IE8 focuses on usability

Earlier today, Microsoft released the final version of Internet Explorer 8 for public download. Many of the reviews I’ve read so far have focused on raw speed (page rendering and Javascript execution, in particular).

Earlier today, Microsoft released the final version of Internet Explorer 8 for public download. Many of the reviews I’ve read so far have focused on raw speed (page rendering and Javascript execution, in particular). The subject of performance isn’t nearly as cut and dried as those benchmark results would suggest, however. One factor they don’t measure, for example, is browsing efficiency. Page load time is irrelevant if you can translate a paragraph of text or see a list of search results without having to open a separate page.

I’ve been using IE8 and Firefox daily (occasionally dabbling with Google’s Chrome as well) for several months, as it wound its way through beta versions to a release candidate and finally to the version that was made available today. For the most part, I never notice differences in page loading time between the browsers, but I do notice the shortcuts and navigation tools that each browser uses to improve the browsing experience.

IE8 has dozens of little usability tweaks that have had a genuine impact on performance in my daily browsing. Some are built-in, while others are available as add-ons. In this close-up look, I want to call your attention to some of the less obvious features in IE8 that you might miss in other reviews.

I’ve created a companion screenshot gallery that has a closer look at each of the features I describe here.

Tabbed browsing improvements

Every modern browser supports the concept of multiple tabs. If you routinely work with large numbers of tabs, you’ll appreciate the concept of tab groups, which is unique to IE8. If you begin from a search results page, you might open several new tabs from links on that page. When you do, the parent tab and each new tab pick up a distinctive color. When you’re done with that bit of research, you can close all those related pages in one motion by right-clicking on a tab and choosing Close This Tab Group.

Visual search

Every browser has a search box, and IE8 works by default as you would expect: Type some text, press Enter, go to your default search page and display results. But customizing the list of search providers adds some features you won’t find elsewhere, including visual results from sites like Ebay and Amazon.com, which appear in a drop-down list as you type. The New York Times search accelerator lets you type a term and see current headlines, also in a drop-down list, without having to leave the current page.

Extensibility

For a long, long time, the selection of add-ons available for Internet Explorer was pitiful, especially compared to the rich selection that the community built for Firefox. IE8 can’t match those community-driven repositories for size or variety, but the selection is now large and useful. The most useful add-ons are those that target popular sites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube, but there are enough small gems to make it worth browsing the complete and well-categorized collection at ieaddons.com. (One must-have for Firefox users is the FoxMarks Favorites Synchronizer, available in the Bookmarks section.)

Accelerators and a smarter Address bar -->

Accelerators in action

The longer you’ve used a browser, the more you’ll have to adjust to the underlying concept of accelerators. Instead of cutting and pasting an address at your favorite mapping site, you can select an address, click the blue Accelerator button, and see the map in its own window. You can use the same basic technique to translate text from a web page written in a foreign language. (To browse the full collection of Accelerators, start here.)

Add-on management

Browser add-ons are a blessing and a curse (and that’s true on non-Microsoft code as well; just ask any Firefox fanatic who installed one extension too many). The IE8 solution is the Manage Add-ons dialog box, which has a couple of innovations. First, IE8 reports on how much load time each browser helper or toolbar requires. If a toolbar uses 10 seconds before you see a page, you might want to disable it. And if you decide to disable an individual add-on, IE8 shows you other add-ons from the same developer, giving you the chance to disable the complete set.

A smarter Address bar

Firefox fans love the Awesome bar, which displays suggestions drawn from your browsing history and your bookmarks as you type a URL. Typing in the IE8 Address bar displays a similar set of results, but with some welcome usability tweaks. For starters, the list is organized by category, with the five top suggestions from your favorites and history shown by default. The best improvement, though, is the red X at the end of each item in the list, which lets you clean out clutter by deleting unwanted or dead URLs from the list of suggestions.

Developer tools

When I saw the Developer toolbar in the first beta of IE8, I assumed it was there only because that early release was targeted at web developers and that this code would be pulled from later releases. Surprisingly, it’s still there. When you press F12, a resizable pane appears at the bottom of the current window (a button at the top right of the pane lets you toggle between a separate window or a docked pane). That pane provides quick access to details about the HTML source, CSS formatting, script, and other technical details of the current page. Even if you’re not a web designer, you might want to use this set of tools for troubleshooting. You can clear the browser cache, disable images for the current page, and delete cookies (including session cookies) from the current domain.

Compatibility list

Last year, just before the IE8 release candidate appeared, I made a list of popular sites that were struggling to maintain compatibility with the new standards-compliant rendering engine in IE8. At that time, the only way to see these pages properly was to click a Compatibility View button for that page (or set the browser to render all pages in IE7 mode). In this final release, Microsoft has made that step unnecessary, at least for the most popular sites. The IE8 Compatibility list arrives via Windows Update and automatically toggles Compatibility View on for more than 3000 sites worldwide (many of them in China). After a few days of browsing, I’ve only had to add one site to the compatibility list manually.

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