IE8 Beta 1: the screenshot tour

With Vista about as popular as Kyle Sandilands and Firefox gaining ground in the browser space Microsoft needs to up the wow factor in its next major software release.

Internet Explorer 8 just released as public beta offers the opportunity for the company to make good on its promise to work better with online standards and make the Web the centre of your computing experience.

Nonetheless coming up with ways to improve browsers (a mature and competitive software category where no-one actually gets to make any money in the traditional “sell software” way) is an ever-more difficult task. What new features does the latest version of Internet Explorer deliver and what problems need to be ironed out?

Screenshots are from IE8 Beta 1 running on Vista without SP1; please keep your masochist jokes to yourself. We’ve ignored weird one-off operational problems in the descriptions below since that’s part and parcel of the beta experience. The final version is due to be released later this year although given Microsoft’s ability to hit targets in recent years we won’t be holding our breath. IE8’s major impact may not be felt until the next major release of Windows which is currently set for 2009 at the earliest.

First impressions

Beta 1’s download is positively anorexic by the standards of previous IE releases weighing in at a quite compact 11MB for Vista. Installation is also fairly speedy though in true Microsoft form you have to reboot when it’s completed. There’s a brief setup dialog and then you’re flung into the developer-centric and not particularly visual launch screen (but then this is aimed at developers not image-obsessed visual junkies. Actually can that comparison.)

At first glance the appearance of IE isn’t radically different — a few label changes and tiny cosmetic tweaks. Like IE7 menus are concealed unless you press the ALT key. Addresses are rendered with the domain name highlighted as an anti-phishing measure; it would be nice to have the option to switch this off. Many sites rendered impressively quickly but some (Facebook being a notable example) were tardy when compared to IE7 and (more pertinently) the current version of Firefox.

Perhaps the most obvious change is the renaming of the Links bar underneath the web address as the Favorites bar. This is a logical choice given that Microsoft has always used the Favorites label for storing sites. There’s no limit to how many you can add here though to avoid over-crowding the bar it can help to edit the labels for individual buttons (which otherwise incorporate full site titles).

One annoying niggle: while there’s always been a keyboard shortcut to add sites to the Favorites list (Ctrl-D) there’s no equivalent to add sites directly to the Favorites bar. Admittedly people focused on this kind of visual cue probably don’t know what keyboard shortcuts are but it would still be a handy addition.

Rendering the truth

Most of the main changes in IE8 are under the hood in the way that pages are rendered and this is where many of the initial problems in using the browser are expected to be encountered. IE8 defaults to strict standards-based rendering rather than allowing the various tweaks supported by Microsoft in previous versions. This represents the first visible enactment of Microsoft’s February commitment to make a stronger commitment to open standards.

In the long term this approach should improve site design and make it easier for pages to render on different devices so ideally developers will quickly move to support it. In reality many will resist for aesthetic reasons (“I don’t like the way this looks”) or practical reasons (“I don’t have time!”) which means in the short term IE8 users can expect some painful experiences on their favourite sites.

Any browser that decides to depart from current rendering practice is bound to cause a few hiccups with existing sites that assume different behaviour. Here’s IE8 trying (and failing miserably) to render Google Maps rendering the entire global map rather than enclosing it in a fixed area and sending the zoom controls all over the shop. Nasty. (Lest we be accused of choosing a biased example it’s worth noting that elements of Windows Live such as Hotmail and Spaces also fail to work properly in IE8. It’s also reasonable to assume that such high-profile sites will be recoded before IE8 goes into general release.)

Meanwhile on the title bar there’s a handy ‘Emulate IE7’ button designed to deal with this kind of problem by making IE revert to its previous rendering behaviour. What happens when we click it?

Well that’s annoying. Given the frequency with which developers (and users) will need to switch their systems to see how pages render with the different coding standards it’s a pity IE8 couldn’t deal with this change on the fly. Anyway there’s not much choice is there? Let’s close down restart and try again.

After relaunching in emulation mode the site renders perfectly well. Note however that the Emulate IE7 button hasn’t changed to reflect our altered state and clicking on it again produces the same restart message we have already seen. It would be more logical for this button to toggle its state and now say ‘Use IE8 mode’ or similar a feature we’d definitely like to see implemented in the next beta.

For the moment to switch back again to IE8 mode you need to disable Emulate IE7 on the Tools menu — and restart once again. Ideally this will be handled more elegantly and without the need for constant restarts in the final version.

