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My painfully poky week with IE 8

There are plenty of good things about the new version of Microsoft's browser. But I found its interface sluggish.

In the interest of broadening my horizons, I promised Microsoft I'd give Internet Explorer 8 a fair shake by trying the browser as my default for a week.

And, boy, am I glad that week is over.

Microsoft's browser rules the roost with about two-thirds of the market, according to Net Applications, which collects a broad set of data on which browsers people use. There's nothing like being built into the dominant operating system for winning a popularity contest. Microsoft takes advantage of that position by building instrumentation into IE that illuminates what a typical Web user is doing.

There's typical, and then there's me. As somebody who spends dozens of hours a week in a Web browser, I'm sorry to say IE 8 is not for me. Although my Web-heavy lifestyle isn't average, I believe the challenges I face on the Web foreshadow what the rest of the world will experience as the Internet inexorably encompasses ever more of our work and personal lives. I prefer browsers that aim toward where the puck is heading, as the tired but useful cliche goes.

IE 8 (download link) catches up to where the puck is today. It's definitely a big improvement over its predecessors, with some commendable features including default support for Web standards. And I do hope people upgrade.

It's just that in my personal experience, IE 8 is not in the same league as my default browsers, Google's Chrome or Mozilla's Firefox.

IE 8 can find RSS and Atom feeds for Web sites you can subscribe to, but only lets you use the browser, not Web sites, to view them.
IE 8 can find RSS and Atom feeds for Web sites you can subscribe to, but only lets you use the browser, not Web sites, to view them. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET News

There are competitive points from these rivals that one might have thought would weigh in to my antipathy for IE 8. Google makes a big fuss about Chrome's high-performance JavaScript engine, which lets it run Web-based applications with greater sophistication and alacrity. Firefox fans adore the wealth of extensions that can tailor the browser to innumerable specific needs without cluttering the interface for those who don't want such features. Microsoft counters with a study that shows its page-loading speed generally beats out rivals.

In reality, it was something more mundane that gave me a Pavlovian feeling of dread when I needed to use the browser: its interface is slow.

When it was time for basic interactions such as launching new tabs, switching tabs, closing tabs, commanding IE to open pages, and scrolling through pages, I found myself all too often waiting for the browser to respond to my mouse and keyboard. I did miss some Firefox extensions, even though I'm not a big user of them personally, and I did find Web applications like Gmail and Google Docs a bit slower. But those two gripes paled in comparison to performance.

Here's a sample diary entry from Tuesday, March 24: "31. Accidentally used Firefox for some browsing. What a relief!" I hadn't realized until that moment that I'd been inwardly cringing at IE 8 use.

The sluggishness problem got worse as my Lenovo dual-core laptop's 3GB memory was taxed by running the 10 or 12 programs I need to do my job. Most days, I shut down my Windows XP work machine once a day without thinking much about it. But during IE 8 week, I found myself craving a fresh start by mid-afternoon. IE 8 didn't bear the load as gracefully as rivals, especially as the tabs piled up.

Let me give some credit to Microsoft on the performance front, though. On my home machine, a Windows Vista 64-bit quad-core model with 6GB of memory, IE 8 was much more competitive with Chrome and Firefox, especially when compared with IE 7.

I liked the search box abilities built into IE 8.
I liked the flexible search box abilities built into IE 8. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET News

What I liked
There were a handful of features I liked about IE 8 besides the speed boost over IE 7. Chief among these features: accelerators, especially the one that would let me quickly show an address on a Windows Live map. It's not a competitive advantage that will lift IE above its competitors, but for me it was truly useful and time-saving, and already I miss it.

Web slices left me unmoved, perhaps because I didn't spend enough time signing up for feeds from publishers I cared about, but also because I didn't like losing the screen real estate. But I could see some folks enjoying it--the kind who aren't yet inundated with hundreds of RSS feeds.

I also think the security features have merit. Although I didn't encounter any malware or phishing warnings myself, I suspect the Net will be a safer place as people gradually upgrade to IE 8--or at least that the malware perpetrators will have to work harder. We all stand to gain if the number of spam-spewing, compromised computers decreases.

Another IE 8 improvement is tab isolation, which can keep the browser functioning even if one tab crashes. On three occasions over the week the browser shut down a tab that was misbehaving in some way; in one of those cases, the whole browser came down shortly after. Overall, though, I was disappointed with stability: in a week of IE 8 use, I had about as many browser crashes as with the raw developer preview versions of Chrome. The Firefox betas have crashed almost not at all for months.

Although I'm one of the rubes who likes Chrome's unified search and address bar, I did find IE 8's search options handy. You can get some preliminary searching done without running the whole thing, sampling the various search engines.

IE 8's colored tabs left me unmoved.
IE 8's color-coded tabs left me unmoved. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET News

Niggling nitpicks
Aside from the performance problem, there were other stumbling blocks in IE 8. The worst tripped me up about 10 or 20 times a day.

I copy and paste URLs from the address bar incessantly, and Chrome, Firefox, and Safari let me do so quickly as follows: Ctrl-L, Ctrl-C. It's programmed into my muscle memory. But IE sends me to an "open" dialog box with Ctrl-L, rather than highlighting what's in the address bar. So to copy an URL, I have to use the mouse.

The dialog box approach might be clearer to average users, but it was a hindrance to somebody who's constantly shifting Web addresses from one program to another. And if Microsoft is interested in clear explanations, why is the right-click menu to copy a Web address labeled "copy shortcut"? (Update 7:15 a.m. PDT: Reader Scott Strzinek points out that you can use F6 to highlight the address bar text. I'd still prefer Ctrl-L, but it beats using the mouse.)

Another gripe: on many pages, including Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Google Reader, clicking a link opens the page in a fresh tab in my preferred browsers. In IE, it would open a new window, making a mess of my already bursting-at-the-seams attempt to manage browser sprawl. The solution: get used to middle-clicking to keep the new page in an associated tab.

The dialog box to open a Web page, while seemingly innocuous, was the bane of my IE existence.
The dialog box to open a Web page, while seemingly innocuous, was the bane of my IE existence. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET News

The third biggest nit for me was tab navigation. I like where the new tabs appear--to the right of the tab from which they are spawned rather than to the far right of the list--but I had a hard time determining which tab is the active one.

It turns out the active tab is a smidgen taller than the others, but it's hard to detect. Unlike Chrome in particular, where the tab flows downward into the window, IE 8's tabs are graphically separated from the window they belong to.

The colored tabs that group related Web sites seem like a good idea in principle, but I found that they miscarried in practice for me. I found myself thinking the color was some sort of call to action. I grew inured after a few days, but I didn't ever find it useful.

Finally, no, IE, I do not want you to be my feed reader. I use Google Reader for various reasons, notably the ability to use any number of computers and two mobile phones at present.

Overall, my assessment depends on the point of comparison. I prefer Chrome and Firefox. Still, IE 8 is a big step forward from IE 7. And I, for one, encourage people to upgrade for the security alone.