Internet Explorer 7 is officially released--download RC1 here, it is the same version being bundled as the official IE7 in a Yahoo package that went out today. (Edit 10/20/06: Now officially IE7, not referred to as RC1)
I downloaded IE7 RC1 and checked it out. Here is a screenshot of it showing My Forty-Two Cents, as well as a screenshot of Firefox 1.5 showing the same page:
My first reaction to the new IE was, "awkward." As soon as I opened it, it didn't feel good. This could be simply because it's new, and when it comes to computers I get used to things easily and like having them set up the way I'm used to them. However, the interface doesn't look real thought out.
Note in the screenshot the tab. Sweet, finally IE got tabs. But I have only one web site open, yet the tab bar is still there, wasting screen space. Looking at the top of the screenshot, and you'll see more wasted space--extra room between buttons, odd toolbar sizes, etc. And that screenshot is taken with "Small Button Sizes" enabled. One nice thing was a small button that shows a thumbnail of all the pages loaded in tabs, but a Firefox extension known as foXpose does this too.
My next reaction was surprise at a lack of a menu bar. At first, I found this odd, until I realized that I knew all of the shortcuts and don't use the menu bar anyways. And if I didn't it's easily enabled under the right-click context menu. However, as further evidence of the wasted space, the toolbar section in IE without the menu bar is just as large as my toolbar section in FF with the menu bar. Something's wrong here.
Next I navigated away from the display-once welcome page IE loaded the first time with. I went to Google. And the font was big. Too big. In the screenshot, the text size is set to "Smallest" in IE, and is still slightly larger than the lettering in FF when FF is set to "Normal." Also, when I shrunk the text down to "smallest," the font went out of wack. Now the letters look bolder than they should, and the line-spacing looks squished. Images were the same--too large (and there is no ImageZoom extension like in Firefox).
Microsoft, you really screwed up this next part. Pages do not render correctly. Look at the header of My Forty Two Cents in the IE screenshot, compared to the FF screenshot. Notice the style-sheet is clipped at the top in Internet Explorer. Whoops, guys. Even Firefox rendered the page correctly.
Next I started exploring the toolbar. It's pretty much the same as IE6, just rearranged. The forward, backward, home, refresh, and stop buttons, however, are scattered around and in weird places. I think they should be grouped together, but they aren't. The RSS feed controls look better, but not on par with a dedicated aggregator program. One nice thing is the Tools menu being available from a button, so you don't have to enable the menu bar to, say, clear your cache.
IE 7 includes a number of new security features, and only time will tell on their effectiveness. The most obvious is the new phishing protection. When pages load, IE7's status bar at the bottom shows an icon letting you know it's verifying the authenticity of the site. Other security measures remain less obvious, like the pop-up blocker, which continues to notify you of its actions with a bar that appears at the top of the page.
All in all, IE7 seems like an improvement over IE6, but doesn't quite reach the standard set by Firefox, or even Safari or Opera. It's behind the 8-ball on new features, doesn't offer as much customization (or extensions), and at first reaction doesn't seem particularly user friendly. After so much time between versions, I'd have thought Microsoft would have done better.
Now only a few more days until Firefox 2.0 becomes official. RC3 is out.