If ever there were a poster child for the dual—one might say dueling—nature of the Windows 8 user experiences, it’s Internet Explorer 10. As with the OS on which it runs, Internet Explorer 10 offers two separate but complementary user experiences, a standard Windows application that runs in the desktop environment and a touch-first, Metro-styled app. Today, I’d like to focus on the latter.

(Want to discuss IE 10 Metro? I've written a blog post, Some Thoughts About Web Browsing In The Windows 8 Consumer Preview With IE 10, for which comments are enabled. I can't yet enable comments on full-length articles like this one, sorry. --Paul)

Microsoft describes the dual Internet Explorer experiences as “one great browser engine with two different experiences … or skins.” In my experience, that’s a bit of a stretch. Instead, I find the interactions between these two applications to be confusing and disarming, and while both are excellent in their own way, I suspect that your usage of either will vary depending on situation.

That is, most people interacting directly with a touch-based device such as a tablet computer will most certainly stick to IE Metro, as I call it. Those who regularly interact with the desktop—either because they’re using a traditional PC or a docked tablet or hybrid laptop—will most likely be more comfortable in the more feature-packed desktop version of the browser.

There will be overlap, of course, and some may ultimately be drawn to IE Metro even though they prefer the desktop. Those using a coming generation of modern PC devices may find themselves moving, somewhat effortlessly, between the two.

We’ll see.

Understanding IE Metro

Internet Explorer 10 for Metro is a touch-friendly, Metro-styled web browser that works pretty well with mouse and keyboard too. It offers an add-on free experience that is safer than its desktop cousin but at the expense of some useful functionality.

Like other Metro-style apps, IE 10 Metro is immersive, or tailored for a touch-first device experience. That means no visual distractions—thanks to its lack of chrome—and the ability to use simple gestures to navigate the web and pan and zoom across individual web pages. These work largely as expected, with double-tap and pinch to zoom actions as per other mobile browsers.

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Where's the browser? IE 10 Metro offers a chrome-less browsing experience

Interestingly, IE 10 Metro also changes the web in some crucial ways. Onscreen controls like check boxes and radio buttons are styled differently so that they’re touch-friendly. It’s very similar to the experience offered by the Windows Phone version of Internet Explorer, in fact. (One difference: IE Metro doesn’t offer a way to switch between desktop and mobile web pages views.)

Some common browser activities are handled quite a bit differently in this version of Internet Explorer. For example, search and sharing occurs from the system-wide contracts that are available from the Charms bar. And the Metro Devices interface is used to print and interact with other devices.

Some things, of course, are the same as with the desktop version of IE. Aside from the basic feature set, including features like InPrivate and Tracking Protection, you’ll find that many keyboard shortcuts from desktop IE continue to work in the Metro version of the browser. And if you find a page that won’t work in Metro IE—perhaps because of its lack of add-on support—you can easily open that page in the desktop version of Internet Explorer and get back to work.

Navigating the user experience

As a Metro-style app IE Metro offers a distraction-free, chrome-less user interface by default. And like other Metro apps, you can use an edge UI—swiping up from the bottom of the screen or down from the top—to display various commands and controls. (Keyboard users can use WINKEY + Z, while mouse users can right-click anywhere onscreen.)

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The IE Metro tab switcher and navigation bar.

 

Where most Metro-style apps feature a single app bar, however, IE Metro offers two app bars, one at the bottom of the screen and one at the top. The bottommost app bar is called the navigation bar, and it includes Back, Site Icon, Address Bar, Refresh/Stop, Pin to Start, Page Tools, and Forward buttons. The topmost app bar, called tab switcher, includes active tab thumbnails and New Tab and Tab Menu buttons.

Metro IE, like other Metro-style apps uses new system-level functions for settings, (web) search, sharing, and printing, as well as for working with other devices (like projecting a page or web video to a secondary screen). These capabilities are all accessible via the Charms bar--remember, WINKEY + C--via the Settings, Search, Share, and Devices charms, respectively.

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Printing is handled at the system level, through the Devices charm.

 

The Settings pane is particularly interesting, and offers a nice browser-wide Zoom capability that will help all web pages fill the screen without losing graphical or textual quality. (This works globally and separately from the pinch and double-tap zooming capabilities.)

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Internet Explorer 10 (Metro) settings.

Using IE Metro

In use, Metro IE works much like its desktop cousin but with some interesting differences. Key among these are some missing features, including a decided lack of support for browser add-ons. More surprisingly, perhaps, is right-click: It doesn’t work in IE Metro as it does in the desktop versions of the browser, and in fact only serves to bring up the navigation bar. That means you can’t right-click any element on a web page and access advanced options related to the background and images, selecting text, getting properties, and so on. If that’s a problem for you, you’ll want to stick with the desktop version of IE.

