I 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.
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.
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.
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 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.