Internet Explorer 8.0: The One Month Review, Part 1

IE8I have a confession to make. Internet Explorer 2.0 was my first browser and IE remained my default until Mozilla released Firebird 0.6.1 in July 2003. But I will always have a soft spot for IE — it provided my first taste of the web and got me hooked.

IE8 was launched on 20 March 2009 and soon, the majority of Windows users will receive an automatic update notification. We have heard about the speed claims and exciting new features, but what is IE8 like to use on a day-to-day basis? If you’re yet to take the plunge, here’s my opinion following a month’s use.

Installation

IE8 is a 13.2MB download on Vista and 16.1MB on XP. Installation on my Vista laptop took around 7 minutes and required a reboot. That is far longer than the competing browsers but IE is closely integrated into the system so that’s some justification. Strangely, there is no installation progress bar? Come on Microsoft — even IE3 had that!

Usefully, IE8 offers to import bookmarks and settings from other browsers including Firefox and Opera. Not so useful is that I’m sure my Vista start-up time is a few seconds slower?

On the plus side, I have found IE8 to be stable and I have not experienced any crashes or unexpected restarts.

Interface

At first glance, IE8 looks much like IE7 and I suspect few people will notice differences. I’m not a big fan of the interface, but keeping it is probably better than confusing existing users. The stop and refresh buttons are not shown by default (did IE7 do that?) I suspect the majority of people do not use them and experts resort to the Esc and F5 keys. They will reappear if you right-click a toolbar, choose Customize, then “Show Stop and Refresh Buttons before Address Bar”.

Tabs now get a splash of color if you open a new tab from search results by middle-clicking a link. It is useful to see which tabs are related, but it is not possible to choose the color used. Perhaps worse is that there is very little difference between active and inactive tabs, although Quick Tabs is still handy for viewing a thumbnail of all opened pages.

There are a couple of additional command bar options, primarily to handle Web Slices (more about that later) and InPrivate browsing — aka “porn mode” — which hides your internet activity. One welcome change is that “Find on this Page” is now a toolbar rather than a modal dialog.

A “Suggested Sites” button is also available on the Favorites bar. In my experience, this stopped working at random intervals and, bizarrely, asked me to disable then re-enable it again. However, the button is of limited use and mostly suggests MSN and Hotmail for every site.

Finally, IE8 allows you to restore the last browsing session by clicking a link on the new tab screen or selecting Tools > Reopen Last Browsing Session. Very useful, but why not add an option so IE8 opens the last session when it’s started?

New Features and Widgets

Microsoft are making a big noise about the two major new features in IE8: Web Slices and Accelerators. As usual, Microsoft’s naming and marketing messages tend to confuse rather than explain these innovations. In a nutshell…

Web Slices are small web pages open in a window approximately 300px in dimension. Typically, it will contain links to the latest news or articles on a website. You can add a Web Slice to your Favorites bar and glance at a site’s latest content without visiting it.

Web Slices

Of course, RSS feeds have been doing this for years. However, Web Slices can contain any content and could be less confusing. I have my doubts, though: they are quite complex for novices and experts are more likely to use an RSS reader.

Accelerators add functionality when you highlight or right-click words or phrases on a web page, e.g. translation, map lookups, email to someone, reference, etc.

Accelerators

Accelerators are useful and a wide range is available. That said, I am not sure they deserve the hype: Accelerators only save a few seconds every so often and they are unlikely to be implemented in other browsers.

Microsoft also provides an IE add-ons gallary. Primarily, this contains Accelerators, Web Slices, Search Providers and a few toolbars. Most have been created by commercial organisations and I doubt it will ever have the diverse variety of add-ons available for Firefox. It is a step in the right direction, but Microsoft needs to expose and document a full IE API to attract developer interest.

