Microsoft released the second Beta for Internet Explorer 8 last week, which paves the way for a final release later this year. The new browser demonstrates a number of usability, security, and privacy features that make it a huge improvement over IE 7, including abilities that FireFox users have taken for granted since the FireFox 3 (and even in previous versions). Familiar features such as a better Address Bar, crash recovery, and improved in-page search won’t get Firefox devotees to switch over, but genuinely innovative tools like InPrivate browsing and Tab grouping may warrant your attention. We sort through the full list of Beta 2 features to see what ideas IE8 did and didn’t borrow from its world record-breaking open-source rival.
Website navigation is made easier with IE 8’s “Smart Address Bar”, which feels a lot of Firefox 3’s Awesome Bar. In addition to providing URL string matches as you type in the main navigation toolbar, the browser now produces suggestions based on your browsing history, favorites list, and RSS feeds. The drop down window groups the recommendations based on type for easy scanning, and worked well in practice. One bonus feature we definitely like is the option to manually delete auto-complete entries from the list to refine the suggestions (to eliminate previously visited sites with typos in their URLs).
In previous versions of Internet Explorer, the Links Bar was turned off by default. Microsoft claims that only a small percentage of users knew how to turn it on, but their research showed that the “power users” who did enable it loved it. In IE 8, the Links Bar is a more prominent feature, and renamed to the Favorites Bar (in FireFox, it’s called the Bookmarks Bar). The bar can be used to save websites, RSS feeds, and new “web slices” (more on that later). Bookmarking to the bar is also now a one-click affair, which we suppose is useful if you’re frequently removing and adding sites to the bar. Favorites management is otherwise unchanged, and still lacks the bookmark tagging feature found in Firefox.
Anti-phishing filters are nothing new, and IE 8’s SmartScreen Filter (which has to be enabled from the new Safety menu) adds a tiny bit more functionality to protect users from malicious sites. With the Filter enabled, the browser will examine websites for suspicious URLs and compare them with a centrally hosted database of known offenders. Users can manually check and report suspicious-looking sites as well. In Firefox, anti-phishing and malware protection is turned on by default, and checks the sites you visit against a local or external database (such as one provided by Google).
Firefox has had this feature since version 2, and it’s nice to see Microsoft finally incorporate it into Internet Explorer. The keyboard shortcut to reopen an accidentally closed tab is the same as the one in Firefox – Ctrl + Shift + T. The only thing different is that you can also access previous closed tabs from a new landing page that appears when you open a new empty tab. This page lists all the tabs you’ve closed in that browsing session, and gives you the option of reopening one or all of them.
Finally! Searching through a web page with Ctrl+F no longer brings up a pop-up window. Instead, the Find on this Page toolbar is integrated into the UI, and pops up underneath the Favorites toolbar (not at the bottom of the window like it is in Firefox). A bonus: the last term you used in the web Search toolbar is automatically copied to the Find toolbar when you open it.
Another no-brainer. Tabs that crash in IE 8 are automatically restored and reloaded. If the entire browser window crashes (which has happened a lot with the Beta), the entire session is restored when you restart the program. Not only are all tabs revived, but text in forms (such as emails or blog entries) are also preserved. Text is not saved if you accidentally manually close a tab and then try to bring it back.
We have a love-hate relationship with browser add-ons. On one hand, we dig useful add-ons like flash media players and document compatibility plug-ins to help us browse the web. But we also hate add-ons with obnoxious toolbars that clutter up the user interface. Oftentimes, these are installed without us noticing, and it can be a pain to disable them. IE 8 attaches an “x” icon to each add-on toolbar to let you remove them, along with associated background processes, with a click. Unfortunately, this only disables the add-on, and doesn’t actually uninstall it from the browser. The new add-on manager window functions like the one in Firefox, but gives you the option to specify which add-ons can run on particular websites.
Web services are integrated into IE 8 with a feature called Accelerators. Maps, dictionary, translation, and blogging services can be accessed without leaving an existing page by just highlighting and right-clicking text. If you highlight an address, for example, and mouse over a maps accelerator, IE 8 will open a preview window showing the relevant map search results. Think of these services as “verbs” you want to apply to website content. The default accelerators shipping with IE 8 are based on Windows Live services, though you’ll be able to enable other services downloaded from the web and change the defaults. Providers such as eBay, Yahoo!, and Facebook have already signed on to build Accelerators to work with IE 8.
When you open one tab from another, the new tab is placed next to the originating one and both are marked with the same color so that you can tell that they’re related. If you close a tab in the middle of the row, you’ll be sent to the next tab in that group, as opposed to the first or last tab in the window. Right-clicking a tab will give you the option to close it, open a new tab, duplicate the existing tab, remove it from its group, or reopen any or all previously closed tabs.
Essentially a fancy RSS reader, a Web Slice is a piece of code web developers can integrate into their websites (with a few lines of HTML) so that IE 8 users can bookmark feeds directly to their Favorites Bar. The difference between a Web Slice and RSS feed is that you can subscribe to a specific part of a site, such as an eBay auction listing or Facebook profile section. Web slices also integrate visual elements from the page like image thumbnails, and all of the feed content is proactively updated and previewed in the favorites bar.
This is probably the most welcome feature in IE 8. Tabs are now kept on separate processes so that if (and when) a tab fails, the browser doesn’t crash as a whole. This applies whether the corrupt tab is open or in the background – the idea is that you won’t notice any hiccup in your browsing experience, and the browser will reopen the crashed tab on its own. Obviously, keeping individual tabs and window frames in separate processes takes up a lot of memory. Though by default, only three separate processes will run in the background before IE 8 starts grouping tabs in processes.
IE 8’s searchbar doesn’t just give Live or Google search results, it takes a cue from the enhanced navigation bar and includes matches from your history and web site titles as well. It also integrates the “find on page” feature to search the page you’re currently visiting. Changing search provides (such as Wikipedia or Amazon) allows you to navigate results that have image thumbnails, text summaries, or even dynamic information like product stock charts.
It’s a simple, but useful feature: the main domain source of any URL in your navigation bar is always in black while the rest of the URL is rendered in light grey. This was integrated to help users avoid visiting phishing sites when clicking links in emails.
Probably the most talked-about feature in IE 8, InPrivate Browsing lets you open a separate session to prevent the browser from retaining any browsing history, temporary internet files, form data, cookies, or username/passwords. InPrivate Browsing is activated from the Safety menu in IE 8, and the session is launched in a new window that’s clearly marked “InPrivate”. The session data is automatically deleted once you close this window. Microsoft gave us the example of using this feature if you want to buy a gift for your wife without her knowing, but we all know what InPrivate browsing is going to be used for: surfing pr0n.
IE 8 gives you some customization options when you want to wipe clean your browsing history. Like Firefox, you’re able to choose whether clearing browsing history removes temporary internet files, cookies, history, passwords, and form auto-complete data. One additional feature that’s unique to IE 8 though, is the ability to preserver data from websites in your Favorites folder and Toolbar. Firefox’s Clear Private Data settings don’t give you exception options. We really hate losing our saved login information on frequently visited sites (ie. forums) when clearing out our history, so this IE 8 feature is definitely appreciated.
So Firefox user, are these updates enough for you to give IE 8 a chance?