Internet Explorer 9 review

For years Internet Explorer has been a bit of a joke; buggy, slow, insecure and breaking web standards. Well, IE 6 might have been all that; IE 7 had so much catching up to do that it didn’t address enough standards, although it did make significant progress on security. IE 8 wasn’t that slow, unless - like most people - you ended up with dozens of addons you didn’t know were installed grinding it to a halt, but the big idea of Web slices and Accelerators never caught on and you couldn’t call it a “modern” standards-based browser.

None of that is true of IE 9; it’s screamingly fast, includes a good range of web standards, has an interface so minimal you can be forgiven for thinking it’s trying to be Chrome, has some really innovative security and privacy ideas - and the option for pinning sites is popular with real websites. It’s not the IE you know and mock; of course, it’s not perfect, but if you haven’t used IE in years you’ll at least want to try it out.

Every Windows PC starts out with IE, and most of them have a slew of IE addons from Microsoft, Skype, Adobe and other software companies. Almost the first thing IE 9 does when you install it (after asking if you want to swap suggestions for interesting websites for anonymised data about where you click on the web) is pop-up a dialog telling you how many fractions of a second those addons add every time you open a new tab - and give you a button to disable them straight away. But IE isn’t just fast opening new tabs. It’s fast at JavaScript (beating shipping and pre-release versions of all the other browsers on the Sunspider benchmark - especially on multicore CPUs where it uses the second core to speed up JavaScript), fast at page rendering and fast at everything else that goes into putting a web page on screen, thanks to full hardware acceleration.

Other browsers added hardware acceleration after Microsoft first demoed it in November 2009, but IE is still the only browser that accelerates everything in the browser - audio, video, fonts and images - using the GPU. If you have discrete graphics you definitely see the difference (try turning the hardware rendering on and off to try it out) but the final version is slightly faster on the low-end Intel integrated graphics many of us are stuck with. As websites add HTML5 audio and graphics, IE 9 is going to continue to have an advantage over Firefox, Opera and Chrome in the areas they don’t use hardware acceleration for.

Every browser crashes, but we found IE 9 stable on the vast majority of web pages (including JavaScript-heavy sites that crashed frequently in the beta) and on the exceedingly rare occasion that a page did crash only the tab in question was affected - and it automatically reloaded in every case. And IE 9 loads pretty much every page on the Web.

HTML5 is a moving target. There are parts of the assortment of specs popularly known as HTML5 that are far from fixed (like WebSockets and WebGL); there are parts of the related SVG spec that are used by little beyond the Acid 3 test and iTunes Extras and the SVG working group plans to remove or rewrite them soon; there are parts of the CSS 3 spec that are unlikely to change and others that are still being rewritten. The HMTL5, CSS 2.1, CSS 3, SVG, Canvas, ECMAScript 5, WOFF and DOM support that is in IE 9 is streets ahead of the standards support in any previous version of IE and it corresponds fairly well to the parts of the standards that are either finished or widely used and well understood. Geolocation is in IE 9, WebSockets and IndexedDB are relegated to prototypes for courageous web developers and WebGL is nowhere to be seen.

One controversial area in HTML5 is the Video tag; although the official line is that there’s no specific codec for Video, Google is promoting its WebM codec. IE plumps for H.264, on the grounds that it’s widely used - and widely hardware accelerated - but if you install the WebM codec that works in IE 9, so you get the choice.

The popular HTML test sites aren’t a good representation of the HTML5 and related standards; some cherry pick specs to test, others put undue emphasis on rare or even defunct specs. The last five points that IE 9 doesn’t score on Acid 3 are down to two technologies that the SVG working group plans to replace or retire. On the majority of real-world websites, IE 9 does well with complex pages and web apps - at least as they are today. The big question is how well IE 9 will keep up with faster releases of other browsers as more specs firm up; Microsoft hasn’t confirmed rumours that it will carry on doing “platform previews” for enthusiasts (and many businesses don’t want the browser to be a moving target itself). The Web will keep moving on, but the line in the sand that Microsoft has drawn will be just what the majority of mainstream users want, at least for now.  

IE 9 scores well for security as well; the exploits that took down IE 8 in the Pwn2own competition were already fixed in the IE 9 RC at the time of the competition, for example. The built-in malware protection is a refreshing change; instead of the usual nagging-nanny warnings asking over and over if you really want to download a file that you click through without reading, IE 9 calculates reputation for every executable download it comes across. If it’s a known file, signed by a reputable developer it just downloads and you can choose to open or run it, save it quickly in your Downloads folder or choose where to put it. The only time you see a warning is for a file that IE 9 hasn’t seen before or that isn’t signed by a known publisher - and you still get the option to run the file, but because the warning is rare you might just pay attention to it.

In testing, Microsoft says up to 40% of those unknown downloads later turn out to be malware. On the other hand, after we downloaded an innocent but unsigned blogging client that triggered the warning, when we downloaded the file on another PC a few days later it was no longer flagged (perhaps because it was checked by Windows Defender after download), so false positives don’t persist - and small developers aren’t unfairly penalised as long as they follow good practices like signing code.

