Microsoft Internet Explorer 10 (IE10) for Windows 7 Review

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Windows 7 users can now enjoy the speed and compatibility of Internet Explorer 10, formerly the sole province of Windows 8.

(4 out of 5)

Pros

  • Fast
  • Lean interface
  • Decent HTML5 support
  • Excellent tab implementation
  • Top security and privacy features
  • All the browsing tools you want
  • Pinned sites for custom browsing

Cons

  • No built in Flash or PDF reader
  • Still lags on new Web tech support (WebGL, e.g.)

With Microsoft focused on Windows 8, it’s no surprise that Internet Explorer 10, the company’s latest Web browser version, made its way into that operating system first. But now Windows 7 users can take advantage of this faster and far more standards-compliant browser. Externally, upgraders may not notice any difference at all between IE9 and IE10 for Windows 7, but rest assured: a whole lot of improvements appear under the hood.

Internet Explorer has long been a whipping boy among browsers. IE6 was perhaps the most reviled browser in history, thanks to its non-standard quirks that Web developers had to navigate around to get their sites working correctly. People forget, though, that the point of this non-standard behavior was rooted in offering new power to websites, and earlier versions of IE actually first enabled Web 2.0 (with the first support for AJAX)—where sites become more interactive and app-like.

Despite that, even IE7 and 8 long trailed newcomers Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome in JavaScript performance and support for new standards. IE9 improved things on the first count drastically, but still fell short in support for all the new capabilities of HTML5 which promises to give websites near parity with installed applications.

With Internet Explorer 10, Microsoft’s browser need no longer be an object of derision. The company has actually launched a disparaging ad campaign admitting its past offences and urging users to give it another try. I, too, think users would be well advised to do this: They may discover that IE actually feels faster and looks cleaner than what they’ve been using. And its leading privacy protection tools, including the controversial default enabling of Do Not Track and a powerful Tracking Protection tool, will appeal to those who’d rather not have large ad companies creating a detailed profile of all their Web activity. Just install Firefox’s Collusion or the Ghostery add-in (available for all major browsers) for an idea of just how extensive the tracking is—especially scary is that much of it’s done by sites you never even intentionally visited.

The improvements in Internet Explorer seem to be starting to resonate with the public: after steadily losing usage share for several years, the browser is starting to make a comeback. According to data from NetMarketShare, a division of Net Applications focused on Internet usage statistics, IE rose from a low of 51.87 percent usage share in December 2011 to nearly 56 percent in February of 2013. Of course that’s not a huge move compared with Google Chrome’s rise, but the trend seems to have changed, with the newcomer actually falling from its high of 19.58 percent in May ’12 down to 16.27 percent in Feb. 2013.

Installing and Upgrading
Internet Explorer 10 drops support for older versions of Windows: It only runs on Windows 7 and 8—no Vista, forget XP. It does, however run on Windows Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 (SP1) 64-bit, so IT staff can take advantage of its advances. If you’re still running a 10-year old OS,  consider this: Would you still use a 10-year-old cell phone? Upgrade already! If you meet the criteria, just head to IETestdrive.com. The update isn’t as snappy as updating Firefox or Chrome, taking several minutes, and on some systems a reboot, since it’s actually a Windows update. And note that means that you can’t try it out alongside IE9–you’ve got to commit.

Interface
Window 8 users have quite a few interface leaps to make with the new-style version of IE10—just the fact that there are two flavors of the browser—the new full-screen, touch-friendly one and the mouse-friendly desktop flavor—may take some time to wrap your head around. But in Windows 7, users of Internet Explorer 9 won’t be facing any interface surprises at all. IE10 looks identical to IE9, except for a couple of very subtle changes. One of these is that the scrollbars have been redesigned with a Windows 8 look. I’ll touch on the rest below.

Window and controls. As a refresher on the IE interface: It’s as trim as it gets, giving more area to the Web page contents and the least to the browser’s own interface features. Controls are kept to a single row with the address and search boxes combined into one. This box can seem too small, but luckily you can drag its edge with the mouse to enlarge it. I actually prefer Firefox and Opera’s separate search boxes, since searching and address entry are, to me, two different operations. The sparse controls in IE10 aren’t as drastic as Google’s reduction to a single menu icon, and you can still enable IE’s menus and toolbars, by right-clicking on the top window border.

Tabs. Microsoft improved how tabs work in IE9, and the improvements remain in IE10. You can drag tabs out of and back into your browser window to create new windows. The browser even can do a couple cool tricks with dragging tabs to a new window: If you do so while playing a video, the video continues to play as you drag it. Also, when you drag to the left or right edge of the screen in Windows 7, the new browser window created fills exactly half of the screen. This is as it should be—adhering to the Snap feature in Windows 7—but other browsers don’t do this.

The tab with the focus is brighter, making it stand out. I appreciate that I can close a tab without switching to it, as I can in every other modern browser. But this only works if the window was sized large enough—nearly full screen on a laptop. Since IE crams everything on one row—the address/search box, tabs, and controls—tabs can get mighty narrow. But there’s some help for that: You can place IE’s tabs on their own row—separate from the search box—if you find you’re opening too many to fit, and arrows appear on either side of the tab bar if you open too many tabs to display in the allotted space.

New-tab page. The new-tab page helpfully shows your most frequently visited pages, but you can hide these if you’d rather not have everyone seeing some sites you frequent. The new-tab page now has a gray background, making the tiles for your frequently visited sites stand out more. It also lets you reopen closed tabs or your whole last session, or you can start InPrivate browsing from it. There’s also a small “Discover other sites you might like” link there and link at the bottom which encourages you to use the Suggested sites feature. It suggested MySpace to me—hardly new!

A couple of new goodies. A subtle new interface tweak for IE10 lets you close many tabs from same X spot on the tab bar—you don’t have to move the cursor. And finally, Internet Explorer gets a built-in spelling checker!

Pinned Sites
Instead of trumpeting its own branding, Internet Explorer gives the site you’re visiting center stage. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the new pinned-site feature. By simply dragging a webpage’s icon down to the Windows 7 taskbar, you create a pinned site. This gives the site equal billing with an application. Pinned sites can include Windows 7 jump lists for common site destinations or activities if the site developer supplies the necessary XML data.

Pinned sites not only get their own taskbar icons, but their favicon is used where a browser logo would normally be, in the upper left corner of the window, and even the back and forward buttons take on the color of the site icon. The logo and colors for IE9 pinned sites are automatically grabbed by the browser for display in the window border. If you navigate to a different domain, the icon remains the same as the original pinned site, which struck me as a bit disorienting. One final difference for pinned sites is that the Home button disappears from their menu bar.

You can also add multiple sites to a pinned-site icon. Just open a new tab, right-click on the site icon, and choose “Add as a home page.” Though I think that wording could be clarified and the feature made more obvious, the feature offers a convenient way to open a set of frequently visited sites. Pinned sites are a big ace-in-the-hole for Internet Explorer, and site owners can promote their sites for pinned treatment and offer buttons on their pages that pin a site automatically. Chrome’s application shortcuts do have the advantage of giving the whole window to the site, but Microsoft’s giving full app citizenship to sites through pinning is commendable.

The One Box
Internet Explorer’s combined address-and-search box—the One Box adds privacy compared with Chrome’s, by letting you turn on an off the autosuggest feature of your search engine at will.  But it doesn’t offer Chrome’s brilliant Instant feature, which loads search result pages or previously visited sites before you even finish typing their address. It does let you choose among search providers from icons at the bottom of its dropdown suggestions, though, unlike Chrome’s, which requires a visit to the Settings page. The IE method means you can switch your searching scope to just Wikipedia or just eBay, for example.

One behavior of the One Box I approve of is that after you enter a search and get your result page, the box doesn’t switch to a URL, but instead your search terms remain there, in case you want to further refine it. You can also enter searches like “site:site domain” into the One Box to limit results to a specific site.

Legacy Features
IE10 still has some of the unique features introduced in IE8, too, including Accelerators, which let you right click on a page to do things like search, translate, or email the page. Another of these, though probably less used is Web slices, which let you “subscribe” to specified spots on a Web page, for example, the price of an item, a headline in a news site section, or a sports team’s result. The slices haven’t been much of a hit, though they could certainly be useful.

An early Web slice proponent, eBay, now emphasizes another IE feature—extensions. Yes, that’s right Internet Explorer has an add-on capability, just like Firefox and every other browser out there these days. You access extension-related controls from the same menu you do for plugins like Adobe Flash and your PDF reader—sorry, these aren’t built in as they are in Chrome (and PDF reading for Firefox). But IE has a nifty feature of telling you if an add-on is slowing down Web browsing excessively.

You also still get a good, pause-able download manager, an effective popup blocker, and capable Favorites, History, and Bookmark features accessible from the star icon.

Performance
The browser team at Microsoft has made a big point of performance improvements in Internet Explorer 10, claiming a full 20 percent improvement. There are several ways to measure performance. The easiest is by running synthetic micro benchmarks, which usually execute JavaScript. These, while not exactly real world, can nevertheless be indicators of real world performance.

Possibly the most realistic way to test browser speed is simply to test how long it takes to load webpages, and this type of study has been done by traffic monitoring organizations like New Relic, Strangeloop, and Compuware. Unfortunately, none of these have released testing for IE10, but the first two show IE9 in the lead, while the last (which doesn’t account for hardware configurations) shows Chrome at the top. I’ve seen comparisons on other tech sites where the reviewer simply watches a page load from the Internet: This produces a completely unreliable, unrepeatable, and in the end, un-helpful set of results. I will simply say that in anecdotal testing of several content heavy sites on a fast broadband connection, IE10 loads them with speed comparable to Chrome, Firefox, and the rest.

For the JavaScript benchmarks, I ran the browsers through SunSpider 0.9.1, Google V8 v.7, Google Octane, and Mozilla Kraken 1.1. I ran the tests on a Core 2 Duo 2.53GHz Windows 7 (32-bit) laptop with 3GB of DDR2 memory. I shut down any unessential processes ran the tests five times, removed the top and bottom score, and averaged the three remaining scores.

Reformat tables so that the title is above the table, in bold, instead of heading up the second column; remember, we talked about this. Also, it might be nice to understand what each test actually tests for. Also, if you’re going to put IE9 in some tables, put it in all the tables.

Browser

SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)

Internet Explorer 10

180

Google Chrome 25

238

Internet Explorer 9

260

Firefox 19

277

Opera 12

302

Maxthon 4

328

If you were to go just by SunSpider, you’d say that IE10 is the fastest browser in the West. It does improve by an incredible 30 percent over its predecessor, and it beats Chrome by a sturdy 24 percent.

Browser

Google V8 (v.7) Score
(higher is better)

Google Chrome 25

10111

Maxthon 4

9703

Firefox 19

6817

Internet Explorer 10

4525

Opera 12

3840

Internet Explorer 9

2048

IE10 makes massive gains over IE9 in this benchmark, more than doubling its score. But even that improvement doesn’t put it at the head of the class—far from it. At least it’s no longer the slowest on this one.

Browser

Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)

Google Chrome 25

2660

Maxthon 4

3156

Firefox 19

3247

Internet Explorer 10

8829

Opera 12

12336

Internet Explorer 9

16794

On Mozilla’s Kraken JavaScript benchmark, a lower timing in milliseconds is faster, IE10 again shows massive improvements, but again this doesn’t place it in the lead. Chrome has actually overtaken the test maker’s own browser, Firefox, by a significant margin, but Mozilla’s browser still handily beats IE on this one. The Kraken benchmark test takes quite a bit longer to run, and Mozilla claims it more accurately represents real-world browsing than the others.

Startup Speed
Also important for any software’s performance profile is startup time: The last thing you want when you’re itching to get to that favorite site is to wait around for the browser to start up. This applies to both the first time you run the browser after starting up (cold start) and on subsequent runs (warm starts). How fast you can get to that website is greatly affected by this, if your browser isn’t already running. The browsers have mostly gotten close on this measure, but there are still some differences. I used the same test system to get these timings:

Browser

Cold Startup Time   
(seconds)

Warm Startup Time  (seconds)

Internet Explorer 10  

2.5

0.9

Internet Explorer 9  

3.0

1.3

Chrome 25

3.1

0.8

Firefox 19

3.3

1.1

Maxthon 4

4.3

1.5

Opera 12

10.1

2.9

So startup speed clearly isn’t a problem for Internet Explorer, though Chrome edges it out a tad in restarts.

Hardware Acceleration
Another area of browser speedup that IE has been a leader in is hardware acceleration—using your PC’s graphics card to accelerate browsing. Microsoft has made available demos that test this. I use two of these, Psychedelic Browsing and Particle Acceleration, since they produce comparable benchmark results. Psychedelic Browsing spins a color wheel while playing a whirring sound, and then produces a result in RPMs. Mozilla also offers a hardware acceleration test, but at this point that’s just a pass-fail, not showing any differentiation among browsers that do implement hardware acceleration.  Note I use a different test machine for Psychedelic Browsing, a 3.16GHz Core2 Duo with an Nvidia GeForce GT 240 on to take advantage of a better graphics card—results will depend heavily on your system’s graphics processor.

Browser

Psychedelic Browsing
RPM (higher is better)

Internet Explorer 10

8620 (correct sound)

Internet Explorer 9

8165 (correct sound)

Firefox 19

5797 (no sound)

Google Chrome 25

5430 (correct sound)

Opera 12 (with HW acceleration enabled)

3066  (no sound)

Maxthon 4

333 (correct sound)

As the browser that introduced the concept of hardware acceleration, IE increases its lead here, though not by as drastic a margin as on some of the other benchmarks.

