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<IE5’s great, but out,
   out, damned Outlook>

    By Daniel Will-Harris
I’m normally not one to upgrade to the latest software until a few months after it’s out. I figure what I’ve been using was good enough, so it will continue to be good enough.

Occasionally, a new version will have some compelling feature that makes me want to upgrade immediately, and paraphrasing what Robert Benchley said about exercise, “When I get the urge to upgrade, I lie down until the feeling passes.” (I also have a rule whereby I never install anything new after 2 pm on weekdays, in case tech support is on the east coast, or on weekends, but that’s another story).

But since I design and produce so many web sites, I thought it was important to test them with IE5. I’d received e-mail from early beta testers complaining my sites lacked apostrophes—which I knew wasn’t true. The problem was a bug in IE5 that caused it not to display a perfectly normal Windows character—and it was a prime example of a super-stupid bug in a beta—how could they miss this before going to beta?

But now it was officially released, and I looked at my logs and saw that as many as 12% of people were using it—which I thought was pretty high for a new browser. Since I have a cable modem now (mine is only fast downloading, but that’s enough), I decided to download it.

Of course, every download site was busy. Then I somehow stumbled upon the ZD net download, and it was easy to get through, and fast. The whole thing took just a couple of minutes with the cable modem, and had a nice installation program that downloaded and installed the pieces you needed. If you use a regular modem, you can download and install it in pieces, with the browser alone weighing in at around 7-9MB, which isn’t too bad.

>Noticeably faster

I immediately noticed how much faster IE5 is. I was actually shocked, in a good way. Software companies are constantly claiming their new versions are faster (remember that Win98 was supposed to be faster? In what universe?) and then you get them and the trick is that they’re faster if you buy a new, faster computer and even after that they end up only being about the same speed.

But IE5 is remarkably faster. Things just pop on-screen. No, it can’t download a page faster, but it can display it much faster. And this is on my writing machine, which is an old Pentium 150 with a mere 24MB of ram. IE5 is really snappy, and it’s a pleasure to use.

Don’t send me hate mail for saying nice things about a Microsoft product. I’m no longer a big fan of theirs, but when they do something right, they deserve credit, and IE5 is an improvement.

As well as being faster, it uses fewer system resources, and it has some really nice shortcuts. You can view sites you visited sorted by date, by number of times you visited, or by the amount of time you’ve spent there. I’m sure there are some “big brother” reasons for all this, but for me, personally, using IE without someone watching over me, it’s great (and if someone is watching over you, just use the Tools, Internet Options, Clear History button to clear that out so no one can track you).

>Easier Searching
I’ve always liked how you can just type “Find whatever” in the address window and it will search Yahoo for listings. But as Yahoo gets more and more behind on what it lists, it’s nice that IE5 now lets you type “hb whatever” to search HotBot, or “ex whatever” to search excite,” or “av whatever” for AltaVista (and more—but those are the ones I use most often). It’s “search pane” slides open from the left, to show you lists of links while you’re viewing pages in the right window. Very handy.

>Easier Saving
Other great new features: You can save entire web pages, including graphics, really easily. Just choose file/save and it creates a folder with the HTML file, all graphics, and all links to those graphics adjusted so the page just displays properly. It’s about time.

And they've eliminated those pointless “channels” that no one used (even though other people said that they were the next big thing, and that soon no one would browse—I’m still laughing about that one). Now you just subscribe to a web site (when you make a favorite) so you can download all the content and read it offline. I still think this is mostly useless myself. But if you were patient, or had a very fast connection and a lot of disk space, you could load things for offline reading—and now it works without special files or configurations.

You can even download nifty “power tweaks” that let you zoom in on images, create lists of links and images, open frames in a new window and easily turn images on and off.

All it’s missing is something so basic I don’t know why MS and NN still haven’t figured it out—a search feature for your bookmarks. I mean, I’ve got thousands of them, don’t you?

What I’ve done is create a shortcut on my Start button that opens my favorites folder (which I keep on a compressed drive so it doesn’t take a ton of disk space—something you don’t need to do if you have the updated disk drivers with the new, improved FAT—File Allocation Table). Then I press ^F to start the Windows find function, so I can search the bookmarks. But this really should just be an option in the favorites menu.

So overall, IE5 is a very pleasant surprise (and, happily, if you do decide you don’t like it, it’s easy to uninstall). Pleasant, that is, except for two unpleasant surprises.

>The horror of co-branding

When I got over the delight of how much faster it was, I was in for an ugly, and I mean ugly surprise.

ZD, in exchange for providing all that download bandwidth, was making me pay the price in what had to be the most hideous animated icon in the history of software. Normally IE has a pretty tasteful little “e-globe” in the upper right hand corner. It’s subtle and nicely designed.

