Fire up IE 6, and you'll hardly notice the difference from IE 5.x ; Microsoft has made few visible changes. Compared to radically overhauled Netscape 6.x, in fact, IE 6's interface looks downright boring.
IE's only significant new interface change is the Media Bar. This Explorer Bar (similar to Netscape's Sidebar feature) is essentially the same one we saw in Public Preview 2 of IE 6. Click the icon in the toolbar, and out pops the Media Bar; click the icon again to make it disappear. When it's open, the Media Bar takes up the left-hand side of the browser and lets you play streaming audio and video without having to pop open a separate browser window. This way, you can surf to other Web pages while continuing to listen to or watch a media stream within the Media Bar. The arrangement works quite well for audio files, but unfortunately, IE scales down video files so that they fit within the Media Bar's narrow frame, making them so small that they're difficult to watch.
We also like another small but incredibly handy interface option: IE 6 finds a smart way to display large graphics files (such as those oversized photos of your nephew on your sister's Web site). In the past, if the graphic was too big to display in your browser window, IE forced you to scroll around to view the whole image. Now, IE simply scales the picture to fit your screen. It also displays a small floating button on the lower-right corner of the graphic; click the button, and the graphic scales up to its normal size. This kind of innovation won't change the world, but it's a nice touch, especially if you're viewing photos on a laptop that doesn't have a high-resolution screen. If you do need the full-sized image, however, you can easily disable the resizer; simply uncheck "Enable automatic image resizing" under Tools > Internet Options > Advanced.
The most significant of IE 6's new features work behind the scenes to keep your personal browsing habits private. Thankfully, they also put IE's Internet privacy features on a par with Netscape 6's powerful privacy tools.
IE 6's main focus is privacy. This dialog box lets you choose whether to block or accept first-party and third-party cookies.
To set your cookie preferences, click the Tools > Internet Options menu and select the Privacy tab. In the resulting dialog box, you can choose whether to accept or reject all third-party cookies (those set by ad-serving sites that can track you as you browse across multiple Web sites). In a different dialog box, IE lets you get even more specific by entering individual sites and telling IE to either accept or reject cookies from each site.
You can also configure IE to prompt you every time a site tries to set a cookie. Ever since IE version 4.x, the browser simply has let you accept or reject the cookie. IE 6, however, like Netscape 6, lets you tell IE to remember whether you chose to accept this particular cookie and apply the same choice for this particular Web site whenever you visit. That way, you won't be prompted again to make a choice for that Web site. If you change your mind, simply return to the cookie dialog box (called "Per site privacy actions") and change the cookie setting there. We like this depth of control, but it's inconvenient that it takes so many different dialog boxes to get the job done.
Double-click the privacy report (the icon that looks like a small eye) to see if a site has attempted to violate your privacy settings. (Note: IE 6 doesn't really look much different from IE 5.x unless you run it on a Windows XP machine, as you see here.)
While these cookie configuration options basically mirror Netscape 6.x's offerings, IE 6 actually one-ups the competition when it comes to reporting privacy violations. If you configure IE to block certain third-party cookies and the Web site you're browsing tries to set one of those cookies, a privacy icon shows up in the bottom frame of the browser window. Double-click the icon to get a privacy report that tells you which sites tried to set prohibited cookies. It can be eye-opening to set IE 6 to block all third-party cookies and see how many sites try to plant cookies on your system. (CNET.com uses third-party cookies as part of its ad-serving system.)
In version 5.5, IE finally introduced a Print Preview feature. In IE 6, the Print Preview window sports a new drop-down menu that lets you select whether to print an entire Web page, just a selected frame, or all frames individually (one per page). IE 5.5 offered this basic function from the print dialog box but hadn't integrated it into the Print Preview feature; it's a nice touch if you'd like to print, say, an online newspaper article without a lot of pesky ads (provided, of course, that the ads are in a different frame).
Unfortunately, we encountered some odd behavior in IE 6. These quirks aren't serious enough to render the browser a disappointment, but Microsoft should have done more usability testing. In the Tools menu, for example, there's an option called Show Related Links. Select it, and out pops an Explorer Bar (Microsoft's term for the panels that take up the left-hand side of the browser, like the Media Bar) that shows related search engine results from the Alexa search site. Alexa uses surfing patterns from a large pool of Web users to identify sites that may be related to one another. The problem? As you browse to other pages, the Related Links panel never changes and doesn't update with new related links until you click the Update button. On the other hand, Netscape's similar panel continuously updates according to the page you're visiting.
One last strange and potentially irritating trait: When it was first released, IE 6 didn't play nice with Netscape-style plug-ins, QuickTime in particular. Apple has since updated QuickTime to overcome this problem, and when we played several videos with QuickTime, we didn't experience any difficulties. We're not aware of any other plug-ins that may conflict with IE, but keep your eyes open for similar problems.
We were also a little underwhelmed by IE 6's performance in our speed tests. In one of our tests, IE 6 outperformed IE 5.5 and Netscape 6.1. And IE 6 consistently outperformed Netscape 6.1. However, IE 6 lagged behind its predecessor in almost every other test--not by much, but we'd expect better performance from a major upgrade.
Against Netscape 7, IE 6 turned in a mixed performance. In general, we found that IE 6 performed certain tasks faster than Netscape 7 but fell short in others. HTML page loads were nearly twice as fast on IE as they were using the Netscape browser. On the other hand, Netscape beat IE at loading XML, CSS, and PDF documents.
As with most Microsoft products, Internet Explorer 6's extensive support options won't leave you hanging. First off, you'll find the obligatory Contents and Index files under IE 6's help menu. In addition to that searchable database, you can also connect directly to online support via the help menu (or you can visit the Web site). Here you'll find FAQs, newsgroups, and a link to Microsoft's comprehensive knowledge base.
Live support options depend upon the difficulty of your question and your OS. Windows Me users, for example, can contact e-mail support twice for free, after which they'll pay $35 per incident. Similarly, you get two toll support calls for free, then pay $249 per toll-free call Monday through Friday 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT. Windows 2000 Professional users, on the other hand, get two free e-mail questions (thereafter, it's $99 per incident) and two toll-free support calls for free (then pay $249 per incident); extensive support plans are also available. Tech support in general is way too expensive, these days. Let's hope you can find all your answers in the written materials.
On the bright side, when we called tech support with a simulated problem, we quickly reached a courteous rep, who gave us several workable options.