 

Also missing: Home, advanced menus off the Back and Forward buttons, and, surprisingly,  an obvious interface for Favorites. As it turns out IE Metro does support Favorites--in fact, Favorites are one of the things that's synced from PC to PC if you enable a Microsoft ID and browser settings sync--but only via Search. To find a favorite web site, display the navigation bar, select the address bar, and then type to search. The navigation tiles above will auto-filter as you type, displaying results from four places: Frequently-visited web sites, pinned web sites, Favorites, and, interestingly, popular web sites.

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Type in the address bar to filter the results to frequently-accessed sites, pinned sites, Favorites, and popular web sites. My site is all four!

 

That said, Most actions will work as expected in IE Metro. You can tap hyperlinks to access the underlying page, scroll with your finger, and so on. Back and Forward work via the appropriate navigation bar buttons, through keyboard shortcuts, horizontal swipes of the finger, or, for you mouse users, via new Back and Forward controls that appear on the left and right side of the screen as you mouse in those areas.

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Click that tiny widget on the left center of the screen to go back while in normal, full-screen mode.

 

Tabs also work as expected, and the new tab switcher lets you add and remove tabs, start a new InPrivate Browsing tab (via a menu off the Tab Menu button), and clean up tabs (i.e. remove all but the currently displayed page). If you're used to using keyboard shortcuts to manage tabs, those all work fine too: CTRL + T for a new tab, CTRL + W to close a tab, CTRL + TAB to switch between tabs and even CTRL + SHIFT + P for a new InPrivate Browsing tab.

 

IE Metro handles downloads a bit differently than the desktop version of IE. Instead of multiple Save As choices on file downloads, you get just Run, Save and Cancel. And Save works like Save and Run in desktop IE, since you're prompted to run downloaded executables after the download completes.

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The IE Metro download experience.

 

Finally, there's a fun new capability that's tied to the site icon, which you can see to the left of the address bar. When you visit a web site that offers a Windows 8 app, the site icon will indicate that the app is available. Tap this normally untappable button and a new menu item, Get the app, will appear. (If you already have the app in question, the item will read Switch to app. Tap that and the app will run.)

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If a web site offers a Windows 8 app, it can advertise it through the site icon button.

Pinned web sites

If you’re familiar with Internet Explorer 9, you know that Microsoft added a unique ability to that version of its web browser: The ability to pin web sites to the Windows 7 Start menu and taskbar, alongside those for traditional Windows applications. These pinned sites work much like regular applications, and appear in a special version of the Internet Explorer 9 browser frame that is colored code to match the design of the underlying site.

 

The desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 provides this same capability in Windows 8, but the new Metro-style version of IE 10 offers a unique, Metro-based take on this functionality: You can now pin web sites to the Start screen as well.

 

This makes sense when you consider that the Start screen is replacing the application-launching functionality of the Start menu and taskbar in Windows 8. But there are some curious behaviors—and differences with taskbar/Start menu pinning—to know about.

 

To pin a web site to the Start screen, load it in Internet Explorer Metro and then tap the Pin button in the navigation bar. You’re given a chance to rename the site before it’s pinned. (Some web sites have annoying long names.)

 

The live tile for a newly pinned site, like those for newly installed applications and apps, can be found at the end (i.e. the far right side) of the Start screen. They don't offer as many options as those for Metro-style apps, but they can be moved, renamed, deleted, and, as with taskbar-pinned sites, can offer simple alphanumeric notification badges (such as the tile for an email service that displays the number of unread emails).

 

Within the browser, however, pinned sites also offer another feature borrowed from pinned taskbar sites: Jump lists. So if you tap that site tile, you’ll notice that IE Metro loads with a slightly different user interface, assuming of course that the pinned site utilizes jump lists: The Pin to Start button in the navigation bar has been replaced by a new menu button. And if you click this button, you’ll see whatever jump list the site provides. (The items in this menu will of course vary from site to site.)

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Pinned web sites can optionally display jump lists when loaded in IE Metro.

 

One final bit of trivia: You may know that pinned sites in IE 9 and Windows 7 run in their own browser frame, and not in a normal browser windows. But this isn’t the case with IE 10 Metro and Windows 8. Instead, these pinned sites load inside the same IE Metro app as any other web pages, and they will load alongside whatever other tabs were already open in the browser. I'm guessing this happens for security reasons, but I'm still waiting for the IE team to respond my requests for a meeting about this and other IE 10 topics.

Final thoughts

There's a lot more going on with Internet Explorer 10 in general, and with IE 10 Metro specifically, but that will need to wait for Windows 8 Secrets. In the meantime, it's fair to say that Microsoft has created a unique solution for web browsing in Windows 8--no, two unique solutions--which should please fans of both the touch-first Metro environment and the desktop. IE Metro blends the friendliness of a mobile browser with the power of a full-blown desktop solution. It should prove very popular with Windows 8 device users in particular.