IE8 focuses on usability

IE8 focuses on usability

Summary: 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).

TOPICS: Browser

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, 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.


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 (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.

Topic: Browser

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  • IE8 RC1 vs FF3.1 Beta 2 Reviewed - Video Walkthrough

    Here is a quick Video review of Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 versus IE8 RC1 and a walkthough video of IE8.

    • Gotta love the icon of the Fox eating IE .

      Good review.

      I was surprised about about IE8 creating an instance of IE for every tab. That is a really crappy design.

  • RE: IE8 focuses on usability

    Downloaded and installed it today and I'm already impressed. The accelerators have been very useful and made me more productive. The overall speed of browsing the web with IE8 is very impressive. This is a release of IE that everyone is going to like.
    Loverock Davidson
    • ie8

      ie8 ,is harder to load
      M M
    • IE8 doesn't work on my machine.


      In fact, there's no way in the world that I'm going to jump through those ridiculous hoops, ie, buy it, read the "how to open the box" literature, insert the cd, hold back from vomiting as a poor innocent little piece of technology is coerced into saying "Microsoft is great" throughout the whole process, enter some licence key, know that if some piece of the hardware dies that I can't just replace the hardware but have to beg and justify to one of Uncle Bill's little lemmings to let me have another stupid key to enter (oh and pay more money perhaps? Missed opportunity there?) so that I can view my work on IE8.

      Thanks LD, you've unwittingly just given me the business idea that will set me up for life.
      • I guess I don't need to ask

        you to "tell me how you really feel." Nice bit of prose, BTW, if you appreciate prose (and I do).
  • RE: IE8 focuses on usability

    IE7 brought my laptop resource wise to its knees. How much does IE8 kill the eXPerience?
    • Tune in tomorrow

      I'll have some details on that.
      Ed Bott
      • Can you add some comparison

        to Firefox 3.1 beta metrics as well? I've seen the ballyhooed Javascript metrics, but little else. Based on PCWhizKid's post (#1 in this blog) I did download/install the FF3.1 beta and am using it now. It's a bit too soon to even do anecdotal comparisons for me, but I don't have the equipment I suspect you have either. I am glad that Adblock Plus, NoScript and Flashblock addons still work, but I do miss Tab Mix Plus--a recent addition for me which I rapidly grew to love.

        Thanks Ed.
  • Sorry, It's IE

    You lost me in the first two words of the title.
    • Ah, I love the smell of MSFT-hate in the morning!

      So just forget the obvious innovations, it's a MSFT-product, so it MUST be bad! You fail.
      • LOL....

        innovation. When has MS ever been innovative? They copy plain and simple. Zune = Ipod, Aero = Compiz (formerly Beryl), Office crept out of Bordland's software Dos itself was copied from CP/M, XBox = Playstation and on and on.

        Some copied poorly others not too bad but saying MS Innovation is oxy-moronic to say the least.
        Thanks for the chuckle though
        • You are wrong

          [b]innovation. When has MS ever been innovative? They copy plain and simple. Zune = Ipod, Aero = Compiz (formerly Beryl), Office crept out of Bordland's software Dos itself was copied from CP/M, XBox = Playstation and on and on.[/b]

          Microsoft demoed Aero in 2002, well before Compiz was released(Early 2006). (Beryl was a fork of Compiz and was remerged later.) Compiz is still in BETA (Don't believe me, just look at the version number.) and is still hit and miss in how well it works, is still choppy and cause horrible tearing. Aero is fully baked, smooth and gives a similar experience across a much wider array of hardware than Compiz does.

          An argument can be made Microsoft copied Aqua except they were demoing Aero before Apple ever announced Aqua.
          • I stand corrected...

            on the beryl point, however, saying Aero is fully baked and smooth in vista is a bit of a reach. I have seen it crash on many occasions as well as causing games to crash as well. As for Compiz, yes it has issues with ATI cards but works great on Nvidia.
          • You are identifying the wrong culprit

            Aero is disabled automatically in fullscreen gaming, so it is unlikely to be the source of the gaming crash. Now that Java and other software is now coded to handle Aero, there are very few crashes anymore. It was never a problem with Aero being fully baked as it was just plain old application compatibility issues.

            Compiz works well with nvidia when using XGL but is horrid using AIXGL. (x-server has AIGLX baked in now) Most distros default to AIGLX causing issues with nvidia including inaccurate refresh rate detection, choppiness and tearing.
          • Interesting....

            I run WOW, Left4Dead, Neverwinter Nights 2, Bioshock + a few others, and the kid plays Spore on Mepis, Mint and Gentoo all while running compiz and so far no crashes or quirky behavior (my hardware is pretty up to date though also).
          • Aero?

            Why all this talk of Aero? Do you think it's important?
          • And you are wrong...

            Microsoft took over debuging Randy Cooks DOS for Radio Shack's TRS-80 in 1979. Randy's DOS was the only one that compatable with MS Basic instead of Dartmouth Basic the original creators of BASIC. MS change it just enough to kill Dartmouth's and burned it to a ROM around '77. Eventually Dartmouth's Basic became True Basic. CP/M was used on the Commadore's 64 and 128 and I think with Tiny Basic.
        • Definition of Innovation

          Although "innovative" can sometimes be synonymous with "original" (another debatable word), let us not forgot the gist of innovation. Yes, "innovative" can refer to an item being the first of its kind, but it can also refer to improvements on a kind.

          While we can go on forever connecting different technologies as not being first of its kind, especially for all of your examples, improvements in these technologies have also been innovative. For example, while Playstation 2 (which is surely no innovation of its own using your implied definition) was innovative by including a DVD player, the Xbox was innovative by including a harddrive.
          Therefore, MS has been innovative.
          • Ummmm....

            the ps2 already had support of a hard drive. The difference was MS included one.