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  • http://nicholasorr.com SoreGums

    I installed IE8 about 3 weeks ago and it sucks…

    1st up it has a huge pause when I click the icon to start it. The window chrome opens up I can click in the address bar type out a long url like en.wikipedia.com press enter and wait another 15secs while it still thinks about doing something. Then after it has finished thinking, it clears the address bar and I can finally get on with what I want.

    2nd, I can’t be in one tab then type an address in the address bar and hit ctrl+enter. Doing this results in a crash, all existing tabs hang around, its the new tab that dies and results in a error message/box. I have to create a new tab then type the address, then go/enter. Reinstalling Vista x64 and immediately installing IE8 will probably fix it – however I’m not going to do that any time soon.
    Consider I use the browser the way I described above 100% of the time when I type an address in, it kinda needs to work…

    It is fine for testing and making sure that sites I’m building work in IE – right now its not going to work as a daily browser.

    Obviously my issues are probably rare and isolated…

  • http://leonpaternoster.com/blog leonpaternoster

    The new features are pretty uninteresting to me, but probably because I only use IE8 when I have to.

    I got used to the interface in IE7: I find it bizarre that non-Microsoft products obey Windows interface conventions more than IE.

    Having said that, it’s pretty hot on rendering websites properly and it handles CSS well (it’ll lowercase and small cap text at the same time, for example). I’ve found it a lot less forgiving than Firefox when it comes to rendering cludgy sites. This is a real step forward for me: it’ll help modernise the web.

  • Stu Smith

    IE8 has issues on Vista x64: I’ve written a quick article on how to fix them:


    http://www.hackification.com/2009/04/01/howto-repair-your-vista-64-bit-system-after-internet-explorer-8/

  • Pawel Czarnota

    I was scheptical about the accelerators, but now after using IE for a while, I find myself missing it in Firefox (especially for addresses and dictionary words). Personally I don’t see use of accelerators for blogging or translation, but I can see how someone might be using it. Wouldn’t it be great if IE supported Firefox add ons (and vice versa)?

  • http://xslt2processor.sourceforge.net boen_robot

    @Craig Buckler
    “The stop and refresh buttons are not shown by default”
    on the left, yes, but they do show on the right by default. The option you mention is going to move them to the left.

    For the “Suggested Sites” problem, I believe you may have disabled it (willingly or otherwise), thereby leading to “MSN” and “Hotmail” being the only results. Check that “Tools > Suggested sites” is on.

    I don’t think Web Slices are too hard for novices… well, they can be simpler if they were definable by the user, but I’m not sure how can any browser do this kind of monitoring reliably… when you declare a Web Slice, you (as a developer) are taking note that this will be monitored, and thus, that you have to be selective as to when and what will you change in it.

    That said, I agree with pretty much all of your other critiques.

    @SoreGums
    Your first problem is likely due to old and/or incompatible add-ons (like an old version of JRE, Flash Player, Adobe Reader, MS Research, etc.). Try to go to “Tools > Manage Add-ons”, then, while in the “Toolbars and Extensions” on “Show”, select “All add-ons”. Diable all add-ons that you don’t know what are for, and if the add-ons are by a third party, look for updates.

    It’s a very tricky thing to do, I agree, and one that most users won’t do while just blaming IE. A pity.

    As for the crash you’re describing, at least on XPSP3, can’t duplicate it. I have Windows Vista x64 SP1 at another place… I’ll try it there when I can.

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @boen_robot
    Thanks for the comments.

    My IE8 must be different to yours – Stop and Refresh do not appear unless I tick the “Show before” option.

    I had not disabled “Suggested Sites”. The error message tells me there’s a problem and I should disable then re-enable it. MSN and Hotmail are even suggested for SitePoint!

    I think part of the problem with Web Slices is that (a) they have a meaningless name, (b) Microsoft has over-hyped them, (c) it’s difficult to explain what they are, and (d) it’s little different to RSS. In fact, they are possibly less useful than RSS since a Web Slice can’t be used in other ways.

    The real test is whether other browsers adopt Web Slices. Do you think they will?

