Internet Explorer 8.0: The One Month Review, Part 2

IE8This is the second part of my IE8 review. Part 1 covered installation, the interface and new features but here we look at what the browser offers to developers…

Page Rendering

Here is the good news: IE8′s HTML and CSS rendering is excellent. In my limited tests, it behaves almost identically to Firefox and the other mainstream browsers. Perhaps it should have been right years ago, but let’s be thankful.

IE8 is more standards-compliant than IE7 but, to help people upgrade, it offers three rendering modes:

  • IE8 mode: the browser runs as IE8 — yay!
  • IE7 mode: the browser runs as if it were IE7 and returns that browser’s user-agent.
  • IE8 compatibility mode: the browser runs as IE8, but behaves like IE7.

I’m not certain why Microsoft bothered with the last option, but IE7 rendering appears accurate in all the pages I tested. However, the company missed a trick by not providing an IE6 mode: that would have had a far greater effect on upgrades and would have contributed more to killing off the 8 year-old browser.

JavaScript Performance

All browser manufacturers claim their JavaScript engine is the fastest. IE8 does not feel spectacularly quick on JavaScript-heavy sites and I eventually tested it using the SunSpider benchmark suite. The results were not impressive: on my PC, IE8 was more than 60% slower than Firefox 3.0.9 — a browser that is known not to be the quickest.

IE8 still has the awful modal JavaScript error window. The browser does not show it by default, but an error console would be far more useful.

Developer Tools

Finally, IE offers us some great built-in developer tools. Press F12 and you are presented with a window that allows you to examine the HTML, modify the CSS, step through JavaScript code, and profile bottlenecks.

IE8 developer tools

The tool offers a hybrid of features blatantly copied from the Firefox Web Developer Toolbar and Firebug extensions. It’s not as good as either and it looks like a beta product, but it’s a welcome addition and will help IE development immensely.

Conclusion

I have been quite critical of IE8, but it is moving in the right direction and is far better than IE7. I would certainly recommend the upgrade for the page rendering and developer tools alone.

As a browser, IE8 is not terribly exciting. The new features are a little gimmicky and the interface has a slightly inconsistent and unfinished feel. Why can’t IE open the last session on start-up? Why can’t I choose tab colors? Why offer three different rendering modes?

Microsoft try hard to make their applications suitable for users at all levels of experience and IE8 is no exception. Unfortunately, although they have taken the best features from other browsers, they hide them from novices and made them awkward for experts. IE8 often gives the impression that it knows what’s best for you.

For novices or those who want fast, unencumbered browsing, Google Chrome, Apple Safari, or a basic Firefox installation probably offer a better experience. For expert users, Opera or an extension-powered Firefox will be preferable. It is tempting to say that IE8 is suitable for the “average” user, but I’m not convinced it is.

Overall, IE8 is a welcome addition to a healthy and increasingly crowded browser market. I am glad Microsoft have revived the product and Windows users should not hesitate in upgrading. However, it is unlikely to sway many away from their current browser of choice. Few people would argue that IE8 is the best browser available; its user share probably owes more to strict corporate policies and user inaction.

See also:

Will you install IE8? Do you like it? Has it persuaded you to switch from a competing browser?

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  • Dan

    Great review, although it seems to end too quickly ;)

    I disagree with something though – the built-in developer tools. It’s not a beta product – it is an evolution of the IE Development Toolbar, which has been around for at least 3 years, possibly longer. It’s so old it actually works with IE6!

    Also I don’t think it’s a blatant rip off of firebug. Maybe if it was, it would be better. The DOM explorer is nowhere near as easy to use as firebug, the style explorer is also very weak and although live style updates are possible (by adding new styles as attributes), it’s very clunky and awkward to use. The tool that looks up which wstylesheet/line number a style comes from is also prone to failing.

    Unfortunately, the version of the developer tools included with IE8 actually feels worse than previous versions (although maybe I just need to get used to it)

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

    @Dan
    Thanks for the feedback. I realise that the developer tools are based on the IE Development Toolbar, but both tools look fairly shoddy compared to the competition. It still looks like a beta to me!

    They have not copied Firebug/WDT verbatim, but it’s obvious that they had a strong influence on the features. That’s no bad thing, but you would have thought Microsoft would have the resources to improve the tools during the past 3 years?

