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Real beauty is on the inside, not on the outside, right? Well, the folks over at Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) believe it, especially the people behind Internet Explorer 5.5, the most recent version of the company's Web browser.
IE 5.5 looks and feels a whole lot like its predecessor, 5.0, which shipped more than a year and a half ago. But the familiar look and feel mask some important changes to the way IE works.
These under-the-hood improvements are subtle and will be reflected in improved performance for sites whose developers take advantage of them. Specifically, Microsoft has added support for DHTML and CSS 1 (cascading style sheets), offering developers more control. IE 5.5 has improved handling of frames, letting you open frames without opening a new instance of the browser.
One of the most noticeable additions is the new "Print Preview" feature, which allows users to take a look at the pages they want to print before actually sending them to the printer. If you've ever wasted extra paper printing out reams of advertisements and oddly shaped text, you'll appreciate this improvement.
IE 5.5 also adds 128-bit encryption, allowing extra security for online shopping and banking. Many online banks in fact require 128-bit encryption.
Speaking of security, Microsoft has added several cookie management features to help protect your privacy while surfing the Web. The features include cookie notification by default, which alerts you any time a "third-party persistent" cookie is placed on your PC. The feature alerts you only when a third party, such as an ad server, is attempting to place a cookie on your hard drive-not when the site you're actually visiting does so. It prompts you to accept the cookie, but allows you to decline it. The "Internet Options" menu also features a "delete all cookies" button on the front page.
Internet Explorer 5.5 won't amaze you. In fact, you may not even notice some of its new features. But it's a solid product with some very useful security features.
Liane Gouthro, a former technology reporter at PCWorld.com, freelances from her home in Brookline, Massachusetts.