Aug. 29

Review: Internet Explorer 6.0

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Microsoft has released the final version of Internet Explorer 6.0 for non-XP Windows operating systems (Windows 98 SE, Windows Millennium Edition, Windows NT Workstation 4.0, and Windows 2000 Professional). The new IE version includes an updated cookie-management tool, a new button for media-related information, a sizing feature for browser-displayed images, and search functions.

Overall, the interface is less visually engaging than that of IE 6.0 for Windows XP, though only moderately so. For instance, tool bar icons aren't as rich-looking as those in the Windows XP version.

Smart Tags: Gone, for Now

Presumably reacting to criticism from beta testers and others, Microsoft has dropped Smart Tags. The controversial Smart Tags worked by highlighting certain words on a Web page — such as "video" or "computer" — so that, when clicked, they sent surfers to other sites related to the highlighted term. Critics complained that Smart Tags altered browser behavior. However, Smart Tags are still a primary feature of Office XP.

Microsoft also omitted support for Java and Netscape plug-ins, choosing to transfer responsibility for both to developers. Instead, Microsoft opted for ActiveX. The Java plug-in from Sun isn't currently available. (Sun recently complained of being shut out of Windows XP.)

Method to the Media

IE 6.0 adds a media button, indicated by an icon of a musical note and a globe. When clicked, it launches a left-hand pane that links, not surprisingly, to windowsmedia.com, Microsoft's portal to news, music, and video. News is limited to MSNBC, though other news outlets are available, including CNN and BBC.

The media panel integrates basic controls for its media player, located in the bottom panel. When you select a song or video from the browser, the player launches. You can enlarge the player, but you'll need a fast connection to watch videos with any clarity — true with any streaming video. Our test of a Jennifer Lopez video was grainy and pixelated at speeds of 56 Kbps; at faster speeds (300 Kbps), image quality looked relatively sharp in most scenes.

Cookie Management: Not Half-Baked

Those concerned with having third-party cookies deposited on their hard drives will like some of the privacy enhancements in Internet Explorer 6.0. Not all cookies are bad. Some can streamline Web browsing. Some good cookies are small text files that allow you to skip re-entering names and passwords at sites you visit regularly. Other cookies aren't so sweet, and can be used to help track where you're going on the Web — most often without your knowledge.

Third-party advertisers place cookies on your hard drive which, when combined with first-party cookies from the host Web site, can compile information about sites you visit. Most of the information third-party advertisers want from you relates to the types of ads you click. The advertising community asserts that the information it collects doesn't violate privacy, and that the information it collects is used to deliver highly specific advertising. But others feel the practice is akin to someone spying on you while you browse in a store and then sending you unsolicited ads.

The ABCs of P3P

Enter the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) — a relatively new standard currently under development by the consortium that regulates Web-based protocols. P3P, which IE 6.0 supports, allows you at least a modicum of control over how some personal information (in the form of cookies) is used by Web sites you browse. Most reputable e-commerce sites have a privacy policy, informing you how the information they collect will or won't be used.

The trouble: If you search the Web as much as we do, you're likely to be looking at a few hundred sites a week. Reading each privacy policy isn't practical for most people. P3P is designed to build the bridge between consumers who want their privacy protected while shopping online and Web sites that need your personal information to complete a transaction. A Web site that supports P3P establishes a policy that can be recognized by the IE 6.0 browser.

Here's how the feature works. You establish a "personal" privacy policy through the Internet options menu in IE 6.0. There's a blanket default, similar to the default in versions of IE 5.5 and earlier. But, if you select the advanced feature, you can customize the types of cookies that can be deposited on your hard drive and override the default settings. (View interface.)

No Cookies, No Hotmail

In browsing tests conducted at TechTV Labs, we encountered intermittent problems when P3P was configured for several types of privacy policies, including blocking all cookies. We experienced the most frustration when we blocked all cookies from all sites. In some browsing sessions, we were unable to download Web pages. In another instance, we were unable to access our Hotmail account until we allowed cookies on our hard drive. (IE 5.5 imposes the same limitation.)

You also can configure P3P to ask whether a cookie can be placed on your hard drive before it's actually placed there. Having the choice to block certain cookies is a welcome feature, but requiring that they be used is another matter. One question to consider: Why have an option for disabling cookies if cookies are required to access MSN e-mail?

Other highlights include a feature that automatically resizes images so they fit into the browser's window without having to scroll vertically or horizontally. There's also an expanded search feature.

IE 6.0 is a mixed bag, especially its cookie-management features. Having the media player imbedded in the browser is a nice touch, but the options for playing media aren't entirely essential. It's not a radical jump from IE 5.5, but it's still a download you should add to your list.

Summary: Internet Explorer 6.0 updates Microsoft's browser software in anticipation of the release of Windows XP. This update adds modest privacy controls, a revamped media pane, and a feature that resizes images so they fit into a browser window.

Pros: P3P support; embedded media player.

Cons: Hotmail e-mail requires cookies; no native Java support.

Company: MicrosoftPrice: FreeAvailable: NowCategory: BrowserPlatform: PCRequirements: 486/66-MHz processor (Pentium processor recommended); CD-ROM drive (if installation is done from a CD-ROM). Windows 98: 16MB of RAM minimum; 153MB for full installWindows 98 Second Edition: 16MB of RAM minimum; 143MB for full installWindows NT 4.0 Service Pack 6a and higher: 32MB of RAM minimum; 123 MB for full installWindows 2000: 32MB of RAM minimum; 76MB for full installWindows Millennium Edition: 32MB of RAM minimum; 134MB for full install Some components may require additional system resources not outlined above.

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