  • Dan

    @craig – definitely, with their resources, M$ should have something much, much better by now and as you say, they should have included an IE6 page render mode. I seem to remember a quote from them saying that they really didn’t care for developers at all, their browser was aimed at users and only features that were useful to users would be implemented. I don’t know where I saw that or if it’s still the case, as now at least the dev tools are built in…

    Thanks for responding, and for the great article :)

  • Tarh

    If Microsoft had allowed IE8 to be switched into an IE6 mode when viewing whitelisted sites (e.g. internal corporate sites), and stay in IE8 mode on the public internet, this mess might’ve been fixed once and for all. :-(

  • http://www.keaydesign.com keay

    In my experience with IE8 I saw several sites that shows rendering issues compare to FF3 and IE7, so I am not sure how you concluded IE8 renders almost identical as FF. I am not sure if you know this but if you look at the top right next to the url address bar, you will either see an icon that looks like a page split in half. Whether you see that icon or not determines if the browser is rendering in IE7 mode or not….(I am not talking about the compatibility mode). It is a conditional line of code you put in the HEAD section to tell IE8 to render it as IE7. Where I am getting at is if the site has this comment, when you are surfing through the site, you would see no rendering issue of the IE8 as it is not using that engine….Hope that makes sense….

  • Larz

    I really agree with your post. I think it is the best browser Microsoft ever has launched.
    So I hope IE6 will soon die!

  • http://www.mean-machine.co.uk dmj1973

    Just so you know. This page is broken in Firefox. The image of the developer tools doesn’t resize as the rest of the page does and it overlaps.

    Just thought you would like to know.

    Sorry if I seem picky or have hit a nerve.

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

    @keay
    IE8 certainly seemed fine on the sites I tried. Obviously, there will be exceptions, however, in my testing IE8 rendering was closer to Firefox than IE7.

    @dmj1973
    Thanks for the heads-up. The dev tool image is a little too large on 1024×768 screens.

  • http://www.keaydesign.com keay

    @Craig
    I am not sure if you documented those sites you tested but if you don’t mind listing them so we could take a look.

  • http://xslt2processor.sourceforge.net boen_robot

    Problematic sites in IE8 are usually not due to CSS 2.1 bugs… they are due to misbehaving/poorly written JavaScript that is made to alter the page’s appearance.

    I actually saw the site of my country’s national television having this kind of a problem. I debugged it for them (and sent a note after that to their web developers), and it lead to the fact that their library, scriptaculous, was assuming IE always treats setAttribute(“className”) as other browsers treat setAttribute(“class”)… IE8 shows this is a very wrong assumption. I think John Resig (jQuery) does it best – if the behaviour of a method is possibly buggy across browsers, simulate a cast at the method, and check if the result is correct. Use a workaround if it’s not right.

    As for the development tools, I for one find the IE’s developer tools + Fiddler combo better than Firefox’s Firebug + Web Developer combo or Opera’s Firefly. All developer tools have some nice features, most of which overlap… maybe it’s just me… I have a sort spot for Fiddler, I admit… and I’m the kind of person that doesn’t have a favorite browser. I use IE8 most of the time, but I use other browsers when I need something that IE can’t deliver… e.g. I use Opera when I need hyper speed, and I use Firefox when I need advanced developer tools other than the typical features (like ColorZilla or ShowIP). Chrome and Safari I use mostly for testing really.

  • Hisham

    @boen_robot
    Your reply was very useful. In one of the website which i developed, I was trying to calculate the window height of the browser through the javascript and accordingly change the appearance and height of some objects. The site works perfectly in all browsers except IE8. IT doesn’t work even if set the IE8 to full compatibility mode.
    Since i am very new to web development and i am hoping that with IE8 -> IE6 will be no more. Coz its gonna be tough managing IE8 and IE6 with these issues.
    Why can’t Microsoft release something that is more reliable browsers like firefox and opera.

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

    @keay

    I am not sure if you documented those sites you tested but if you don’t mind listing them so we could take a look.

    Most of the sites I’ve visited in the past month seem to be fine (although they are in IE7 too).

    During development, I’ve noticed IE8 usually matches Firefox in situations where IE6/7 have broken. Obviously, I’ve then gone on to fix the issues, so listing sites that work in all browsers doesn’t really prove anything!

    Perhaps you could provide URLs for sites with major rendering differences in Firefox and IE8 (in IE8 mode)? We can then check whether the fault lies with IE8, Firefox, or the code itself.

  • Dennis

    The main question for me since serveral weeks is: how to install IE8, IE7 and IE6 parallel? Does anybody have a *clean* solution?

  • adimauro

    Here is my IE8 review:

    I finally got the upgrade notice for IE8 in Windows Update, but the install failed every time I tried it. So, I went directly to the MS homepage, downloaded IE8 directly, ran setup…and still failed. I checked out the knowledge base and found an insanely long and complex list of things that needed to be done in order to get IE8 installed when that error appears…and so I gave up. Some of the changes could even result in the loss of user accounts in Vista!
    Conclusions:
    If they want to FORCE people to upgrade, they could AT LEAST make an installer that actually WORKS! This buggy install experience does not instill me with much confidence at all with IE8. So, for now I’ll be ignoring it…

  • Tim

    I wonder why they didn’t leverage the visual studio tools for debugging and inspecting? If there is one things MS do well, it’s development IDE is second to none. I guess it only recently gained Javascript debugging though in the traditional sense of what a developer would expect. At least it’s a million times better than that awful Microsoft Script Debugger which we’ve had to put up with for years.

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

    @Dennis

    The main question for me since serveral weeks is: how to install IE8, IE7 and IE6 parallel? Does anybody have a *clean* solution?

    I don’t think there is one. There are some excellent tools, but the most reliable option is virtual machines. See…

    VirtualBox review

    Building the best browser test suite

  • Hannie

    Unfortunately, The the left part of the central content is overlapped by the left vertical pane with IE 6 even in full screen. Poor web UI at sitepoint.com.

  • Matt

    Thanks, great article. Our medium size company has just chosen to stick with IE6 for another 2 years despite much protest from many different groups within the company. I think it’s mostly because they don’t to outlay cash upgrading our internal apps which only work well with IE6. If only MS had included an IE6 engine we’d probably be using IE8 within months…. – come-on Microsoft, help us out here!

  • IMiss IE6.0

    Every since IE went to IE 7.0, I had regrets in using it. Even though I am a computer technician of some 15 years, I had difficulties navigating through IE 7.0s menus and such. I figured out all of the changes and nuacances within a full day of experimenting. I had issues with how difficult it would be for a complete novice or very average user. Sure IE has better performance and security every time an upgrade was available but at the cost of ease of use. IE 8.0 doesn’t offer much in the ways for ease of use IMHO. Performance is questionable as well. After IE 7.0 came out, I decided to use Firefox instead, something I really wasn’t ready to do coming from the easy to use IE 6.0. Firefox isn’t perfect either and seems to have stability with tabbed windows such as IE 7.0 does too, at least in my experience. I figured out where everything was and what features I was interested in. Very sad that Microsoft steals other browser’s ideas and perks. I guess I’m going to continue with Firefox. I’d give IE 8.0 a 2 out of 10 rating.

  • Mike

    Here is an option for Multiple IE install http://tredosoft.com/Multiple_IE

  • Anonymous

    Lots and lots of complaining about IE. My list isn’t short either but the one thing I do like about it is when it does crash-as all browsers do,only one tab crashes leavin the others undistrubed and if for whatever reason, I have to shut down, I have the option of picking up where I left off.

    Don’t like Safari(anti mac). And Opera?? Forget it. Firefox-don’t believe it’s all it’s cracked up to be. In fact,the last couple times I used it, had to shut it down and re-install after being infected with spyware. Haven’t had that happen in 8 yet but only just started.

    And don’t even get me started with Chrome!! I never thought of all the companies out there that they’d be the one making unauthorized charges to a card that I can’t for the life of me figure out how they got my cc number for their “MoneyTree” scam. Needless to say, the google boycott is on for me.

    One thing I will suggest, don’t use the so-called “optimized for MSN” version of ie8. It seems they are trying to keep too many updated feeds at once and performance really suffers. They should have better developed their tabbed fave bar before release. Just my opinion. It also started doing bizarre things like random program icons showing up on search tabs(NortonIcon on LiveTab,MSN on HPtab,etc.) but that was only on the “optimized ver” and hasn’t happened with the basic ver–yet. Live Link and synced faves are great though.

    So for a novice un-impressed with all of the above, any recs??

    Thanks,
    Lost-n-frustrated anon(first site visit,will joinlater)