Ever since Microsoft released version 5 of Internet Explorer for Windows a year ago, Mac users have patiently waited for the Mac version. A few weeks ago, their patience was rewarded - and how.
While recent versions of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer were fairly evenly matched, IE 5 for the Mac lays down a challenge that Netscape may be unable to meet.
It's fashionable in the Mac community to despise Microsoft, but the truth is the company's Mac division has given us some premier products in recent times. Microsoft learned a bitter lesson from the Word 6 for Mac debacle -- Mac users won't accept software that looks and performs like it was written for Windows -- and it has showed in its products, such as the acclaimed Office 98 suite.
Internet Explorer 5 adopts the Mac OS X look with its translucent, candy-colored controls and subtly striped backgrounds. And I predict that many Mac users will appreciate the ability to color-customize IE's buttons to match their iMac or G4 Mac.
The ability to customize is a major aspect of IE 5. You can choose which icons populate your tool bar and have increased control over how fonts appear on Web pages. One of the best new features is a collapse button that transforms all three horizontal tool bars into a vertical strip that provides just the four essential buttons: back, forward, reload and stop. When you want to maximize screen real estate to view a graphics-intensive page, this button comes in handy.
But there's more to IE 5 than cosmetic enhancements, nice as they are. This version builds upon the many useful features that previously distinguished IE from Navigator, such as the Page Holder, AutoFill (which automatically fills in your name, address and other personal info on Web page forms), the Download Manager, and a much better way of handling histories.
A small enhancement that I've found useful is the addition of several new built-in categories of Mac-oriented bookmarks in the Favorites Menu, including Mac magazines, hardware and software companies and catalog sites.
I also like the new "Show Related Links" option that brings up a list of links to similar Web sites in the search window next to the main window. Very practical.
Another excellent addition is the Scrapbook feature, which allows you to save the contents of a Web page -- graphics and all -- to your hard drive for offline viewing. If you're researching something and need quick access to the information, you'll love the Scrapbook.
Fans of eBay will rave about IE 5's Auction Manager, which allows you to track online auctions while you continue to browse other Web sites. This feature can alert you to high bid changes and an auction's closing.
One of the most important changes to IE 5, however, is under the hood. It now supports all current Web standards, thanks to a completely new rendering engine Microsoft calls "Tasman." What this means is that IE 5 displays pages more quickly and accurately than previous versions. While your mileage may vary, I did find IE 5 to be faster than 4.5, particularly with very fast Web connections (such as a cable modem or an ISDN line).
Should you wish to try out IE 5 for yourself, it's free for the download from Microsoft's Web site (www.microsoft.com/mac/downloaddefault.asp). If you like, you can also download the new Mac version of Microsoft's equally appealing e-mail program, Outlook Express.
Installation is a breeze. After decompressing the downloaded file, just drag the IE folder to your hard drive. The first time you launch the application, a general purpose installer loads all the support files in their proper places and imports the preferences from your old version of Internet Explorer, if it finds one on your hard drive.
As for Netscape, there is a "preview" version of Netscape 6 available, but I advise most against downloading it because it's clearly unfinished -- the geek term is "betaware." (By the way, you didn't miss Netscape 5; it was scrapped when the company decided to build a totally new version based on its "Gecko" rendering engine.)
While we can't call a winner in the Mac browser wars until the official version of Netscape 6 is released, Internet Explorer 5 has established a formidable lead. It's definitely worth a try.