A Week With Internet Explorer: Not The Browser You've Always Despised

It's fashionable to hate on Internet Explorer, yet I doubt half of the hate-spewing IE trolls have even used it in the past few years. So I decided to set the record straight. I used IE as my main browser for an entire week to see whether the historical IE hate still held water, and here's what I found.

A Brief History Of Internet Explorer Hate

Internet Explorer wasn't always the leper we think of it as today. In fact, back in the '90s, Internet Explorer was often the first browser to include new web technologies, including CSS, which helps determine how a web page looks on your computer; Java applets, which let you run more complicated webapps in your browser; and even the foundations for Ajax, which allows you to send information between your computer and a server without constantly reloading the entire page (that's how we get cool web apps like Gmail).

The problem is that when Microsoft innovated it did so with little regard to web standards. IE was the first to support CSS, but it didn't render it correctly. Worse, Microsoft encouraged developers to make websites for IE only, which made those sites render poorly in other browsers. Internet Explorer was a prime example of Microsoft's extremely anti-competitive behaviour, and when it had enough market share, Microsoft stopped innovating and just became a feature-poor pain in the arse.

Released in 2001, Internet Explorer 6 had a few cool new features (new at the time, that is), like popup blocking and a download manager, but Microsoft didn't release a new version of Internet Explorer until 2006. During this time, Firefox took hold, innovating with features modern browser users can't imagine living without, such as tabbed browsing and built-in spellcheck, not to mention better security. So people started switching. Microsoft didn't keep up with its rivals feature-wise and had tons of security issues with Internet Explorer. Soon IE felt more like a punishment than a web browser.

Lastly, because Microsoft thumbed its nose at web standards, developing websites for Internet Explorer became a huge pain — especially when there were other browsers out there that did follow the standards. Of course, since IE was still so popular, a lot of websites were designed for the non-standards-compliant IE and wouldn't work in other browsers, making for some very frustrated users who'd opted for alternate browsers like Firefox or Opera.

Internet Explorer 7 and 8 came along, but it was a little late for for power users (who, technologically, were followed by everyone else a few years later). Not that it mattered, because while 7 and 8 improved a bit, they added features so much slower than browsers like Firefox and (eventually) Chrome that no one wanted to use it anyway.

Many of us started hating Internet Explorer when we realised there were better options out there but that often we couldn't use them if we wanted the web to display correctly, or because our workplace machines were locked into using IE.— or were often locked into the lesser browser at work. These days, people still talk about IE as if it's the crashy, featureless, standard-ignoring mess that it was years ago, but things have changed a lot. That's why I decided to do this little experiment — to see if IE really deserves the bad reputation it still has.

My Experience With Internet Explorer 9

This week, I set Internet Explorer as my default browser and tried to do my work as well as possible, to see which IE claims were true and which were just ill-founded hatred driven by fashion. Here's what I found.

The Good: It's Pretty Darn Smooth And Integrates With Windows Nicely

Internet Explorer may not be the fastest browser out there — in fact, it got last place in our browser speed tests — but my experience was anything but "slow". Page loading was a tad slower than other browsers, but more than acceptable. Never in my entire week of immersion did it crash once or even get really bogged down. Firefox and Chrome, on the other hand, will still give me trouble every once in a while.

Despite the fact that they have lower memory usage than IE, I have more slowdowns and crashes with Firefox and Chrome than I did in a week of IE usage. It wasn't quite as fast as them at its best, but it was certainly better than them at their worst. It was very consistent.

That said, I didn't exactly have any extensions installed — more on that later — but it was still a joy to use in terms of smoothness. Certain things like tearing a tab off into a new window also worked really fluidly, which is more than I can say for Firefox.

IE9 isn't packed with features, but it does have a few useful things that other browsers don't. For example, IE9 can display all your tabs as separate previews in the Windows 7 taskbar, which can be handy. It also has a neat "tab grouping" feature, where it will colour-code tabs. So, if you open a lot of links in new tabs, you'll be able to easily see which ones stemmed from which in the tree just by looking at their colours. It's a great way to wade through a large number of tabs at a glance (although favicons almost never load correctly, which seem to negate this effect).

Lastly, IE's pinned sites feature is actually pretty sweet. Microsoft has partnered with a number of web services, like Facebook, to get better Windows integration with those services. By dragging the favicon of one of those sites to your URL bar, you'll get extra features, like a customised jumplist, notification badges, or even media controls when you hover over the icon. These are the kinds of things only Internet Explorer can do, since it's made by the same people that make Windows itself — and it's actually pretty handy for certain sites.

The Bad: It's Still Missing a Lot of Powerful Features

IE may have caught up on features like tabbed browsing, but it's still pretty far behind Firefox and Chrome in terms of power user features. I was very stressed to find some of my favourite features missing, and it really put a damper on my productivity. I'm talking things like:

  • Syncing your bookmarks, passwords, preferences and other data to other computers
  • Being able to pin tabs to the side of your tab bar
  • Keyword search engines
  • Spell checking (though you can get this via an add-on)
  • Automatic Session Saving — IE's only works if you manually restore a session, and it only works for one window at a time (you can't restore multiple windows from your last session, just one of them)
  • A worthwhile extension library

The lack of worthwhile extensions is particularly bad, especially for power users like you and me. Internet Explorer's selection of add-ons is awful. Really, truly, awful. In fact, it really should just be treated as if it doesn't have extensions to begin with. Sure, you have a few small ones — like Speckie for spellchecking — but there just aren't very many. And, the ones it does have don't usually do a great job: Simple Adblock only blocks some ads and doesn't get rid of the space they waste when it does; Xmarks syncs your bookmarks just fine but doesn't seem to add any of Xmarks' other features, Trixie adds support for only some Greasemonkey scripts and so on. This isn't exactly Microsoft's fault, but it's still a point against using IE — you will have very little room for customisation or even feature improvement. What you get is what you get, and what you get is pretty bare in terms of power user features.

Oz editor note: I'd add that the lack of keyword bookmark support is a major issue with IE — no way could I use it as my main browser without that feature.

Similarly, even though IE is more standards-compliant than ever, some sites still have issues in Internet Explorer or just plain don't support it. It's ironic since this is what IE used to do to other browsers, but either way it still made it impossible for me to do certain parts of my job — like upload images to the site with our HTML5 uploader, check our site's stats with Chartbeat, or send posts to Twitter and Facebook with Socialflow. Heck, I couldn't even click on the "Watch On YouTube" button on embedded YouTube videos to open them in a new tab — that feature just didn't work in IE. Your mileage would obviously vary, but that was a pretty big deal killer for me.

Whether it's IE's fault or not in any individual case is irrelevant — if I can't use one of the sites I need, I don't want to use that browser. IE9 does have a "compatibility mode" for fixing problems, but it didn't fix any of the issues I had, so I was forced to go back to using Firefox for those tasks.

Note, however, that Internet Explorer 10 — which is on the way with Windows 8 — seems to fix some of these issues. Sites that previously told me I couldn't use Internet Explorer worked fine, though I did still see a weird rendering issue here and there — but the browser is significantly improving in this area.

So Does It Still Suck?

So does Internet Explorer suck as much as everyone says it does? No. The modern IE is actually pretty solid: it's updating quicker than it used to, and it actually cares about following standards (though it's still getting there in terms of support from certain web apps). Sadly, in the time it took IE to become something better, users — particularly the kind of power users that read this site — came to expect something more from their browsers. Syncing, extensions, shortcuts and other advanced features have become a staple of our web browsing, and many of us would be completely thrown off by using IE.

So do I recommend you use it? Not really. You're going to be pretty disappointed if you're a power user. But do we still think you need to pry it from the hands of every Windows user you see using it? Definitely not. There's no need to secretly replace Internet Explorer with Firefox on your grandma's computer, or give an hour-long presentation to your friends about why they should install Chrome. These days, Internet Explorer is more than fine for the non-power user crowd, and as long as they keep their software updated, they're going to be fine (though if they see any issues, you can always give them Chrome or Chrome Frame as a good backup).

Who among you has actually used Internet Explorer 9? What were your experiences like? Do you still tell people to use something else? Share your (non-trollish) thoughts with us in the comments.


Comments

    Short memories can cost us dearly.

    Do NOT trust IE. If Chrome/Firefox/Opera work for you, then stick with them. We don't need another divide and conquer strategy to divide the Internet again. That battle raged on for years and caused a lot of damage. Do NOT trust IE.

    James 2nd

      Because you know, IE is the browser of choice by Nigerian e-mail scammers and Eastern European e-match makers.

        IE6 if their browser of choice, didntyaknow?

      This is it exactly. We don't refuse to use IE because it's necessarily a bad browser. We refuse to use it because, last time it was the dominant browser, the web stagnated for *years*.

    Very timely article, as I have recently switched from Chrome 18 to IE9.

