Internet Explorer 8 RC1: First Impressions
As a regular user of Firefox, I wanted to see if the browser's updated offering would be enough to cause me to consider switching over. IE has steadily been losing users to Firefox in recent months, with current estimates by Net Applications putting Microsoft at 71 percent of the market compared to Mozilla's 20 percent. Add onto that this week's news that the EU may soon mandate the inclusion of rival browsers within new Windows-based PCs, and it's more important than ever for Microsoft to start winning users back if it wants to reverse the share-slipping trend.
Here, then, are my first impressions following my initial test drive of the software, focusing primarily on the features new to RC1 since the last beta.
IE8 RC1: The Speed
On the whole, my impression is that IE8 RC1 brings Microsoft closer to its competitors in speed. It's still, however, not fully caught up.
IE8 RC1: The Address Bar
In general, IE8 introduces a more Firefox-like address bar, and RC1 continues the top-line improvements. The RC1 address bar now prioritizes which site results show up first. Sites from your history will pop up first as you type, followed by entries from your favorites. RSS result feeds are no longer included by default.
The new IE8 has some tweaks to its history and favorites handling as well. None of the changes struck me as being significantly better than anything competitors have been offering for some time, though.
IE8 RC1: Compatibility
This first release candidate's biggest update may be under the hood, with the introduction of an automated "compatibility adaptor" of sorts. The Compatibility View feature, first introduced in a previous IE8 beta version, is designed to help get around sites not properly coded for IE8. It essentially causes the browser to act like IE7 so you won't encounter any issues.
In the past, you could activate the feature when you came across a problematic site. Now, IE8 RC1 has its own built-in list of sites likely to cause problems, and it'll automatically enable the compatibility shift for you when you surf to one of them.
The feature appears to work well enough, but it raises the question of why IE8's standards are such that a large number of sites need a "compatibility adaptor" to be viewed. Do I want to use a browser that is incompatible with so many Web sites?
IE8 RC1: Privacy
Privacy and security have been a big focus for the IE8 team, and RC1 reflects that. The InPrivate Blocking feature debuted during the beta phase is now beefed up and renamed InPrivate Filtering. Its basic purpose remains the same -- it lets you monitor and control how Web sites share data about browsing history with other sites. In IE8 Beta 2, however, the feature would only operate when the so-called "porn mode," InPrivate Browsing, was activated. In RC1, you can turn it on and off at will, completely independent of the InPrivate Browsing setting.
IE8 RC1: Security
IE8 RC1 also offers improved protection from sites flagged as phishing or malware threats. In addition to warning you when you encounter such a site, IE8 RC1 makes it more difficult to disregard the dialog box and click through. Finally, IE8 has added protection against clickjacking -- a kind of attack that became common toward the end of 2008.
These are all strong steps in Internet Explorer's development and will be good features for current users of IE. Still, considering the comparable protection available for other browsers, I don't know that they'll hold a high enough value to bring any outsiders in.
IE8 RC1: Final Thoughts
Microsoft says IE8 is "effectively complete and done" with the RC1 release, and that the final IE8 product will be very similar to what we see now. Taking into account the changes in RC1 and the past changes over the course of the browser's beta development, I have to agree with previous PC World reviews of the IE8 product line: Microsoft has caught up with the competitors quite a bit, and IE8 is a significantly stronger product than its predecessors. When it comes to things like speed and third-party add-on availability, though, Internet Explorer still isn't quite up to par.
Ultimately, Release Candidate 1 and the subsequent final IE8 release seem likely to please current IE devotees -- but I'm not sure anything added into the browser is enough to convince a user of Firefox or any of the other alternatives to give it more than a cursory glance.