Product Review: Netscape 6 Beta 1

In short: A worse interface than 4.x.

Today, Netscape/AOL/Time-Warner/God* released the first beta ("preview release") of their rebuilt-from-scratch Web browser, Netscape 6. I decided to give it a try.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that I don't use the latest version of Netscape's browser. They're up to 4.7 right now, early in the year 2000, while I'm still using 1997's version 3.04. I never liked the interface of version 4, so I stayed with an older version. I have my reasons.)

I was full of hope. The new version's interface is written in XUL, eXtensible User interface Language, so in theory it can be changed by a knowledgeable user.

And boy, does it need to be. The interface is worse than 4.x's. Let me count the ways...

  1. The interface consists of many pieces: the menu, the upper toolbar, a navigation/URL bar, a search button, a Netscape icon, a sidebar, the current page, the status line, and a button bar along the bottom. This is too much. If I want to access a particular search engine, where do I look? The menu, the top toolbar, the sidebar, the search button, or the bottom toolbar? It could be any of these. There's too much scattered throughout too many locations.

  2. The Search button is customizable, which is an improvement over previous versions. However, you can't manually enter your favorite search engine. Instead, you are forced to choose from a list ten different (and mostly special-purpose) search engines. I use none of them, so this button's customizability is useless to me.

  3. As in previous versions, if the mouse is over a link, the status line displays the link's destination. Yet this information isn't consistently displayed throughout the entire interface. In particular, the status line does not reflect the destination pointed to by the Search button, the Netscape icon, or the forward/back buttons. That's poor design.

  4. Bookmark management has actually worsened since version 3. The bookmark icon by the current URL can be dragged to the bookmarks in the sidebar, which is nice. However, I don't use the sidebar. What I'd like to be able to do is to drag that icon to the Bookmark menu item (or Bookmark toolbar item -- see #1), then have it automatically open whatever folders I rest the cursor on until I find the new bookmark's proper location (à la MacOS's exploding folders). No dice.

    If that were the only problem with bookmark management, it wouldn't be any worse than version 3. Yet this version's bookmark manager has removed all keyboard input; not only have such standard accelerators as Ctrl-C and Ctrl-X (on Windows; translate for your platform of choice) disappeared, you can't access the menu from the keyboard at all! Because of this, managing bookmarks is an even more tedious job than it was in version 3.04. (If the context menus worked, it would be about even, but they don't.)

  5. One thing I was really hoping for in this release is customizable toolbars. They've become a common idiom for many types of applications, but designers of Web browsers seem to think that their users won't want to customize their toolbars. They're wrong. If I could have changed the 4.x toolbar, I'd have used that version. As it is, the interface of version 6 beta 1 is littered with things I will never use and can't easily get rid of, including: My Netscape, Net2Phone, Search, Channels, Tools, Business, Free Time, Shopping (it had to be there somewhere, I guess), as well as icons for Netscape's home page, Composer, Calendar, Mail, and something else.

    I'd be happy with a minimal interface that provided a menu, a useful status line, the current page, its URL, forward/back buttons with drop-down histories, and home, reload, and stop buttons. Oh, and a "search this page" button, which disappeared somewhere between versions 3.04 and 6 beta 1.

    In short, I want Netscape 3.04 with better bookmark management, navigation histories, style sheet support, and better table rendering.

  6. Is there some secret to setting the link and background colors, and turning off underlining of links? If there is, please let me know. It's certainly not an obvious procedure.

  7. The PC release doesn't support drag-and-drop, which significantly decreases its usefulness to me.

Some of these problems might be due to the fact that this version of Netscape is the first to work under several different operating systems. While that explains some of the problems, it does not excuse others. The bookmark manager's lack of accelerator keys, for example, is simply incomplete design, not a technical problem. The main menu makes use of keyboard shortcuts and eighteen accelerator keys.

One aspect of Netscape 6 is held over from the 4.x version: its Netscape-centric focus. Many of the default bookmarks, search engines, and links point to Netscape/AOL/Time-Warner sites. The interface feels like a carnival barker continually trying to draw people into the freak show's tent. I'd prefer a neutral interface that provides me with either no default destinations, or else allows me to easily change what is provided.

As for performance, it seems to work okay. It crashes sometimes during customization. To its credit, it almost perfectly handled some pages that unintentionally turned out to be a table torture-test. That was a nice surprise. It's not enough to win me over, though.

I did find it annoying that every time the program starts, it tries to connect to the Internet. What is it so insistent on connecting to?

I removed the beta from my system within a day, as it disabled features in some software I use extensively (Norton Navigator).

All is not lost. Some if not all of the interface is generated by XUL that is stored in text files. It might be possible to hack them into an interface that conforms to my desires. With some work I was able to add Google to the options for the Search button, which is encouraging. However, this doesn't change the fact that the browser's interface is not configurable by the average user. Joe Internet shouldn't have to learn a new markup language just to change one option.

Short of that drastic measure, the only advantages this release has for me over version 3.04 is style sheet support and better table rendering. While nice, that isn't enough to justify switching. Weighing these benefits against its lack of drag-and-drop support, the following will have to be improved before I upgrade:

  1. Stability. This beta crashed regularly.

  2. Customization. I'd prefer this to be a integrated into the program, but I'd settle for XUL hacking instructions.

  3. Bookmark management. Currently barely functional.

  4. Drag-and-drop. Not working.

  5. Keyboard shortcuts. Not consistently used.

[Shop button]

At least they got rid of 4.x's "Shop" button.

Unfortunately, they kept its philosophy.

In spades.


* Okay, maybe not God. But it does seem that every corporation, heavenly or not, is merging these days.

Last updated 3 June 2000
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons