IE 8.0 loves add-ons, search, acceleration

Amid increasing pressure from competing products from the likes of Google, Mozilla and Apple, Microsoft has released the biggest upgrade to its flagship Web browser in two years with Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8). TechWorld takes the most popular browser on the Internet for a spin and the result is a more extensible and powerful Web experience.

From the get go, it's obvious with the Australian release of Internet Explorer (IE 8), Microsoft is attempting a much closer tie-in with its local Ninemsn business by integrating the two in the form of "Windows Internet Explorer 8 for Ninemsn".

Upon commencing the IE 8 download users are also encouraged to download Microsoft's Ninemsn Toolbar which allows access to the Ninemsn Home Page, Live Search and Silverlight, Microsoft's rich Internet application platform.

If users opt to install the toolbar they're presented with a pretty dour affair with its default pitch black and grey (no chrome, naturally). Users can change this via the settings box which pops up immediately after installation; however, none of the other colours are particularly appealing.

The toolbar itself is logically designed with Live Search dominating the left hand side. At the centre, Ninemsn content can be accessed via buttons labeled News, Celebrity, Sports, Video Break, Hot Deals and e-mail via the Hotmail tab.

On the right side a handy five-day weather forecast can be accessed with one click on the weather icon button. Settings and Help also reside here and a "Flip to Search" icon allows you to narrow down Live searches by Web, video, images, maps, Ninemsn and businesses.

Upon completion of the installation -- roughly a 20 minute process depending on the system and connectivity speed -- IE 8 prompts you to enable the two key new features of the release -- Search suggestions and Accelerator previews. Both are aimed at helping users find and view information on the web more efficiently.

Opting for the Search function results in a search box being installed into the Taskbar and an enabling of a search function in IE 8's Address bar. In practice these features are of mixed use.

For one, the Taskbar search box gives you the choice of searching either your desktop or the Web. A Web search of "Google" results in a Google page of search results whereas "Google" is the search term. Also, a search for "Paris Hilton" results in a Google results page. IE's Address Bar search functions in a similar way to the Web search option.

It could be us, but why is the new search feature not using Windows Live as its search engine? Are there anti-trust issues at play or is the search feature preferring Microsoft's arch-rival? We should state that both Window's Live Search and Google Search add-ons were active in this trial, but with both search engine add-ons disabled, the same search results occurred.

Users will likely find that the Desktop search application is more useful. An entry of "ie" is enough to bring up Internet Explorer, and "cal" will bring up the Window's calculator. Still, it seems that it's nothing that isn't already available to Vista users with the Start Menu search feature.

Accelerate your Web experience

The second big new feature, Accelerators, is a different story. This is arguably the most interesting new feature for IE 8 users. By simply highlighting a word in a Web page, a blue "Accelerator" icon will appear. Clicking the icon brings up a suite of accelerator options. Users can choose to blog or email with Windows Live, Map or translate with Live Search, or share with Windows Messenger.

Of these, the Map with Live Search is likely to be the most useful. Accelerating the word "Sydney", for example, brings up a zoomable map of Australia on Microsoft's Virtual Earth.

Also a plus, one assumes, is the growing stable of additional Accelerator plug-ins available from the Add-ons Gallery. These include add-ons for eBay, Facebook and Digg among others. With IE 8 submitting TechWorld stories to Digg has never been so easy.

Web Slice, Microsoft's attempt to keep alt-tabbing between a plethora of open sites down to a minimum, is also a good new feature of IE 8. For example, to keep watch on free falling share prices on the ASX's site, simply click the Web Splice button and choose to add it to your favourites bar.

Once there you simply mouse over the tab and it will balloon out for a quick view. Web Slice will also alert you to changes in the page by having the tab flash. Definitely useful for share price changes or Facebook and Twitter addicts.

Add-on management is another area users will notice an improvement. On initially opening IE 8.0, we noticed an automatic drop down box alerting us to the fact some add-ons installed which are not enabled.

Clicking the box opens up a logical interface listing the name, publisher, status and file date of any current add-ons. Users simply need enable or disable at their discretion. Add-ons are broken down into Toolbars and Extensions, Search Providers, Accelerators and InPrivate Filtering.

To Microsoft's credit, this feature feels like it's actually enabling the user and giving them the choice of what they want installed or not. Vista users, likely frustrated from the near total lack of control, will find this highly refreshing.

Subtler features also improve the user experience. For example, web addresses will grey out extraneous Web site details effectively highlighting the homepage address of the site you are currently on, enhancing navigation. Similarly, recently visited sites, history and favourites are all categorised in the Address Bar drop down box, again, enhancing navigation.

Drive directories which have been recently visited also feature in the address bar along with recently visited website addresses. Clicking these drive addresses opens the drive in Windows Explorer.

As reported by TechWorld (, Microsoft has been at pains to let everyone know how fast its new browser is against arch rivals Firefox and Chrome.

While hardly a scientific test, we noticed a slight speed improvement (about 25 percent) with IE 8 over Firefox when opening TechWorld. Unfortunately we weren't able to test IE 8 against Chrome, but we'd be interested in hearing your feedback on this.

All up, first impressions are overall positive. Longer tests will be needed to see whether claimed security improvements are just that, but we're confident features such as the Web Slice and Accelerators which actually be used. We're still unsure about the search features, however, and reckon the MSN Toolbar will not stay on browsers for long.

This story, "IE 8.0 loves add-ons, search, acceleration" was originally published by Computerworld Australia.

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