On the Internet, wait 10 minutes and your browser will change.
With each beta release of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5, we've seen new features (and sometimes deletions). But with the final release coming today the winds are mercifully still. The software gets a small makeover since the final beta we reviewed but nothing earth-shattering.
Most notably, a new What's Related feature suggests sites that are relevant to the one you're currently viewing. The feature works much like the feature of the same name in Communicator 4.5. While Navigator displays the list from a pop-up menu on the toolbar, IE 5 opens a pane down the left side of your browser (as it does when you click the Search, History, or Favorites buttons).
Microsoft also revamped the AutoSearch feature since the last beta. Formerly you typed a few words in the Address box and the browser went off to a search engine. The results displayed in the main browser window. Consistent with other new IE 5 features, AutoSearch now loads the results in a left-hand pane, and loads the most likely candidate in the main window. (You can change this configuration to suit you in the Internet Options menu, including making it go back to the way it used to work).
You can now send and receive messages from a Web-based mail account using the Outlook Express client. However, Microsoft's Hotmail is your only choice, at least for the moment.
Speaking of mail, Microsoft decided to remove the Junk Mail filter from Outlook Express (introduced in the previous beta), after a controversy over the tool's zeal in deleting legitimate messages.
The integration of the Windows media player into the browser means you can now open audio files from a toolbar in IE 5. Selecting the Radio toolbar from the Tools menu lets you play streaming audio without opening a separate client, and you can adjust the volume or bookmark an audio file. The media player uses a Real Audio codec and reads Microsoft's Advanced Streaming Format (ASF), but don't uninstall your Real Player just yet. The Media Player doesn't read G2 RealAudio files, so hello incompatibility.
One odd thing about the Radio toolbar: It's not persistent. You have to select it to appear from the View, Toolbars menu each time you want to use it. If you open several windows during one session, as I often do, it can take a bit of clicking to figure out which window is playing your audio. It's a fine feature, and saves you the trouble of opening another program, but you may want to make the bar stay put by adding that option in the Internet Options menu.
Of course, Netscape isn't taking the new features lying down. The software maker recently added a handful of improvements to its Navigator 4.5 browser (bringing it to version 4.51), including an upgrade of the AOL Instant Messenger real-time chat client, stability enhancements, stock-quote lookup from the location field, and security fixes. Expect a beta release of Communicator 5 by midyear.
None of the new features in IE 5 change our opinion about whether you should upgrade. If you're got Communicator 4.5 or Opera 3.5, you're running a great browser, and there's no need to switch. But if you're using older versions of IE, AOL, or Communicator, or you're starting from scratch, IE 5 is the browser to beat.