Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP SP2 can be downloaded for free from the CNET Download.com site. Beginning in November 2007, users of Windows XP SP2 will automatically receive a Windows Update notice that Internet Explorer 7 is available. Enterprises may, however, block the automatic downloads of IE 7 until corporate IT staff has evaluated the new version. In a workplace, check with your system admin before installing IE 7 on your office desktop.
Installation for IE 7 includes two unusual requests. One, Microsoft asks that users briefly disable antivirus protection. Microsoft claims that there have been some conflicts between IE 7 installations and some antivirus engines, so to err on the safe side, the software giant asks that you disable your antivirus protection until the installation is complete. Neither Mozilla Firefox nor Opera make this request. Microsoft uses its own malicious-software removal tool during the installation of IE 7, and it is perhaps this tool that conflicts with some antivirus apps.
The other unusual request is that Microsoft asks users to reboot their computer after installation. Neither Opera nor Mozilla Firefox require a reboot. Unique to Internet Explorer 7 is an RSS feed engine that renders Web feeds as a readable page, and a reboot installs this engine in the system kernel. For the most part, we like the built-in RSS reader feature. Opera includes a newsgroups-like RSS reader, while Firefox allows you to associate RSS feeds with third-party readers.
After the installation reboot, Internet Explorer 7 displays a first-run screen where you can turn on antiphishing (not enabled by default) and select your default language. After that, you're finally ready to begin.
Longtime IE 6 users will react differently to the redesigned toolbar--some will like it, most will not. For a look inside, see our Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP SP2 slide show. Microsoft claims users wanted the buttons and bars rearranged; in doing so, Microsoft deviates from the other popular Internet browsers on the market today. The back and forward buttons haven't moved; they're now compressed into the upper-left corner, and their individual drop-down menus have merged into one drop-down list. The address bar is now at the very top of the browser so that malicious spyware toolbars can't obscure or hijack it. Unfortunately, Microsoft has chosen the address bar to also display antiphishing and site certificate information, making it sometimes a very busy place. Perhaps the worst new placement is the refresh button, which is now located immediately after the address bar. Even after using the beta for a few months, we still find it hard to remember where the refresh button is located.
Like Mozilla Firefox and Opera, IE 7 has a built-in Internet search box in the top tier of the interface. If you install Internet Explorer on a clean system, the search box defaults to the little-used Windows Live.com site; however, if you upgrade and you already have a preference for, say, Google.com, Internet Explorer will respect your wishes and ask whether you want to continue using Google as your default search engine. If, on a clean system, you wish to change your preference from Windows Live.com to Google.com, IE 7 takes you to a search engine page where you can add additional search engines (oddly, Google is one of a limited few sites that do not include colorful logos, so look hard). Once it's added, you must still click to make Google your default, but the process is relatively painless. Unlike Firefox, IE 7 does not display search suggestions from your chosen search engine.
On the second tier of the redesigned IE 7 interface, in the upper left, Microsoft places its Favorites Center, accessible via the familiar star icon and a new Add to Favorites star icon. The Favorites Center replaces the Favorites sidebar and includes tabs for RSS feeds and History. Next to the Favorites Center is the Tabbed Browsing section (see below for more), followed by the relocated Command Bar, which includes Homepage, RSS, Printer, Page, and Tools, with the latter being an omnibus drop-down menu of settings and enhancements.
Should you decide to remove Internet Explorer 7, you will return to Internet Explorer 6. You can't completely remove Internet Explorer--not without considerable effort. Because Microsoft has thoroughly bundled the Internet browser within its Windows operating system (surfacing, for example, whenever you need to view an HTML document within Microsoft Word), we do not recommend removing Internet Explorer entirely.
Perhaps the biggest change within IE 7, aside from the overall interface redesign, is tabbed browsing, a feature already found within Firefox and Opera. Tabbed browsing allows you to open, view, and close multiple pages within one IE 7 session. The tabs, which can be reordered, can also be previewed on a page with clickable thumbnail displays of each open tab. We prefer Opera, which provides native thumbnail views as your mouse hovers over each tab. The page preview available within IE 7, called Quick Tabs, requires an extra mouse click, which is an annoyance for the ergonomically minded.
Speaking of accessibility features, IE 7 includes zoom technology and the new Clear-type page technology, which Microsoft claims renders page fonts as sharp and clear as those printed on a piece of paper. We find the IE 7 page zoom a bit clunky compared with that of Opera, which uses the scroll button on your mouse; Microsoft uses hot keys, preset sizes, and an option to render at a custom size. Even if you zoom to the maximum level, 400 percent, we found that the Clear-text technology within IE 7 remains quite clear with fonts, although art and photos do become pixilated.