Depending on how you look at things, ActiveX plugins are either a way to add extra options to the browser or a huge security hole. In IE 9 you can turn them off completely with one click; when you get to a page that doesn’t look right, you can click the blue “filtered’ icon in the URL bar - if there are ActiveX controls on the page that are blocked, you can click to turn them back on just for that site. Think of it as a Flash blocker on steroids. The same icon shows you if any tracking cookies are blocked on the page, although you have to download the tracking protection lists by hand to do that. Microsoft doesn’t create the lists, that’s done by independent groups and this is a slightly confusing feature as well as a very powerful one.

Each list blocks different ad and behaviour tracking services and a list can explicitly block or explicitly allow specific sites; if you want to use our Disqus commenting service, you can either unblock everything for the site or go into the list and unblock the Disqus tracking. There’s no option to choose what to block or unblock on a site without going through the whole list, so you end up guessing what might be missing. Tracking protection blocks content from an ActiveX control if it’s loading from a service your tracking list blocks, but the ActiveX can then load content of its own that the browser can’t control. So if you allow the Slideshare player - which uses Flash - to open a slideshow, that will allow the Quantserve cookie that Slideshare loads even if you’ve blocked Quantserve tracking. IE has a new API that ActiveX makers can use to integrate properly with tracking protection and it also sends the “Do Not Track” header that Firefox has proposed. We’d like to see a much clearer interface for managing tracking, but if you don’t want to share as much information about what you do and where you go online, IE 9 currently gives you by far the most protection.

The minimalist look of IE isn’t really about slavishly copying Chrome; it’s about getting the browser out of the way. You see that most when you pin a website to the Windows 7 taskbar, which makes it act a little like a Windows application; the back buttons take the colour from the site icon, the home button disappears and browser toolbars don’t load (although add-ons like third-party spelling checkers and Flash do). And the taskbar icon gets a jump list that the site can customise with links to useful pages, dynamic results like your recently played streaming radio stations, media controls in the thumbnail preview - the same kinds of things a Windows app can do. The more the site customises the pinning experience, the better it works - some sites like eBay have special offers to encourage you to pin the site because it reminds you to visit more often, and Microsoft says over 1000 sites are already customising their sites for pinning. Pinning your banking site to the task bar means you won’t type the URL wrong and go to a phishing site by mistake, either.  

Tab handling is a lot better in IE 9 than previously; you can close a tab without having to switch to it first, you can drag a tab out of the browser window to “tear” it off as a new window (very like Firefox) and if you drag it into either bottom corner of the screen on Windows 7 it resizes the window to take up half the screen using the Aero snap feature, which makes it very easy to check two sides side-by-side. Incidentally, if you find the colours used for tabs confusing it’s the same colour coding as previous versions - if you open several links from a search page in new tabs they all get the same colour to show they’re related. IE cycles through the various Windows colours rather than trying to match any of the pages.

Notifications change a lot in IE 9, from a pop-up dialog or infobar that stops the page loading to a notification bar at the bottom of the page that doesn’t. Again, the notification is at the bottom to be out of your way and until you’re used to looking down you might miss it, but if all the notification is doing is asking if you want to save your password for the site, it’s great to have it where you don’t have to deal with it while you get on with what you opened the site to do in the first place. You can pause and resume downloads from most sites from the notification bar or in the View Download dialog, which also shows you malware warnings if you haven’t responded to the notification. Not all downloads show up here; if you click Open or Run in the notification, IE assumes you won’t want the file again later, if you choose Save or Save As, it tracks the download. That makes sense but it would be nice to get the choice of saving all download details if you want, and the download manager is really more catching up with other browsers than doing much new.

The Chrome-like “one box” which combines the URL and search box came in for a lot of criticism during the beta. Some of that was all about personal preference (for everyone who wants the search box on the right of the screen you can find someone who likes having it on the left and the final version of IE 9 lets you choose between tabs on the same line or below the address bar). What you gain is the convenience of suggestions from your history, bookmarks and default search engine as you type, whether you’re typing a URL or a search. The main feature you lose is being able to repeat searches to add extra terms (or to pick a different search engine to use). The “query” icon that arrived in the release candidate gives you some of that back; click the question mark icon when you’re on a search engine page and the URL turns back into the keywords you typed - but you have to go back to the search page anyway and you can’t see the list of recent searches.

But when you go beyond that sleek, streamlined top level, the old IE interface is lurking to catch you up. The Favourites and history bar doesn’t seem to have changed at all since IE 8 beyond moving from the left to the right of the screen. And the Settings cog gives you the most useful settings - zoom, security and privacy tools, download manager, find (buried under the File menu). But if you want any other tools, you have to dig through the tabs and lists of Internet Options, delve through the umpteen addins that attach themselves to the right-click menu or clutter up the screen with the Command bar. If you don’t want exactly what Microsoft has put in the interface, you can’t keep the clean look. If we have a criticism of IE, it’s that you are mostly stuck with the choices Microsoft has made; often they’re good ones and less customisation means simpler support, but it can feel a little dictatorial.

Verdict

In 18 months of development, Microsoft has done an excellent job on IE 9; it’s a solid modern browser that’s a huge improvement on any previous version of IE, with privacy and security features no other browser can match today and we have few complaints about performance. The interface is, as always, a matter of taste. What you don’t get are tomorrow’s standards as well as today’s - which is impossible without a crystal ball. The problem for IE will be how it keeps up as the next wave of standards crystallise; IE 9 sets a high bar and Microsoft can’t afford to slow the pace of development on IE 10.