A review of the new Preview Release of Netscape Communicator - 4.5

In this column, we take a look at the latest release of the most popular web browser, Netscape Communicator 4.5 Preview Release 1. For those of you who can't wait, it's available from ftp://ftp.netscape.com/pub/communicator/4.5/4.5_PR1/english/ [Please note that this is an evaluation release, the one currently found at this URL times out on October 15, 1998]

First impressions: its a bloody long download (12.6 MB for the complete install, 15 MB for the professional edition) but its interesting to evaluate. The User Interface (UI) of Navigator, which is the browser component of the suite, seems mostly unchanged, except for a button called "Netscape" which takes you to the Netscape site (and your personal start page there) and another button called "What's related", of which we'll be hearing more shortly.

The primary differences between 4.5 and the previous release, which is 4.05, are:

  • Smart Browsing, which is Netscape's name for an interesting new feature. If you are searching for the website of a company, there is no guarantee that the name is immediately obvious. If you enter the name of a company in the URL window, the new Netscape will send it to a keyword lookup site, and return a page of links, and even take you to the homepage itself, if possible. I used the words "Texas Instruments" and it gave me some links, and then took me to the actual website, which is http://www.ti.com/. The next component of "Smart Browsing" is the "What's related" button, which attempts to find similar pages on the web.

  • There's good news for those who use the Netscape mail client for their email needs. Both the interface and the performance of the mail/news client have been significantly enhanced. IMAP protocol supprt, which was patchy in the previous release, is significantly better. That will make no difference to VSNL users, though, as VSNL does not support the IMAP protocol for email. If you want to switch from Outlook or Eudora, you can import your address books from those clients.

  • The news client now support directing messages to a specific server, which need not be the default server. This is a useful feature for those who check newsgroups from different servers.

  • The PIM included with Communicator, Netscape Calender, is now more feature-rich, and will support data exchange with the Palm Pilot range of palmtops.

    But enough of just enumerating features. How does it actually feel ? The user interface, for everyday tasks, is essentially the same. The new features in the browser are mildly useful, the ones in the mail/news client are more so, but the most significant improvement seems to be in the speed. This is a subjective impression as I did not do any timed tests, but it seems to loads pages significantly faster than the previous version.

    Bottom line: the enhancements seem promising, but will probably undergo further mutation before this version sees full public release. The speed improvement is good, but not enough in itself to make me do a 12.6 MB download. If you get it on CD-ROM, then install it by all means. This release gives us an idea of the directions Netscape (and, by extension, most of the web) will be taking in the near future, and will definitely be worth checking out when the public release does come out.

    Try it and let me know what you think. I can be reached at udhay@arachnis.com for comments.

    Udhay Shankar N <udhay@pobox.com> is a Random Networking Enthusiast who collects interesting people.