The first update to Microsoft’s browser since IE 8 beta 2 was released to select Microsoft partners for testing last Wednesday. The company indicated in recent blog posts that it was delaying the browser for some time and that it may have a good reason to do so. A final public and feature-complete pre-release would become available in Q1 2009 and, of course, we were curious what may have canceled a 2008 release of the browser.
Will Microsoft shelve the browser engine? Will Microsoft follow through with its promise to make its browser much more compliant with web standards than previous versions were? We were lucky enough to get an early look at this final pre-release and now have a good idea how IE8 will look like. But, since this software is a partner release, it is more than likely that Microsoft will make one or the other change based on feedback until a public RC1 will surface. However, significant changes are rather unlikely.
Let’s cut to the chase right away.
The new version brings enhancements in private browsing, accessibility, overall reliability and speed. RC1 reaches a significant development milestone towards a browser that can compete on closer footing with Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera in terms of features. However, web standards support (especially CSS 3) and performance are still far behind the competition.
We tested the 32-bit version for Windows XP (64 bit and Vista versions were also made available), which carries the build number 8.0.6001.18343, which is up from the IE8 beta 2 build 8.0.6001.18241.
Privacy advocates will like the fact that add-ons are now disabled in InPrivate Browsing mode, a new “InPrivate Blocking” button has been added to turn the feature on and off, and group policies related to InPrivate Browsing mode have been added for administrative purposes.
According to the IE8 developer blog, accessibility has been improved as well for those with limited vision or mobility. We will spend more time on those features further down in this article. Also, minor changes were made to the favorites bar and compatibility view, and web developers will notice slight modifications to the developer tools, the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) and AJAX (URL handling).
In terms of ease of use, new wizards have been added to import favorites from Firefox and Safari and to turn the suggested site feature on or off.
Read on the next page: Performance and Web standards
Performance and standards
Whether Microsoft likes it or not, speed and compatibility are the two most critical disciplines browser are measured against these days.
The company’s Internet Explorer has never been a speed monster, but even Microsoft has shown a motivation to tighten up the browser’s engine to squeeze more performance out of the aging code base. Back in March of this year, when IE8 beta 1 was released, Microsoft conceded that IE8 was still behind its rivals, but it was about twice as fast as IE7 in some benchmarks – and it was gaining ground on Firefox 3 beta 5 back then. IE8 beta 2 brought more performance again, but the competition - Firefox, Safari and Opera – have made even more dramatic speed gains in the mean time and widened the gap. And we aren’t even talking about Google’s Chrome, which is generally believed to be leading the pack at this time. So, can we expect progress with IE8 RC1 as well?
Our first impression is that IE8 has matured quite a bit, it feels more robust and seems to load pages slightly faster than IE8 beta 2. In support of this impression, the memory footprint of 70 MB with five open tabs is now less than the 80 MB in IE8 beta 2.
Measuring the actual performance of browsers is highly subjective and virtually impossible in real world conditions, due to the countless variables affecting load times and variables that are beyond our control. In addition to that, different hardware configurations will yield dramatically different results in benchmarks that are typically viewed as performance evaluation tools today. The published results have to be taken with a grain of salt and the actual numbers are almost meaningless. What counts is the gap between different browsers: The gap tends to be comparable across different platforms in terms of percentages.
IE8 clearly comes in behind in this test, with a significant margin. The result got worse for Microsoft with a more advanced system - an Intel Core 2 Quad-based computer - in absolute numbers: IE8 RC1 scored 105, Firefox 3.1 beta 2 265 and Chrome 1.0 2991.
Again, the actual numbers are not what we are looking at here. What stands out is that IE came in last again and the performance gap is significant.
Another disappointment is IE8’s Acid3 score. While Microsoft promised to make the browser more compatible with web standards, it trails every other browser in this major standards compatibility test by a substantial margin.
IE8 RC1 scores 12/100 (the same as IE8 beta 2), which clearly will disappoint web designers and developers that heavily use CSS. In comparison, Firefox 3.1 beta 2, officially released on December 8, scores 93/100, Firefox 3.0.4 scores 71/100, Google Chrome 1.0 comes in at 79/100 and Safari 3.1 scores 75/100. It is worth noting that Safari 4 beta as well as Opera 10 Alpha already scored 100/100.
For sake of reference, IE 7 scores 12/100 just like IE 8. To be fair, that number increases to 21/100 in IE8, if the window is left open for an extended period of time (several minutes).
