I read a headline on Monday that Internet Explorer 9 was released and so I immediately went and downloaded the release to give it a test.  When Internet Explorer 7 came along, web developers breathed a small sigh of relief to have moved on from all of the shortcomings of IE 6.  Internet Explorer 8 continued to improve the browser’s speed and some compatibility issues, but since leaving Internet Explorer for Firefox long ago (back when it was still called Phoenix), I haven’t really looked back.  I’ve been using Chrome for a couple of years now and have been excited to see how Chrome has pushed its way into obtaining some of the market share.

In this quick look, I won’t go much into the improvements web developers will like, but am focusing more on the installation and on providing a quick overview of what’s good and bad in IE 9.

The Installation Process

Internet Explorer 9 has not reached Windows Update, so I needed to go directly to the Internet Explorer webpage to start the installation process.  When I looked for the page with a Google search, the top links for my Google search phrase were for the release candidate and tech preview releases of the browser, but Microsoft made sure those pages forwarded on to the right place to get the final version.

Chrome has a pretty slick install process that seems to be only one or two clicks.  Microsoft has made the install process just as straightforward: just download an executable, run it, and it takes care of the rest.

The first step of the setup process is downloading the needed files.

The first thing I noticed after launching the installer was that Internet Explorer 9 has a new icon.  The old icon was introduced in Internet Explorer 7 and was designed to fit in with Windows XP.  Although I never thought the old icon looked bad or out of place on Windows 7, the new icon fits in well and is a nice refresh.  I hoped this would be a good sign of what would come next.  (Welcome screens in previous versions of IE had some dithered graphics for the IE logo that seemed to reflect how stuck in the past the technology was.)

Comparison of the old (left) and new (right, bordered) Internet Explorer icons.

On my first attempt to download the new version, I was using my school’s wireless network, which, while usually fairly dependable, cut out during the download.  I hooked up to the wired network and took advantage of the opportunity to check out the troubleshooting link.

My fault: download failure.

The Microsoft Support page had some helpful information, recommending to try an alternate install method.  I’ve noticed over the last few years that Microsoft has done a lot to make sure its support pages are helpful and relevant.  (As a side note, they’ve also made their sites much more friendly in other browsers, which is very nice.)  One option presented here was to download the entire offline install file, which would include all the dependencies.  I decided to just try the normal setup process again since I figured that should work better over the wired network connection.

Microsoft Troubleshooting Page

The download finished just fine on the wired network and the installation process continued automatically.

The installer restarted the download from the beginning and immediately began to install the new version.  Part way through installation, I was notified that several programs needed to be closed for the update to continue.  I was a little surprised at the number of background programs that needed to be closed, but since Internet Explorer has historically been extensively integrated into Windows and used by other software on the computer, the requirement made sense.

Setup needed to close some programs.

Kudos to Microsoft on giving me the option of choosing to either have the programs closed for me or to let me continue working as Internet Explorer installs and then just restart the computer later.  I chose to have the installer close the programs for me.

You’ll notice Windows Explorer was listed twice–one was probably a folder I had open and the other was the main explorer.exe that runs the taskbar and other parts of the Windows desktop experience.  After clicking “Continue” the taskbar and desktop icons disappeared, but after about 20 seconds the taskbar came back.  I started Paint to save a screenshot I had captured, which I suppose must have been a no-no since I was told I needed to restart the computer after the setup process completed.

Need to Restart Anyways

While shutting down I saw the “Windows is installing updates” screen, which counted from 0% to about 30% before restarting the system.  I figured that was a typical Microsoft progress bar experience until the installing updates screen returned while Windows 7 was reloading and it picked up at 30% and went to 100%.

Although I had to restart on my laptop despite choosing to close the necessary programs, I did not have to restart on my desktop after the setup process.  (Although my monitors went–or were put–to sleep right after the taskbar disappeared, making me think the computer had shut down after some critical process was mistakenly shut down.)

When the Windows Explorer process started up again, bringing back the taskbar and desktop icons, I was greeted with a notification of an Adobe Flash update.  I have no idea how long I’ve been running an out-of-date version of Flash, since I don’t restart my computer all that often and the Flash updater only pops up when explorer.exe first runs.  I still wish Adobe would improve its automatic update process.  Since Chrome automatically updates the included Flash plugin, I haven’t had to worry about vulnerabilities that come from running unpatched versions of the plugin.  If I were to switch to the new version of Internet Explorer, I’d need to find some better way to ensure Flash was always up to date.