Well, ZD had this hideous red and blue flashy thing—ugly doesn’t begin to describe it, and to say it was obnoxious is to be polite. I literally couldn’t stand the idea of this thing flashing at me all the time. I thought about sticking a post-it note in the corner of my screen to cover it, then, somehow, I stumbled upon the source of the problem. In the “signup” directory there was a file called zdu_ie_stack22.bmp that contained the evil icon. I quickly realized that if I replaced this with one of my own making, I could not only eliminate the hateful thing, but personalize my browser.

So I went into CorelXara and whipped up a little something based on my eFuse.com site icon, and it’s dark, subtle, and fun to see my own little icon there. You can do the same thing—just take the current icon, put it in your graphic program, match the dimensions exactly, and put whatever you want in the frames. OK, so it’s being a little too, I don’t know, technically-anal, but it is fun and I couldn’t have stood that ZD icon.

>Out, out, damned Outlook Express

I liked Outlook Express in IE4. It was fast and simple and effective. So I downloaded Outlook Express 5 and quickly regretted it.

First, as fast as IE5 is, that’s how slow OE5 is. It wanted to convert all my OE4 mailbox files. Now, I have almost 300MB of e-mail on my computer, but only about 100MB of free disk space, so that wasn’t going to work (yes, I know I need a bigger hard disk and that they’ve gotten cheap but I don’t like fooling with hardware).

Next, OE4 used two files for each mail folder—one contained the messages, the other contained an index of the messages. This is good because the message folder was plain ASCII, so you could bring it into Word and edit it (though don’t save it in Word, or it won’t work in OE!). But OE5’s “improvement” adds a lot of binary crap to the file, so it’s harder to work with in anything else.

Worse, I noticed that OE5 was inserting information I’d deleted from other programs into the new mail folders. This didn’t appear from in OE, you’d have to view those files in Word or another editor, but what on earth was it doing that for? I remember Word used to do this, too, but as far as I know it no longer does. I didn’t want a program that did.

And finally—OE5 was annoyingly slow. It took about three times longer just to get the new message window. And saving a message? Well, you’d better have something else to do, because it took like 30 seconds each. I often get 100 e-mails a day, so that meant almost an hour of waiting. That’s absurd.

And I noticed that my address book went from 300K to 5MB! The same information! So why was it so much bigger? The good news is that you can uninstall OE5 and you get OE4 back again. You can even delete the inflated address book and you still have a smaller version like your original. I have noticed that it’s trying to create big address books again, and I just delete them and get my old one back. That said, it pays to back up your e-mail address book, in case this stops working! I know I do.

This finally compelled me to try Eudora, a program I know a lot of people used, but one I didn’t care for years ago and never tried again. Well, it’s worth trying.

Update: I’ve since found a much better email program than Eudora. In fact, it’s the best I’ve ever used. It’s called Calypso and I will write about it at lenght in a future column.

One problem was that while Eudora could read my OE4 folders (but not OE5—another reason not to upgrade lest you get trapped), it wanted to update them all at once, and I didn’t have enough disk space. It would be nice if it would just let you choose what folders you wanted to update as you went along.

So I tried Eudora Pro and it's fast. The interface still isn't very attractive, and the online help sucks. And it has all these features that I can't figure out, like a “QP” button (I know that stands for Quote Printable but I don't know what that really does and the Help file was no help).

Still, there were things in Eudora that made me want to switch:

  1. You can archive and restore folders easily at any time. It just reads the file directory, sees there's a new folder, and adds it to the list. OE used to do this but doesn’t, which means you have to keep all your e-mail on your hard disk till the end of time if you want to read it. Since OE3 used to do this and now doesn’t, I can only see it as Microsoft intentionally crippling this free software to force you to use Outlook. Or, better yet, move to Eudora.
  2. Eudora names folders logically. OE3 used to do this, then OE4 started numbering folders idiotically. A system only a programmer could love. So now I have to keep a text file that says, “Folder54 = eFuse reader feedback” so I know what they are!
  3. Eudora has a "return receipt" feature which I haven't seen in an email program since one of my first Internet mail programs. I love this feature because while it only tells you when someone’s server receives it, not when they open it, that’s still something!
  4. Eudora creates pure plain ASCII message files. Attachments are saved separately. I really like this because it's more compact. I often have to delete messages I've sent with attachments because they're large and I just really want the text. This does that automatically.

So the moral of this story is simple: Get IE5. And then shell out $39 bucks for Eudora Pro. Then you get the best browser, and the best e-mail program.

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and EsperFonto, the web’s only typeface selection system.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved