by: Seth Rosenblatt on March 20, 2013
The story of Internet Explorer resembles nothing less than the "Ugly Duckling," a maligned and mocked bird that grew into something far more beautiful. Such is the case with Internet Explorer 10 and its roots as Internet Explorer 6.
Microsoft has improved its signature browser in fits and spurts coinciding often with major Windows upgrades over the past 10 years, but IE 10 is the winner that Microsoft fans have long been craving. Fast, standards-compliant, and even future-forward in some ways, Microsoft got it right with IE 10. Still, it has some drawbacks that keep it from getting our highest marks.
If you're using a Windows 8 computer, you won't have to install IE 10 separately. The browser is so integral to the operating system that its engine powers the new Metro-style interface.
If you're running Windows 7, the installation process will be familiar. You must go through Windows Update, as you do for all Microsoft software, and you will have to reboot your computer to complete the installation. None of the major competition does, so that's a frustrating problem -- who likes having their workflow interrupted? The good news is that IE 10's improvements over IE 9 are well worth it.
IE 10 has one other major installation problem. It only works on Windows 8 and Windows 7. Vista and Windows XP will not get the upgrade, ever, according to Microsoft. That makes sense from the company's perspective, since it wants to shutter those legacy operating systems as soon as possible. But seeing as how Chrome, Firefox, and Opera function just fine on XP and newer, that's another major strike against Internet Explorer.
This isn't new in IE 10, either. When IE 9 debuted, it was only for Vista and Windows 7. (Currently, IE 9 is the highest that Vista can go, and IE 8 is the most recent version of the browser available for Windows XP.) Microsoft has embraced forced obsolescence, following in Apple's footsteps, and while it's true that Windows XP has dropped by around 50 percent globally since Windows 7 launched, we dislike the idea of keeping a faster, more secure browser from people simply because they're on an older operating system. If IE's competitors can get their hardware acceleration working on older Windows systems, then surely Microsoft can, too.
Microsoft has told CNET that the browser will not be moving the rapid-release cycle of upgrades that Chrome and Firefox currently abide by, but that updates will come to IE 10 more frequently than in years past. This is important as Web standards continue to shift, although it probably means more forced rebooting, too.
Internet Explorer 10 has two distinct interfaces on Windows 8, the touch-focused Metro-style and the Desktop mode, and it takes some time to get comfortable with the Metro-style interface. Desktop mode is nearly identical to the look of Internet Explorer 9. If you're on Windows 7, you'll only see the Desktop mode version.
IE 10's Metro-style interface fits in well with other Windows 8 apps. The browser "chrome," the bits of the browser interface that you click or tap on, is hidden by default. This allows the Web page to take up the entirety of the screen, a permanent full-screen mode.
Swipe down from the top edge, or right-click on any empty space of the site you're looking at, and the rest of the interface reveals itself. Tabs are enormous thumbnails, and the location bar lives at the bottom. Most but not all browser settings and options are accessible from the Settings charm.
Until you're able to familiarize yourself with which options live where, the very slick, super-minimalist interface will remain confusing -- possibly supremely so. For example, to close all tabs or open a private-browsing tab, called InPrivate in Internet Explorer lingo, tap or click on the three dots icon on the Tab bar. But to automatically get a Windows 8 app for a site, search on the site you're looking at, or view a site in Desktop mode, you must go to the wrench icon next to the location bar. (A "+" symbol will appear next to the wrench when the site you're viewing has an app you can download or reopen the site in.)
The separation here does make sense -- tab functions live with on the tab bar, site functions live next to the location bar -- but that takes some getting used to since most people are used to having all their options in a simple, lengthy list.
Another icon on the location bar lets you pin a site to the Windows 8 Start screen. This is like having a bookmark on your home screen or Windows 7 desktop, but it doesn't work quite the same way. When you pin a site in IE 10, it will always open in IE 10, even when you change your default browser. Microsoft is clearly making it harder for alternative browsers to integrate into Windows.
If you were wondering where your add-ons show up in IE 10, the answer is short: not in Metro mode. You can only use them in Desktop mode.
Options that are accessible behind the Settings charm in IE 10 are limited. They include deleting your browsing history; controlling whether sites can determine and interact with geolocation; and "Flip Ahead," a cool new navigation feature that lets you advance to the next page of a multipage gallery or article with a simple swipe even when you haven't visited the next page before.
But to get access to the full range of IE 10 preferences, you must go into the Desktop version of the browser. This bifurcated approach reflects Microsoft's overall take on preference and option settings in Windows 8, where some are accessible in Metro mode, but you can only access all of them from Desktop mode.
The Desktop mode for IE 10 is practically identical to IE 9. Only the most avid of Internet Explorer fans will notice any differences between IE 9 and IE 10 on Windows 7.
Besides getting at IE 10's more advanced settings, such as the Tracking Protection list accessible behind the gear icon, the rest of Desktop mode IE 10 ought to be instantly familiar and easy to use. The location bar and tabs live on the top, along with links to your Home page and Favorites.
As with most modern browsers, you can conduct searches with your default search engine from the location bar. As a Microsoft property, Internet Explorer naturally defaults to Microsoft's search engine Bing. The company has put a lot of energy into developing Bing in the past few years, so defaulting to Bing is not a bad thing, the onomatopoeia of its name aside.
Features and support
Internet Explorer has vaulted itself from being notoriously inept at modern Web standards to being at the forefront of the cause. Its HTML5 and CSS3 support is excellent; it has innovated with touch in a way that no other browser has; and for what might be the first time ever, it has excellent security.
Many of the innovations in Internet Explorer simply bring it up to speed with the competition. Through Windows 8, you can now sync your favorites, bookmarks, preferences, and passwords. Sadly, Windows 7 users appear to be left out right now, and tab and add-on syncing is missing, but this is a major leap for Internet Explorer.
As befits the marquee Windows 8 app, IE 10 sports fantastic integration into the new operating system. You'll be able to share URLs with many of the major apps available through the Share charm, pinned sites appear on the Start screen to help blur the line between app and Web site, and the Metro version of the browser resizes smoothly to accommodate Snapping, the Windows 8 split-screen use.
Multifinger touch gets a lot of love from IE 10, too. All your favorite smartphone touch-screen gestures such as swiping, pinching, and spreading work fantastically well in IE 10. Microsoft's team has done well in pushing the Touch API that allows the gestures to work in the browser, and it's impressive how sites in the browser feel like native apps.
Firefox is the undisputed leader at managing massive tab loads -- think upwards of 100 open tabs -- but Microsoft definitely wins for the largest tabs around. Its tabs are enormous thumbnails, easy to touch -- perfect for Windows 8 -- and easy to see because of their size.
However, as with the rest of IE 10, the problems derived from the Metro interface infect the browsers' features, too. You can only reorder your tabs, for example, in Desktop mode. And the Metro mode's inability to incorporate add-ons severely hamstrings your ability to customize what it can do. Microsoft has yet to figure out how best to improve the browser without killing useful, modern functionality, and that haunts IE 10 in Metro.
Another vexing flaw is the lack of download manager in Metro mode. To get your Favorites or frequently visited sites, you must click or tap on the location bar. Your sites appear as Start screen tiles, in a horizontally scrollable bar. This works well when you've got a dozen or so bookmarked sites, but become unmanageable when you start clocking in triple-digits.
There's no doubt that of the numerous and growing Windows 8 Metro apps, IE 10 is by far the best one out there. But it's flawed, and the fact that its Metro mode doesn't live up to expectations of what a modern browser ought to do makes up a major chunk of those flaws.
One place where IE 10 has lead has been Microsoft's decision to include its Tracking Protection List feature by default. If you've heard of Do Not Track, this is a beefier, active version. Instead of politely asking sites not to track you, IE 10's Tracking Protection blocks cookies from following hither and yon across the Web. This actually debuted in IE 9, but improvements have made it much more usable. It doesn't hurt that Microsoft took a lead in consumer protection by having Do Not Track turned on by default.
Other security improvements in IE 10 include aggressive malware blocking, and Microsoft's "SmartScreen" protection. The SmartScreen determines how safe a download is before you run it. It's basically app verification tech baked into the browser, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
Still, we hesitate to call IE 10 "progressive" because it has yet to demonstrate its ability to stay abreast of the rapidly changing browser world. And while the Metro mode's minimalist approach to its interface is interesting, its minimalist approach to feature configurations leaves a fair bit to be desired. Nevertheless, IE 10's overall Desktop and Metro feature set place it with the other future-facing browsers, and it's eminently usable.
Internet Explorer 10 presents a lot of firsts for the market share-dominating browser, and that easily stretches to the fastest and most stable ever.
Load a site in IE 10, and you'll be able to use it in around the same amount of time as in the latest versions of Firefox or Chrome. It's almost mind-boggling that this is Internet Explorer we're talking about, the browser of so many jokes and chat room flame wars that even Microsoft jumped in and began its own campaign to decapitate the zombie shambles of of IE 6.
CNET Labs is currently in the process of retesting all major browsers, including IE 10, and updated benchmarks will be included here when available. So far, tests from Microsoft indicate that IE 10 is on a par with the competition.
Most impressive about IE 10's performance is that it appears to be similar on both Windows 8 and Windows 7. IE 10 on Windows 7 is blatantly faster than IE 9, but it also appears to render sites in around the same amount of time as its Windows 8 counterpart. For Microsoft to have improved performance on its new operating system would have been enough, but on a legacy OS as well is quite impressive.
Less than impressive has been the company's reluctance to compete with Firefox and Chrome on Windows XP and Vista. We get that it's important to move people onto newer operating systems, regardless of their reasons for wanting to lag. Security, speed, and standards compliance are important aims. But if Google and Mozilla can do it with their browsers, it takes Microsoft down a peg that the company can't or won't.
In and of itself, Internet Explorer 10 is a superb browser and can fulfill all the basic requirements of a default browser. If you've got a new Windows 8 computer, you could do much worse than IE 10. And on Windows RT, you don't have a choice -- it's IE or the highway.
As solid as it is, IE 10 doesn't stick its landing. Set aside platform compatibility, you can simply do more on more platforms with less hassle when you use Chrome or Firefox. The differences, like the cross-platform and even cross-Windows compatibility, or tab sync, are small, but they stand out in a highly competitive field.
If you're entirely given over to the Windows 8 paradigm, those problems might not bother you. Otherwise, it's best to acknowledge that this is a strong browser that has yet to get its finer points straight.
Fast and fluid
Built to take advantage of the full power of Windows 8 and Windows RT, Internet Explorer 10 starts and loads sites almost instantly. It brings a fluid responsiveness to the web that feels totally new. Everything you want to do on the web is a swipe, tap, or click away.
Perfect for touch
Truly full-screen browsing: Navigation controls appear only when you need them and quietly get out of the way when you don't. Internet Explorer 10 lets you flip ahead or back through your websites with the flick of a finger. Tiles and tabs for frequently visited sites are oversized for easy tapping.
Smooth, intuitive controls work just as you'd expect. One Box is both address and search bar for speedier navigation. Pin your favorite sites to your Start screen and get to them as quickly as you access your apps.
Safer and more private
Help keep your PC and your information safer on the web with the industry-leading SmartScreen technology that helps protect against socially-engineered malware. Privacy tools like Do Not Track are built-in and can be turned on in one click.