Productivity

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.


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