Posted by: reformedmusings | September 2, 2008

Exploring Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2

I keep a disposable, basic Windows XP virtual machine handy under VMWare Workstation to play around with new stuff. I cloned it and installed Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 into it to see what’s what for myself. I noticed a few interesting things worth sharing. I used the small, efficient, and free MWSnap to take the individual window screenshots in the VM.

First, the install defaults for all the new functions are all Microsoft sites:

IE8 defaults to Microsoft services

IE8 defaults to Microsoft services

Microsoft controls Windows Live Spaces, Encarta, Live Maps, Live Mail, and Windows Live. These remain minor also-rans on the net, but Microsoft is still pushing them. Notice that I declined the honor on my install. Not surprisingly, their SmartScreen Filter also goes through Microsoft:

Smart Screen uses a Microsoft server

Smart Screen uses a Microsoft server

At this point, you are defaulted to complete dependence on Microsoft. What about their so-called accelerators?

The "accelerators" are also Microsoft services

The "accelerators" are also Microsoft services

You guessed it–Microsoft services yet again. Although, you can add a few from Google, Yahoo, and others using a custom page after installation. Most users, though, will just go with the Microsoft defaults. Microsoft knows this from past user studies and uses these defaults to keep their vassals in line.

So, here’s what IE8 looks like when loaded:

Internet Explorer 8 in all its glory

Internet Explorer 8 in all its glory

As you can see, it doesn’t look much different than IE7. But are the new features a significant improvement over IE7? Perhaps for IE, but not compared to other browsers like Firefox 3.0.1. As I said in this post, Firefox already had the features which Microsoft is touting for IE8, but now we’ll get down to specifics. Here are the major new IE8 features with the existing Firefox extensions performing the similar functions:

“Accelerators” are simply shortcuts to text functions reached through a pop-up menu. When you highlight text on a web page, a little icon appears. When you click on the icon, it presents a menu of pre-installed “accelerators.” This allows you to, or instance, look up a word definition, get a map of an address, email someone, search the web on it, translate it, etc. This is old hat for Firefox through extensions like Hyperwords, which has far more flexibility.

The “Smart Address Bar” feature merely offers up matching addresses from your history and favorites. This feature has been standard in Firefox since 3.0. I’ve found it quite handy. However, the Microsoft version isn’t as useful as Firefox’s. In Firefox (FF), you can type characters from anywhere in a address, title, or tag, and Firefox will offer up the addresses that contain them along with background info similar to IE’s “Visual Search” below. In IE8b2, it will only offer up addresses that match from the first character and sequentially on. So, in FF, typing “station” will bring up your favorite “Radio Stations” but it will not bring anything in from IE. To get IE to make the same offer, you must start typing “radio.” Better than nothing, I guess.

The “Suggested Sites” function supposedly offers similar sites based on your browsing history. This can be a bit intrusive in my opinion. It sounds like a way to sell you stuff that you don’t want. I didn’t develop enough of a history to really check this out, but it sounds like the FF extension StumbleUpon. I could be wrong, though.

“Find on Page” functionality has been part of Firefox since at least 2.x, but is just now reaching IE, but only through the search pull-down menu. You can set FF to look for search text on the page just by starting to type. This is very fast and convenient. Better yet, the FF extension Search Everywhere will use Google to search the entire current site for your criteria. This is incredibly handy. IE has a way to go to catch up on this score as well.

The “Improved Zoom” feature simply enables the user to vary the size of a page’s contents through IE8’s View menu. Firefox has been doing this through its View menu for some time, plus extensions like QuickPageZoom, PageZoom, and others. Plus, the FF extensions use icons for quick access whereas one accesses the IE feature through the menus.

“Visual Search” is cute but not all that useful. It tries to cram icons and additional information in the small search window in the upper right. Firefox has a great extension called “Google Preview” which provides thumbnails of the target pages along with their background info. Since the information is on a full page, it’s more useful that IE8’s “Visual Search.”

“Web Slices” has received significant press. It provides periodically updated content that’s quickly accessible from the Favorite’s Bar. There are only a handful of sites that support this now, almost all Microsoft sites like MSN, and they can only be found through Microsoft’s Live Search. As usual, Microsoft expects the world to snap to their arrogant way of doing things. In Firefox, this feature comes through individual extensions customized according to their source information. Examples are ForecastFox or 1-ClickWeather for weather, Sage or the built-in RSS function for news/blogs, myibay ebay bid sniper or Firefox Companion for ebay for ebay bids, etc. The variety is much greater than that offered for IE8 and the implementations are much richer.

IE8’s tab features still lag Firefox by a significant margin. Its security and performance also lag Firefox 3.x. It’s no surprise to me that Microsoft is losing market share to Firefox and others. Again, the pre-installed favorites are Microsoft sites.

IE8 toolbars in private mode

IE8 toolbars in private mode

InPrivate Browsing, accessible through the Tools menu, opens a new browsing window and puts a notice in the address bar. With this feature, no cookies, history, cache, or other data is saved. Your browsing history is not transmitted. While this seems unique and cool, in fact, Firefox has done the same thing and more with its Stealther and other extensions. For all the hype, there’s absolutely nothing new here for those who’ve left the Microsoft feudal empire.

My Firefox 3.0.1 toolbars

My highly-customized Firefox 3.0.1 toolbars (title bar is semi-transparent under compiz-fusion)

My Firefox 3.0.1 status bar icons

My Firefox 3.0.1 status bar icons/controls

One last thing to note. IE8’s “extensions” differ in scope and implementation from Firefox’s. IE remains menu-centric whereas many extensions in Firefox provide singe-click access through toolbar or status bar icons as shown above, or through context-sensitive menus. This provides a compact presentation with one-click access. Microsoft implemented their “Web Slices” through the favorites menu, providing a simple html box for the information. IE8 extensions are still very limited in scope and character. The promises were interesting, but the implementation still lacks style.

Overall, IE8 beta 2 is just a small, incremental improvement over the anemic IE7. It still doesn’t rank in the top tier of available browsers. Given its lagging performance, lackluster features, and historical vulnerability to hacking, I still seems best avoided in favor of Firefox.



  1. […] (dictionary, map, translation, mail links) are also offered up. No problems there. I’ve used IE8b2 a bit on a Windows XP virtual machine with no real issues, and also compared it to Firefox 3.01. I installed SilverLight as well, but […]

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