When you encounter a site which screws up in IE8 you can optionally report it to Microsoft. To do this you need to download and install the (again literally titled) “Report a Web page Problem Tool” which takes up rather more space (1.64MB) than we’d have thought was strictly necessary for a link reporting tool. Note the circa 1995 form aesthetics on this page which suggest it was developed rather late in the product cycle.

Activity centre

One of the most-hyped ‘new’ features in IE8 are Activities (apparently the capital letter is compulsory). To quote MS’ party line: “Activities are contextual services to quickly access a service from any webpage.” In practice they are rather like add-ons in Firefox allowing the creation of widgets to share search or publish information. You could create an Activity to automatically include a selected piece of text or a URL in a blog entry (rather like the WordPress Bookmarklet) or to perform a search using a specific site.

At launch some of the Activities shown off included tools for adding content to Live Spaces blogs or searching out eBay items. With the latter for instance selecting text on screen and clicking on the hovering arrow that appears allows you to immediately search for products matching that description. This could be useful though if the Activities menu gets overcrowded (there are already six in the beta version mostly promoting Live services) it won’t be much quicker than a simple copy and paste.

One potentially controversial feature is the option to create “default” providers for particular kinds of activities since the boundaries of what constitutes an activity aren’t very clear and such features might easily be exploited by hackers. Microsoft does provide a warning about accepting activities during the installation process but it could be somewhat more prominent.

A more pressing technical problem is how Activities are rendered. Text-selection Activities are supposed to produce a hovering context arrow which you can click but on several sites we found that that this refused to appear. In this case it can be accessed on a standard right-click menu but this wouldn’t be obvious to most users especially if they’re not already familiar with the concept.

To find more Activities (annoyed by that capital A yet?) you can use the rather literally named Internet Explorer 8 Service Gallery. Again this isn’t particularly easy to locate: you need to right click or click on Page in the toolbar select More Activities and then select Manage Activities. Again this could be made simpler for consumers before the final release (we won’t be surprised if it’s one of the default buttons on the new Favorites bar at least for downloaded versions of IE8).

Another much-hyped feature of IE8 is WebSlices. Again to quote Microsoft: “Web sites can expose portions of their page as a WebSlice that users can subscribe to and bring that content with them on their links bar wherever they are on the web.” If you’re thinking that sounds rather like RSS feeds you’d be right — most of the WebSlice examples provide an on-screen live preview associated with a particular Activity.

While they are snazzier visually as our example from eBay shows we’re not convinced yet that this is an earth-shattering feature — Microsoft needs to come up with a more compelling demonstration to convince developers that the time spent on developing these will be worthwhile especially given the amount of site recoding that’s likely to be necessary anyway. Like Activities in our testing WebSlices also tended to work rather variably depending on which site was being visited at the time.

Other changes

IE’s built-in system to detect dodgy web sites has been strengthened and renamed from the very literal Phishing Filter to the broader Safety Filter. The latter is undoubtedly a clearer name though existing users will possibly be confused by the switch. The filter now also claims to be more effective at blocking sites which attempt to download malicious software though as ever you wouldn’t want this to be your only line of defence.

Automatic Crash Recovery is supposed to bring your browser back in what Microsoft describes as “the unlikely event of the browser crashing or hanging”. (Cue hollow laughter). To be fair we didn’t actually manage to crash IE8 during our early testing but experienced Windows users will welcome any option to improve recovery. The screenshot (supplied unlike the others here by Microsoft) shows a tab recovered after a browser crash.

IE8 also includes integrated developer tools designed to allow site designers to quickly debug their pages. It’s not clear whether these will be included in the standard final release of the package though with the current download size they don’t represent much of an imposition.

For corporate users the Group Policy settings for Windows have also been updated to reflect the new features in IE8 so companies can for instance make use of the Safety Filter compulsory (or ditch it in favour of another solution). (Consistent with Vista’s approach these are accessed within Control Panel not from IE8 itself).

In parallel with the release of IE8 Microsoft has also rolled out version 2 of Silverlight the technology it hopes will replace Flash as the main means of adding highly interactive applications to web sites. The new beta includes 40 new controls and is claimed to work equally well on both MS and non-MS browsers. The biggest challenge for Silverlight (and one that hasn’t changed with the new version) is convincing site builders other than Microsoft itself that it’s worth working with. While it can make sites look very attractive — Microsoft has rebuilt its own download centre using Silverlight — it does represent added gloss rather than real functionality for the most part.

IE8 is a beta product; there’s no official support channel and you’re very much on your own if you decide to use it. This is reflected in the online help which is currently almost entirely copied from the IE7 help system. As Microsoft’s own release notes point out: “Some topics will be broken or irrelevant.”