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Web Watch by Leslie Walker

Retooled Netscape Gets Back Into The Browser Game

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page F07

Netscape, the Web browser out-muscled a decade ago by Microsoft's Internet Explorer, has undergone an extreme makeover in an attempt to regain its former relevance.

America Online, its current owner, released a trial version of Netscape 8.0 last week (browser.netscape.com) that packs some powerful security features but falls short on speed and ease of use.

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Among the useful aspects of this test release of Netscape 8.0 are tools for assessing the trustworthiness of Web sites and managing passwords. You can, for example, set a "super" password granting one-word access to various Web sites; your many different passwords can be stored one time, managed or changed easily, and secured from others who might use your computer.

The new Netscape is based largely on the open-source code for the increasingly popular Firefox browser, though Netscape has a different design and several functions that Firefox doesn't. Like Firefox, Netscape 8.0 lets people browse multiple Web pages in a single window, using small tabs with titles to identify each page. Users click on the tabs to switch pages.

Unlike Firefox, Netscape has an elaborate new system for adjusting security settings. It stores a "blacklist" of Web sites known to be dangerous on the user's computer and a list of sites thought to be trustworthy and updates those lists regularly. The browser displays a small red check mark -- and a large security warning -- when a user visits a site on the blacklist or if it detects other security issues at a site a user tries to call up.

At established sites such as eBay, a green shield with a check mark appears beside the site name in the tab, signifying safety. A yellow shield appears next to unknown sites. Users can click on the color codes beside the name of a site and get a menu allowing them to change the security setting, telling the browser whether it's trustworthy or not.

Another difference is that Netscape has added Internet Explorer's page-rendering software under the hood, as an alternative viewing option. Since some sites are written to display in only Internet Explorer (or aren't tested to see how they look in other browsers), this gives users the option of viewing a site with the predominant browser if it looks bad or hangs up with Netscape.

Speaking of hanging up, Netscape's new browser crashed twice during our four-hour test. Worse, it was painfully slow, taking much longer than Internet Explorer or Firefox to render streamlined sites such as Google News.

Another flaw is how America Online has cluttered the top toolbar and left-margin sidebar with links to AOL's own Web content, including CNN, MapQuest, Netscape News and AOL Yellow Pages.

The links across the top toolbars are the most annoying, because it is not as easy to change them as it should be. Users may have to dig deep into the help file to decipher how to add and delete links from this new, multi-level toolbar.

Meanwhile, AOL has placed a fat search box leading to its InStore.com shopping site front and center on the toolbar menu, beside a flickering news ticker that shows one partial headline at a time: "Martha Stewart Starts Home Conf," the ticker said Friday.

Netscape 8.0 works with only Windows 98 SE or newer releases, whereas Firefox also runs in Mac OS X and Linux.

Internet Explorer's market share has been dropping steadily in recent months. Two surveys last month by market-research firms OneStat and WebSideStory put IE's market share below 90 percent, with Firefox accounting for most of that loss (OneStat's estimate is worldwide, while WebSideStory's figures are for the U.S. market). Microsoft, which has been warily watching Firefox, announced in mid-February that it planned to develop a new version of Internet Explorer this year with tighter security controls.

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.

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