Software & web applications

Review: Internet Explorer 8

At lunch the other day, Andrew asked if I’d be interested in blogging about my thoughts on Internet Explorer 8 (IE8). What’s interesting about the conversation is that I hadn’t actually given IE8 much thought – apart from keeping on top of some of the features and debates around standards compliance. I certainly hadn’t installed it or tried it out.

Continue over the jump for my thoughts on the IE8 release.

Choice in the market

As a developer (or more “ex-developer” nowadays) I used to hang on every browser release – following all the gory details. For many years these releases were mostly Firefox-related – IE was stagnant (version 6, released in 2001, remained pretty static) – then the news that Apple were releasing Safari (surprisingly based on KHTML).

Both of these browsers were responding to the call for better standards support. Last year Microsoft finally decided that, in fact, it did have to maintain its browser and launched IE7. This release had a strong focus on standards, but also introduced long overdue features such as tabs. Unfortunately the UI design left an awful lot to be desired, and it for the most part felt like a “maintenance release”. Then, of course, Google released Chrome based on Safari’s WebKit rendering engine, introducing yet another contender to the mix.

So it seems we again have choice and competition in the browser market. And it is into this market that Internet Explorer 8 was released about two weeks ago, to not a lot of fanfare, as far as I saw. While I’d followed technical discussion on the changes, I hadn’t actually downloaded and installed IE8 to check it out.

Installation

I no longer run a dedicated Windows machine, instead running Windows XP in Parallels. As I don’t use Windows all that often anymore (mainly for testing), I had to go through the (seemingly) endless process of upgrading XP, installing patches etc. just to get my OS up to speed. During the process I noticed that the newly added Parallels virus protection software was slowing everything down immensely so I temporarily turned it off.

After waiting a good hour or so for installation to finish, I went to install IE8. After finding the install page I attempted to install. After 4 pages of clicking later the install didn’t start. On a second attempt I managed to get it to start downloading (a friend advises he had to use Firefox to download the installer).

So far, the experience was typical Microsoft – every other browser has a single page with a big “Download” link, that in my experience usually starts the download immediately. Not a great start to the process.

After the installer had downloaded I fired it up. The second step on the installer was “Checking for malware”. So even the Internet Explorer installer has to check for viruses before installation (so it seems my slow-as-a-wet-week virus scanner is not enough). After another 15 minutes or so installation was complete. After getting through the configuration options, which were mercifully brief, I was ready (finally) to check it out…

First impressions

One of my biggest complaints with IE7 was the gawd-awful UI design. The tabs looked like the bloated puff-buttons that were prevalent in 90s-era CD-ROMs and websites. The browser chrome also seemed to take up an inordinate amount of space. The moving of the “Stop loading” and “Refresh” buttons also bugged me – breaking with a long-standing convention of having them to the left side of the address bar. (In fairness, it should be noted that Safari 4 Beta follows IE’s lead in breaking with convention, but in an even more obscure way. But I digress…)

Chrome

Thankfully, IE8 sees the introduction of a more subtle chrome treatment – the tabs in particular seem much cleaner – however, the chrome still takes up an awful lot of space:

ie8-toolbar.png

While it may seem trivial, this waste of space becomes a real issue on laptops, esp. with the explosion of netbooks now on the market. Compare IE’s design to Safari 4 (beta) on Mac:

safari-toolbar.png

147 pixels vs. 75 pixels. My understanding is that the menu bar does not show by default, but I’d enabled the menu in IE7 and IE8 correctly honoured that preference. The menu bar still only accounts for 20 pixels, leaving 52 pixels difference. (And I also question the decision to remove the menu bar as standard, esp. for new users, but again, I digress…)

Tab grouping

I’d seen mention of the “coloured tab groups” feature on a variety of blogs. My first thoughts of this feature were:

  • Microsoft love gaudy/candy-coloured UI designs, so why am I surprised?
  • Accessibility 101 says that colour should not be the only indicator in a UI design

Admittedly, tab grouping is not an essential feature, so colour used in this context is possibly acceptable. But once I had it installed I decided to give it a whirl, opening up a series of pages from different websites to see the effect. (I’d assumed that “related” == “from the same website”.)

The effect was noticeable, but as I’ve not used the browser in day-to-day use I can’t comment on their utility. I decided to move a tab from one group into another and was able to. In doing so, the tab I’d moved changed colour and I was unable to get it to switch back to it’s original grouping:

ie8-broken-group.png

In the image above, the two “Smashing Magazine” tabs (with the S icon) were originally grouped, but moving them changed the group colour to match where I’d moved them (even though they were unrelated). There was no obvious way to get them into their own group again.

