- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

It's the holidays, so what's more exciting to contemplate than Web browsers? Well, some new ones have burst upon the scene recently, and since they're free (save the cost of downloading), why not examine what's out there.

• Opera sings more or less on key: No "fat lady" jokes here, please. Opera version 5.0 is "light, tight and bright," as they once said about USA Today news stories.

Opera, long sold for $39 a copy, has racked up about 1.5 million users largely on word of mouth advertising and via the Web. It is small a 2.5 Mbyte download for Windows, versus 18.3 Mbytes for Netscape 6 and between 27 Mbytes and 80 Mbytes for Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5, depending on configuration.

It's also fast. Most pages I ordered uploaded within five seconds. Now, yes, that's over a broadband connection, but it's still impressive nonetheless. While I've had similar results with the latest version of Internet Explorer, they haven't been consistent. In almost every case with Opera, however, loading was superquick.

There are numerous other changes to Opera, not the least being the reason the software can be had for free: the addition of a small ad banner in the user interface section of the screen.

The ad-feature "will not slow Opera down, nor diminish the Internet experience" says Opera Software Chief Technology Officer Hakon Lie, in a statement released from the firm's Oslo, Norway, headquarters. "The banner-sized ad is quite small, and they are downloaded into the browser only once a week, to be cached for later use. This ensures the recognizable Opera-speed in the browsing itself, as well as not-too-intrusive ads. Also, every necessary precaution has been taken to ensure privacy," Mr. Lie says.

Also new in the 5.0 version is a search capability, as well as an Instant Messaging client compatible with the popular ICQ chat service.

According to the firm, in the search feature, users can easily choose among the most popular search engines to find the information or data files they want.

I was impressed by the multiplicity of browser windows supported by Opera 5 I could have numerous ones open without any degradation of performance. One neat feature is the ability to zoom a Web page up to 1,000 percent of its original size. This, of course, won't be needed in every situation (or even most), but if you really want to examine the fine print of a page, it's nice to have the option.

Also impressive was the e-mail client, which ably handled a POP3 e-mail account I use, sending and receiving mail without hassle. The display of e-mail messages is very straightforward and the best I've seen in a long time, handling both incoming HTML and regular e-mails. I've not found a way to use Opera to compose HTML e-mails, however.

All told, you can't beat the price for a good, basic browser. More details on the software can be found at www.opera.com, and the results may well be music to your ears.

• Navigator 6 arrives: Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netscape 6 browser is here, with all the features that I'd written about previously. It's a good browser, revolutionary in some respects, such as its integration of AOL e-mail in its mail client, and the inclusion of AOL Instant Messaging. Neither should be overly surprising when one realizes that Netscape is owned by Sterling-based America Online.

Users will be delighted with the many improvements in Netscape 6's look and feel. This is a good product from those viewpoints.

That said, I found the actual performance of Netscape 6 a bit sluggish and buggy. When closing, at least under Windows Millennium Edition, it didn't entirely go away, and I had to restart my computer in order to clear every bit of Netscape out of RAM. This may be a "Windows ME"-specific problem, or it may affect other Windows versions. It warrants some caution on the part of users. Information on the overall product is at www.netscape.com.

That ".5" of a browser is the "MSN" version of Internet Explorer, both of which are from Microsoft Corp. (explorer.msn.com). While offering an MSN or Microsoft Hotmail e-mail account, and while adding a very consumerish interface to the Internet Explorer Web browser, the result is something even more sluggish than the Netscape 6 product I'd worked with.

My sense is that Microsoft is heading in the right direction with this product elements of it appeared in its latest operating system demo I'd seen a few week ago. But it needs more work, and even then, it will be too frustrating to serious Web surfers. Stay away for now.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com.

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