IE 6 for Windows phones: Interface improved

Microsoft updates Windows 6.5 phones with a new build of its mobile browser. We check out what's new and what's still lacking in Internet Explorer Mobile 6 for Windows phones.

For a long time, Microsoft's browser for Windows Mobile phones has been a weak link in the Windows Mobile operating system. Internet Explorer Mobile has been infamous for being ungainly, slow, and so thin on browsing features that many high-end smartphones come preloaded with Opera Mobile 9.5.

Internet Explorer Mobile 6, now found on Windows Mobile 6.5 phones, addresses some of these failings head-on. The overhauled interface pulls navigation commands out of a text menu and places five round icons on the bottom that are just large enough to tap with a fingertip or a stylus. The browser shows off a cool, light theme instead of teal (the exact color scheme may vary by carrier).

Following a trend in mobile browser design, the navigation in Internet Explorer Mobile 6 disappears after a few seconds of disuse, leaving a full screen for browsing and a small button to call back the buttons, which include a back button, favorites menu, keyboard call-up, zoom key, and "More" menu. The "More" button presents a list of further options, including copy and paste.

Internet Explorer Mobile 6
Internet Explorer Mobile 6 for Windows 6.5 phones Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In addition, Microsoft is offering an Adobe Flash Lite 3 plug-in to its hardware partners using Windows Mobile 6.5. Translation: If your phone is equipped with this plug-in, you can view Flash sites, such as banking and restaurant sites, and play Flash videos, such as those from YouTube. You may find streaming via the phone's built-in media player to be a richer experience, with greater playback controls and a full-screen option. (Click the link "Switch to standard video player.")

The browser's address bar offers autocomplete suffixes including .com, .org, and .net, and includes an option to search the phone's native search engine, which will vary by carrier and phone model. For instance, AT&T chose Yahoo OneSearch for the Pure, while an unlocked TouchDiamond 2 uses mobile Bing, Microsoft's new search engine. If there's a way to change the search engine, we haven't found it yet.

IE Mobile 6's URL bar also serves up suggested addresses for Web sites you've visited and pages that you've starred as favorites, to keep you from having to retype the same URLs over and over. It does not, however, suggest common search terms or other popular sites as you type--a pity.

Also new in this version is the ability to switch between a zoomed-out desktop view and a mobile-optimized view when you open a new Web site.

Behind the scenes, Microsoft opened up a framework for developers to start creating add-ons in HTML, JavaScript and CSS. RIAs (Rich Internet Application) are also welcome. Some widgets, like Microsoft Money, are expected to ship in the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, which won't be live until 7:00 am PT on October 6. Support for browser widgets and extensions is also under development in rival browser Opera Mobile 9.7 beta and in Mozilla's Fennec browser, i.e. Firefox Mobile (in alpha mode for Windows phones at the time of writing.)

Speed was also a sore spot in previous versions of Internet Explorer for Windows Mobile phones, which was known as Pocket Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, performance still felt sluggish in Internet Explorer Mobile 6. Microsoft claims instead of focusing on speed, it is trying to increase the browser's reliability. According to Microsoft, IE Mobile 6 completes tasks 80 percent of the time. In our informal tests, IE Mobile 6 lagged anywhere from 3 to 10 seconds behind the AT&T Pure's Opera Mobile 9.5 on the same Web pages over Wi-Fi, 3G, and Edge, and in two local cities.

Internet Explorer Mobile versus Opera Mobile

Internet Explorer Mobile 6 clearly improves on previous versions of the browser, but apart from speed, how does it compare to the stable version of Opera Mobile, version 9.5, the other mobile browser that's commonly preloaded on Windows phones? (Opera Mobile 9.7 beta is also available for testers, as is competing browser Skyfire. We chose Opera 9.5 as a basis of comparison because of its ubiquity.) Both IE Mobile 6 and Opera Mobile can download image files and apps, copy and paste, and cursorily manage bookmarks. Opera Mobile 9.5 trumps Microsoft's mobile browser with a password manager, tabbed browsing (albeit with a two-tab limit on our test phone), a download manager, find-in-page feature, and richer context menus--for example to share links via MMS, SMS, or e-mail.

Browsing on Internet Explorer Mobile 6
Don't get lost. A helper window shows your location on the page while you browse. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Internet Explorer Mobile 6 has some advantages over Opera Mobile, however. It combines the URL and search bar where Opera Mobile separates them. It nicely surfaces the search history in a drop-down arrow on the right edge of the URL/search bar. The "you are here" map (see screenshot) and ability to easily cut, copy, and clear URL text with a long press on the URL bar are nice perks. We find the navigation buttons slightly more intuitive in IE Mobile 6, too. In addition to Opera's beneficial features, we'd like to see Internet Explorer Mobile outfitted with a refresh button on-screen, not just in the More menu, and we'd like a way to navigation forward too, not just back. We'd also strongly like to reorder favorites by dragging and dropping, which would make the process of adding bookmarks to new folders much less ponderous.

The browser isn't as full-featured as we think it should be. (Microsoft says it's aiming for a browser simple enough for the average phone user.) Regardless, IE Mobile 6 is a drastic improvement over previous builds on the interface front, and it's suitable for basic users who want to browse, but who won't seek fancy customization. If Microsoft can manage to rev up the browser's speed and can deliver a robust extensions gallery, it may have a shot at developing its mobile browser more or less in step with Opera Mobile, Skyfire, and Mozilla Fennec--instead of chasing behind them.

Internet Explorer Mobile 6 is currently only available on Windows Mobile 6.5 phones. Stay tuned for a comparison of Internet Explorer Mobile 6, Opera Mobile 9.7 beta, and Skyfire on Windows Mobile 6.5.

 

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