Looking back over the past year, I've had serious reservations about Internet Explorer 8. The first Beta 1 release, dating back to March 2008, was aimed squarely at developers and I felt OK checking it out for a few weeks and then moving back to my normal browser. When Microsoft came around to discuss Beta 2 late last summer, however, I was told to expect a near-final experience and it was inferred (but, to be fair, not stated outright) that this might in fact be the last pre-release milestone. I was surprised by how bad the web site compatibility was in Beta 2, however, and was nervous that Microsoft might actually release something much like that before the end of 2008.

As the months dragged on, it became clear that Microsoft wanted to address IE 8's compatibility more proactively, and the result was Compatibility View updates, which appeared in the Release Candidate build the company shipped in January 2009. This release nicely mitigated most of my compatibility concerns, and it boosted performance a bit as well. Moving ahead to the final release of the product then, we can evaluate a browser that has been much improved over time and is a far cry from that unfinished and unpolished first beta. This is now a mature and capable browser. The question is whether its strengths outweigh those of the competition.

For Internet Explorer users...

I will say this. If you're on IE 7, upgrade. Yes, you will occasionally find yourself clicking the Compatibility View button to render some sites in an IE 7-friendly fashion, but those instances are already quite rare. And you can always uninstall IE 8 if it doesn't work out. I do think that the many advantages of IE 8--the Favorites bar with Web slices and RSS feeds, visual search suggestions, and the many tab-related changes chief among them--will in general outweigh any minor compatibility issues you may encounter.

If you're on IE 6, you're either not reading this site anyway or you're in a corporate environment where you have no choice. If you actually do choose to use IE 6, please get a life. It's time to upgrade. Now.

For users of competing web browsers...

For those more technical users who have explicitly chosen another browser--Firefox, Chrome, whatever--you've already made up your mind. You feel safer, perhaps, or enjoy the extensibility of Firefox, or maybe the Spartan simplicity of Chrome. I'm sure you have your reasons. My own attachment to Firefox has centered on a few ideals, I guess. I like the performance, and choose to use the browser in a stripped down mode with no add-ons at all. I also remove the Bookmarks toolbar so the upper area of the browser takes up less space.

As it turns out, you can actually strip down IE 8 even further than you can with Firefox. In fact, I've recently begun experimenting with using IE 8 sans the Favorites Bar and with a very minimal set of Command Bar buttons (Home, Safety, and Tools) since I generally use keyboard commands for most functions anyway. I find the result quite pleasing and very much in keeping with my minimalist Firefox use. You may like it that way as well, though again many of the IE 8 features--like the Favorites Bar and Web slices--that I'm disabling here would be well suited for more general users.

Internet Explorer 8
A minimalist IE 8 UI compares favorably to Firefox, even when Mozilla's browser uses small icons.

Making the big decision

So we come, finally, to the crux of the problem. Is it possible or even desirable for a technical user to switch to IE 8? After all, these are the most discerning PC users. They're very careful in the choices they make and the browser they use is of paramount importance to their daily PC experience.

More specifically, more selfishly perhaps, is it possible for me to switch to IE 8?

I'm going to find out. I've been using IE 8 as my primary browser for the past few weeks, and I made this switch after heavily re-testing Google Chrome just in case. I can make a case for IE 8, Firefox, or Chrome from the perspective of the minimalist, I guess. But I'm curious to see how this works out over the long term. My intention is to continue using IE 8 as much as possible. It's certainly at the state where I can do so and not feel like I'm missing anything.

I'm recommending, too, that you do the same. I assume that most people reading this site are at least on the technical side of the curve and probably have very strong opinions about browsers and other technology issues. If you can set aside your preconceived notions for a moment, please do give IE 8 a shot. You can always return to the more familiar side of the browser fence if it doesn't work out. But I think IE 8 might surprise you, and in a good way.

Ultimately, when it comes to web browsing, there are four important issues: performance, security, functionality, and compatibility. None are necessarily more important than the other, but one should remember that a failing in any one area immediately makes that product inherently less interesting. If I click on the IE icon and the thing doesn't pop right up, I notice that. But I don't notice when it just works. If the sites I visit regularly don't render correctly, you better believe that I notice that. But the browser gets no credit at all when everything works as expected. And so on.

This, then, constitutes the four separate litmus tests, if you will, that IE 8 must pass. And while various pre-release versions of the browser failed in one or more of these categories (but never in security or functionality, as it turns out), the final version does not. IE 8 offers tremendous security and privacy controls, and is superior to any browser on the market in this regard. The end-user functionality, especially around its so-called "beyond the page" features--is superb.

Performance and compatibility have improved dramatically since the beta days, but it's still a sticky issue. Here, I'm not talking page-load speed here but rather "usage performance," or the performance of the UI as you load up the browser with multiple tabs and open windows. In my own usage, IE 8 falls a bit behind Firefox especially, but again I use Firefox in a minimalist way which obfuscates the impact of the multiple add-ons that many people take advantage of. If you load up both IE 8 and Firefox in similar ways, the actual performance differences (such as they are) may surprise you. Certainly, IE 8 "feels" faster to me, configured as it is currently.

As for compatibility ... Well, compatibility is good. It's not excellent. But it's getting there. This is absolutely the one concern that can and will improve over time.

Final thoughts

I like Internet Explorer 8 quite a bit and will continue using it as my primary browser going forward. That says a lot, I think, certainly more than a vague recommendation. But I do have worries that it won't compel others to upgrade or switch browsers. Regardless of which browser you currently use, I believe you should at least install IE 8 and give it a decent test run. If its security prowess and functional advances don't win you over, so be it. But don't be fooled by micro-benchmarks and reviewers who are more interested in pursuing an anything-but-Microsoft agenda. IE 8 is an excellent web browser. Highly recommended.