Adobe's Fault: Same Old Flash Update Issues

The First Launch

As expected, the old Internet Explorer icon on my taskbar updated for the new program. This isn’t noteworthy since this is what happens when you update every program in existence (well, except VirtualBox… that’s why I had to point it out).

All Installed and Ready to Go

Upon launching Internet Explorer 9, I expected to have to go through the usual 20-step configuration process to get my homepage back to Google, set my default search back to Google, disable all the little gadgets Microsoft wants me to use, etc.  Instead, I saw something that looks like this:

The New Browser Interface

A clean, simple browser window.  A welcome page also opened up automatically in a second tab, just like you’d see when you install or update Firefox.  I was very glad to see that the obligatory post-setup configuration wizard had disappeared.

When starting up IE 9 on my desktop for the first time, I must have had some settings disabled when I configured IE 8, because I did received this message:

Much easier to configure than IE 8.

Much faster to select a single option and be good to go.

Evaluating the New Interface

I really like the new interface.  There are a few things I don’t like, but overall it’s a great improvement.

The new tab page is nice.  Reminds me of Chrome, except sites do not have graphical previews.  Recent items can be reopened using the dropdown menu at the bottom of the page.

The new tab panel seems to take a page out of Chrome's book with most visited sites listed on the page.


The new tab page after visiting a few sites.

Okay, so here’s one thing I don’t like.  I guess the idea of the new interface is that the browser is simply a frame and you’re most interested in the actual webpages you visit (makes sense).  I guess Microsoft thought that cutting off the bottom of the largest button of the user interface would be a great way to demonstrate this ideal.  It’s better than having the button overlay the webpage (think of Vista’s start button orb obscuring the status bars of many applications).

Umm, yeah. The back button is cut off.

The three buttons on the right hand side of the toolbar don’t seem to fit in, either.  As you mouse over each one, a color overlay fades on.  Usually hover indicators (such as the button becoming embossed or highlighted) have a static on/off feeling to them.  These buttons break that mold and just don’t feel right.

These three buttons don't seem to fit in.

The Tools menu, however looks clean.

Looks Good

Also taking a page from Chrome’s book, the status bar is gone and a small tooltip in the corner of the browser window indicates where links will take you.  (Perhaps Safari the first to do this.  I’m not sure, though, since I don’t use Safari.)

Goodbye, status bar!

The new location bar, which combines the location bar and search box works very well.  By default on my laptop, search suggestions were turned off.  The link to enable them is very clear about what the privacy implication is for turning on suggestions–a nice touch.

I also like the new location bar.

Search Suggestions Enabled

After using the browser for a while, I noticed the new information bar is at the bottom of the window and requires fewer clicks to get things working.  Plugins are disabled by default when you upgrade, but a single click enables them and reloads the page.

New Information Bar, Plugins Disabled by Default

I wanted to test and see if tearing tabs off of the browser window kept the tab running instead of reloading the tab when dropped as a new window.  The first thing I noticed was Flash took a while to get running again for some reason, which was probably just something weird with my computer.

YouTube looks nice without flash...

After the page loaded up and the video started, the video continued playing as the tab was torn off and dropped as a new window.  Very convenient–this is one of the reasons I had switched to Chrome from Firefox.

YouTube ready for testing.

YouTube in a floating tab before dropping it off as its own window.

Pinned Sites

Gmail pinned to the taskbar.

Finally, Internet Explorer 9 has a pinned sites feature to use webpages more as standalone applications.  As shown, the site’s icon is displayed on a blank page and clicking the icon will launch a separate Internet Explorer window for the webpage.  The new browser window colors the back and forward buttons according to the icon’s main color and pops the browser icon into the browser frame.

Gmail browser window. Notice there's no longer a home button.

Overall Impression

I really like the new Internet Explorer.  It’s been a long time since I could say that.  I’ve used it as my primary browser for a few days and it’s very usable.  It’s fast, clean, and simple.

I’ve decided to stick with Chrome, however, but I would probably use Internet Explorer over the current release of Firefox if I only had the two to choose from.  (Although I still rely on Firebug while developing websites.)  Hopefully Mozilla’s decision to rapidly release several new versions of Firefox this year will help Mozilla catch up a bit.