Before you download Mozilla’s Firefox 3, which recently won our Editors’ Choice, also check out Internet Explorer 8, which was just released to the public in beta. While it has aped many of Firefox 3’s best features, including an autocompleting address bar and icons for different search engines, it also offers improved—often superior—browsing speeds, enhanced privacy and security, and ushers in some innovative features designed to make Web browsing more intuitive.
Upgrading from IE 7 to IE 8 was quick and easy on both our XP and Vista machines. The addition of new features makes IE 8 looks slightly more cluttered than IE 7. The favorites bar, located just above the browser’s open tabs, looks the same in both versions, with two yellow stars on the left side for adding and managing favorites. However, IE 8 seems to have more default favorites tabs built in, which we didn’t want.
Do More with Tabs
While once novel, tabbed browsing has become something most of us find ourselves wondering how we ever lived without. Internet Explorer jumped on that bandwagon with Version 7 and is now adding features to make working with tabs easier. If you accidentally close a tab in Firefox, for instance, you can right-click a different tab and click “Undo Close Tab.” Similarly, in IE 8, you can now right-click on a tab and select Reopen Closed Tab. But IE 8 does Firefox one better: You can also right-click the tab and select from a menu of Recently Closed Tabs. In both cases, the tabs reopen in their original location.
IE 8 groups tabs so that users can find the one they want, faster. Tabs from the same Web site will appear the same color. So if you open three articles from NYTimes.com, they’ll all appear in, say, blue. Users can drag and drop tabs from one color group to another. So if an article on the latest election news is part of your CNN.com group, you can place it with the other political articles you have open, if that makes more sense to you.
Ironically, IE still makes closing a tab by mistake too easy. As with IE 7, when you right-click on a tab, the first option is not New Tab, but Close Tab, which is unintuitive.
Tidy Address Bar
Reopening closed tabs isn’t the only way in which IE 8 takes direct aim at Firefox 3. It also goes head-to-head with its address bar, which autocompletes URLs based on keywords and Web site names. But whereas Firefox 3’s autocomplete feature forces you to squint through a list of suggestions, IE8’s suggestions are broken down into categories: Autocomplete Suggestions, History, Favorites, and Go To, which does a Web search for that keyword. Each entry has its own line, and users can see both the name of the Web site as well as the URL. The result is that IE 8’s autocompleted results are easier to read, and because they’re placed in context (History, for example), you can find what you’re looking for more quickly.
Microsoft also makes it easy to prevent items from autocompleting when they’re irrelevant to you. If you misspell a Web site name or click on a link once and don’t intend to revisit it, you can click a red X to the right of the Web site name in your Autocomplete box to delete it. However, if you go to one of those sites again, their URLs will once again autocomplete. To make sure a site never appears in your history, use Microsoft’s new InPrivate feature (see Searching in Private below).
Finally, Microsoft makes adding sites to the Favorites bar beneath the URL box easy. When you’re in a tab, you can click on the yellow Favorites star to the left of the screen and, with one click, add that site to the Favorites bar (or, if you’re more of a traditional bookmarker, to your Favorites list).
Internet Explorer’s search bar is still located in the upper right corner, but now it has icons for different search engines underneath (a feature Firefox already had). This list is customizable, and you have plenty of options to choose from, including Amazon, Facebook, and Wikipedia. If you enter a search term and select, for instance, Amazon, IE 8 will show the results in Amazon.com’s interface.
Like the address bar, the search bar now has an autocomplete feature and separates suggestions from items in your browser history. Another neat trick: By clicking the arrow next to the search bar, you can choose “Find on this Page” and IE 8 will highlight every instance of your search term.
Searching in Private
Sometimes you don’t want to leave any footprints in your browser. To make sure you don’t leave tracks, IE 8 has a new InPrivate feature, which allows you to search with the promise that the sites you visit will not appear in your browser history. In exchange for total privacy, IE 8 will block content on some sites, but Microsoft says users are unlikely to notice the missing content.
You can opt for InPrivate browsing when you open a new tab, or you can click on the Tools drop-down menu in the upper right corner. It’s easy to access, and it’s evident when you’re Web surfing in private: a dark blue badge appears in the URL bar that says InPrivate. We only wish we had the option of opening InPrivate pages in new tabs or windows; it opens in a new window by default, and you can’t switch an already-open tab or window from regular browsing to InPrivate.
