Internet Explorer 9: Hands On, First Impressions

Note:  This is not a full review of IE9 in all its puissant glory but a quick tour of the new browser, its additional features and UI changes, and a quick check of its performance vis-à-vis the other major browser options.

Internet Explorer 9 debuted this week into a flourishing browser market; Microsoft's new browser will have to shine in order to win back any users who've since transitioned to Safari, Chrome, Firefox, or even Opera.

Internet Explorer 8

Internet Explorer 9

The first thing you'll notice about IE9 is that it's essentially been Chrome'd. Most of the various toolbars IE8 presented by default can be redisplayed in IE9. Tabs, once kept below the address bar, have moved to the side. The separate search and address boxes have been combined, while the Home, Bookmarks, and Tools buttons have all shifted to the right. Bookmark menu functionality hasn't changed much since IE8, but the smaller browser menu makes it feel less intrusive.

One of IE9's new features is the ability to "pin" websites. Microsoft describes this as follows: "click the icon to the left of the web address... or the tab for the website, or the website's icon on the New Tab page, and then drag it to the taskbar... That's it. Once a site is pinned, it shows up as its own thumbnail, separate from Internet Explorer."

Positioning the tabs by the address bar (renamed the Go Bar) is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it does free up more screen space, but it also limits the amount of space available for tabs before they start becoming annoyingly tiny or pushing off the edge of the screen. Fortunately, right-clicking on a tab and choosing "Show tabs on a second row" immediately switches to a more standard arrangement.

IE9 also mimics Chrome's utilitarian series of Tools / Options but we don't think it does so very well. Here are the options the two browsers present:

IE9 on the left, Chrome on the right.

Here, Microsoft attempted to cut down on available options, but mostly managed to make the list more complex. Under the 'File' menu, for example, are multiple commands that, when accessed via MS's long-familiar Menu bar, are spread variously between File, Edit, View, and Tools. The Safety submenu (shown above) is similarly confusing. "InPrivate" Browsing isn't as intuitively clear as "Anonymous Browsing" or a similar term might be, while users almost certainly have no idea whether or not they need tracking protection. It's not clear what it means to "Check this website," and very few users actually understand ActiveX enough to know whether or not they want to filter it. All of these options are completely valid, but MS hasn't yet learned to get out of its own way when it comes to building intuitive UIs and logically grouping information.

IE9's 'Downloads' information box (opened via Ctrl-J) is another example of this problem. Chrome and Firefox (both 4.0 and 3.6) use this space to display all file downloads, including the list of files users' chose to save via right-click. Opera is a bit more limited and only logs information in the download manager if you specifically choose to "Save to Download" folder.

Internet Explorer 9, however, doesn't appear to enable this functionality at all. It'll tell you if you downloaded your latest video drivers but not where you saved the interesting photos you found on Flickr.  Another feature IE9 incredibly still lacks is the ability to right-click on an image and choose "Copy Image URL." In every other browser, copying and forwarding an image URL is a three-step process.  Step 1:  Right-click. Step 2:  Copy URL. Step 3:  Paste. In IE9, one must still right-click, select Properties, highlight the URL, right-click, choose Copy, hit Cancel (to return to the browser window) and then paste. That's seven steps, assuming that the user manages to highlight the entire URL the first time around.

Let's switch gears, and talk performance. We ran both the Java SunSpider test and Google's own V8 benchmarks (v.6).

Note:  Minefield is the early Firefox 4.0 candidate we tested.

The scores here trend similarly. Internet Explorer 8 does its best impression of Custer's Last Stand, while FireFox 3.6 manages to stomp it--but is, in turn, stomped by everything else. IE9 wins SunSpider outright, and places just behind Opera, with Minefield 4.0b surpassing both. We're unsure what to make of Chrome's screaming fast score in V8, but the fact that the benchmark is written by Google leaves us unsure what Chrome's supposed incredible performance means in a real-world environment.

After a few days of serious years, we like IE9's performance, its additional features, and the way it integrates itself with Windows 7's taskbar. The UI issues leave us less than perfectly enthused, but MS could address them if it bothers to do so. Performance-wise, it's still an open field. We expect MS will release a few patches in the not-too-distant future that'll improve benchmark performance, while the final version of Firefox 4.0 will ratchet up the competition in its own right.

When IE7 and IE8 debuted, the greatest argument for using them boiled down to "They aren't Internet Explorer 6." IE9, in contrast, is a major refresh and a decent product in its own right. We're still skeptical, however, that it'll change browser usage trends all that much. There's plenty of improvements, but no 'must-have' capability that's likely to bring users back to the fold.