Four weeks ago Microsoft released Internet Explorer 8. I’ve used the software just about every day since. Here are my thoughts.
Until now Microsoft Internet Explorer has been a necessity not my browser of choice. Explorer is a necessity because a limited number of sites and online services, including a number from Microsoft, are optimised or in some cases restricted to Explorer.
For the past four years Mozilla Firefox has consistently performed better than Internet Explorer. It was always faster and less bloated. Add-ons give Firefox a flexibility older versions of Internet Explorer simply could not match. And, while Microsoft’s browsers were better integrated with Windows and certain key desktop applications, Firefox was still able to deliver a better all round user experience.
In practice I’ve needed to run the two browsers alongside each other. Explorer has always played second fiddle. Can the upgrade to IE8 change that?
What’s good about Internet Explorer 8?
IE8 is fast
IE8 loads pages considerably faster than Firefox 3.0.8. One heavy-duty Web 2.0 page I frequent is ready in around 28 seconds with IE8. The same page takes 52 seconds with Firefox. The difference isn’t always as pronounced, however I did the anal retentive thing and timed a number of pages to discover they all loaded faster with IE8.
Once Firefox loads into memory, it can restart in seconds. But the first load in a session can run to as long as five minutes. That’s just plain awful. In many cases Firefox takes so long to fire up, I wonder if it is loading at all. I often find my self opening two or more instances. IE8 always fires up in seconds. However, there’s a down side to this as we shall see later.
Fabulous developer tools
Developer tools are geeky, but one of the truly great improvements in IE8. Hit F12 and you can view a page’s source code and CSS. This is great for fixing up problems with your own pages. To get similar features in Firefox you need to install the Firebug extension.
Internet Explorer 8 is cleaner than earlier versions
Explorer is now web-standard compliant, has a tidy user interface and most of the time renders pages beautifully with crisp text.
I also like:
- Colour-coded tabs Open a new tab and its colour will match that of the parent page.
- Tab grouping Tabs are grouped with their parent tab.
- Smart address bar Similar to the Firefox’s new address bar, it remembers where you’ve been and your most visited sites.
- Useful new tabs Open a new tab and you get links to the sites you’re most likely to want to visit.
- Tab view A quick tab feature allows you to see thumbnails of all open tabs.
- RSS Internet Explorer does a better job of handling feeds than Firefox.
- Search bar Sure Firefox has the same feature, but I like the way the IE8 search bar works and I especially like the way it can be used to search the current page as well as the entire Internet.
- Smooth integration Microsoft gets nervous when people talk about the way its products integrate, but IE8 works smoothly with Windows and Office. The software also downloads and installs without a hitch.
- Security See the anti-phishing feature kick in for the first time is impressive.
Bad things about Internet Explorer 8
Within hours of installing and running Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 on my Windows Vista Ultimate system I quickly discovered some negatives. Let’s look at them one by one:
1. Key features simply don’t work or are erratic
There are two pre-installed items on the favorites bar: Suggested Sites and Get More Add-ons. Neither of them work. Clicking either opens a windows that says “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” and there’s a button labeled Diagnose Connection Problems. This doesn’t happen all the time, just most of the time.
Some basic things simply don’t work at all on some sites. For example I tried joining Chi.mp using IE8, but the Captcha feature didn’t show up making it impossible to use. I had to switch to Firefox to enroll.
While we’re on the subject, Microsoft hasn’t bothered to localize spellings. Outside of North America the word is favourite, not favorite.
After one month of use I experienced three major Internet Explorer 8 crashes. In each case I’ve had to reboot the machine and lost work because of the crashes. I’m not certain what causes the problems, but there’s something weird happening. I’m running IE8 on a Windows Vista Ultimate system with 2GB of Ram. Firefox has its problems, but it never crashes in such a spectacular and worrying fashion. I’ve also experienced a number of less serious crashes which can be fixed by closing and reopening IE8. Frankly this instability is the biggest barrier to my switching from Firefox to Internet Explorer. Presumably Microsoft will fix up the bugs over the coming weeks, but this does not fill me with confidence.
3. A lot of pages look strange
Internet Explorer 8 may be standards compliant, but it won’t display all the pages you throw at it. Ironically the biggest problem come when you view a page designed for IE7 or IE6. There’s a compatibility button in the address bar to ‘fix’ odd-looking pages by reverting the browser to IE7 mode. Nevertheless some pages still struggle. And curiously the button doesn’t always appear when you need it.
There are other anomalies. For example, if I visit the dashboard at WordPress.com, IE 8 frequently struggles to display the stats graph, even though it shows up perfectly well in Firefox.
4. Unable to automatically reload settings on start-up
One Firefox feature I love is the way it opens up with all the tabs exactly as they were left when you closed down. IE8 doesn’t do this. Apparently it was designed this way.
5. Active X is still a pain in the bum
Sorry Microsoft, I know Active X is your baby, but there’s a good reason everyone whinges about it. Here’s a simple explanation of why it is so awful for non-technical readers.
6. Spell-checking missing in action
Yes I know I’m supposed to be a professional writer and I shouldn’t need a spell checker. Generally I don’t. A spell checker is a way of a avoiding red faces.
And the ugly?
Despite the headline, there’s nothing ugly. I claim poetic licence. Internet Explorer 8 is a good all-round browser. It will meet most people’s needs most of the time. It comes close to meeting mine. I’m certain the majority of users will happily browse away using IE8 without giving the technology a second thought.
However, Internet Explorer’s shortcomings mean, at least until the next iteration or service pack arrives IE8 remains on my machine by necessity for those IE only sites rather than because it is the best browser. If it was more reliable, this decision could change. This is a pity because there is much to love about IE8 – and that’s not something I would ever have said about IE7.