More than two years ago, when Microsoft was in the final stages of testing Internet Explorer 7, Bill Gates promised more frequent browser updates, as often as every 9 to 12 months. And yet today, nearly two years after IE7’s release, the long-awaited Internet Explorer 8 has just reached the Beta 2 milestone.
I’ve been using a nearly final version of the Beta 2 release for the last 10 days on several test systems here, and after putting the new browser through its paces, I understand why it’s taken so long. This is a top-to-bottom makeover, packed with usability improvements, security enhancements, and a platform for new add-ins that third-party developers are already taking advantage of. My sources at Microsoft tell me this build is feature-complete. Although it’s possible that some dialog boxes and menus will get tweaked between now and its final release date, nothing is scheduled to be added or subtracted.
To show off what’s new, I’ve put together a screen-shot gallery illustrating the most important new changes. In its broad outlines, IE8 is arranged much like IE7. But many features have been tuned, tweaked, and tightened. Even after just a few days with this browser, I can already appreciate the usability improvements in particular, which really concentrate on the activities you’re likely to perform. Here’s a summary of what you can expect.
BASIC USABILITYEvery reviewer who looks at the new Smart Address Bar will no doubt compare it to the Awesome Bar in Firefox 3. And indeed, there’s a superficial similarity. As you begin typing in the Address bar, both browsers try to guess where you want to go, based on where you’ve previously been. The Firefox list starts with entries from your browsing history and then adds items from the Bookmarks folder. IE8’s Smart Address list is more nuanced, displaying autocomplete suggestions, history items, and saved Favorites in lists that can be collapsed or expanded with a click.
One nice touch: Any entry that appears in the Smart Address Bar list can be deleted with a single click, making it easy to remove mistyped addresses and stale Favorites on the fly.
Tabbed browsing, a staple of other web browsers for years, made its belated appearance in IE7. In IE8, the tabbed browsing feature set is fully fleshed out, with menus and keyboard shortcuts you can use to duplicate a current tab (complete with its browsing history) or reopen a previously closed tab. The most interesting addition, one I haven’t seen in a competing browser, is the ability to automatically group tabs by their source. If you open a search page and then use the right-click menu to open new pages from the search results list, all pages share the same color code on the tab. Open a new page from a bookmark or by typing in the Address bar, and any pages you open from links on that page get a different color code. For devoted web searchers, it’s a great way to find specific pages even when dozens of tabs are open.
The trouble with tabbed browsing is that a single buggy page can wipe out all current tabs. Firefox has included crash recovery as a basic feature for several versions, but IE users previously had to graft this feature on with add-ons like IE7 Pro. No more. IE8 adds crash recovery as a core feature. The implementation is especially interesting in fact, because of another feature, called Tab Isolation. Because browser tabs (and the main browser window) run in separate processes, one crashed page has no effect on other tabs.
Although I wasn’t able to perform any detailed benchmarking, it appears that IE8 uses fewer resources than IE7 as well. I’ll perform some more controlled experiments later to see whether that initial observation is accurate.
SMARTER SEARCHBecause this is a beta release, I wasn’t able to exhaustively benchmark page-loading times. But I can say categorically that a handful of new search features saved me precious minutes while I was working on this post. Three in particular are worth calling out here.
First, the basic search box in the upper right corner of the browser window has been given some new smarts. As with earlier IE versions, you can add search providers to the default list provided my Microsoft. The icon at the left of the search box indicates the current default search provider, but a new row of icons appears beneath your entry when you start typing in the search box. That makes it easy to quickly choose a different search provider on the fly; previously, you had to choose a different provider from the drop-down list.
Even more interesting and useful are the additional search results that appear below the search box as you type. Items from your browsing history appear here by default, limited to five entries unless you choose to click the expand button. For search providers that support visual search, you can actually see thumbnail results on the ply, without having to run the search or open a new page. Both Wikipedia and Amazon currently support this feature, which cuts a significant amount of wasted time out of the search process.
