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Review: Internet Explorer 8 improves with age

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Review: Internet Explorer 8 improves with age

Review – Chicago (IL) – A little over a month ago we were able to publish
some information and benchmarks on
Microsoft’s first Internet Explorer 8 RC1
(IE8) build – that was released to the firm’s closest partners. This
week,
however, Microsoft released a public build of the RC1 browser and our initial
question was: If the build number is higher, has the performance also improved?
Let’s find out.

If we look back at the past year and the dramatic improvements in browser technology
we have seen recently, then we still believe Microsoft has been run over by a train,
one the company had no idea was coming. The current market share losses Microsoft
is experiencing can be directly tied to much better browsers released by Mozilla,
Google and Apple – especially when it comes to speed. IE is presently at a substantial
disadvantage, and while Microsoft continuously accelerated IE8 since the first beta
release in March of 2008, the company also realizes its rivals are playing in an
entirely different league.

The first IE8 RC1 was underwhelming (see benchmarks)
and the critical question remains: Can Microsoft accelerate the aging IE code base
enough to stop the market share bleeding. With that thought in mind, we took another
look at IE8 RC1, this time with the public build.

New features

Since the pre-release or partner build of IE 8 RC, there are no major visual changes
or further features beyond those described in our previous review. That is to be
expected because corporate partner pre-releases tend to be pretty close to the final
product. As a reminder though, new features include private browsing and accessibility,
as well as full support for CSS 2.

There were noticeable changes under the hood, however, resulting in perceptible
performance and reliability improvements. JavaScript’s speed, general page load
times, and memory footprints all improved to some degree. These observations confirm
related statements in the official IE8 Blog that efforts like these have been made. However,
compatibility issues still remain with popular sites like Facebook, as well as plug-ins
like Skype. CSS 3 compatibility remains embarrassingly low – despite Microsoft’s
initial promises to improve IE in this respect.

Released on January 26, 2009, Internet Explorer RC1 version number 8.0.6001.18372
is an update from the
internal Partner Build we tested a month ago (8.0.6001.18343)
. The download
is 16.2 MB in size.

Installation

The install file begins by removing previous IE8 versions. This process can take
a few minutes. Microsoft will have to work on the general installation process as
well because a restart is required before the install can proceed. The actual installation
took about five minutes, after which another restart occurs. We are not living in
the 1990s anymore and this install needs to work on today’s operating systems without
restarts.

On first restart, the same setup wizard appears asking whether you want to turn
on suggested sites. It then allows you to choose between express settings, which
include items like Search provider: Google, accelerators: Blog, Map, Email with
Windows Live, Translate with Live search and default browser: IE. After that you
can import favorites and feeds from Firefox and / or Safari. And finally, you can
start using the browser.

Compatibility issues

According to the release notes, there are still several known compatibility issues
with the browser.

There are problems such as incompatibility with Intuit TurboTax, the HP Smart Web
Printing software, Google Toolbar, Roxio Drive Letter Access (part of Roxio’s CD
Burning suite), older versions of Skype and Realplayer 11 (though fixed by Hotfix
957055 which automatically downloaded after install).

Assistive technology

Even more problematic, users of Assistive technology will notice that Internet Explorer
8 RC1 is incompatible with versions of Job Access With Speech (JAWS) prior to 9.0.2169
and versions of Window-Eyes prior to 7.0.1.

Unreported issues: Facebook and Gmail

While testing the browser under Windows XP, we noticed issues with Facebook and
Gmail. It remains unclear if these issues are due to client (IE8) or server (Facebook
and Google) problems, or a combination of both. For example, it often took several
tries to send Facebook messages, and staying connected to Gmail was difficult. In
Gmail, drafting a message worked but trying to click the send button with a larger
attachment resulted in non-responsiveness of the browser. After restarting the browser,
Gmail seemed to work fine the second time. We will look into this issue a bit closer,
but remember that this is a pre-release version (only a release candidate) and some
hiccups are to be expected.

 

Read on the next page: Performance results

 

Performance

A single instance of Iexplore.exe consumes 23 MB of memory with one open
window. If you open up a second instance it consumes 35 MB and 23 MB. Every new
tab after that adds an additional 23 MB to the footprint. Computers with just 512
MB RAM and older machines with 1 GB could run into memory problems quickly as these
reports are with no content yet displayed in the tabs. This is one reason Linux
and Firefox are so popular on older machines. As far as we can see right now, Microsoft
may be able to improve Windows 7 – making it much more memory efficient. But, IE8
is a different beast – especially if we are talking about netbooks. In those cases,
IE8 may not be the browser you want.

