Will IE9 keep you from straying?

It seemed like forever coming but Microsoft finally brought its Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) web browser to market a few months back in March. It’s leaner faster and more broadly compatible than its predecessors – but is it enough to stem the flow of web users drifting away from IE?

This is the question everyone has been asking as successive browser market measurements suggest Microsoft’s once-iron grip on the web has loosened significantly: a recent Net Applications survey gave IE a 56% market share while Firefox had 22% Google’s Chrome 11% and Apple’s Safari 6% – roughly analogous to the overall market penetration of the Mac.

The early indications suggested IE9 had certainly gotten out there with 40 million downloads of the beta and 2.35 million downloads within 24 hours of its release. There’s no question IE9 is a browser for Microsoft’s future – yet even the most promising download figures of the new browser don’t mean users aren’t going to switch to Firefox Chrome or another browser that offers a better browsing experience.

There is a movement to embrace open standards such as CSS.

Look and feel

Today’s browsers present a remarkably unified face when it comes to look and feel. The feature-packed toolbars of yesteryear have given way to minimalist interfaces on all three platforms: tabs are aligned across the top of the window with an address bar and forward/back/refresh buttons rounding off the selection. IE9 and FF5 offer separate search boxes that can be configured to the search provider of your choice while all three also integrate searching into the address bar.

Because all three browsers offer similar interfaces it’s easy to jump into or between any of them. Basic functionality is similar save the little touches: for example IE9 organises your favourite sites in a 4 x 2 matrix and offers a ‘Discover more of the web’ feature that matches your favourites with those of other users with similar tastes.

One of the biggest changes in the new versions comes in their handling of add-ons. The new browser versions all isolate sites and give each tab its own memory space allowing individual tabs to be terminated in the event of a plug-in crash without bringing down the entire browser. Microsoft has taken this a step further with built-in performance monitoring for add-ins and easy steps to disable troublesome plug-ins in situ. Dialogues regularly suggest that you ‘speed up browsing by disabling add-ons’.

If you’re looking to customise your browser Firefox’s long history of add-on support means it still has way more options for customisation – as well as the Personas feature for easily skinning the browser – than its rivals which are starting down the same road. Firefox also offers the Sync bookmarks tool which syncs your bookmarks between computers and mobile devices.

Tab handling has come a long way with the latest versions allowing tabs to be dragged into their own windows and Firefox’s Panorama feature allowing tabs to be grouped for easy reference and organisation. This mirrors the ‘desktop folders’ metaphor of existing operating systems – and little wonder: think of these browsers as platforms and you get a sense of where they’re headed. New features like pinning tabs allow a sort of persistence for commonly-used web sites which IE9 allows to be pinned to the Windows 7 start menu as de facto applications.

Battle of the specs

One of the key driving trends behind recent browser versions has been the movement to embrace open standards – most notably Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 3 the still-evolving HTML5 and ECMAScript 5. Whereas Microsoft was known in early days for producing incompatible browsers that included proprietary features it has claimed moral high ground by claiming to embrace web standards in this version.

Performance has been a key factor for all three platforms which have optimised their JavaScript compilation and execution capabilities. Given the increasing complexity of today’s web sites boosting JavaScript performance was a good idea anyway – but reached the ‘crucial’ stage when an ever-more-mature Chrome started blowing away IE and Firefox in benchmark testing. IE9 and Firefox 5 both incorporate optimised JavaScript compilers that have boosted overall performance considerably with Microsoft going even further with IE9 to tap into secondary CPU cores for better performance.

Tests on standard browsing sites showed the browsers performed quite similarly.

Whether or not this has worked is up for some debate. Microsoft has gone out of its way to promote the speed and compatibility of IE9 via its IE Test Drive site. And indeed in some benchmarks IE9 performs handsomely. However this makes it doubly interesting to see that IE9 is the only of the three browsers to fail its own benchmarks for web site compatibility.

The first hint of this issue came when comparing the HTML5 Test scores for the three major browsers which we installed side by side in a virtual Windows 7 test environment. Chrome scored 288 out of a possible 400 points FF scored 240 and IE9 scraped in a 130 score suggesting it still had yet to implement a broad range of HTML5 and CSS3 features.

These results were borne out in tests of Microsoft’s own Test Drive demos: deficiencies in IE9’s CSS3 Multi-Column Layout feature meant it was the only of the three browsers unable to render the CSS3 Flexbox Flexin’ test screen properly nor could it position the elements on the Tweet Columns page correctly.

Interestingly IE9 passed another benchmark – the CSS3 Selectors Test matching FF by turning in a perfect 574/574 score; Chrome passed just 558 of 574 tests. But it couldn’t match its two rivals in texts such as the text-shadow tag which IE9 couldn’t recognise but FF and Chrome both rendered without a problem.

That said IE9 did turn in some nice performance figures. It handily and consistently beat its rivals in the Maze Solver demo for example completing the test mazes in around 9 seconds compared to 108 seconds for Chrome and 136 seconds for FF. But all three browsers turned in modest performance figures for the Fishbowl test designed to push the browsers’ graphical rendering capabilities. Chrome was able to deliver 5fps with 10 fish and 3fps with 100 fish while FF turned in 7fps (10 fish) and 3fps (100 fish) and IE9 delivered 5fps at 10 fish and 4fps with a more densely packed bowl.

We compared the HTML5 Test scores for the three major browsers with some interesting results.

This was a surprise given Microsoft’s steady flow of demos showing IE9 running blisteringly fast compared to its rivals although many online developers have called BS on these demos by suggesting they’ve been tweaked to favour IE9. This would be an unwise choice since Microsoft’s HTML5 and CSS3 failures confirm it still has some way to go before it can claim the compatibility of its rivals.

Does this matter in common usage? Not necessarily. In tests on standard browsing destinations – news sites Gmail and the like – the browsers performed quite similarly. We also saw similar performance while working through many of the content-heavy sites listed here getting a sense of the respective browsers’ speed in loading and scrolling through the content as well as the faithfulness of their rendering.

However as users start demanding increasingly complex features to support new online services this could all change. If IE9 doesn’t pick up its standards compliance and rendering capabilities it seems to be at the most risk of providing a substandard online experience on non-Microsoft online properties; third-party web developers are trending towards standards – and as IE9’s declining market share has shown a growing number of web users aren’t afraid to leave the Microsoft sandbox.

More extensive benchmarking has been done elsewhere but the results provide interesting fodder when choosing the best browser to use. For casual and non-demanding users you’re unlikely to notice the difference between the three browsers for now especially once any necessary plug-ins have been loaded to equalise multimedia capabilities. Chrome leads the pack in compatibility and has many fans for its slimmed-down design and resultant speed.

However if you’re big into customisation you’re probably best to go for Firefox at this point: a massive library of add-ons themes and strong standards and developer support are among the many reasons Firefox is used by more than 1 in 5 web users.