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St. Paul Pioneer Press article...

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Bahamut
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St. Paul Pioneer Press article...

Thought I'd share this article I saw in today's paper.

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The browser race is speeding up
JULIO OJEDA-ZAPATA

I love technology, but I'm fanatical about only a few things high-tech. Firefox is one of them.

The Web browser has always been an underdog to Microsoft's market-dominant Internet Explorer, but Firefox is vastly superior in features and usability. That's why it's my fave browser.

So I am excited this week because Firefox creator Mozilla Corp. is releasing version 2.0. (It's due to be available on Tuesday afternoon.) Its improvements aren't revolutionary, but I'm rooting for the increasingly popular program to maintain its momentum in a suddenly intensified browser race.

That's right: Dozing giant Microsoft recently awoke after neglecting its browser for years and also is offering a revamped version. It was released in final form Wednesday. While this new Internet Explorer isn't revolutionary, either, and won't make me ditch Firefox, it's just useful and powerful enough to keep Microsoft in the browser game.

I test-drove near-final versions of Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 on a Windows XP computer. There's also a Macintosh version of Firefox, which I put on a new Intel-based Mac mini as well as an older, pre-Intel iMac machine.

FIREFOX 2.0

The essence of Firefox remains unchanged. It's a streamlined program that can be tricked out with thousands of software add-ons or "extensions."

My favorite extensions include Foxmarks for keeping bookmarks in sync on multiple computers via the Internet; Google Browser Sync for doing the same with my browser's history, cookies and saved passwords; and Forecastfox for putting at-a-glance local-weather forecasts in the edge of my window. I've installed about a dozen extensions.

So what's new in Firefox? Improvements include:

Tabbed-browsing upgrades. Firefox popularized "tabbed browsing," which organizes multiple windows into a single, easy-to-navigate interface with clickable tabs along the top.

Now users can click a tab to banish it, retrieve the tab if they delete it by mistake, rearrange tabs with their mice, access tabs via a pull-down menu, and recover entire tabbed "sessions" in the event of a crash. These are all features Firefox users have harnessed with extensions, but now are built in.

Search-engine enhancement. Another Firefox hallmark is its built-in search window, which offers easy access to Google and other search engines via a pull-down menu.

Now Firefox has an "autocomplete" feature that guesses what users want as they type keyword queries. This is a great trick, but only works with Google, Yahoo and Answers.com, for now. It's easy to add and organize engines, too.

RSS support. Internet users are increasingly addicted to RSS "feeds," which are a way to automate browsing by "subscribing" to sites so updates are readily apparent. Firefox always has been a basic RSS reader, but now gives its users the option of handing off their RSS subscribing to other software or services, such as FeedDemon or Bloglines.

Spell checking. Firefox will now spell-check the text you type into any Web form. Nice.

Enhanced security. Firefox now has "phishing" protection so its users aren't as easily fooled by legitimate-looking Web sites that aim to steal their personal information.

INTERNET EXPLORER 7

Phishing filtering and other protections also are built into the new IE. This is essential because the browser has long been a gaping security hole through which all sorts of online invaders have wreaked havoc on PCs.

IE7 incorporates lots of other changes, too, but not all are implemented properly:

Revamped interface. Unlike Firefox's streamlined and completely malleable main window, IE's interface is a weird-looking jumble with fewer customization options. I actually prefer the old IE look.

Tabbed browsing. Long MIA from IE, this feature is now superior to Firefox's approach in some ways. Users can click a button to see miniaturized images of open pages, for instance. Clicking a thumbnail will take them to that tab. IE isn't the first to try this trick but executes it elegantly.

Users can save groups of tabs as one bookmark, which is handy, but it's not quite as easy to open a bookmark folder as a set of tabs.

Browser and RSS features. IE does a good job of importing bookmarks and RSS feeds. It pulled in my Firefox bookmarks, for instance, and all my FeedDemon subscriptions (once I exported these from the NewsGator program). Firefox also pulls in bookmarks — but not, I was surprised to discover, my RSS-feed particulars without plug-in help.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Others will use IE by default because it will be the browser preloaded on their PCs, and because they won't know any better, but I remain a Firefox stalwart. It's still the best browser, though the race has narrowed considerably.

Firefox does have its annoyances. Because plug-ins are developed by third parties — from the Google giant to individuals — the add-ons will often stop working in new Firefox versions and must be updated.

I'm also infuriated with how sluggishly Firefox runs on my iMac, and it's not blazingly fast on new Macs, either.

But Firefox lets me move elegantly and effortlessly among Windows and Macintosh machines without skipping a browser beat. Its extensions, which will work in multiple operating systems (including Linux), put awesome power at my command.

Microsoft will never offer me this, so it's history.