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Netscape Communicator 4.8 Mini-Review

Monday, August 26, 2002

By Applelinks Contributing Editor Charles W. Moore

Netscape surprised us this month by releasing (with almost no fanfare) an upgrade of their venerable Communicator 4 series browser to version 4.8. With Netscape 6.2 now fast and stable, and the Netscape 7.0 Preview Release proving a very nice piece of work as well, many wonder why Netscape would bother continuing development of the graybeard 4 series browser, but Netscape 6/7 for the Mac requires a minimum 266 MHz 604e processor and Mac OS 8.6, so there is still a modest market among low end and legacy Mac users for the older browser.

For example, my daughter can’t use Netscape 6.2 on her 5300 and 1400 PowerBooks running OS 8.1 and OS 8.5.1.

Personally, I much prefer Netscape 6/7 (and its Mozilla stablemates) to Netscape 4.x but I’ve been using my 200 MHz 604e UMAX S-900 quite a bit lately, and I thought I would download Netscape 4.8 in hope that it would offer a bit better performance and stability than the Communicator 4.7.6 version I had been using as a backup to my standby iCab browser.

There is precious little, if any information about what’s new in the Communicator 4.8 http://wp.netscape.com/eng/mozilla/4.8/relnotes/windows-4.8.html release notes. It does say:

Java Plug-in Support. A new Java plug-in preference option allows users to take advantage of the latest Sun Java plug-in (available for free at http://java.sun.com). When enabled, the Sun Java plug-in delivers an improved user experience for Java-enabled sites and completely replaces Netscape Java.

But that may be holdover from Comunicator 4.79.

Getting Netscape 4.8 proved a challenge in itself, and it took me five tries to successfully download it. Once I had the installer down, the browser installed smoothly and quickly, although you do have the hassle of rebooting after the installer does its thing, which is a pain tha tother browsers son;t inflict on you. There are no obvious interface differences with the new version, and is still starts up very smartly, an aspect of performance that the newer Netscape versions don’t excel at.

Speaking of performance, Netscape Communicator 4.8 acquits itself quite respectably. I ran a few comparisons against my benchmark iCab 2.8.1 on the UMAX. The disk caches were cleared before the test, and the dial up connection it is nominally 26,400 bps, hence the download times will seem very slow to anyone with broadband, or even a decent dial-up connection.

My usual method for these browser bake-offs is to time the page load until the “Stop” button grays out, but I’ve found that on pages with streamed ads, Netscape 4.8’s “Stop” button never grays out, so I had to rely on less precise observation of when the data stops loading in the field at the bottom of the Netscape Navigator window.

Halifax Daily News Home Page
iCab - 2 minutes
Netscape 4.8 1 minute, 30 seconds (approximately)

Applelinks Home Page
iCab - 57 seconds
Netscape 4.8 - 35 seconds

Low End Mac Home Page
iCab - 1 minute, 9 seconds
Netscape 4.8 - 1 minute, 9 seconds (approximately)

Anglican Catholic Church of Canada Home Page
iCab - 15 seconds
Netscape 4.8 - 10 seconds

Other World Computing Home Page
iCab - 1 minute, 1 second
Netscape 4.8 - 52 seconds

As you can see, Netscape 4.8 compares very favorably to iCab, which is no slouch itself. However, the numbers don’t tell whole story. While Communicator 4.8 is as fast as -- and in some cases significantly faster than -- iCab 2.8.1 in loading complete pages, it also has a great big disadvantage in that it insists on loading graphics before showing you any text. Consequently, on a slow, dial up connection like mine, you will often end up staring at an empty browser window for a minute or two or even longer while the graphics download.

iCab, on the other hand, shows you the text content up front, which gives you something to do while the graphics load. More often than not, it’s the text and text links I’m looking for anyway.

To give you a concrete example, on Sunday afternoon and I was doing some online research for a magazine article on marine diesel engines that I was writing. Netscape handled the Perkins Sabre web pages nicely, but it bogged down badly on the horrible, graphics and frames-heavy Volvo Penta Website, some pages of which took three or four minutes to load. Finally, the browser just locked up on one of them, requiring a MacsBug force quit. Stability has never been a Netscape 4.x long suit, and the issue is still there with version 4.8.

I switched to iCab, went back to the Volvo Penta site, and found that I could get the information I was looking for in just a few seconds with iCab, on which the text and text links loaded nicely before the interminable graphics fill started.

Which is one reason why I continue to prefer iCab, especially when I’m in a hurry. Communicator is technically faster on many pages, but iCab is a lot more efficient when you’re trying to get your work done.

I also prefer the way iCab handles bookmarks (“Hotlist”) and history. However, Netscape 4.8 will still handle some pages that iCab chokes on. iCab’s JavaScript support has been improving, but it still has a way to go. Netscape 4.8 also works on some secure (e.g. banking) Web pages where iCab will not.

Netscape Communicator offers an all-in-one package with browser (Navigator), e-mail (Messenger), and HTML authoring (Composer) modules in an integrated, single-application package. Personally, I use other applications for the Mail and HTML editing, but some users like having all of these Web related functions in a single package. AOL Instant Messenger 3.0 is also bundled with Communicator 4.8. If you are running OS 8.5 or above, you can upgrade to AIM4.x by going to http://www.aol.com/aim and following the instructions.

System requirements:
• Mac OS 7.6.1 or greater is required to run Communicator 4.8.
• RAM requirements for Mac OS 7.6.1: 16MB physical RAM. For Mac OS 8.0 or greater: 24MB physical RAM.
• If you use RealPlayer with Communicator 4.8, be sure to keep the Communicator memory setting at or above the default preferred size: 8192K with virtual memory turned on. Reducing this memory setting may cause your system to quit when you use Real Player. For more information, see the Real Player site at http://www.real.com/help/index.html for documentation regarding recommended memory requirements.

If you have an older Mac and/or are using a Mac OS version from 7.6.1 to 8.5.1, Netscape 4.8 is probably worth the hassle of downloading. It may well be the last version upgrade for this old browser, and it’s arguably the most comprehensively capable browser that will run on legacy machines.

However, if you have a G3 or later Mac, give Communicator 4.8 a pass, and get Netscape 6.2 or 7.0, or the latestversion of Mozilla. They are faster, more stable, and have a richer features set, while offering similar functionality, including the Messenger and Composer modules.

Links for Communicator 4.8:

Charles W. Moore

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