IntroIf you haven't already heard, the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 6 for Web browsing is available only to Windows XP SP2 users; all other Windows users are now frozen in time. Microsoft is hoping the privacy, security, and other improvements bundled into the latest Windows XP SP2 released will maintain its dominance in the market for another two years or so until the next version of Windows is ready. But small improvements and countless security patches for IE haven't changed the software's overall functionality much in years, which has given newer browsers such as Firefox an advantage when it comes to cutting-edge features and security. In our opinion, it's time for a new Internet browser. For cutting-edge technology and better Internet security, we like Firefox over Internet Explorer, but for various reasons, you'll probably continue to use IE at work for the near future. Getting the latest release of Internet Explorer 6 is difficult. If you're still running Windows 98, 98 SE, Me, 2000, or XP SP1, you simply can't get the latest version of Internet Explorer 6. According to Microsoft, Internet Explorer 6 SP1, which it first released in September 2002, is the last available standalone release. All future IE updates are to be bundled with major Windows releases, so, in order to get the most current set of features for IE, you will need to upgrade to . If you're already running Windows XP, the SP2 upgrade is free. But if you're running an earlier version of Windows, it costs $99. Ouch. By comparison, Mozilla Firefox is free and runs on all versions of Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.
Internet Explorer's interface is familiar and similar to Netscape's and Firefox's. Basic navigational icons for History, Print, Search, and Mail are located along the top of the window. Click the Explorer Bar option under View to fill the left-hand side of the browser window with media downloads, browser history, Web favorites, search engines, research, or desktop folders. The interface is efficient but basic.
Missing from the latest Internet Explorer interface is a built-in search engine toolbar, although you can download free versions from a number of third-party sites such as Google and Yahoo. Nor is there a built-in alert icon whenever there's a security update for your browser; instead, you'll need to check the Windows Update site. In comparison, Firefox includes both a built-in search bar and an upgrade indicator.The Windows XP SP2 release of Internet Explorer 6 includes a pop-up blocker, enabled by default and set to Medium. If you want to customize your pop-up-blocking settings, click Tools > Pop-up Blocker > Pop-up Blocker Settings. At the highest setting, you will almost certainly miss some legitimate content, but you can always override individual pop-ups by holding down the Ctrl key. You can also create a whitelist, a list of selected Web sites on which you always allow pop-ups. By offering multiple levels of pop-up control, Internet Explorer provides more granular control than the simple on-or-off pop-up blocker built into Firefox.
Of course, the real value of Internet Explorer isn't what is built into it but what is built around it. Most Web sites are designed for Internet Explorer, and various third-party tools, such as the Google search bar or the Macromedia Flash plug-in, abound.
But there are many things you still can't do with Internet Explorer 6. For example, you can't view RSS feeds. (RSS is an easy way to filter and view news and blog headlines.) While there are third-party RSS readers available as IE plug-ins--Puck, for example--we like the fact that Firefox includes its own built-in RSS reader. Another thing you can't do in IE is open multiple Web pages within the same window, a feature that's available in Firefox, Netscape, Opera, and Safari. To view multiple pages simultaneously within IE, you'll need to open several instances of the browser, which can drain your system's resources.
If Windows and Internet Explorer came preloaded on your computer, your PC's manufacturer is responsible for providing support. If you bought Windows and, therefore, Internet Explorer on your own, e-mail and telephone support costs with Microsoft are prohibitively high but not more than with other major software developers. E-mail support is available with a 24-hour turnaround, but it will cost you an unheard-of $35 per incident. Telephone support also costs $35 per incident but can run as high as $245 for "advanced issues." Microsoft's hours for live telephone support are Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT.
The good news is that the automated services and support databases available on the Microsoft site are very helpful. The Web site offers thousands of FAQs with easy-to-follow fixes for most problems. And with IE owning 95 percent of the browser market, there is a good chance that someone else has had the same problem as you and that an answer is already archived on the site. The company periodically releases patches to known problems, usually plugging a security hole, but unless you're running Windows XP and automatically download the latest updates, you'll have to download these patches on your own.