PC Magazine put Communicator and Internet Explorer to the test in its Usability Lab. And the winner by a split decision is ...

The Internet is undoubtedly one of the fastest moving technologies ever to hit the computing world. In little over two years it has changed the way we communicate, search for information and buy products. But to take advantage of all the latest features on the Net you will need a suitable browser.

With this much power at stake, the battle to control our use of the Net and to own the preferred browser is vicious, unrelenting, and very lucrative. The main rivals are Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0, and Netscape's Communicator 4.03. Both of these products have browsers at their core, but, in an ever-increasing effort to provide a more appealing product, they are augmented by mail clients, conferencing applications, HTML authoring tools and "push" clients (providing regular, automated updates of specific Web content such as news).

Microsoft and Netscape have been keeping a close eye on each other with the result that the features of both offerings are virtually the same. In the January edition of PC Magazine, both browsers were put throughout their paces in the Usability Lab to determine if this "feature creep" has been at the expensive of usability.

The results were interesting. The usual trade-off applies: more features equals less usability. Both products now require careful configuration, and owing to the complexity of their features, they aren't for the fainthearted. The rich e-mail features on both products look and work well (just don't send an e-mail to anyone not using the same sophisticated technology because they won't be able to read it). However, don't get either product for their conferencing capabilities. Remember, this is an immature technology working across an unpredictable carrier and it just doesn't work - yet.

Overall, the usability testers had a mixed reaction to Internet Explorer and Communicator. Both are at a point where an emotional element has become almost indistinguishable from the technicalities of the products. This perhaps explains why, despite an objectively better experience with Internet Explorer, some of the testers felt that they were more satisfied with Communicator.

However, it was felt that Explorer was more comprehensible and usable than Communicator, as the former had a more consistently usable interface throughout and it integrated better with the desktop. For its slight edge in its usability lab scores, PC Magazine awarded Internet Explorer 4.0 an Editor's Choice Award. For more information, see our Web site.

PC Magazine