Netscape 8 beta review

Ten years ago, Netscape literally changed the face of the Internet. But that was then, and this is the Microsoft-dominated now. AOL hopes to change all that with the release of Netscape 8, and this beta version provides a taste of things to come by innovating in all the right places.

The new Netscape is the first schizophrenic browser, supporting two different rendering engines: Gecko (Firefox) and Trident (IE). Which is used depends upon the site you’re browsing and specifically its ‘site control’ trust rating.

Similar to Internet Explorer zones, these bring a degree of browser-defined control over content and features dependent upon the level of trust you bestow upon a domain. A fully trusted domain (denoted by a green shield icon) uses the IE engine by default and gives full access, including use of ActiveX controls. By default, only a handful of sites are flagged in this way (microsoft.com, for example). Not trusted sites will block all pop-ups, disable JavaScript and ActiveX and use the Gecko engine.

Most, however, fall between these two security stools, in the ‘not sure’ amber shield category. These are rendered with Gecko and allow cookies and JavaScript by default, but disable ActiveX. Netscape does a good job in making the configuration process easy by using a single click on the site control shield to pop up the Option window. This makes it simple to switch from Internet Explorer to the Firefox rendering engine while staying in the same browser environment.

Quite apart from neatly sidestepping the ‘only works with IE’ debate, it incidentally resolves the problem of pages printing minus the right-hand margin that so many IE sites suffer from. We tried this at the netscape.com domain, which, ironically, is configured to render with IE by default and so doesn’t print properly, but a quick toggle produced perfectly printed output.

A login automation system similar to those provided by various third-party applications is included. Not only does this provide password protection for your login details, but also enables automated multiple-site logins under that single password, solving the ‘how can I remember all those passwords’ problem without actually using the same code for every site.

It’s simple to bypass this on a site-by-site basis, meaning that banking and other high-risk services remain separate from login automation. In this beta, the automation applies only to sites with a username and password prompt and won’t do auto form filling, but this will be a working feature in the release version.

As this is a beta version, there’s plenty else that doesn’t yet work properly, such as support for Firefox extensions: we gave up trying after a dozen ‘incompatible extension’ error dialogs. Likewise, a lack of Netscape-compatible themes proved frustrating, not least because the default skin is hardly inspiring. Dull and flat, it has tried too hard to differentiate itself from Firefox and seems to have missed several usability markers by a mile. Whoever decided to put the menu bar on the right of the window should be spanked, as it simply confuses and complicates. There’s a menu option to toggle it to the left, but that leaves you with an unsightly black swathe that wastes precious UI space.

Far better is the much-vaunted ‘multibar’ feature that hides up to ten custom toolbars on a single toggle button, reducing clutter while remaining available. Equally, the tabbed browsing that Firefox users are accustomed to is well implemented: tabs can be closed by double-clicking, pull-down menus feature on all tabs if you want to close more than one, and NetCaptor, like tab grouping, enables all open sites to be bookmarked and reopened with a single click.

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