Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 Shows Great Improvement, but It's Already a Step Behind Rivals

By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2009-03-19

Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 Shows Great Improvement, but It's Already a Step Behind Rivals

Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 is a big improvement over previous versions of the Web browser. It's a must-upgrade for any current IE user--with improved usability, security and stability--but it likely won't entice users of competing browsers.

Based on tests of the final IE 8 code, along with previous tests of release candidate and late-beta versions of the code, eWEEK Labs found IE 8 to be greatly improved over IE 7 (which was itself a big improvement over IE 6). Internet Explorer 8 includes an enhanced user interface, tougher security features and better standards support than its predecessors.

However, while IE 8 is a worthwhile upgrade for current IE users, it's doubtful that it will convince users of Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari or Opera to make the switch to IE 8. Since the first IE 8 betas were released, the Web browser landscape has changed dramatically, with all of IE's competitors releasing new versions and, in the case of Google Chrome, a brand-new major competitor entering the field.

In fact, while IE 8 is in all ways a current-generation Web browser, it is already falling behind its competitors, which tend to be upgraded more aggressively and frequently. Still, whether you use IE as your main browser or simply switch to it on occasion from another browser, you should definitely consider upgrading to IE 8.

Several interface enhancements greatly improve the usability of IE 8.

For example, tab management overall has been nicely polished. When opening a new blank tab in IE 8, users are presented with multiple options for Web surfing, including a list of recently closed tabs, or the options of starting an InPrivate browsing session or accessing new IE 8 accelerators. This is a nice improvement over the blank tabs in IE 7, although some will prefer the speed-dial-styled options found in Opera, Google Chrome and the Apple Safari 4 beta.

One very good tab management feature unique to IE 8 is its ability to color-code tabs launched from the same site. I found this to be a very helpful during browser sessions in which I've opened many tabs from each of a variety of different Websites. The color-coding made it very easy to identify groups of tabs.

Also compelling are IE 8's new accelerators. Accelerators are a form of plug-in or extension that make it possible to access advanced functionality-such as mapping, translation and search--from within the pages one is viewing without having to launch new Web pages.

For example, I liked the way I could highlight text in a page, choose a translation accelerator and see the translated text in a box within the Web page, rather than have to do something like launch Yahoo's BabelFish service in a separate browser window or tab.

Also new in IE 8 are Web Slices. Web Slices are a simple way for Websites to integrate content directly into the IE 8 browser. For example, rather than going to separate Websites to check the weather or see top headlines, users can install a Web Slice from these sites and access this information with a single click on the browser toolbar.

IE 8 also includes a built-in suggested sites widget that shows links to sites similar to the one the user is viewing.

Many of the other new interface features in Internet Explorer 8 have been included in competing browsers for some time now, but they are welcome nonetheless. These features include a smart address bar that shows sites from the browser history as you begin typing, an improved inline find-in-page capability that highlights the term being searched on within a Web page, and the offering up of suggested search terms as you begin typing in the IE 8 search field.

 Internet Explorer 8 also includes a whole set of new features designed to improve browser security and add new privacy capabilities for users.

Privacy Matters


On the privacy front, the biggest new feature is InPrivate Browsing (which has been euphemistically referred to as the "porn mode"). InPrivate browsing lets users open a special window and then make sure that none of the information from that session is saved in the browser cache or history. When in an InPrivate browsing session, the address bar of the browser shows a special InPrivate icon.

To start an InPrivate browsing session, users can launch a special window from the Safety menu in IE 8. You can also launch an InPrivate session from any blank new tab or by hitting the Ctrl-Shift-p combo on the keyboard. I would have liked the option--found in similar privacy modes in browsers such as Google Chrome--to right-click on any link and launch it in a separate private browsing window.

One nice option within InPrivate browsing is InPrivate filtering. This feature can help prevent third-party sites from carrying user information over from site to site, and users can choose which sites they want to allow for this kind of data sharing.

Also on the privacy front, IE 8 increases the options within the Delete Browsing History function. Users now have more fine-grain control over what data they want to delete, including keeping data from some Websites while deleting it from others.

On the security side, Internet Explorer 8 continues to build on the capabilities added in IE 7 and in competing browsers to prevent users from travelling to malicious Websites and to keep malware from running through the browser.

The IE 8 SmartFilter is a service (which users can choose to turn off) that checks out sites before users surf to them. If a site is identified as one known to be a phishing site or to contain malware, IE 8 will display a warning page to the user before he or she travels there. 

IE 8 also now puts the core domain name of a site being viewed in bold. This makes it easier to detect if a site is using a URL similar to, but different than, the one that the user expects to be surfing to.

Along with these obvious security features, IE 8 includes several under-the-covers features designed to stop scripting attacks, ActiveX exploits and rogue data execution. While these measures should improve security, users shouldn't expect the browser to be fully secure. As is the case with all new browsers, it is inevitable that there will be security problems with this new version of IE.

In IE 8, Microsoft has also made some stability improvements. One of the nicest of these is tab isolation, which brings down just a single tab when an unstable site is surfed to, rather than bringing down the entire browser. This feature worked well in tests, although I was a little frustrated that it kept trying to reload the offending site in the tab, essentially restarting the tab crash sequence until I hit the stop button.

On the standards front there is both good news and bad news.

IE 8 is easily the most standards-compliant Microsoft browser since IE 5, but it's the least standards-compliant of the newest generation of Web browsers. IE 8 received the lowest score of any of the newest browsers on the Acid3 standards test from the Web Standards Project.

Because of the potential incompatibilities between IE 8 and sites written to work with older versions of IE, the new Microsoft browser includes a compatibility view that can be enabled to view sites that don't work well in IE 8. In my tests of the late-beta, release-candidate and gold versions of IE 8, I had to use this view once a week on average. I've definitely run into more sites that have problems with IE 8 than I've run into with any other new browser. Luckily, the compatibility view fixed the problems with these sites.

In general, IE 8 has proven to be stable in frequent usage and hasn't appeared to be a resource hog.

As with any vendor offering a new browser, Microsoft claims IE 8 is the fastest browser available. Since I've given my opinion on these browser speed wars elsewhere, I'll just say that IE 8 appeared to be plenty fast for normal Web usage in my tests.

As one would expect from a new Microsoft browser, Internet Explorer 8 is currently available only for Windows XP and Vista. Those wanting to try out the new Microsoft browser can download it here.



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