Part One of the Windows 8 review coverage
There was a time when Microsoft’s web browser commanded about 95% of the global market. Internet Explorer was the way to browse the web, and deep integration into the equally-ubiquitous Windows operating system left Netscape without a leg to stand on. Internet Explorer got so big, in fact, that the federal government got involved, suing Microsoft for anti-competitive business practices. There was even talk of splitting up Microsoft, AT&T-style. Of course, that didn’t come to pass, but Microsoft was required to separate Internet Explorer from the core of Windows somewhat. In Europe, they faced even tougher restrictions: Windows 7 and up have to prompt the user which web browser they want to use on first boot, rather than shipping with IE installed by default.
The real decline in Internet Explorer’s market share, however, came of course from the explosion of two alternative browsers: first, Mozilla’s Firefox in 2004, and later Google’s Chrome in 2008. I have used Firefox off and on since the early betas (still called Phoenix at the time, before trademark issues forced Mozilla to change the name) and have been using Chrome as my primary browser for the last couple of years. I, like millions of others, eventually came to view Internet Explorer as “that thing that downloads Firefox/Chrome on new computers.”
Microsoft’s inaction in improving Internet Explorer compounded this. Microsoft left Internet Explorer largely unchanged for over five years after 2001’s release of Internet Explorer 6, adding only a handful of new security features and a rudimentary pop-up blocker in 2004’s release of Windows XP Service Pack 2. In that time frame, Firefox was developed from an early fork of the little-used Mozilla internet suite (itself a successor to the ill-fated Netscape Communicator) to a stable, powerful, standards-compliant web browser. Features like tabbed browsing became accepted facts of life by Firefox users, while remaining unavailable in the lagging IE6. As more and more “tech-guys” like myself began recommending Firefox even to non-technical friends, and they found out about these wonderful “new” features, Internet Explorer’s once monolithic market share began to slowly decline.
In 2006, Microsoft sat up and took notice. Internet Explorer 7 was released in October, bringing somewhat improved standards support and performance, as well as a completely revamped user interface. Tabbed browsing was now front-and-center, alongside features like right-clicking text to search or e-mail it, filtering of websites for known malware providers, and so on. It was a significant step up from Internet Explorer 6, but unfortunately still drastically lagged Firefox in performance and support of modern web standards. After the backlash against Windows Vista, Microsoft set about ensuring the timely arrival of its replacement, known as Windows 7. Alongside that launch in mid 2009 came Internet Explorer 8, focused on bringing more support for then-current web standards and improving security and stability through a technique called tab isolation. By all rights, IE8 was another significant step up from IE7, but there was a new force to contend with: Google’s Chrome web browser, which was setting new standards for performance and stability that even Firefox struggled to match. IE8 failed to match even Firefox’s speed and support for standards, and was greatly eclipsed by Chrome.
So now, “just” 18 months after the release of IE9, we again have a major release of Microsoft’s web browser in front of us. Internet Explorer 10 contains little in the way of new user interface design from IE9, but under the hood lies a completely new beast. There are two major questions facing us today: does IE10 have what it takes to win back users from Firefox from Chrome? And if not, can it least stem the tide of converts to those other browsers?
Again, on the surface, very little has changed in this new release of Internet Explorer. Sure, there’s the “Metro” tablet-friendly version, but since it performs (and largely behaves) identically to the desktop version, it’s of little consequence to the typical desktop user. On ARM-based tablets, running what is called Windows RT, you’re going to use Internet Explorer; you don’t have a choice. On standard Intel- and AMD-based systems, however, you’re usually going to be more focused on the desktop browsing experience. I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way, though: If you do have an x86-based tablet, you’re probably going to want to use Internet Explorer for the time being regardless, as there aren’t really touch-friendly stable versions of Chrome or Firefox just yet. Beyond that, though, you have the same IE interface we know from IE9, with all of the major UI elements on one line, dedicating the majority of the window to displaying the web page.
The end result is a very minimal interface with few surprises. As this is a Microsoft product, however, the usual bevy of detailed configuration options are still available under that gear icon in the top right. Your bookmarks are tucked into the little star icon next to that, although you can also display an optional favorites bar below the tab/address bar. Fortunately, it now uses a flat theme that fits in much better with the overall UI design. Tabs remain color-coded based on where they originated from; your Facebook tabs will be one color, your Ars Technica tabs another, and your TV Tropes tabs a sea from under which you cannot escape. If this annoys you, however, it’s easy enough to disable. Search is handled from the address bar, which also contains a single button for go/stop/reload, as is increasingly the case. The address bar itself is also color-coded: white under most circumstance, green when the site you’re visiting is using HTTPS encryption and has a verified identity – like your bank (hopefully) – and red when the site you’re visiting is a known/suspecting phishing or malware distribution site, or has an expired/invalid security certificate. There’s also one more button, which can be seen as the little blue “no” symbol in the above screenshot. This is part of IE’s Tracking Protection feature, which allows you to either manually specify sites that are not allowed to deliver cross-site content to you, or download a list of known tracking advertisers to block all at once. With the correct list, it can function as a makeshift AdBlock Plus, which is good because IE10 still lacks a proper extension system a la Firefox and Chrome.
