Microsoft’s Windows Update chose to give me Internet Explorer 8, so I gave it a try. Microsoft definitely made a huge step forward with the release of IE7, so why should anything be different here? I thought that IE7’s “advances” were underwhelming compared to other browsers, but at least made Internet Explorer into a somewhat competent browser. (That isn’t a compliment. Microsoft’s goal should be to make a good browser.) I hoped that, with Firefox’s market share steadily rising, they might feel the heat and really go the extra mile. Turns out I was wrong, but not by that much.
IE8 follows in the proud Internet Explorer tradition of being confused. It tries really hard to emulate the great features that Firefox and Opera have had for years now, but it also continues to support the computer-illiterate Windows users that make up the majority of its user base. That’s admirable in a sense — Microsoft can’t be expected to alienate their customers, after all — but it holds Internet Explorer back from being the great browser it really could be. With IE8, I really feel like the browser could be great with a few adjustments — something a robust community could fix, a la Firefox’s extensions. Internet Explorer 8 does have a built-in extension system, but it’s hidden deep in “Internet Options”, so no one ever notices it’s there.
What extensions there are for IE8 are not even really “extensions” in the Firefox sense. Most of them are the same common plugins that we’ve had for the last decade, such as a Flash player and Java. The only extension worth anything is IE7Pro, though it doesn’t have full support for IE8 yet. When it’s completely up-to-date, however, it will be a must have — though it shouldn’t be, since it’s features should all be there by default. (Though I’ll concede that Firefox doesn’t have some of IE7Pro’s features by default either, extensions for it have been available and well-maintained for a very long time. Opera has all the features.)
It seems like Internet Explorer 8 tries to go the Opera route — that is, they try to not depend on the extensions, since they know there’s no community to keep the extensions alive. Opera accomplishes this quite well, but IE8 falls short of the mark for two seemingly paradoxical reasons:
1) many of the new features are implemented very poorly and get in the way
2) many of the new features are implemented so well that you think they don’t exist
Clearly the extensions system falls into the latter category, since hardly anyone seems to realise it exists. The first category manifests itself a lot by cluttering IE’s horrendous default theme. As an example, let’s compare IE8’s default context menu (left) to Firefox 3’s (right).
Notice how the IE8 menu is almost twice as huge, but offers no more features than Firefox’s menu. That’s a serious design flaw. The tab bar has a similar problem — almost half of it is covered by buttons that serve very little purpose, right underneath a “favorites” bar that is practically empty. Is there any reason that we couldn’t use that enormous favorites bar to place some of the unnecessary buttons? I think the tab bar needs the space far more than the favorites bar.
Amongst IE8’s new features is InPrivate, which is just like Chrome’s Incognito mode. A solid addition, though I have no real use for it. Just like Chrome, IE8 offers no means of opening an InPrivate session in a new tab rather than a new window. (I guess we’ll have to wait until Firefox and Opera do that before Microsoft will add it to Internet Explorer.) Another new feature that’s actually unique to IE is the homepage system. IE8 allows you to set multiple homepages and have them all open in tabs, just like every other big browser nowadays. Microsoft decided to make it more user friendly by adding a little menu to the home button, complete with “add new homepage” buttons and everything. I have to compliment the development team for that one — it’s a brilliant way to incorporate a good feature without sacrificing the computer-illiterate users who would otherwise be confused.
I guess this post is more a list of random complaints than it is a proper review, but oh well. Internet Explorer 8 is another step in the right direction from Microsoft, but it’s still not a great browser. Stick to Firefox.