    The main extensions I use in Chrome are Mouse Gestures, Neat Bookmarks and Adblock Plus. Convenient as it is, the memory leak issue was pravalent.

    Although IE9 does not have extensive addons, it makes up for its slick and streamlined interface. The "Tracking Protection" is essentially their version of Adblock.

    I am not too sure on the security of the browser compared to others, but I am enjoying the simplicity and minimal design of IE9.

      as opposed to the cluttered and overbearing design of Chrome?

      You just need to visit a couple of site that load up and execute a huge amount of javascript code or make lots of ajax calls to test chrome or IE. I use IE every now and then on my home network (like I'm making config changes to my router, for example). It's okay...nothing special.

      Chrome, while fast most of the time, is a bit of a bastard. It literally thrashes your disk if you have more than 30 tabs open. Memory leaks are consistently present and even a single window with 2 open tabs have alteast 4 processes running.

      I read a lot of news, financial info and stats online...I usually have alteast 40-50 tabs open across 5 or 6 windows that I switch across as needed. Only Firefox (although getting pretty bloaty) works for me. I also like the prefbar and noscript extension in firefox, which doesn't exist on IE and has a cheap imitation on chrome (although to give the developer some credit, he was constrained by chrome's architecture). Firefox is still the all-round ass kicker browser out there period.

    I'd give it a go but you just can't customise the top bars to a more user friendly layout. Something I do rather heavily in FF and to a lesser extent Chrome.

      As for Addons, there's what 6-7? All for a simple location button on the task bar to Facebook etc..!

    This post sponsored by Microsoft..

      This comment sponsored by Google

        This reply sponsored by mozilla

          This further reply wishes it could be sponsored by Netscape but noone remembers it now...

    IE is a good browser. I've been back on IE as my main web browser for the last couple years. I'm a power user and a developer and it is more stable than FF or Chrome. I do go back to FF for firebug - can't be beaten - but it is IE for everything else. In fact every time I switch to Chrome or FF I have some issues, crashes or lockups that never seem to happen in IE.

    As for extensions I really don't use many, I use the browser for browsing and don't need anything extra/fancy. For bookmark synching I've used Xmarks for years and use a tracking list as a replacement for adblock - not quite as good but does the job. For everything else there is generally an online app that will do the task.

    I will never, ever, encourage Internet Extorter usage, ever... .ever.

    Ever.

    IE is so far beyond forgiveness. Maybe in 2050 I will reconsider, once every last cell in my marrow which remembers the countless nights lost by its f$#k fest of web development.

    No thanks, the 'e' symbol will forever be ingrained in me like a rape victim. F it.

    "hate on" ????

    Terrible use of a preposition. The whole article lost it's potency for me.

      Mate, if you're going to correct someone for using popular slang like "hate on", at least get your versions of "its" right.

        ^This. Love it when grammar Nazi's get it thrown back at them. :) Kudos Perfiasc.

    Interesting timing for this article. I've been using IE9 at work for the past 2 weeks, and I eventually had to sneak a Firefox installer in so I could switch. It was constantly crashing, and when it did manage to load it often took upwards of a minute, even when loading our local intranet page. If I opened a new tab and manually typed in a URL - CRASH! Right-click -> Open in new tab, forget about it. Although, I should stress I think the budget video card in my work PC is probably a serious contributing factor to this, it's worth noting that Firefox has performed faultlessly since being installed.

      "sneak a Firefox installer in so I could switch."

      My workplace uses IE8 and it sucks. Aside from single sign-on on the enterprise network, it offers not benefit over other browsers. I snuck in firefox on a USB drive. You can download a portable version of Firefox from portableapps.com (along with other awesome apps - all portable) and load it up at work from the USB drive. Hell you can even install extensions on it like you would on a normal install. Works like a dream.

    I've found IE9 to be quite adequate. I have some sites pinned which is convenient, but otherwise I use Chrome for the speed.

    All my browser troubles come from Adobe Flash crashing, usually from the adverts on these Allure Media sites.

    - When Flash crashes in IE, IE crashes too losing all open pages.
    - When Flash crashes in FF, FF sometimes crashes too (losing all open pages, but can recover previous pages open on reopen) but mostly after a wait will kill Flash and its fine again.
    - When Flash crashes in Chrome, After a short wait Chrome offers to kill Flash and then continues on fine.

    IE 9 is fine, but as a web developer i'm never touching another IE for what MS did to me

    Nitpick the first:
    "During this time, Firefox took hold, innovating with features ... such as tabbed browsing and built-in spellcheck..."
    Pretty sure Opera had them already.