While the browser did not crash during preliminary testing, this build is not meant for widespread public use and still contains several bugs. According to Microsoft, Facebook compatibility is still a known issue with the browser. Currently, the function “Add friend to list” causes IE8 to hang.
Read on the next page: Noteworthy new features, Conclusion
Noteworthy new features
Google has been particularly busy, having stamped out 15 Chrome updates in three months until the company suddenly proclaimed Chrome a finished 1.0 product yesterday, a move TG Daily deemed controversial, to say the least. So, what about key features in IE8?
Besides security features, Microsoft is emphasizing “accessibility”. JP Gonzalez-Castellan, accessibility program manager for IE8, said that Microsoft's goal is to make IE8 "the most accessible browser possible." He believes that the accessibility improvements in IE8 will benefit "one hundred percent" of users, stressing that improving the accessibility also improves the usability of the product.
He illustrated it vividly with public places like airports that have added wheelchair ramps after the Americans with Disabilities Act had been passed. Other passengers have soon started using ramps since it was easier to roll suitcases using the rams than picking it up over the ledge. "In much the same way," he said, "when you make software more accessible, everybody wins."
IE8 will support platform-oriented features like ARIA, IAccessibleEx and WinEvents, all of which will improve the accessibility of the browser. End-users may appreciate new accessibility-related features in the user interface areas, like caret browsing, a friendlier Find on Page feature, adaptive zoom and high DPI that scales the entire page content and several minor tweaks to how the browser behaves and reacts to user input.
Caret browsing: The power of keyboard shortcuts
Power users may especially enjoy keyboard shortcuts that will let them perform common mouse tasks with a keyboard, which will be a much faster or more efficient way to interact with software. A new feature dubbed "caret browsing," turned on and off by hitting F7, ditches the mouse entirely in favor of the keyboard and a cursor that moves within a web page in the same fashion as the cursor within the text of a Word document. Users can select and copy text down to a single character by holding the SHIFT key and pressing the arrow keys to highlight the text, in addition to selecting and copying non-text content like tables or images.
Caret browsing is especially useful in combination with context-sensitive menus also accessible on the keyboard. For example, you may select a piece of text or a single word, hit the context menu key on the keyboard positioned between the right ALT and right CTRL keys) to bring up the contextual menu with a list of Accelerators and choose to translate the selected text into another language, show a map, look up the term in online dictionaries, etc.
Enhanced Find feature
IE8 finally tweaks the Find on Page feature with a dedicated toolbar positioned below your tabs, instead of a floating dialog that obscures page content. The feature highlights search results on a page with a yellow background as soon as you start typing and shows the number of matches found in the Find on Page toolbar.
Adaptive Zoom and high DPI support
Other areas where regular users will benefit from accessibility features for low mobility and low vision users are the new Adaptive Zoom and high DPI support (which is actually an OS feature). The two work together to enable the browser to zoom all content in a page, not only text. Bitmap graphics are enlarged accordingly, as well as text and vector UI elements of the operating system that appear on pages, like drop-down lists, buttons, boxes, etc. Current versions of Opera and Firefox also have adaptive zoom features; Apple's Safari lacks adaptive zoom support.
Adaptive Zoom will not only help low vision users, but many others who squint their eyes when viewing pages on high-resolution monitors with high resolution settings. When a page is scaled on high DPI monitors, it not only looks bigger, but nicer since the software redraws the user interface elements with more pixels, resulting in a much more attractive display of content. Also, IE8 adjusts all elements on a page while zooming to avoid displaying horizontal scroll bars.
All three features are not limited to the RC1, but work in the current beta 2 as well. Besides the browser’s security improvements these three features may actually turn into the more noteworthy improvements and enjoy similar exposure such as tab-groups, for example. Microsoft still highlights web slices and activities, proprietary IE8 features designed to make information gathering about certain content more convenient.
With the new build of IE8, the Microsoft browser development team is well on the road for the release of a public RC1 in Q1 2009. The updated features address widespread privacy concerns that surfaced with IE 6 and 7 and show a certain willingness to narrow the gap in web standards support to rival browsers.
But, clearly, the improvements shown by IE8 may not be enough in some areas; in others, Microsoft may end up in a dead end.
IE8 RC1 cannot compete with Firefox, Chrome and Opera in terms of CSS 3 compatibility. But at least CSS 2.1 support has arrived, and new accessibility features will be heralded by those in need. We also believe that Microsoft has made a reasonable decision to single out privacy and security features with a separate toolbar icon.