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Fred Langa

The Year of the Browser
Your choice of browser is likely to affect your entire computing experience. BrowserTune will help you select the right one.

Here's a prediction for 1997: Not a single part of your computing experience will remain unaffected by the Web-and by your choice of browser.

Take operating systems: Microsoft already makes most of its patches, bug fixes and updates available first through its Web site (see http://www.winmag.com/flanga/dribbleware.htm). Windows 95 will soon gain an optional shell upgrade, known variously as IE4, Nashville or Win97, that will Web-enable your entire OS. A similar upgrade is in the works for NT (see http://www.winmag.com/flanga/ie4.htm)

What about software? Every component of all the major office suites is now Internet- and intranet- enabled. Every major piece of standalone software now offers a Web site for registration, updates and fixes.

BrowsersHardware? Every major system vendor now offers a Web-based support site. Every video and audio vendor and most major peripheral vendors maintain Web sites for BIOS, INF file and driver updates, bug fixes and patches.

Online? Every online service now lets you use your generic dial-up connection as an entry point to the Web, with either the supplied browser or a browser of your choice. All the major online services, except America Online, have switched or are switching to Web-based hosting of their proprietary information. It looks as if AOL will eventually move that way, too. Every local Internet service provider (ISP) larger than a mom-and-pop shop now offers a browser as part of the basic sign-up kit. So does each of the major phone companies.

General business? The majority of large companies and an increasing number of small ones now use intranets to share and distribute information faster and more easily than was previously possible with e-mail, standard LAN tools or paper. Most companies have Internet connections, whether permanent T3, T1 or ISDN lines for the larger companies, or dial-up access for the smaller.

The noncomputer world? Every new film out of Hollywood now has an associated Web site. So does every new car from Detroit, the Far East and Europe, and every breakfast cereal, toothbrush vendor and cookie-mix company. Every major U.S. tourist destination has a Web site, as does every major newspaper, book publisher and magazine. (Ahem. WinMag's is http://www.winmag.com/.)

Your choice of browser affects all the above. Depending on which browser you go for, your Web-based time and money may be well spent, reaping all the richness the Web holds-or it may be an exercise in frustration, with slow load-times, missing elements on sites and pages, or things that just don't work. The right Web browser can be an almost invisible tool, seamlessly linking you to the online world-or it can be in your face all the time, breaking your train of thought and throwing speed bumps in your path. A browser can work effortlessly with your other desktop tools-or it can feel like a square peg on a desktop full of round holes.

Your choice of browser can also have a financial impact. A single browser can be free, or it could cost as much as $50. This may not be a deal-breaker for most individuals, but it can have an enormous impact on companies buying browsers by the thousands or tens of thousands.

Sure, there are cases where your choice of browser doesn't matter much. I can think of two. If you work alone and don't go online much, the whole Web, Internet and intranet experience isn't going to be a big deal to you. (But, oh, what you're missing!)

If you use Win3.x and have no plans to upgrade to Win95 or NT, you have a choice of several good browsers. However, you'll be missing more and more of the best of the online world as the Web becomes more interactive with Java, ActiveX, streaming audio and video, and the like. Most of these are either 32-bit technologies or work better on 32-bit platforms, and the venerable 16-bit Win3.x just doesn't have the horsepower.

For everyone else-those who use the Internet or an intranet or have Win95 or NT-browser choice matters.

Which browser's best?

So how do you find the best browser for your needs? Netscape Navigator is still the market leader (download a trial copy from http://www.netscape.com/). Microsoft's free Internet Explorer (http://www.microsoft.com/) is at least a technical equal to Navigator and is rapidly gaining market share. You'll find literally dozens of other browsers, as the list changes almost daily. (Visit the online version of this column at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/browseryear.htm for the most up-to-date browser list. You'll also find all the Web addresses mentioned here in easy, clickable form.)

Once you have a browser loaded and running, click on over to BrowserTune (http://www.winmag.com/flanga/browsertune.htm), WINDOWS Magazine's browser torture-test pages. BrowserTune grew from my real-life frustrations in running a Web site. My personal home page (http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm) is a modest effort, but it's gotten hundreds of thousands of visitors. I try to design the pages so they'll look fine no matter which browser views them. It isn't easy, and I had to create test pages to try out different browser features. More than a year later, BrowserTune, a collection of practical, real-world browser tests, is the result.

BrowserTune won't alter your browser or system settings. But in just a few minutes, you can thoroughly and safely test your browser's ability to handle type sizes, colors, various other text attributes, backgrounding and watermarking, embedded and manually invoked sounds (both WAV and MIDI), embedded AVI videos, basic GIF, JPG and bitmap support, animated GIF support, tables, frames, Java, ActiveX, JavaScript, VBscript and more. (Whew!)

None of these tests involves trivial "angels on the head of a pin" or other ivory-tower arguments. Likewise, we don't waste your time with tests that focus on minor and essentially meaningless differences in obscure HTML tags. Instead, each BrowserTune test singles out a browser function in common use today-one required for optimal use and enjoyment of real-life pages found on mainstream intranets and on the Web.

As new technologies move from the fringe into common Web usage, we add new tests. (You'll read more about this at the end of the tests, and you're invited to submit suggestions for new tests.)

The tests work whether you're examining one browser or many. In fact, it's a good idea to fire up competing browsers-say, MS Internet Explorer 3.0 and Netscape Navigator 3.0-to see how they handle the test pages side by side. The differences can be as surprising as they are informative.

BrowserTune also contains links to a government-sponsored browser test page, and to places where you can get near-real-time statistics on how many people are using which browser.

With links that connect you to all the browsers available online, and tests that thoroughly exercise the most important real-life functions of whatever browser you want to check out, BrowserTune is a one-stop resource. It will help ensure you have the tool you need to prosper in the brand-new Year of the Browser.

Fred Langa is Vice President and Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at the e-mail addresses here.

Copyright 1997 CMP Media Inc.

(From Windows Magazine, January 1997, page 19.)