    Nitpick the second:
    "IE9 ...does have a few useful things that other browsers don’t. For example, IE9 can display all your tabs as separate previews in the Windows 7 taskbar".
    Firefox: Open Options->Tabs, check "Show tab previews in the Windows taskbar".

    I use IE9 for some MSDN sites, Firefox at work and Chrome at home.
    I IE10 when I tried out the Win8 customer preview, behaves pretty admirably, if it wasn't for all my usual extension needs (such as gestures and video download helper) it'd probably be a while before I switched off it.

    I switched from Firefox to Chrome when it came out, then Chrome to IE9 when Windows 7 came out. Now using IE10 on Windows 8. It has spell checking. The only extension I use on FF/Chrome is feedly. But I am just as happy with Google Reader. IE 9/10 is fast and it works. Also think I prefer the font smoothing. Although to tell the truth there are still websites that won't work with IE and will have to load in another browser. But that is usually bad design on behalf of the website.

    I don't mind IE 9 but the lack of add-ons is a deal-breaker. Firefox with Fire-FTP and Download Statusbar is just too much better. I don't have too many problems with Firefox crashing, maybe just a few times a year, and it also displays a thumbnail of each tab in the Taskbar preview.

    IE9 works alright on one of my computers, has a knack of crashing certain sites on another computer (on which I mainly use Firefox), and got dumped for - of all things - IE8 on a computer belonging to a family member for the same reasons.

    Also the lack of customisation of the interface is really annoying for me. Plus the default tabs-on-side layout I find useless, and tabs-on-bottom wastes space.

    I find it interesting that all these people hold grudges against MS for "screwing with web standards", but nothing on the W3C, who in many cases set their standards to the opposite of what MS had already implemented, seemingly just to dick with them.

    (For example, when tracking mouse button state changes, ms had 0 to represent no mouse button down, 1 for left, 2 for right, 4 for middle. You could then bit combine them for a complex state. WC3 had 0 for left, 1 for right. No way to tell is no mouse button was down. MS's way was obviously the better option, but w3c went with a different option for the sake of being different to MS).

      =/
      wow

    I don't use IE because it makes my life as a web developer too hard.

    I had two browsers on my PC for ages as my fiancee kept logging me out of all my services whenever she needed it. It was only a few months ago that I found that Chrome has profiles and it was simple to switch between them. This and the bookmark syncing between home and work is the reason that I would not go back to IE as my default browser.

    I use a combination of FireFox, IE, and Chrome day in day out (I rotate between the three depending on what I'm doing); each has it's strengths and weaknesses.

    IE that is Internet Explorer will never ever set foot in my PC.

    Like most veterans of Microsoft's war against the open web, it will take years before I use IE seriously again.

    Whatever, I don't like IE browser, From my experience, it opens page slowly compared with the chrome, firefox or even Avant browser I used. Maybe it's just my illusion, but the ubiquitous script errors make me
    angry, I don't think I will back to IE any more.

    Strange thing is many sites that say they don't support IE actually do, if you just open the Developer Tools, and click Tools > Change User Agent > Google Chrome (for say). It's just the pathetic web developer uses navigator.userAgent and rejects anything with MSIE. As for IE not supporting standards, let's get something straight. In the past, when IE was non-standard, developers complained. Now, they're complaining that IE doesn't full support HTML5 and CSS3. Last time I checked neither of those aren't standards.

    My issues with IE9 are strictly with the compatibility issues that keep getting pushed along. When you have to open up the developer tools to switch to different modes to get a page to work. That is asking too much for the average PC user to do. Sure the most popular sites Top 100 I guess have managed to support IE9 very well. Trouble is the rest of the web is full of sites only supporting IE or totally compliant or a mixture of the two. I am not a huge Chrome fan its almost over simplfied. But I rarely find it crashing, not rendering properly or not working with a site well enough to use that site. IE9 is awful, I tend to switch on the compatibility mode just to try and get most sites to work. That way I don't have to fiddle with settings all the time wondering what that site supports.

    Until IE improves its launch time, I'm staying away. I'm closing and opening new tabs all day and even just the smallest addition to the launch time is noticeable, and even in IE9 it doesn't compare to Chrome. Also for months when users asked us to make their default search Google, the Microsoft add-ons page had the Google search hidden under layers and layers of pages - more disgusting tactics to stop anyone but the most advanced users from changing the default search away from Bing.

    Microsoft used and abused us for years with IE. Now it's time to use and abuse them and see how they like it.

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