If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because it hasn’t really changed much (or at all) from Internet Explorer 9. That’s not to say there are no new user-facing features in IE10, however. At least in conjunction with Windows 8, IE10 brings automatic syncing of bookmarks, history, autofill information, and so on. While it remains to be seen whether or not this syncing will make it to the Windows 7 version when it lands in November, it’s definitely a key area of improvement for the browser where available.
Under the hood is where things get interesting, however. Internet Explorer 10 includes several new security features, significantly improved performance, and perhaps most importantly, much-improved support for evolving web standards.
Security is a big focus of every browser vendor these days, as evidenced by Apple’s recent removal of Java from Safari after several high-profile security breaches. Another common source of security problems is Adobe’s Flash Player, and Microsoft has decided to tackle that directly with IE10. Flash Player is now integrated into the browser, and security updates will be distributed directly through Windows Update by Microsoft. While at first it seems as though this would delay critical security patches, it has another, more substantial effect: since Windows is configured to install all security updates automatically by default, it will ensure that Flash is actually up to date for all IE users, and not just those who actively seek out updates for it. There’s also improved tab isolation and 64-bit address space layout randomization (ASLR) to help protect against remote code exploits. Microsoft’s SmartScreen filter that checks websites for known security risks has also been expanded to check downloaded files. After IE6 became known as one of the least secure browsers every made – so bad that the Department of Homeland Security advised US citizens to update to a newer version – Microsoft has almost completely turned that around. Especially on Windows 8, IE10 in Enhanced Protected Mode is probably the most secure browser available on any platform.
So that’s security, what about performance and standards support? First subjectively, performance is excellent. The browser springs to life instantly, sites load quickly, and scrolling around them is perfectly fluid. IE10 takes full advantage of the pervasive hardware acceleration in modern versions of Windows by using Direct2D to render everything. This provides the same absurdly smooth experience you’d get on Windows Phone, but with vastly better page load times courtesy of the hundreds-fold increase in processor power on a typical desktop or notebook machine. Empirically, page load times are comparable to or even faster than Chrome and Firefox on my desktop. It has also proven perfectly stable in my use.
I have run into a couple of sites that don’t work as they should, though they’re certainly very few and far between. The most notable example is the CynagenMod Gerrit Code Review system, which fails with this bizarre error:
Though it actually appears to be an error with the way the site handles IE10, broken is broken and if you need access to that site, IE10 is a non-starter. On the other hand, I sincerely doubt many people do.
But that’s enough subjective observations, it’s time to get down to the meaty core of any review: benchmarks! I’ll be comparing IE10 to the three major competing browsers across a variety of performance and standards-compliance benchmarks. Reflecting the fact that IE10 won’t be available for Windows 7 for a couple more weeks, I’ve used the current beta versions Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. I tested with the latest stable versions as well to ensure there were no regressions, and there were not, so these numbers should remain relevent for the next couple of months at least. Since there’s no way to run IE9 on Windows 8 – or Safari 6 on Windows at all – they won’t be included for the performance section, since running performance benchmarks for different browsers on different hardware would be an exercise in total pointlessness. They will appear for the standards tests, however.
The system being used to run these benchmarks is my personal custom-built desktop, powered by a Core i7-2600k overclocked to 4.2 GHz and backed up by 8GB of DDR3-1333 RAM at 9-9-9-24-1T timings. I did a clean install of Windows 8 early on the 26th, onto my 128GB Samsung SSD 830 Series.
Here we see a less rosy picture for Redmond’s latest browser. IE10 manages to demolish Opera, but suffers a significant loss next to the latest versions of Firefox and Chrome. Curiously, even at their own benchmark Mozilla is upstaged by Google. A problem that, as we’ll see, Google does not have in their benchmarks.
Again we find IE10 sitting pretty between Opera and Firefox, though this time Chrome’s lead is much more commanding. IE10 isn’t the slowest browser around in this test, but it’s also far from the fastest.
