickly start to miss them. Fortunately, a range of footprint-wiping options clear all these thumbnails, and optionally a whole raft of cookies and historical entries can save you unnecessary blushes.

If you’re switching from Explorer, your favourites will follow. If you’re an AOL member, a single click will even import your bookmarks from the AOL client. When complete, the browser will be available to all and sundry, but it looks like only AOL subscribers will be able to access TopSpeed, a proprietary caching tool that promises to cut download times across both dial-up and broadband links. This wasn’t working in our beta code, so couldn’t be tested, but what was fully functional was the Desktop Search. This supplements regular web searching on a dedicated toolbar, and the results are truly impressive. Searching for ‘Dennis’, publisher of PC Pro, dug up invoices (on account of having Dennis in the address at the top of each one), spreadsheets (where the author’s company in the metadata was set to Dennis Publishing), European Union PDFs that included a bibliography with a line crediting ‘G. Abramovici, I. Dennis, A. Melis, J. Piirto’, and a plain text file of 1,478 pages containing a mammoth 508,572 words. Each result was spot on, despite the fact none of the filenames actually contained our search term. You’d expect this to take several minutes to complete; yet all told it was finished in less than two seconds. Literally. Indeed, once we’d opened the PDF, it took Adobe Reader far longer to locate the word ‘Dennis’ than AOL Browser had taken to pull up the file in the first place.

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