Something strange happened to me. First off, in a moment of insanity, I decided to do something rash. I installed IE9 to find out what all the hype was about. I had been hesitant to install it because of past experiences way back in the Windows 98/ME days, where a new version of Internet Explorer could take down your whole machine in minutes. Thankfully that did not happen this time with my Windows 7 machine. Second, and even more unexpected for me, I actually liked it.
Let’s start with a little background on my web browsing preferences and biases. I’m a long, long time Firefox user. The various versions of Internet Explorer have been the butt of my geeky tech jokes so many times I’ve lost count. Firefox became my go-to browser back when tabbed browsing and raw speed were the main features — back when you had to pay for Opera and Netscape was still around as a behemoth of a program that included an email client and a HTML editor. You used Firefox to browse the web without the added bloat and the convenience of tabs. Add-ons came along later, and made Firefox a platform for everything you could imagine. Things were great and Firefox ruled, at least in my mind. But, things, as they so often do, change. Today, everyone has tabs, Firefox 3.6 is generally considered the most inefficient browser currently on the market, and I have some praise for IE. Times really have changed.
So, back to IE9. The install process was uneventful and quick. No real questions or install options. Of course, in that way that only Microsoft can annoy, it did prompt me to reboot before it could finish. This is something that never happens with a new version of Chrome or Firefox, although, to be fair, the latest update to Safari did prompt to reboot Snow Leopard on my laptop last week. Ah, the joys of browsers integrated into the OS.
Once the irritating reboot was out of the way, it was time to fire up IE and see what damage had been done. I was immediately stunned by the practically instantaneous loading of IE from the moment I clicked its icon. I was used to that kind of speed with Chrome, but IE seemed even faster. I quickly closed and relaunched it again just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, and sure enough, it loads instantly. Checking a load of Chrome 10 on the same machine, it seems that IE9 launches faster. Chrome is almost instant, but IE9 is instant. Of course, this is splitting hairs, but I wasn’t expecting Chrome-like speed from IE. Ever.
With that pleasant surprise out of the way, let’s get into it. It’s 2011, so that means your browser has to do tabs on top. IE9 dutifully follows that trend with tabs on top, along with the URL bar. This leaves the URL bar pretty short by default. Luckily, a right click on any tab will give you the option to split out tabs onto their own bar, which puts the URL bar on top and gives you a full length URL text field. While we’re on the URL bar, you can search right from the URL field, and there is actually no dedicated search box on the right, much like Chrome. Yes, you can edit your search providers, so you’re not stuck with Bing as your default. Switching my default search to Google was quick and easy.
Creating a new blank tab gives you a grid of your most popularly visited sites with some quick links to recently closed tabs along with the option to start a private browsing session. Another thing much like Chrome and Safari. This is configurable to show a blank page or your homepage if you’re not a fan these dressed up history pages. At this point, it’s almost easy to look at IE9 and mistake it for Chrome when taking a quick glance. In fact, this happened with someone standing over my shoulder who made the exact comment “It looks just like Chrome.” Yes, yes it does, but more importantly, it feels a lot like Chrome, too.
There’s other things to like about IE9. It has a full web developer console available just by hitting F12. This has become standard in today’s browsers and it’s great to see it in IE9 as well. Additionally, it has built in tracking protection, which can also act as an ad blocking mechanism. It was easy for me to subscribe to EasyList’s IE9 Tracking prevention list which IE will automatically keep up to date. This will block sites and ad networks from tracking your clicks and page viewing history, but doesn’t actually block ads. I also found an ad-blocking list based on EasyList, however, a limitation in IE9’s tracking protection scheme allows it to only block 3rd party advertisements and cannot block 1st party ads loaded from the same site you are viewing. So while privacy has reached a new high in IE9, the lack of an available complete ad blocking system is a bit of a let down. After using Ad Block Plus for so many years on Firefox, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing no ads at all and don’t think I can go back. A quick Google search shows a few ad blocking tools for IE, but none seem quite as great as the Ad Block Plus extensions.
That’s where a few downsides start to show themselves with IE. The extension/add-on support is nowhere near that of Firefox or even Chrome at this point. There’s plenty of “Accelerators” and “Web Slices” but these are essentially shortcuts to other websites, in various forums. There are some extensions, but things like ad blocking, Youtube video downloaders and scripts that can alter popular web apps like Gmail are difficult to find, if they even exist at all. One more negative that I was quite shocked about is the lack of spell checking built into the browser. I’m not sure how they could leave something that has become so basic, out of IE9. I did find two possible add-ons for that in ieSpell and Speckie but that’s something I wouldn’t expect I’d need to dig up a third-party solution for. Another thing that IE lags behind in is syncing of bookmarks and other browser data between multiple clients. Both Chrome and Firefox4 have these features built in, and Safari does it through MobileMe, but IE has no such feature. You could rely on Xmarks to do the job for you, but it’d be nice to see a built-in solution. One last thing I found missing in IE9 that’s in Firefox4 and Chrome is the “Paste and Go” shortcut, when you right click in the URL field. A simple shortcut when copying/pasting URLs which saves an additional click or key press.
So there you have it. IE9 is pretty good, and seems to be the best IE in a very long time, maybe ever. Even with those annoyances aside, I found IE9 to be a rather pleasant experience. It launches super fast, the UI is clean, and it renders pages as fast as, or faster than Google Chrome. A few strange feature omissions and the lack of a robust add-on library will keep it from being my day-to-day browser on Windows, but I won’t cringe if I launch it by mistake and may even work it into my daily browsing rotation from time to time.
Screenshot Gallery of IE9: