There was a time when the terms ‘Web browser’ and ‘Internet Explorer’ were more or less synonymous, but times have changed. Over the past few years a significant and still growing number of users have switched to Mozilla Firefox and, more latterly, Google Chrome, disappointed with recent releases of IE and lured away by the performance, usability and security of the alternatives. Internet Explorer is still the most used browser around, at least on Windows. However, its market share had been seriously dented and, with IE9, Microsoft is hoping to make up for lost ground. First impressions are that it may have some success achieving that goal.
What is it and who is it for?
The latest version Internet Explorer sees big changes to both the user interface and underlying workings of the Microsoft browser. Naturally, it’s the GUI that you notice first, Microsoft giving its browser a minimalist new look which some may find a little disorienting, at least to begin with.
Gone are most of the menus and icons. Indeed when you first start IE9 the only ‘furniture’ around the edge of the window is comprised of a couple of buttons to page backwards and forward plus the address bar inside which are very discreet search, reload and stop controls. Dialog boxes are gone too, with a new notification bar that appears at the bottom of the display showing messages which can now can be ignored if wanted rather than acknowledged straight away.
The rest of the display is for content, although you can customise the interface and recover missing Menu, Favourites and other toolbars if you find it all just too stark. You can also opt to display tab headings on a separate row rather than take the new default where they’re squashed together just right of the address bar.
Behind the scenes the technology that drives IE9 has also come in for a lot of attention, which means quicker starting and faster page handling than previous versions, particularly on modern PCs with fast graphics hardware which the browser can now make full use of. It also means enhanced support for industry standards rather than trying to dictate them, with HTML5 and CSS3 compatibility key developments in this release.
Pricing & setup
Like other Web browsers there’s no charge for downloading or using IE9. Unlike the competition, however, the Microsoft browser can only be used with Vista and Windows 7 which effectively locks out the millions of corporate users still stuck with Windows XP who will have to either make do with IE8 or switch to one of the alternatives.
Because it has to be carefully integrated into the Windows OS, installation is a lengthy process, requiring most other applications to be shut down and for the computer to be re-booted once the install has finished. It’s not a particularly difficult procedure, but it is a lot more involved than installing either Firefox of Chrome, both of which can be installed in seconds compared to around quarter of an hour for IE9. You also have to decide up front whether to go for the 32-bit or 64-bit implementation and download the appropriate setup program yourself.
Does it do it well?
It takes a little time to get used to the new Microsoft browser, but it’s not a huge learning curve and, if not to your liking, you can always tweak the interface to make it more homely. We were able to start browsing straight away and were impressed with how much snappier it seemed, especially when compared to the last couple of IE attempts.
One very useful new feature is the ability to pin browser tabs to the Windows taskbar, just like a desktop application. Once running these continue to be updated even when minimised so, for example, we were able to jump to news, weather and other regularly used sites directly without having to search through favourites lists. You can even preview the tab by hovering the mouse over the taskbar, just like a normal Windows apps.
Browser tabs can also be organised into groups in IE9 and colour coded to make them easier to navigate with automatic tab recovery following a crash another new feature of the Microsoft browser. There’s also a proper integrated download manager, just as in Firefox and Chrome.
Where does it disappoint?
The biggest issue with IE9 has to be the lack of support for Windows XP. Sure, it’s an old platform, two generations behind the OS curve, but it’s still widely used, especially in the corporate world, and doesn’t look like going way completely anytime soon. Firefox and Chrome can both be run on XP boxes, leaving the competition a, seemingly, free rein here.
There’s also good and not so good news when it comes to behavioural tracking. An increasingly common issue, behavioural tracking is where, for example, you visit a travel Web site only to find every other site you look at, mysteriously, displaying travel-related adverts. InPrivate browsing, inherited from IE8, prevents cookies, passwords and other information being stored altogether, but only for a single session, so there’s now an all new Tracking Protection option to selectively block traffic using protection blacklists which can either be downloaded from a number of online privacy groups or automatically generated based on your browsing history.
Unfortunately Tracking Protection is far from fool proof. In fact we quickly found sites which weren’t trapped by any of the lists we tried. Plus it’s not possible to edit or add to the blacklists yourself. More work is required here, both by Microsoft and the other browser vendors, none of which have managed to crack this particular nut as yet.
Would we recommend it?
There’s a lot to like in IE9 and for existing IE7/8 users it’s pretty much a no-brainer, delivering up enhanced performance plus a couple of neat new features such as pinning tabs to the taskbar.
XP users won’t be able to upgrade and will have to go for one of the others to keep up. Moreover, Firefox 4 has now been released and seems more than capable of matching IE9 in terms of speed with Chrome, equally, able to match what the Microsoft browser can do. Compatibility may be an issue, but most developers will code for every browser going as a matter of course these days.
The bottom line is that Internet Explorer 9 is a good browser, but then so are Firefox 4 and Chrome with little to choose in terms of speed or functionality between them. Which just leaves personal preference. The choice is yours.