  • http://www.lowter.com lotrgamemast

    There’s a similar feature to Accelerators in Opera and has been for a while I think. If highlight a word, right click and then go into the Search With menu it shows a list of places you can search with the term hightlighted. You can add customised ones by right clicking in the search box of a website you want to add to the list and clicking Create Search.

    I’ve added things like Google Maps, so i just highlight a postcode, right click and go to Google Maps in the list to bring up a map of that postcode. Dead easy and has been there for years now.

  • http://xslt2processor.sourceforge.net boen_robot

    @Craig Buckler
    Please tell me no registry editing/protecting/compressing/optimizing/cleaning/whatever tools have touched the Windows copy you’re working with. Both problems appear to be like the kind of problems that would appear when wrong registry entery is *whatever*ed.

    I just hate such kind of tools, exactly because they create anomalies like that one. Just the other day, I showed to a friend why I do, and in practice – I made it clean all problems it found, and then made a second scan. Guess what – more problems. Repeating the procedure until no problems were found at repeated scans, and finally restarting… Windows did not start. We were already planning on reinstalling the Windows, so that was no problem, but it did teached him not to trust such tools.

  • Anonymous

    My first browser was Mosaic, and later Netscape. When IE3 (and IE4) came out, I used them because they were actually better than Netscape. They loaded much faster and was kept up to date with current technology.

    But then IE became too dominant and the development stopped :-( I sometimes use IE7 at home, and I really hope that IE8 will mark a return to keeping the browser up to date.

  • http://xslt2processor.sourceforge.net boen_robot

    The real test is whether other browsers adopt Web Slices. Do you think they will?

    It seems that Firefox, as with every killer feature in another browser (case in mind: speed dial from Opera), has already made it in the form of an IE8 Accelerators add-on.

    That said, I think the Mozilla developers themselves will shy away from this for a while, thanks to that extension. As for Opera, Safari and Crhome… Crhome will probably avoid it until they deliver extensions (at which point, Accelerators could be one of the extensions to be demoed). I have a hard time judging Opera and Safari’s strategies, yet I lean towards a “no”.

  • David Hucklesby

    I believe the next version of IE 8 – 8.1 – will accept Firefox add-ons. Wouldn’t that be loverly?

  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    @David Hucklesby: If you’re referring to this Smashing Magazine post, you’ve been had. That was an April Fool’s joke!

  • Richard – Accessible Web Design

    I installed IE8 soon after it was released and have found it to work fine so far. One thing though, the refresh and stop buttons haven’t disappeared from my version (and I am glad they haven’t as I use refresh frequently and generally use the button in preference to F5, not for any particular reason, just force of habit.

  • http://nicholasorr.com SoreGums

    @boen_robot

    You sir were absolutely correct. Disabled and removed everything in the addons and IE is now speedy. Now PDF’s don’t show in the browser, flash doesn’t work, free download manager doesn’t take my downloads, java doesn’t work. I so CBF going through this… Like I said I don’t use IE for everyday use. Not about to start…

    With FireFox I just install the next version and things that don’t work are disabled or updated. Then I wait for those extension that don’t work to be updated, so they do work again.

    Chrome is in beta (I’m on the beta/dev track), I expect to have issues. Any FireFox betas I download, I expect to have issues. IE8 is Gold, therefore I expect to NOT have issues. Simple as that really, my expectations are not being met :)

    I disclosed that the issues I’m experiencing are rare and isolated, which turns out to be accurate. I’m not interested in IE anymore, which is ok. I ensure sites I develop work in IE7+ and call it a day :)

    Thanks though for pointing me in the direction of AddOns, I should have thought of that… At least now its quicker to test my sites.

  • http://nicholasorr.com SoreGums

    Also I appreciate the effort MS is putting forth so that the web can move past IE6 – that is fantastic and IE8 gets us all moving along nicely as did IE7. I’m not a complete hater :P