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Internet Explorer 7 vs Firefox 2: battle of the browsers

We put Internet Explorer 7 up against Firefox 2 in a memorable prizefight to see which browser is the king of the Web

It's time to put Internet Explorer 7 up against Firefox 2 in a bloody fight to the death. The gloves are off, the sexy round card girls have fled in terror, and the theme from Rocky is blaring in the background -- the Web browser war is truly about to erupt.

In the blue corner we have Internet Explorer 7. There's a lot expected of this browser: its predecessor was subjected to repeated whippings by newer, leaner, safer browsers from Opera and Mozilla, but it promises a wealth of improvements, including a new interface, tabbed browsing, improved search functions and better security.

In the red corner we have the successor to the people's champion: Firefox 2. The original Firefox was highly revered in tech circles and could run rings around the truly dreadful Internet Explorer 6. The latest version features a new look, improved navigation, a session restore feature and in-line spell checker.

Both sound great on paper and, lets face it, IE couldn't get any worse, but which of these two heavyweights is the best browser to live with? Let's take a look.

Round 1: Design
The two couldn't be more different in this area. Fire up IE7 and you're greeted with a pretty, if rather confusing, navigation system. The new look sports dozens of tiny icons, some of which give no clue as to their purpose. Our default installation had the Windows Live toolbar plus links to Rolling Stone magazine and the Rhapsody music download service for no good reason other than to clutter your screen. Why Microsoft felt the need to include these at the expense of the File menu bar is beyond us. Sure, you can bring the File menu bar back by pressing the ALT button, or by selecting it in the Toolbars menu, but even then it sits below the address bar. Blasphemy!

Firefox 2 is the epitome of simplicity. The File menu bar is in the right place, and the only navigation buttons are the back, forward, refresh and home icons, plus a couple of shortcuts that'll help you customise the browser and peep the latest headlines from your RSS feed.

Winner: Firefox 2
Advanced users will appreciate the wealth of links in IE7, but not when they're chosen by Microsoft. Both browsers are customisable to aid your personal browsing habits but the Mozilla browser's more welcoming aesthetic wins it this round.

Round 2: Usability
IE7 has followed Firefox into the realm of tabbed browsing. The concept is similar to the little tabs used to delineate sections of a paper diary. IE7's tabs are implemented almost identically to Firefox 2's with one important exception: Quicktabs (Ctrl+Q). This awesome feature lets you view all tabs as thumbnail images in a scrollable page. Whereas Firefox 2 requires you to guess, or remember the contents of a tab based on its URL, IE7's Quicktabs feature gives you a visual reminder of what's in each tab. You also get the new 'Favorites Centre' -- an update to the History window that now lets you see your Favorites, History and RSS feeds in one convenient space.

Firefox 2 suffers for the lack of a Quicktabs-style feature. Instead you get left and right arrows on the left and right side of the tab row. This allows you to cycle through a huge number of tabs, but once you get to tab number 288 things get a little confusing. There's compensation elsewhere though. Firefox 2 has a fancy search term suggestion feature that tries to guess what you're about to type into Google, and an in-line spell check for text you've entered into forms. Plus it's compatible with Live Titles, or 'microsummaries'. When you bookmark a web page that has a microsummary, you can choose to display the microsummary as the title of the bookmark. A microsummary for a package tracking page, for example, might display the delivery status of the package, instead of the page title in your favourites.

Winner: IE7
Micrososummaries are cool -- but they're only present on a very small number of sites. We also like the idea of Firefox 2 guessing our search terms, but we got pretty embarrassed when we typed 'blood' (looking for 'blood pressure' information) and the browser thought we were looking for 'blood in stool'. On the whole, IE7's Quicktabs feature helps it win this round convincingly. If you've ever lost track of your tabs, you'll absolutely love this. Well done, Microsoft.

Round 3: Performance
This is always a difficult area to assess, but IE7 felt the more sluggish of the two browsers. IE7 makes up for its slight perceptual lethargy with excellent compatibility. Most Web sites are designed with IE in mind, so you'll have no problem displaying pages.

Firefox, though fast, does occasionally encounter Web sites that it has absolutely no idea how to display. Visiting Launch.com to watch your favourite music videos, for example, requires downloading an ActiveX Plug-In, which is both time-consuming and annoying.

Winner: IE7
It seems a tad slower, but this is barely perceptible: the speed of your Web connection will be a far bigger bottleneck. This, plus the fact that some Web sites don't like Firefox at all, gives IE7 the upper hand.

Round 4: Flexibility
There's not much debate on this one: Internet Explorer is well known for its lack of extensibility. There are a few extensions available, but given IE's history of security flaws we wouldn't recommend bolting anything to IE7 that didn't come directly from Microsoft.

Firefox 2 continues where its predecessor left off. There's a plethora of extensions, some more useful that others, that'll let you add or modify existing functionality. There are extensions that'll let you download videos from YouTube, type notes on the screen, and even open an instance of Internet Explorer in a new tab -- a weird but wonderful feature.

Winner: Firefox 2
There's little debate on this one. We give Firefox 2 the nod thanks to its countless extensions and bizarre ability to load IE in a separate tab.

Round 5: Security
Microsoft says IE7 has excellent security. It incorporates anti-phishing technology to keep you safe from divulging information you shouldn't, and shows clear warnings when you're about to give your credit card details to unscrupulous Web sites. We can't help but remember the countless security flaws in IE6. Hackers seemed to exploit its vulnerabilities for fun, deploying Trojans, viruses, spyware and all manner of nasty content on an almost daily basis.

Firefox 2 boasts similar security features, but it has the big advantage of relative anonymity. History states there's less chance of becoming infected with malware when using Mozilla's browser, but it too has its fair share of vulnerabilities.

Judgement: Draw
Sounds bizarre, we know. It's easy to speculate that IE7 will be as riddled with security flaws as its predecessor, but who's to say the increased popularity of Firefox won't attract a new breed of Firefox 2-oriented hackers. We think it's absolutely impossible to make a judgement about the security of either browser at this early stage, so we're calling it a draw. For the moment.

And the winner is...
The consumer! Both browsers won two rounds each and we're yet to find a massive difference between the two. Some may argue that IE7's absolutely amazing Quicktabs feature gives it the upper hand, and we'd be inclined to agree if it wasn't for the fact that IE7 will almost certainly attract the wrath of a thousand viruses. As a result, we're calling this one a draw.

But what do you think? Give both browsers a try by visiting CNET.co.uk's Downloads section, and leave us your thoughts below when you're done. -RR