IE11: Browser Modes Return

Contributing Editor

A month ago I reported how Browser Modes had been removed from IE11. Browser modes have been provided since IE8 to help developers fix issues quickly by telling a site to render like a previous version of the application:

IE10 browser modes

The modes were intended to help companies continue to use legacy web applications while developers made fixes.

However, far more of us used browser modes to test old IE rendering. We certainly shouldn’t since the modes are an unreliable imitation of the real browsers. For example, you can find features such as CSS3 animations working in IE10 when it’s switched into IE9 mode.

Many developers applauded Microsoft’s decision. I did. Browser modes are flawed, impart a false sense of security and have become increasingly unnecessary as IE improves.

Many developers disagreed…

Browser modes allow devs to quickly reproduce something a user is experiencing, and provides a quick way to test fixes in your own environment, yes the final fix should be tested in a non-emulated browser, but MS makes that hard since you cannot have more that one version of IE on a system at a time.

Despite browser modes being a poor substitute for oldIEs, many find them convenient for quick and dirty testing. Starting up a virtual machine may only take a few seconds on a fast PC, but browser modes are almost instantaneous.

Anyway, they’re back. Microsoft has listened to the complaints and re-implemented browser modes in IE11 on Windows 8.1 (technically, they were always lurking beneath the surface and just hidden). I’m not aware of any official announcement — I found them by accident when tinkering with IE11 final on Windows 8.1 for a SitePoint review.

IE11 browser modes

To access the modes, start the F12 Developer Tools, click the Emulation icon at the bottom, and choose a Document Mode — they’re not named “browser modes” any longer.

Has Microsoft made the right decision? Ironically, the lack of browser mode functionality would have dissuaded some companies from upgrading IE9/10. Fewer upgrades means longer having to support oldIEs. I suspect they’ve done the right thing.

That said, please don’t use browser modes! I know they’re convenient, but they could cause more problems than they’re worth when real IE8 users report issues with your site or application.

Are you pleased to see the return of IE browser modes?

Look out for a full review of IE11 coming on SitePoint soon…

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  • Muhammad

    How can we tell microsoft please leave web alone ?

    • John Faulds

      Why? They’re doing a good job lately with IE10 & 11.

      • joan

        They are.

      • Anonymous

        I totally agree. IE10 and especially 11 are as good as any other browsers. Better in some cases, worse in others but still great applications. It wasn’t always that way but let’s look to the future rather than the past.

  • moretea

    :-P

  • Anonymous

    that dropdown is greyed out for me… is there something i have to do to enable it?

  • Anonymous

    I agree, Craig, IE browser modes are unreliable. Better off going the VM route and not fighting the IE updates to stay in an older version for testing – too risky knowing MS’s history of IE vulnerabilities and slow patching.

  • Anonymous

    How Browser Modes work with Edge Meta? “

    • Anonymous

      Strictly speaking, you don’t need that line. I think you can specify it, but the F12 setting will override it.

  • njm

    “many find them convenient for quick and dirty testing”

    This is why they should stay. I regularly use it to highlight any glaringly obvious issues in older modes < IE9 as it’s much quicker to flick over while coding away. Obviously, this must be followed with proper native testing.

    • Anonymous

      While I understand what you’re saying and I’ve certainly done it myself, quick browser mode testing isn’t proper testing. Something might work so you presume it’s fine — only to bit hit several weeks or months later by an issue in the real browser.

      A few additional minutes of effort now could save hours later on.

      • Z-Trigger

        Frankly if it takes months for an issue in a real IE browser to crop up then you’ve been negligent in your development and testing.

        Browser modes are invaluable for getting huge chunks of testing done, but if you’ve not run your work through a real IE before it even leaves your testbench then you’re just asking for trouble.

  • Bizbell Academy

    IE is just dream in some countries.

  • Rob

    The problem is the alternatives are still annoying hard to maintain – 4 VMs which expire every 3 months? C’mon, give us a break Microsoft.

  • Z-Trigger

    I don’t bother with VMs. I just have lots of computers made up of a mish-mash of parts lying around/salvaged/superseded/upgraded and multi-boot them. All run headless and accessed with VNC.