Particle Acceleration uses 2D Context HTML5 Canvas to spin a 3D sphere composed of smaller colored spheres, and displays several measurements. I use the Draw Time and FPS results, since they’re the most consistent. No IE9 score is shown here because that browser version doesn’t run on the test tablet, a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-based tablet with 4GB memory running 64-bit Windows 8 Pro:

HTML5 Particle Acceleration Benchmark

Draw Time (milliseconds— lower is better)

FPS (higher is better)

Firefox 19

6

60

Internet Explorer 10

9

60

Opera 12 (with hardware acceleration enabled)

14

60

Google Chrome 25

22

44

Maxthon 4

29

33

Firefox pulls out a surprise here, with the quickest draw time, but IE is well ahead of the rest. I don’t report it since it fluctuates too much, but the test’s Score result tells a different story, with IE10 ahead by many times over. I’m discussing with Microsoft how to publish reliable numbers for this Score.

Security and Privacy
Microsoft’s browser has speckled history when it comes to security, to say the least. But the company has taken the Trustworthy Computing mission to heart. Internet Explorer sports a whole menu called Safety, from which you can control its class-leading privacy and security protections. These include SmartScreen Filter, which warns you when you try to navigate to malicious sites or download suspected programs. According to a recent study by AV-Comparatives, IE is second to Opera in protecting users from phishing scams. They checked against 294 phishing sites, and came up with these results for success at blocking them:

Opera

94.2%

Internet Explorer

82.0%

Chrome

72.4%

Firefox

54.8%

The title of an article by PCMag’s security guru, Neil Rubenking, says volumes: Windows 8′s Internet Explorer 10 Reigns Supreme in Browser Safety Test. In the piece, Neil cites a test by NSS Labs showing that Internet Explorer 10 browser detected and blocked over 99 percent of malicious downloads. All this doesn’t prevent occasional breaches, which the company patches, as does every other browser maker.

Privacy is where the new IE really shines. Sure it comes with Do Not Track set to “on” by default, much to the chagrin of Web ad firms, but far more powerful than that is its Tracking Protection feature, which actually blocks third-party interactions and cookie placing based on TPLs—tracking protection lists—created by independent privacy organizations, which you subscribe to. Like all other modern browser’s IE includes a private browsing mode, called InPrivate browsing, that prevents cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data from being stored during the browsing session.

Standards and Compatibly
Internet Explorer has made great gains in support for new Web technologies like HTML5. It now scores 100 percent on WebKit’s Acid3 test, but still lags behind the competition in support for some of the newer Web techniques, like WebRTC’s GetUserMedia function, which lets sites access a user’s webcam and microphone without the need for plugins like Adobe Flash. Microsoft is very conservative in only supporting sanctioned W3C standards—despite its ubiquity, HTML5 won’t be a fully ratified standard till next year—while Google goes in the opposite direction, creating its own Web technologies like SPDY and a Speech API without waiting for the standards body’s OK.

A fairly granular measure of emerging standards support is HTML5Test.com, run by Dutch developer Niels Leenheer. The test checks the browser for each function and awards a score based on a possible perfect 500. It also awards “bonus” points for things that are good to have but not specifically part of the HTML5 spec, like some video codecs. Keep in mind that it doesn’t say anything about how well each feature is implemented, just that the browser knows about it.

Browser

HTML5Test.com Score (higher is better)

Bonus Points

Maxthon 4

464

15

Chrome 25

463

13

Opera 12

419

9

Firefox 19

393

10

Internet Explorer 10

320

6

Internet Explorer 9  

138

5

Again, HTML5Test.com isn’t the last word: The body actually responsible for Web standards, the W3C, is developing an HTML5 Test Suite. When finished, that set of tests will be definitive, and it will be interesting to see how the browsers pan out then. I’ve been writing that last sentence for a long time, but progress on a real, thorough test battery is moving along better than before, thanks to recent Facebook funding.

In real-world, though anecdotal site compatibility, IE is the gold standard, since every major site is developed with it in mind, which only makes sense since it’s still the market-leading Web software. IE10 now even works with a couple of newfangled sub-sites that barred IE9: AOL Instant Messenger’s new online chat interface and Flickr’s new uploader, which relies on HTML5 drag-and-drop support.

The Best Browser?
It would be hard to say that any other browser at this point is faster than IE10 in any way that would be noticeable to the user. In many cases, it’s actually the fastest browser, as shown on graphics hardware acceleration benchmarks, initial startup speed tests, and independent page-load studies. It also gets out of the way as much as any other browser, with a sparse interface that lets the webpage take center stage.  But Google Chrome’s superior support for emerging Web technologies, its slick Instant page loading, and built-in Flash and PDF viewers keep it on top of the browser pile. So, Chrome keeps its grip on  PCMag’s Editors’ Choice—for now.

Read more Web browser reviews:

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By Michael Muchmore, PCMag

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