Google has a new entrant in the benchmarking space, as well, called Octane. it is a more thorough update of the V8 benchmark suite with a few new tests and some modifications to the old ones. Currently at version 1, and again – higher is better:
For those wondering, Opera’s score of 0 is a result of the browser’s inability to complete the test: both the stable and Beta versions of the browser crashed about 2/3rds of the way through on my system. Other than that, the results are basically the same, with IE trailing Firefox which in turn trails Chrome. Beginning to see a theme here?
Here we see Internet Explorer 10 take it on the nose for the first time, finally letting Oslo squeeze out something other than last place. Like I said, this is a very quick-and-dirty test so I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it, but there it is.
Next we move on to our broader performance tests. First up is another member of the old guard, Futuremark’s Peacekeeper. Recently updated to include several new and revamped tests, this tests all aspects of a browser’s performance, from scripting to CSS transforms to HTML5 video playback. The final score is in “points” so higher is better:
Finally, Opera gets a chance to prove it isn’t universally awful, and Firefox gets to take a dive for it to do so. IE10 manages to just barely cling to 3rd place above Firefox. Chrome’s crushing dominance of all you lesser beings remains largely untarnished.
For our next general performance test, we have RightWare’s BrowserMark. A test designed for smartphones in the ARM11 era, it should generate some pretty huge numbers, but still serves its purpose as one of the precious few non-Javasciprt-specific browser benchmarks. Once again, higher is better:
I should have just named this article “Google Punches The World.” Otherwise, IE once again edges out Firefox for 3rd place, and Opera manages to claim another second place finish.
Our final benchmark in this set is Microsoft’s own Chalkboard HTML5 benchmark. While there are many, many benchmarks on Microsoft’s IE Test Drive website, this one produces convenient scores (in seconds; lower is better) and frankly, they’re all going to tell basically the same story.
Microsoft shows those sissies at Mozilla how to rig a benchmark with all the subtlety of an wooly mammoth in a racist Romney t-shirt.
This final performance benchmark is a bit more “real world.” I have a folder of 22 news sites I visit regularly, so I timed how long it too each browser to open them all at once, in separate tabs. Obviously, faster is better:
Internet Explorer 10 actually manages to pull out a very slight win in this “real world” test. This mirrors my subjective experience – IE loads sites very quickly in day-to-day usage, regardless of what synthetic benchmarks show. As for the dismal showing put up here by Firefox…let’s say that also mirrors my subjective experience with Firefox these days. Mozilla needs tab isolation, and they need it yesterday. While the other browsers run each tab in its own process and can take full advantage of my Hyperthreading-enabled quad-core i7-2600k, Firefox runs every tab in the same process, and they all get in each other’s way competing for the same single thread.
Now we’re seeing some real progress! IE9 dragged the pack, but IE10 moves up to tie Safari (of all things) for the lead, slightly edging out the latest efforts from Google and Opera Software. Firefox is still a bit of a mess. If you’re curious, yes: IE10 and Safari 6 failed the same 7 tests, and every other browser failed them too; they’re a very new part of the standard that clearly no one has had time to implement fully.
So far so good for IE10, but what about the future? HTML5 is the “next big thing” in web design, so extensive support for the features laid out in the still-draft standard is key, especially since many of them are starting to see use now. The HTML5 Test is, as the name implies, a web site that checks how many of the draft standards are supported by your browser and gives you a score out of 500. It also gives you bonus points based on which media formats your browser supports for the <video> and <audio> tags. The two charts show the total scores and bonus points of each browser, respectively. Once more, higher is better:
IE10 doesn’t turn in the greatest showing here, falling behind the curve on both total score and bonus points. Take note, though, of the significant improvement over IE9’s score. As the HTML5 specification is still a work-in-progress, Microsoft says they’ve chosen to focus on standards that are “unlikely to change before the final draft or have already entered widespread use.” Fair enough, and they’re not drastically behind here. Of course, Google clearly disagrees, and is once again beating the stuffing out of everyone else.
That wraps up the statistics lesson. On the whole IE10 performs admirably but is rarely the fastest browser in any benchmark – that honor, much more often than not, goes to Google’s Chrome browser. It’s also not the most prepared for HTML5, though again that won’t be a final specification until some time in 2014, giving Microsoft plenty of time to catch up.
So the impetus isn’t there to switch back from Chrome or Firefox for a power user. What about the average user? Is IE10 “good enough” to stem the tide of users switching to other browsers? There, I believe, the answer is a resounding “yes.” IE10 is fast enough, rock stable, secure, and has a simple, elegant UI. For the average user those are the things that matter. Heck, I recommend you give it a shot too if you’re upgrading to Windows 8, or when it lands for Windows 7 if you aren’t. Because IE10 isn’t really good enough. It’s just plain good.