IE 8 ushers in Accelerators, a new family of tools (not plug-ins) that allow users to highlight text on any Web site and, with the click of a button, perform a number of common tasks, such as look up a definition in the dictionary or locate an address on a map. Simply highlight something and a small square will appear, which when clicked, displays options (you can also right-click on what you highlighted to see Accelerator options).
For instance, if you highlight a physical address (say, a restaurant you’ve been dying to try), you have the option of sending that text to a new blog entry in Windows Live Spaces, defining it with Encarta, e-mailing it with Live Mail, finding it on a map through Live Maps, doing a Yahoo search, or translating it with Windows Live. Click on one, and you’ll get your answer immediately in a separate tab. This list is customizable; you can remove less relevant tasks and add others.
One problem with these Accelerators, as Microsoft calls them, is that if you select Find More Accelerators, you’ll be directed to a Web page in the very tab you were just using. On the plus side, the selection of Accelerators, even at launch, is diverse: In addition to the ones listed above, it includes Facebook, Google Maps and Search, MSNBC, and StumbleUpon. Any third-party can develop an Accelerator for IE 8.
Slice of Heaven
On a similar note, IE 8 offers an interesting alternative to RSS feeds called Web Slices, which are interactive boxes, accessible from your Favorites bar, where you can get the latest information without opening a new tab or window. Unlike with Accelerators, where you can highlight text on any site, Web Slices work only with sites that choose to participate. But some popular sites, such as Facebook and Weather.com are already onboard, so you can get forecasts and the most recent entries in your news feed without having to navigate or log into those sites.
Safety for Dummies
In a year when Web-borne security threats are spiking, Microsoft has taken steps to make browsing safer. If you happen to stumble onto a page with malicious content, IE 8 makes the danger obvious: The page will appear bright red, and a message will appear, telling you in plain language that “This website has been reported as unsafe.” Microsoft’s recommended option—not entering the offending site—always appears in larger text, making it that much harder to slip up.
Similarly, if you download what Microsoft thinks is malware, IE will interrupt the download, tell you it’s unsafe, and make the suggested option (canceling the download) more apparent. Microsoft also boasts improved protection against cross-site scripting, which is when hackers inject malicious code into legitimate sites. For daily use, users can have IE 8 save passwords and cookies only for sites in their Favorites list.
To test IE 8’s speed, we timed how long CNN.com, Hulu.com, and NYTimes.com took to load and then repeated those tests for Firefox 3. Although IE 7 couldn’t stand up to Firefox 3, IE 8 is often faster. IE 8 took 1 to 2 seconds to load NYTimes.com and 2 to 3 to load CNN.com, whereas Firefox 3 took 2 seconds and 4 seconds, respectively, to load these pages. However, IE 8 took 4 to 5 seconds to load Hulu.com, whereas Firefox 3 required only 3 seconds. We also compared IE 8’s performance with IE 7’s: IE 7 took 4 seconds to load NYTimes.com and CNN.com. But IE 7 was slightly faster to load Hulu.com, requiring only 3 seconds.
Compatibility and Stability
IE 8 promises improved stability, claiming that if one tab crashes, the entire browsing session doesn’t have to close. It’s worth noting that once during our testing, IE 8 completely froze, and we had to use Task Manager to close it. Vista’s bugginess could have contributed to the crash; the Network and Sharing Center, which is prone to freezing, was open when IE 8 stopped working.
As for compatibility, site owners are responsible for complying with IE 8’s platform. When a user loads a site that hasn’t yet been formatted for IE 8, the site may look incomplete. For situations like these, Microsoft has added a Compatibility icon and placed it, intuitively, next to the Refresh icon (the first place people are likely to click when a site doesn’t look right). Fortunately, though, every site we visited looked normal, and we didn’t have to resort to this option.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 is easy to use, thanks to its autocompleting address bar, customizable search engine list, and innovative Web Slices feature, which gives you an immediate snapshot of the information you want. It also delivers improved speeds, sometimes outpacing its biggest competitor, Firefox 3. Add to the list enhanced search and privacy and security features, and you’ve got a strong, highly usable browser. We still prefer Firefox 3 because it offers a lot of IE 8’s features in a simpler, uncluttered design, and for its vast library of useful add-ons. But if you are an IE user, Microsoft provides plenty of compelling reasons to upgrade.
Check out our hands-on video with Internet Explorer 8 below.