And then there’s inline search, a staple of other browsers (another feature available in IE7 only with the help of add-ons). The IE8 implementation of the inline search bar appears below the tab list and works exactly as you’d expect.
ACCELERATORS AND SLICESFor years, Microsoft has been trying to make it easier to perform search-related tasks directly from a web page. (Remember Smart Tags, from IE4?) A new feature in IE8, called Accelerators, might actually deliver this promise. Accelerators are basically widgets that work on a web page selection or the contents of the Clipboard. The default selection, naturally, is weighted in favor of Microsoft’s Live services, but its major competitors and partners, including Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay, are also on the initial list. I was able to quickly replace the Live Maps Accelerator with Google Maps and add an eBay option that finds auction items matching a highlighted term.
The other innovation, available in previous IE8 betas, is the so-called Web slice, which lets a developer tag an item on a page and make it accessible from the new Favorites bar. I had no trouble setting up Web slices for the current weather in my hometown and for an eBay auction I’m following. A third Web slice, which promised to show me Facebook updates for my friends, threw up an error each time I tried to use it. (That’s why it’s a beta, folks.)
Despite the addition of these new types of add-ons, the interface for managing add-ons has gotten simpler and cleaner. The new Manage Add-ons dialog box consolidates plugins, ActiveX controls, and Accelerators, in a clean, well-organized space.
PRIVACY AND SECURITYI previewed the most important security changes in this release IE8 last month (see Microsoft to ratchet IE8 security another notch in Beta 2 for more details). New in this build are a pair of privacy features designed to make it easier for you to maintain some level of privacy, both on your local computer and on the Internet:
- InPrivate Browsing (more popularly known as “porn mode”) allows you to open a new browsing session where no record is kept of your travels. IE’s history and cache (Temporary Internet Files) remain untouched, cookies are stored in memory only, and no record is kept of form data or username/password combinations. When you exit the browser, all traces of the session vanish.
- InPrivate Blocking is designed to eliminate information transfer between web pages you visit and third-party sites that provide content to those pages. The obvious target is large advertising networks that build detailed profiles of your browsing history from your history with dozens or hundreds of sites. The design is confusing, and I’ll need to spend more time with it before I can testify with confidence that it performs properly.
In my tests, InPrivate browsing worked exactly as promised. To start, open a new tab and click the InPrivate Browsing link, or press Ctrl+Shift+P. In either case, your session opens in a new window, completely isolated from any regular browsing that you might be doing. Parents will be relieved to note that the feature can be disabled completely (and in fact is disabled by default if Parental Controls are turned on).
COMPATIBILITYFor the web developer community, the biggest news in IE8 is its promise of strict adherence to Internet standards. That’s both a blessing and a curse, it turns out, as some sites that were hand-coded to work with nonstandard behaviors in older IE versions have problems rendering in the default, standards-compliant IE8.
In the first beta, the alternative was unpleasant: switch to IE7 mode and restart the browser. IE8 implements a much more elegant solution, with a compatibility button at the right side of the address bar. The button is actually a toggle, and it only appears when a possible incompatibility is present. Clicking the Compatibility mode refreshes the page and displays a one-time balloon tip alerting you that the page is now in compatibility mode. Doing so also adds the domain to a list of sites that always use Compatibility mode. If you prefer to sidestep the headaches completely, you can set a global option to display all sites in Compatibility mode.
One final addition that webmasters will appreciate is a full-fledged developers toolkit that can be used to poke around in the code and design behind any page. Press F12 to see this tool as a free-standing window, or dock it below the current page. Similar tools were available as custom downloads from Microsoft for previous IE versions; this one is built into the browser from the get-go and will presumably be available in the final release as well.
All in all, this is an impressive beta release. It’s been generally stable and easy to use in my experience. I‘ll have more thoughts as I poke deeper into specific features. Meanwhile, I’ll be interested in hearing your feedback about the new features. Hit the Talkback button and speak your piece.