Like something out of Dr Frankenstein's laboratory, the programmers at Netscape have resurrected a browser that most internet users had left for dead – and sown on an extra head.
Netscape 8 lets you choose to view pages as you would either in the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox version 1.0.3 or in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6. And if you happen to visit a Web page that has problems opening in the engine you're currently using, Netscape will automatically reload the page with the other browser engine.
Unfortunately the news about Netscape 8 is not all positive. The browser loses much of Firefox's simplicity and a few of its useful features, while gaining plenty of extra heft: Netscape 8 takes up 35MB of hard-drive space, compared with less than 16MB for Firefox. Surprisingly, Netscape 8 uses Firefox 1.0.3, not the more recent 1.0.4 build that corrected recent security breaches. According to AOL, the vulnerability that 1.0.4 plugs didn't affect Netscape 8, so no update was required.
The browser is available as a free download.
Netscape 8's method of choosing which engine to use when opening a particular web page is determined by a whitelist of safe sites as verified by Truste and VeriSign, and a blacklist of risky sites that Netscape claims to update three times a day.
Sites on the whitelist open in Internet Explorer, with ActiveX and all other functions on. If you visit a site on the blacklist, you see a warning. If you click through the warning and open the page anyway, the browser blocks cookies, Java and other potentially unsafe functions automatically.
Any site that isn't on either list will open in the Firefox engine by default. If you decide to view a page in the engine other than the one Netscape picks for you, the browser will remember your selection the next time you visit that page.
Netscape 8 shares many of Firefox's features, including automatic pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing, which puts each open page under its own tab in a single window. One big difference between the two products, however: while Firefox takes pride in offering only the functions you need for browsing, the feature-creep in Netscape 8 is readily apparent.
A web-mail option on the browser's Personal toolbar supports Gmail, Hotmail and other such services in addition to Netscape Mail. Another obtrusive addition is Netscape 8's Datacard and Passcard, which fill in web forms automatically.
One important feature missing, however, is Firefox's great pop-up controls, which let you create a list of sites for which pop-ups are allowed. No such option is available in Netscape 8. Nor does the new browser let you list the sites that are permitted to install software or load images, as Firefox does.
Netscape 8 outshines Firefox in one area: custom toolbars. Firefox lets you add items to toolbars simply by dragging them from the Customize window onto the toolbar itself. Netscape 8 extends this functionality to news feeds, travel and weather information, shopping sites, and even movie times. (Just remember to leave enough room in your browser window for the Web page itself to be seen.)
If you're happy with IE but are concerned about that browser's poor security, switching to Netscape 8 might give you the best of both worlds: ActiveX support and other IE features combined with the safety of Firefox when venturing onto unknown websites. Even with the ability to reload misbehaving web pages in either the Firefox or IE engine with a single click, the new Netscape browser feels like a case of subtraction by addition. The features added to Netscape 8 may make it look more like a conventional browser, but it loses Firefox's simplicity (and some of that browser's most useful features) in the process.