The honest PC user must admit that Firefox is neither as good as widely proclaimed, nor is Microsoft's Internet Explorer as bad. That viewpoint, which is what my personal experience has taught me, has only been reinforced by my recent test of Internet Explorer 8. (I got the IE8 beta by downloading Windows 7, with which it was bundled.Like most users, you'd be hard-pressed to get me to tell you what the difference is between IE8 and its predecessor. None of its new features are glaringly obvious, though Microsoft explains that you can fit more items on the Favorites bar, and you also get improved searching and an Amazon-like suggested sites feature.
Apparently a lot of effort has been poured into creating a "tab grouping" feature. There's a whole explanation here, by Helen Drislane, one of the IE program managers. It's very impressive, but I confess that I've never aspired to becoming enough of a Web browser power-user (IE, Firefox, or Chrome) to expend the effort required to dive this deeply into the feature set.
There are way too many more important platforms and programs on my list ahead of IE, which I want to learn -- like Ruby on Rails, the iPhone SDK, and Facebook development, to name just three. Me, I'm quite content to simply start typing the name of a site into IE's address bar and let auto-complete help me navigate there.
I realize that this is something of a half-Luddite approach -- the features are there, so why not just use them? -- but there you have it. Packing a program with enough features to overstuff a foie gras goose is so 1994; like I just said, I'd much rather hone my developer chops, rather than become an über-power use.
Which leads to the next logical question regarding an upgraded browser. Namely, have security and performance been improved? According to Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch, writing on the IE8 blog, the answer to both is yes.
Re: the security, my ongoing experience with Vista (which I use on my main home system) as well as with the Windows 7 beta tells me that the charge of poor security is a red herring as far as Microsoft operating systems are concerned. If you're using Vista, and you keep it updated, you can be pretty confident you're protected. (I'd add the caveats that a) you should also use a security program such as those offered by Trend Micro, Symantec, Kaspersky, or McAfee, and b) you should turn off Windows Update and install Microsoft's security upgrades on your own schedule, so you don't get caught with your machine rebooting in the middle of preparing an important PowerPoint for work.)
As for performance, my anecdotal experience is that IE8 is indeed better than IE7. (How could it not be?) Time will tell whether IE8 maintains its performance throughout day-long browsing sessions. That's always been IE7's Achilles' heel; it works fine in the morning, but then some sort of leakage issue gradually bogs its down, to the point where one's home page is often a loading dog by 2 p.m.
There's one other negative, albeit minor, rub with IE8. It appears to "break" some Web sites, or at least some commonly used coding constructs. As a user, I don't care much about this. However, as a Web-site editor, one of the first things I noticed is how the news headlines on InformationWeek's home page have a shadow over them under IE8. Perhaps we have a best-practices glitch in our source code; OTOH, my first assumption is that Microsoft has changed something, and that moving forward we (and every other site) will have to test our pages on yet another platform.
What is this full list these days? IE6, 7, 8. Firefox 2 and 3, Safari, Chrome, Opera. Too long to really test them all, which is why IE6 and Firefox 2 are typically consigned to the "legacy" bucket. (As in, we assume users shouldn't be running them anymore, so we don't test for them. Only problem is, many users still are using them.)
OK, so enough of me alternately praising and burying IE. What I've long thought -- and where I came in on with this post -- is that Firefox is over-praised and Internet Explorer is overly bashed. I've always thought that Firefox is the winner when it comes to performance, but that its user interface is, well, nothing special; certainly not the great leap forward its proponents constantly crow about. True, in the IE5/6 era, Firefox was indeed an advance. But IE has certainly come back and surpassed Firefox, in my mind anyway, as far as look and feel and general ease of use. (As a minor side note, the options controls in IE are far more flexible and easier to deal with than they are in Firefox.)
So the definitive differentiator among the browsers (it should really be "between," as in between IE and Firefox; Chrome is still something of an odd platform out) is performance. If IE8 can correct IE7's often unacknowledged but nevertheless annoying performance shortfalls, Microsoft might be able to reset the browser bar and revive IE steadily sagging, but by no means unimpressive (still at 70% market share) fortunes.
First install of the pre-beta build of Windows 7. (Click picture to enlarge, and to see 43 Windows 7 screen shots.)
Windows 7 lets you snap your windows to the left and right, to ease screen management and to compare docs. (Click picture to enlarge, and to see 43 Windows 7 screen shots.)
Which browser do you use? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at [email protected].
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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.