This confused me – and I consider myself an advanced user – so I have no idea how my Mum, who is about to purchase a new Windows machine, would handle such a feature (if she even noticed it in the first place).

I also noted that there are a number of options at the end of the tab bar which encroach on the amount of horizontal space available for tabs. To me it would make more sense to have these options placed next to the location bar, where a reduction in width would be less critical in average use, rather than impacting on tabs accessibility.

Also, the default minimum character length for tab title display is way to small. Both of these issues are demonstrated in the following screenshot:

ie8-small-tabs.png

While this is remedied somewhat by the tab menu (visible to the left side of the tabs when more than one tab is open) it would make more sense to make the primary UI more usable no?

The location bar

It seems all the current browsers (Firefox and Safari at least) have been working on improving the experience of the location bar – extending its features to improve its utility. Firefox’s implementation is definitely superior in my experience to Safari’s, so I was interested to see how IE8’s treatment worked.

Based on a small amount of use, the results seem reasonably comparable to Firefox – although there does seem to be some lag time between opening a site and it appearing as an option in the location bar. For example, I had this article from Ben’s 200ok weblog open as a tab, yet typing “200ok” or “pasture” in the location bar returned no results.

Web standards support

No discussion of IE8 would be complete without mentioning web standards support. Many of the updates in IE8 are under the hood – in the code that displays, or “renders”, web pages. Internet Explorer 6, which was the dominant browser for many years, was renowned for many, many rendering problems. It is the butt of many a joke, and the bane of most front-end developers’ existence.

I mentioned earlier that IE7 felt a bit like a “maintenance upgrade”, in part because the emphasis seemed to be on fixing many of these issues. IE8 purports to have gone even further. With IE6 now two version old, we are now hearing calls for the development community to put IE6 out to pasture (a call I support I might add!).

From a development perspective this will make life a lot easier. But it also has end-user benefits:

  • The less time developers have to spend working around IE rendering issues, the more they can spend on delivering value to users
  • If IE a) has stronger standards support; b) employs “standards-mode” by default; then I think it’s fair to assume we will see more sites adopting web standards – with the attendant benefits for search, accessibility etc.

Standards opt-in

Unfortunately, Microsoft seem to have made some questionable decisions in relation to how they support standards in IE8, effectively locking developers into “opting in” to standards support, and also introducing an “IE7 compatibility” mode that is actually different to IE7 (that blog post is based on a beta version; I’m unclear if this actually made it into the release version).

The former issue, on the face of it seems like a good idea – crowd-source the decision whether to display in compatibility mode or not. But in practice, as Molly highlights in her post, this effectively forces developers to opt-in to supporting new versions of IE across all their sites, which is a tremendously problematic result.

In a sense I can understand why Microsoft took this option. Some time ago I recall Dave Hyatt, lead developer on Safari, write about the dilemma of browser developers supporting problematic code. Often he was writing about poorly coded websites (sometime high profile ones) that technically a browser shouldn’t display correctly if following standards, but that due to the principle of “being liberal in what you accept” that marked the early days of browser development workarounds became a requirement within browsers.

He suggested that enforcing stricter rules on what a browser would display would effective “break the web” for the browser user. And if they used a different browser that was more liberal and displayed the page correctly, they would (understandable) think the enforcing browser was the one at fault. Thus the dilemma: how liberal should browser developers be in supporting bad code?

As Microsoft still holds the largest market share of any browser for many sites, their decision is a really significant for Microsoft, IE users and developers. All other browsers err on the side of standards compliance – Microsoft has chosen a different route. Exactly how much of an impact this will have is yet to be seen, and will probably be most felt when the next version of IE is released.

Accellerators

I have a habit of double-clicking text when I’m reading. When I did so, the “accelerator” icon came up – offering me options to email, blog, map, Google search (my chosen default search provider) and translate. While I can see the benefits to some users for such a feature, given my reading method I simply find it annoying – something I would definitely seek to turn off if I was using the browser daily.

Conclusion

All in all I think IE8 is a pretty solid update – the cleaner tabs and adjustments to the chrome do improve the experience to my mind over IE7 – not to mention the improved security, “private browsing” options and better standards support. However, if I was using Windows day-to-day I see little reason to switch to IE8 from Firefox (my preferred Windows browser).

While it will be great to have a more standards-compliant IE in the market, I don’t see version 8 as being particularly game changing. Most of what IE8 delivers Firefox 3 or Safari already deliver. For users that are most comfortable with IE, or have personal preferences against the alternatives, this is, of course, a great update. For the rest of us… well, not quite enough…

One thought on “Review: Internet Explorer 8

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