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IE10 in Windows 8: Metro style vs. desktop style

Windows 8 packages Internet Explorer 10 in two different flavors--Metro and desktop, each with their own pros and cons. Which one is better, and how can you manage both?

IE10 in Metro mode
IE10 in Metro mode
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

For better or worse, IE10 is one of those Windows 8 apps with a split personality--part Metro and part desktop. Microsoft dubs it a "Metro style enabled desktop browser," which means that technically it's a single app that offers two different "experiences."

That sounds cool in theory. But in reality, bouncing back and forth between the Metro browser and the desktop browser can be clumsy and jarring. Both flavors do share the same history list, but otherwise there's a lack of consistency and standardization between the two.

I like the design of the Metro version. It's clean, quick, and simple. No fiddling with menus, toolbars, or other items. The browser opens to display a blank screen or your previous page with no distractions. Right-clicking in the browser window then reveals the navigation bar at the bottom with the address field, backward and forward buttons, and other options.

Clicking in the address bar displays thumbnails of frequently used sites and pinned sites, letting you easily return to any previous site. If the site you need isn't listed, you can start typing the first few characters in the address field. IE10 will search its database of popular sites to try to find the right one. Any site you visit then becomes part of the browser's history. The address field also serves as a search field, so you can enter any term to search for it on the Web.

A bar at the top allows you to open a new page in another tab and move from one open page to another. Other options let you close individual tabs or all open tabs and launch a new page in an InPrivate tab. You can also pin any site to the Metro Start screen, search for content on the page, and open the page in the desktop version of IE.

But in keeping with the new Metro approach, printing or e-mailing a Web page is no longer done within the browser but rather through the Charms bar.

You can display the Charms bar by moving your mouse to the upper right or upper left hot corners of the screen. You can then click on individual charms. The functions within the Charms bar change depending on the current app. With IE open, the Search charm lets you search the Web, the Devices charm lets you print, and the Sharing charm lets you share a page via e-mail.

The Charms bar does create a consistent approach among all Metro apps. And it's not too bad once you get used to it. But I think it will confuse people accustomed to clicking File, Print and File, Send by e-mail to perform such basic tasks.

Because of its simplicity, the Metro flavor of IE also lacks certain key features.

It doesn't support plug-ins. Any site that requires Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, or other add-ons won't work. Trying to install a plug-in just switches you to the desktop flavor.

You can't create and manage a list of favorites divided by folder and subfolder. Your only option is to pin your favorite Web sites to the Start screen, where there's no effective way to organize them, especially as they grow in number.

So I can see the Metro edition of IE as good for quick browsing to relatively simple sites, but not as a tool for people who want to use the browser for work, entertainment, or other common tasks.

In contrast, the desktop version of IE10 provides the browser experience we all know, with the usual toolbars, menus, Favorites, and other familiar items. It may not be as pretty or as clean as the Metro flavor, but it works.

IE10 in desktop mode
IE10 in desktop mode Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

So how do you choose between the two to create a smoother browsing experience?

Well, in some cases, the choice is made for you. By default, launching a link in a Metro app opens the Metro version of IE. And launching one in the desktop opens the desktop version, says Microsoft. But you can change that.

Open the desktop version of IE10. Click on the Tools icon at the top right of the browser and then select Internet options. Click on the Programs tab. You'll see a section called Opening Internet Explorer with an option to choose how you open links. You can change the default to always open the Metro version or always open the desktop version. You can also set the behavior to open Web sites pinned to the Metro Start menu in the desktop edition.

One limitation is that only your default browser can offer both a pure Metro and a pure desktop view. Non-default browsers will function strictly as desktop apps. Mozilla and Google are working on versions of their respective browsers designed to work as Metro-style-enabled desktop browsers.

So what will happen when all the various browsers battle to become the default in Windows 8? That's sure to be yet another source of confusion and potential controversy greeting the upcoming OS.