AOL has released the first public test version of Netscape 8.0 - the latest version of the legendary browser with - with features designed to protect users against online scams and malicious code.

The beta release was originally scheduled for mid-February, but was delayed to fix some last-minute bugs. A preview version of the browser has been available to a select group of testers since late November. The Netscape 8 beta version differs significantly from that preview.

With its release, AOL is joining Firefox in taking aim at Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer, which has become a security disaster. AOL is also looking to piggyback on Firefox's popularity of Firefox, released in November and downloaded 27 million times since then.

Netscape 8 includes features to protect users while surfing the Web. It adjusts settings based on a list of known malicious websites to protect users from phishing scams. Trusted sites are displayed with fewer restrictions and use the Explorer rendering engine for maximum compatibility.

Many websites have been designed specifically to work with the Microsoft browser and may not be displayed correctly in browsers using other engines, including the Gecko engine in Firefox.

Netscape 8 is based on Firefox and uses that browser's rendering engine by default, but also supports the Explorer browser engine built into Windows. As a result, Netscape 8 only works on Windows computers.

In an about-face, Microsoft two weeks ago said it would release a beta of a new Explorer in the middle of this year. Previously, it had said it would not release a new browser before Longhorn in 2006.

Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the Web. The final version of Netscape 8 is expected out in the second quarter and will be backed by some marketing efforts.