We noticed also that running each tab as a separate thread results in a certain
performance increase on computers with multi-core processor. And, in the case of
a crash, only the active tab will crash. In this discipline, IE is finally catching
up with its rivals.

Scores


CSS Compatibility

The Acid 3 test initially scores 12/100, but now rises quickly to 20/100. The previous
version took several minutes, not seconds, to reach 21/100. In surfing popular sites
like Ebay and Amazon, changes are noticeable in terms of speed; the 20% of Acid
3 commands that pass the test in IE 8 RC1 seem to include some of those most often
used by popular websites.

The following Benchmarks were run on an HP Satellite P-25 Laptop, P4 2.8 GHz (dual-core),
Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 Go graphics and a 4200 rpm notebook hard drive. Our results
are likely to vary greatly from those you may be able to achieve on other PCs –
as these benchmarks rely heavily on the used hardware. As mentioned in our previous
article, quad-core systems will show much better numbers due to multi-threading.
However, our numbers can be compared to the numbers we originally achieved in our initial IE8 RC1 test.

IE8 RC1:
V8 Benchmark Suit (V2.0)
Richards 38.4
DeltaBlue 31.2
Crypto 30.1
RayTrace 37.8
EarleyBoyer 38.3
Score 34.9

Time to complete: about 10 seconds
Result: No noticeable improvement over the partner build

IE8 RC1:
Sunspider Benchmark (v0.9)
Score 9996 ms

Time to complete: About a minute
Result: Improvement of roughly 10% over the pre-release build

Conclusion

With IE 8 RC1 Final, Microsoft has come closer to a viable next generation browser
in terms of performance and reliability. Application start-up time, memory management,
and browsing speed show signs of improvement. While installation and compatibility issues need to
be resolved before the final release (around Q2 2009), the product is feature complete and
contains all privacy and accessibility improvements delivered in the previous build.
CSS 3 results are open to interpretation, but let’s just say that 20/100 is
still way behind the competition.

Can IE 8 therefore really compete on equal footing with Firefox, Safari, or Chrome?

Your guess is as good as ours. But anything is better than the current IE7. If based
alone on the fact that a version of IE8 comes pre-installed on Windows 7 Beta,
it is clear that the market share will jump. And, given Microsoft’s history of integrating
IE into the OS, moving to this current version is a convincing proposition for users
of other MS products like Outlook to avoid security leaks, spyware and viruses.
Also, as long as web developers create websites with non-standard “work-around code”
to make their sites work for IE browsers, Microsoft’s incentive to reach full CSS 3 compatibility
any time soon is marginal at best.

A much more critical problem for Microsoft is not IE7 and transitioning users to
this new browser, but moving corporate IE6 users to IE8. IE6 share is still well
north of 15% according to Net Applications, and is still widely used in corporate
environments. There are signs that more and more corporations are moving
to newer browsers, however – and they do not necessarily move to IE8, as we explained in a previous article. IE8
needs to be good enough to attract IE6 users and corporations – especially if we
look at Microsoft’s plan to roll out the cloud operating system Windows Azure. If
IE8 is not good enough to convince IE6 users, then the company may run into much bigger
problems than it has today.

That said, the pre-release of Windows 7, as well as the public release of IE8 RC1,
have not resulted in an unusually strong uptick of browser market share for Microsoft.
According to Net Applications,
IE8 had a market share
of 0.90% on Friday, January 23 (weekend market share
numbers differ greatly from the numbers during the week), while the Monday, January
26 market share was 0.90% as well. Yesterday, the number increased to 0.93% – about
the same level the browser posted for last week. At least for now, the impact is
somewhat disappointing (if Net Applications’ numbers are correct).

One final note, unlike the Windows XP and Vista versions of IE 8, the Windows 7
version is touch-enabled. This move makes sense for Microsoft since users will
be more likely to upgrade their OS if the new features are only available on Windows
7. For IE8 however, that means until Windows 7 launches and its widespread use is felt,
Firefox will continue to gain momentum, offering the newest features even on older
systems. Whether or not touch features ultimately make it to XP or Vista versions of the browser
will probably depend on just how far ahead Mozilla, Google and Apple are in the browser space.

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