Hands-on with IE 8: A giant step for Microsoft

Internet Explorer 8 takes another large leap forward for the world's most-used browser, but is it enough to make devoted Firefox, Chrome, and Safari fans switch?

It's no secret that when judged by several popular Web browser speed tests, Internet Explorer 8 doesn't hold up well. Beta versions of IE 8 have been available to the general public for more than a year, and today's release of the stable build didn't include anything revolutionary.

Web slices bring recently updated content to your Favorites bar. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Using the SunSpider JavaScript test, the official IE 8 scored 9849.4 ms on a Windows Vista machine with 2 GB of RAM and a 3.00 Ghz clock. This is significantly slower than most other major browsers. Not surprisingly, Microsoft claims (scroll down to Case Study Videos) that these kind of speed tests aren't relevant to how most people use their browser, and there may be some legitimacy to that.

Setting aside the issue of speed for a moment, some of the features in Internet Explorer bring it up to what we've come to expect from a browser, and some of them forge ahead. Many of these are borrowed from other browsers, and at least in the case of Firefox, the features can be imported using extensions. Indeed, some of Microsoft's bigger innovations like Web slices and Accelerators were replicated via Firefox extensions a while back.

IEAddons.com is Microsoft's answer to Firefox's add-ons site, sort of. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

If you're new to IE 8, Web Slices lets you save predefined sections of a Web page for at-a-glance viewing. Instead of going to a traffic Web site for updates, the latest commuting news comes to you. Web slices are not an automatic feature, so you'll need to install them by clicking on the Get more add-ons option on the Favorites bar, going to the IE Add-ons site, or choosing Manage Add-ons under Tools on the menubar.

To install a Web slice, you must click the Add button from IE Add-ons site. That will open up the site in a new window, and as you mouse over it you'll see green boxes appear to indicate a potential Web slice. Click on the box, and the Web slice will be added to your collection, with an option to place it directly on the Favorites bar. Checking the weather or traffic or even headlines becomes as simple as click the drop-down arrow for that slice.

Accelerators are links that cut out the steps needed to blog, tweet, or use Facebook. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Similarly, Accelerators make repetitive tasks one-click behaviors, such as getting a definition for a word. Once you've installed the Accelerator, double-clicking on a word will bring up a blue box. Click the box to see a drop-down list of choices. Once you mouse over your selection, a pop-up window will show you the precise piece of information you've been looking for, whether it's a definition or a blogging window.

InPrivate browsing introduces a cache and history on-off switch, similar to features offered by Google Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. Accessible from the Safety menu or using the CTRL+SHFT+P hot key, it opens a new browsing window with a label at the left of the location bar that indicates you're using InPrivate. There's also InPrivate Filtering, located just below InPrivate browsing, which can be customized to tighten or loosen the noose placed on information sent out when visiting certain sites.

Domain highlighting makes it easier to avoid getting spoofed. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

There are also several slight but useful features in IE 8. As you open new tabs, they get color-coded and moved around so that similar sites are grouped together. I found this a bit jarring at first, because I expected new sites to be opened in the same place, but I can understand the logic behind it and why some users might like that kind of tab behavior. Tabs can be configured at the bottom of the General page under Internet Options.

Internet Explorer 8 also has tab sandboxing like the Webkit-based browsers from Google and Apple. You can't rip a tab off into a new window, but when a tab crashes, IE itself won't, and the tabs are configured to either resurrect themselves or open a new page on your default search engine.

There's a greater emphasis on Web standards and security than before. The SmartScreen and cross-site scripting filters throw up a red warning page when you're about to visit an unsafe site. There's also domain highlighting, which grays out the name of the URL you're looking at except for the domain itself. This sounds simple, but effectively draws attention to spoofed site URLs.

Version 8 is the most standards-compliant yet, but in case a page breaks, the Compatibility button should resuscitate it. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

There's also a compatibility button so that sites designed specifically for IE 7 and earlier can still be viewed. Placed at the right-hand side of the location bar, clicking it should reload the site you're looking at under the IE 7 rendering engine.

IE 8 does have more problems than mere JavaScript engine speeds. It scores a 20/100 on the Acid3 test, the lowest of the major browsers, and the installation process still requires a reboot. There's no default "smart" location bar that many other browsers have, although you can search your history and most visited pages from it.

Drawbacks aside, there's no reason to not upgrade if you're an old fan of IE, and there's even a few things in IE 8 for new users. Even though there are some nice usability features in IE 8, I think that Internet Explorer has a long way to go to replace the damage that the notoriously insecure IE 6 did to its reputation.