Almost one year to the day that Bill Gates announced Internet Explorer 7 for XP SP2 at RSA 2005, Microsoft has released a second public beta for the new-and-improved Internet browser. Hoping to stop the increasing tide of disgruntled surfers switching to Mozilla Firefox and Opera 8, Microsoft has mirrored the look and feel of those other browsers while adding a few unique features to IE 7 for XP SP2 (mostly borrowing from what we've already seen in IE 7 for Windows Vista previews). Although this is a public beta, which means that anyone can download and install it now, Microsoft is quick to caution early adopters that this is still a technical beta, meaning that Microsoft wants Web site developers to see how the changes in the new IE will affect their sites. For the end user, know that not all Web sites will function properly using IE 7 for XP SP2 beta 2. And note that you must be running Windows XP SP2 in order to install this beta; all older versions of Windows are now limited to Internet Explorer 6. The final release of IE 7 for XP SP2 will be in the fall of 2006. For a look inside this new release, see our Internet Explorer 7 for XP SP2 beta 2 slide show.
More eye candy
Microsoft has reworked the overall familiar look and feel of Internet Explorer 7 for XP SP2. The address bar now appears on the top and is not movable (relocating the bar is a common ploy among spyware and adware vendors). Also, the toolbar has been simplified to show only icons. Want the menu bar back? No problem, just add it. Also, the Favorites sidebar now has three tabs: one for Favorites, one for History, and one for RSS feeds.
Description: Continuing from beta 1 is the ability to use tabs within Internet Explorer. However, borrowing from what we've seen inside the Windows Vista prereleases, Microsoft has added the ability to visually display all open tabs. Unlike with Vista's IE 7, you can't mouse over the open tabs to see previews of each page, something that Firefox and Opera currently allow you to do.
Another feature borrowed from Windows Vista is page zoom. You can wheel in or wheel out on a page, which is perfect for those with less than 20/20 vision. Opera currently offers this feature.
Shrink to print
IE 7 for XP SP2 will automatically size a page so that when it goes to your printer, you won't lose the content on the far right side of the page. The text may be smaller, but the text will be whole. You also have the ability to print only the highlighted section of a Web page.
New to Internet Explorer 7 for XP SP2 beta 2 is a complete Really Simple Syndication (RSS) substructure. Currently, when you use a third-party application to receive and read RSS feeds, the app must load a complete RSS rendering engine. Microsoft has created its own and adds it to the Windows XP SP2 operating system (hence, you'll have to reboot when you install the new IE 7 beta). However, the payoff is nice. When you subscribe to an RSS feed, you'll no longer see a page of HTML but a fairly basic representation of all the current feeds for that page, plus any categorizing the site has done regarding specific topics. Also, Microsoft has joined with Mozilla in using the same icon from RSS, making it easy for users to switch between Firefox and IE 7.
Although MSN Search is the default search setting within IE 7, Microsoft does link out to Google and other sites, so you can quickly change that. If your default search is currently set to Google, however, no need to worry: when IE 7 imports your data from IE 6, it'll preserve your search engine preference. Also, IE 7 will lock that preference so that installing toolbars won't automatically--and sometimes without your permission--change that preference.
Many fleeing Internet Explorer 6 have cited increased security concerns as a major reason. There are many legacy problems within Internet Explorer that have resulted from Microsoft's decision to marry its Internet browser with its Windows operating system architecture. IE 7 for XP SP2 attempts to mitigate some of those concerns. While in the short term these may dissuade some criminal hackers, others may find other flaws within the venerable browser to exploit going forward.
We think the most useful security enhancement, on a day-to-day basis is the new antiphishing component within IE 7 XP SP2. Using heuristics, or algorithms, rather than whitelists, Internet Explorer can analyze a given page and determine whether it's the real McCoy or a spoofed page. Should you land on a suspicious site, you'll see a golden bar across the top of the page. You'll have a chance to correct any errors, saving pages you know are not frauds but that may appear so within IE.
Internet security settings
Another very good change is the simplified Internet security settings options. Microsoft has raised the security bar, making the default setting Medium-High. If you need to change any of the security settings--say, to install new software via download--you'll see a golden bar across the top of the screen, reminding you that you are now surfing under less-than-secure settings. You can use a one-click menu option to change those settings back.
One of the sore spots for Microsoft has been flaws within the ActiveX Controls native to Windows but easily exploited via Internet Explorer. With IE 7 for XP SP2, Microsoft has neutered all but the most essential ActiveX Controls. If you need more, you'll be asked to activate them on a case-by-case basis. This should limit criminal hacker-attack vectors within IE 7.
Address bars in every window
A new feature within IE 7 for XP SP2 adds an address bar to pop-up windows, allowing you to determine whether you want to view that content (advertising, for example). This feature is currently available in Firefox.
Another way a criminal hacker can attack Internet Explorer users is to substitute characters from one character set into another within a domain name. For example, if you set English as your native language, all URLs will display characters from the English character set. If someone decides to use a Cyrillic character in a fraudulent domain name, you'll see a warning across the screen.
High-assurance security certifications
If you do online banking or e-commerce with IE 7 for XP SP2, you'll notice that Microsoft has also upgraded its certificate requirements. Currently, all certificate authority statements from Web servers are rendered as low security, with Microsoft pushing site developers to adopt a more robust certificate authority transaction. In this case, the client-side app is available before the back-end technical enhancements will be ready, but Microsoft did say this was a technical beta.
One click cleanup
Although Firefox and Opera have offered this for years, Microsoft has finally made it easy for anyone to delete their browser history.
Be sure to check back to this page for a full review once the final version of Internet Explorer 7 for XP SP2 is released in the fall of 2006.