    • Anonymous

      Well, yes, you could. But that’s presuming you have the room for up to six PCs for IE6 through to 11. Even if they don’t have monitors, your electricity bill is going to be much higher!

  • Eugene

    It is official: Microsoft has confirmed the fix it in the IE bug tracker:
    http://connect.microsoft.com/IE/feedback/details/795132/bring-back-browser-mode-in-ie11

  • Aleksey

    Document Modes were in previous versions of IE and they are separate from Browser Modes. Yes, the Document Modes are there and I don’t think anybody complained about them, but the Browser Modes are not back. The difference is that Document Mode specifies which rendering engine to use while Browser Mode specifies what browser to identify as (this changes which conditional comments are used, what Javascript sees the browser version as, etc.). When both are set correctly, the end result is 99% accurate to what the rendering will be in the actual IE version. Yes, a final test through the real thing is necessary, but this helps knock 99% of bugs out without having to run 9 VMs during development. Just because a tool can be used incorrectly never is a reason to remove (or hide) it completely. Developers need all the tools they can get to develop as rapidly as possible. It’s like not letting car transmission engineers drive stick because most average Americans don’t know how to.

  • Anonymous

    Why don’t they make browser modes that actually emulate the browser version they claim to be emulating? Also, why did they skip from 5 to 7?

    • Anonymous

      Because it’s emulation. To emulate it closer you’d need to include all the rendering engines. Few users would appreciate IE increasing in size by 500%.

  • Stefan

    I’m using IE11 and i can tell that IE10 was much simple to use Developer mode….

    • Anonymous

      Do you think so? I wouldn’t want to go back…

  • Justino

    Can I bill Microsoft for all of the time I spend fixing MS bugs for Internet Explorer? Glad to see the market share has steadily declined – go compatible browsers.

    • Anonymous

      IE’s market share is on the increase. Also, which “bugs” are you referring to? All browsers have bugs.

      • Darnell

        The problem is that MS didn’t have the foresight to create browsers in such a way that old versions could be superseded by newer ones. And they create development tools that use proprietary Microsoft technologies that don’t work with other browsers and won’t be compatible with later versions of IE. This prevents large companies from being able to upgrade, as newer browsers won’t work with some of their internal web-based software. The end result is a LOT of old versions of IE that have bugs we’ve known about for years and we have to deal with for years after the browser becomes outdated.

        • Anonymous

          The decision to integrate IE into Windows was made in 1997. Lack of foresight? Perhaps, but it’s easy to berate any decision with the benefit of hindsight.

          While I may have agreed with your comments about proprietary technologies a few years ago, it’s definitely not the case now. IE11 is a dependable, standards-compliant browser. As was IE10. IE9 wasn’t bad. IE8 was OK, except it was released before HTML5 made an impact. You need to go back to IE7 in 2006 to really complain about a lack of standards compliancy and rendering bugs.

          IE isn’t perfect but no browser is. What bugs are causing you problems? In my opinion, IE causes no more hassle than any other browser — and a little less than some I could mention.

          • Darnell

            IE8 was released in *2009* and is still the most prevalent version of IE in use. It’s the hardest to debug for because the IE Dev Toolbar is terrible. More recent decisions may have led to IE10/11 being better browsers than their previous versions, but IE8 is the reality we have to deal with today. Users still use it. We still have to support it. And it’s a pain… far more painful than other self-updating browsers with decent (event excellent) debugging tools. Chrome’s tools are the best. Firebug is still great. I use Safari’s and Opera’s less often, but enough to know they beat the pants off of what I have to deal with when I code for IE8.

          • Anonymous

            Is IE8 the most prevalent version on your site? That’s quite unlucky – on average the total of IE9/10/11 is twice that of IE8. Even so, what’s so painful about IE8? Agreed it doesn’t have features such as canvas or SVG, or great tools but you won’t experience awkward IE6/7-like bugs. Test early and test often.

          • Darnell

            http://marketshare.hitslink.com/ See “Desktop Share by Version”. IE8 is still the most widely used version of IE on desktops, according to Hitslink’s analytics. And my experience has been that even JS code doesn’t execute the same way in IE8. I have to add additional checks for object / method existence that are only necessary in IE8.

