Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) Beta 1 for developers , released by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) on March 6, offers some fascinating new capabilities. For example, it introduces two new features called Activities and WebSlices that extend the capabilities of the browser by interacting with other Web sites and services.
There are also a variety of other changes, including some much-needed additions, such as a feature that will restore crashed browser sessions and tabs. I’ll highlight what features are new and discuss how they may work when IE8 is finally released.
This review focuses only on the actual user experience of using IE8 though the beta has been released for developers. We didn’t test aspects of the beta that are targeted to developers or that are concerned with underlying compatibilities and standards. For example, IE8 now includes a Developer Tools feature, which includes tools for HTML, CSS, scripting, and debugging. Microsoft claims that the browser includes better scripting performance, and support for HTML5. And in the final version, although not this one, Microsoft claims that IE8 will have full CSS 2.1 support.
Finally, I tested IE8 for Windows XP, rather than the Windows Vista version (both versions have the same features).
Installation and a first look
The initial Windows XP download of IE8 weighs in at 14.4 MB. When launched, it downloads other components, and installs in less than 15 minutes. All it in, it’s quite a painless install.
When you first start IE after installation, you’re asked whether you want use “express settings.” These are, in essence, a variety of Microsoft services, such as Live Search for search, Maps with Live Maps for mapping, Windows Hotmail for e-mail, and so on.
You can also choose to adjust your settings manually; however, since many of these services tie into one of IE8’s new features called Activities, be careful about changing some of the defaults, such as for displaying maps of any location highlighted on a Web page.
After you either choose your own settings or go with the defaults, IE 8 actually launches.
IE8 looks much like IE7 at first, with a few exceptions. The first is that what was formerly known as the Links toolbar has been integrated with the Favorites icons, and combined into a single toolbar called the Favorites toolbar. You can still make the toolbar disappear, though, as you could the Links toolbar, by selecting View –>Toolbars, and unchecking Favorites Bar. (Note: If you’re using IE8 for Vista, you’ll have to first make the Menu Bar appear by pressing the Alt button.)
A particularly nice new feature, and one that I hope makes it into the final version of IE8, is the small “Emulate IE7” button on near the top of the screen. If there are any compatibility issues between IE8 and a Web site — with a new browser, you never know — just click the button, and it will fool the site into thinking you’re running IE7. I’m not sure if this feature is for the developer-only version or if it will make it into the final (hopefully, most Web sites will be IE8-compatible by the time it’s out of beta), but it would be nice if it stayed in.
Even though IE8 looks a lot like IE7 at first glance, it sports a variety of new features. Primary among them is WebSlices, which are something like RSS feeds on steroids. As with an RSS feed, you subscribe to changing content that you find on a Web page. But WebSlices are graphically richer and interactive. In addition, they will alert you when content in a specific portion of a Web page changes — for example, a stock price, or the current high price on an auction.
When you subscribe to a WebSlice, it appears on the Favorites Bar. Whenever the content of the Web page changes, the title of its WebSlice turns bold. Click the WebSlice, and the WebSlice drops down, complete with content. You can click through to go to the Web page that houses the slice, or simply view it in the drop-down.
This is a nifty feature, but only useful if Web developers place WebSlices on their pages. At the moment, there aren’t many WebSlices out there. So it’s hard to know whether this will become a truly useful feature, or instead will join the long list of good ideas that have had a quick exit to the graveyard.
It appears to be quite easy to define a WebSlice on a Web page, so it shouldn’t take much effort for developers to create them.
New Favorites bar
The Links bar has not only been folded into the Favorites bar; it has been given a few new features. For example, you can put WebSlices and RSS feeds here as well as links. According to Microsoft, you can also include links to documents on your hard disk. I’m not a big fan of the new Favorites bar; it’s in the same location as the old Links bar, taking away too much real estate and offering not many new features. I’d prefer there be some other place to put WebSlices. Where? That’s something for Microsoft to figure out…
This feature gives extra power to the Internet Explorer right-click menu. Hover your mouse over an item or highlight it, right-click, and a list of actions appears. These include viewing the highlighted term in a map, translating it, defining it, and so on.
Depending on the choice you make, you may see a preview screen of your action right on the Web page, such as displaying a small map. You can then click through to the larger map.
Think of Activities as small, low-powered mashups that deliver information to you from another Web site, or interact with another Web site or service. Again, the key here will be how many sites provide Activities. There’s already a sizable group of Activities providers, including not only Microsoft, but Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon, and Yahoo.
IE8 introduces some smaller features that may not be earthshaking, but that can be useful. For example, some URLs are so long and complex that it can be tough to immediately decipher which domain you’re currently visiting. In IE8’s address bar, only the domain (for example, channeldailynews.com ) is black; everything else is gray. That way, you can see immediately where you are.
New safety filter
Microsoft is touting a new Safety Filter in IE8 which it claims is an improvement over IE7’s Phishing Filter. The Safety Filter, according to the company, protects not only against phishing attacks, but against malware as well.
For example, this new Safety Filter issues a warning when you visit a Web site with malicious software. Since I wasn’t able to test this feature at this time, we’ll have to take Microsoft’s word on this for now.
Internet Explorer 8 can now do what Firefox has been able to do for a very long time — recover from crashes, and then restore the session or tab that crashed. So after IE8 crashes, or an individual tab crashes, you’ll have the option of restoring it.
Beware of crashes
Speaking of crashes — IE8 is beta, and a beta designed for developers, so if you decide to try it be aware that it’s not stable.
Each time I clicked on the Favorites icon to open up the Favorites sidebar, IE crashed. The first time I did this, the effect was so serious that IE8 then crashed every time I tried to open it, even after rebooting. I used System Restore to revert my system to its pre-IE8 state, but IE7 would no longer work — when I launched it, IE7 would open, and then simply vanish. No error message, no asking whether I want to send an error report — it simply disappeared.
(Note: Rather than using System Restore, it would have been a better idea for me to use the Add or Remove Programs Control Panel applet; that most likely would have been safer.)
I re-installed IE8, and found that it worked again — sort of. It crashed every time I clicked on the Favorites icon, or tried to open the sidebar for any other reason. I could restart it each time, and it would work fine — until I tried to open the sidebar again.
The bottom line
Should you download IE8 yet? Unless you’re a Web developer, or someone who simply has to have the latest version, you’d be better off waiting. It’s still unstable — as illustrated by the way IE8 crashed every time I tried to use the Favorites sidebar feature. In addition, the browser’s most intriguing new features — Activities and WebSlices — aren’t particularly useful at this point, because there simply isn’t enough related content.
As the beta progresses through its cycles, though, I’ll have more reviews, to let you know when it’s safe to give it a whirl.