            And you just admitted it’s unlucky that my users would be using IE8. :) I agree.

            By the way, despite me defending my position that IE has been a consistent thorn in my side, I do like what you folks at Sitepoint do. I used to read your newsletters and site religiously and should read them more often. I don’t want to come across as a troll, as I do appreciate your articles and books. Do keep up the great work.

  • Juan Dela Cruz

    If you have a fairly powerful PC and at least 4Gb to 8Gb RAM and lots of disk space, you could download VirtualBox and set up virtual machines of about 4Gb each, install Windows (XP, 7 or 8) plus the browser you want to test and set it to not update and that’s it.

  • Derik

    I believe Microsoft should remove browser modes completely. Our company has experienced issues with the end-users manipulating this feature, thus being confused why the website isn’t working. This has the potential to allow people to go back in time and use a crap browser that shouldn’t be supported anymore. Real browsers continue to update their products without a backlash from developers wanting an emulation tool. And besides, like you pointed out, emulation does not always provide the look and feel of the real browser version. So if you need to test in old crap like IE7 or IE8, then set up virtual environment and test away.

    • Anonymous

      I’m surprised you’re finding end users changing are the modes. They’re reasonably well hidden but I agree that they’re increasingly unnecessary. However, Microsoft have responded to criticism and doing what developers demanded. Unfortunately, there’s no decision that would have kept all developers happy.

  • jwlrs

    “Users still use it” — don’t blame (most) users — many users are locked into old IE due to company IT policies, technical constraints beyond their control (must run some old web app that doesn’t run well except in IE7 and IE8 or something), government regulations (http://blog.mozilla.org/ligong/2010/01/22/china%E2%80%99s-strange-fixation-on-ie6/).

  • Anonymous

    I am stunned to find someone these days defending IE8. It’s a pile of rubbish that is extremely hard to get working when you start doing some serious javascript. The main problem these days with IE is that these old browsers keep wandering around, and that Microsoft fails to see the benefit of making IE independent of Windows to be able to push upgrades further. As long as the two are tied, we’ll be stuck for a long long time with old IE versions.

    • Anonymous

      No one’s saying IE8 is the world’s best browser. You say it’s “extremely hard to get working” but don’t provide details about what’s so difficult. In my experience, IE8 is rarely problematic as long as you’re not attempting pixel perfection or adding a multitude of shims. Yes, you’ll need a little object detection for things such as event handling and Ajax, but it’s a few additional lines of code and is well documented (or you can use a library).

      Tying the browser to the OS was an obvious decision at the time and few complained — other than Netscape. Removing it now would be technically difficult and impractical: Windows and third-party applications depend on IE components for web communication and HTML rendering. Yes, it’s caused problems but developers must take a share of that blame for developing browser version-specific applications which meant corporations couldn’t easily upgrade.

  • Andi

    Unfortunately my IE11 doesn’t have the options in your screenshot. Under ‘Document mode’ I can only choose ‘Default mode’ or ‘Edge’.

    I need this feature because I have some old .mht files saved that I wanted to read. Some of them display completely wrong, ironically the ones saved from Sitepoint pages, and they have floating nav menus over the text etc so I can’t read the article. I used to fix this in IE10 by just switching the mode to IE7 or something. Now I have to start up a VM just to read an .mht file. I guess I deserve this for trying to rely on an MS feature.

    • Anonymous

      I suspect you’re using the Windows 8.1 preview. Upgrade to the final version and they should appear.

      • Anonymous

        Actually this was added as part of first post Win 8.1 RTM IE11 security update.

  • Anonymous

    Document mode of IE7 on IE11 is completely wrong. Testing on IE10 and IE9 emulating IE7 both are same, but IE11′s 7 is completely bugged, nothing not even nearly as a realIE7 or IE9/10′s 7 emulation..

    Shame that I got to rollback to IE1..

  • Eugene

    Craig, I am afraid that document mode in IE11 never returned. It completely ignores old IE conditional comments whey you are in legacy mode.

    For example, if you go to IE8 mode,