IE7 – Firefox’s Evil (and Inferior) Clone?

Okay, after a few days of using Microsoft’s new IE7 Beta, I’ve gotten a handle on the changes, as well as what I like and don’t like about it.

First Impressions

Visuals

Upon opening it, it took a second glance to get an idea of what was being offered. Yes, I had done the preview tour (which, go figure, doesn’t work very well in Firefox) and knew somewhat of what to expect, but as always what they show you and what you see live are somewhat different.

First thought – wow, it’s different. Not only from what I was used to in Firefox but from the old IE as well. The buttons moved, menus were missing, the colors and shapes were different. Visually, this new browser version is a chimaera of designs – and like the mythical creature, the pieces don’t necessarily fit together well. I’m not the first to mention this, but the design is at best piece-meal. Buttons fit at least 3 different styles: old style IE buttons for things like print, home, etc., gel buttons for the back and forward nav, refresh and search drop-down, and Qute-like buttons for favorites, stop and quick tabs. It’s like someone used Photoshop to cut-and-paste from other browsers, and no one thought to mention this to the UI designers later. Not very attractive, in my opinion because there are too many styles competing.

Interface

The back buttons are in one of the usual places, to the left of the address field, but then you look for the HOME and STOP buttons – and they aren’t there. In fact, they are located in two different places – the stop button at the right end of the address field and the home button second area to the right of the tabs. Why they thought it was a good idea to separate the three is beyond me.

And then I went looking for my File menu … and it didn’t exist. No FILE, EDIT, TOOLS, etc. anywhere on the screen. After quite a bit of trial and error, I finally found out how to get it by right-clicking on the toolbar to the right of the tabs, where I found the selection for “Classic Menu”. You can select this toolbar by clicking on TOOLS | TOOLBARS to bring up the classic menu, although ironically, you can’t close that view from the VIEW menu once it’s open.
Worse, while you can put the “Classic Menu” and “Links” toolbars on the same line, you can put little else there – and you can’t condense the other menus. The “Toolbar” – since they don’t give it anything other than this generic name – is customizable with a select group of buttons, but you can’t make it go away completely. So, in essence, you can have two lines of interface at the minimum – the navigation bar, and the tab bar/toolbar. If you want access to menu commands, links or the Accessability toolbar I use, then it requires a third bar. So much for the decreased footprint they speak of.

IE7 Toolbar Chimaera

On a positive note, the new favorites panel does have a nice feature – the ability to delete favorites directly from the menu while hovering – and not have to right-click and select delete. Small but nice feature.

Another annoying thing about the interface is something that I’m fairly sure is only for the beta – God, I hope so at least. With a new design and new elements of that design along the bottom of the browser, there are lots of colored icons that pop up at times. However, there are no tooltips to tell you what these functions are. Don’t you think that when giving this to testers, you might explain what the icons mean so that they can watch for them?

Using IE7

Then I decided to try to navigate. IE7 did NOT import my old favorites, which I would have assumed that it would, so I had to start from scratch. Typing in a URL was simple and it loaded pretty quickly on simple pages. Other pages loaded VERY slow, particularly those with any sort of extras to them that required IE7 to really think. In a side-by-side test on 10 pages, Firefox loaded faster in 8 of them. When they do come up – fast or slow – the pages come up rendered as expected – that is to say some come up nicely, others look just like IE6 (i.e. like shit). However, there is a note in the developer blog that clarifies this:

Obviously, we have heard the feedback asking us to be more standards-compliant in our rendering behavior. We must balance this ask with the need of our customers (and end users) to have their pages not be broken. To find a balance we introduced a strict mode in IE6 that lets authors opt in into the more standards compliant rendering (and, if you’re putting in a modern DOCTYPE declaration, you’re being opted in automatically). Pages authored under non-strict mode (or “quirks mode”) will not change behavior in IE7 – so the fixes we’ve done to be more CSS compliant won’t appear under quirks mode. However, if your content is under “strict mode”, our behavior is more standards compliant, and your pages may break – for example, if you use some of the CSS hacks or rely on our old incorrect overflow behavior. We understand the pain this might cause in the short term but we believe a move to a more standard compliant implementation benefits everyone in the long run.

So, standards will only work if the programmer used the STRICT doctype – not a big deal, since many people have been saying we should do that anyway.

But yet there are still sites out there that don’t work with IE7 – and worked with IE6. I’ve run into more than a couple of sites that collapsed while trying to use it. I don’t know if it’s a user agent problem or just some way that IE7 renders the code/components but I couldn’t move forward in secure environments like my bank application. This is most likely a temporary problem, but it is fairly annoying.

IE7 finally got the message that consumers want the ability to browse without having dozens of windows everywhere. Tabs are a hallmark of every other major browser, and now IE has them. Not perfectly implemented, mind you, but they are there and work similarly to other applications. Open multiple tabs, force new windows into tabs instead, the ability to close tabs via a close button on the tab, or open a new tab by double-clicking on the tab bar. All fairly standard. However, they are still missing some very important and useful things such as visual identification of unread tabs and customization of tab functionality – currently your choices are limited to Tab Focus and Multiple Tab Closing Warnings.

They’ve also finally added the search bar to the toolbar without you having to download a separate toolbar program (Google and Yahoo won’t be happy, I suppose). Again, nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s nice to see they actually caught up. They’ve also added RSS feeds, and done it fairly well – surfing to Jon Hicks’ site offered me about 7 different feeds that I could get to – and doing so is very straight-forward and *gasp* visually attractive. Points to IE7 for the RSS feed.

But the thing that really stood out for me while surfing came back to the interface – having buttons all over the place made surfing tedious and unintuitive. Hitting the back button all the way to the left, and then your refresh button all the way right was just … well, wrong. Everyone who is used to where those buttons are supposed to be – left, right, center but always together will curse this when they get started.

Functionality

IE7 does add a few other pieces to the puzzle. Among the highlights of the program are the Quick Tabs functionality which allows you to turn all of your tabs into thumbnails (or larger, depending how many tabs you have open) so that you can see quickly what you are looking at. FoXpose does the same for Firefox if you are familiar with that extension. It’s handy and nice to have built into the browser. They have also added a Zoom button at the bottom of the browser, allowing you to zoom into a page if you need to. I’m not sure when I would use this (if the site was designed correctly and text is too small, you should be able to adjust it in other ways), but I still like it.

They have also added two very valuable elements. Now, IE7 will display fonts using ClearType, which helps create much more readable text – and it works. And the Print Preview functionality is far superior to what it used to be, and possibly stronger than even Firefox’s implementation. They now offer a “Shrink to Fit” ability as well as orphan control, which is a great feature for the web. You can also quickly bring up 2, 3, 6 and 12-page views to see how long webpages will appear when printing. Surprisingly, the rendering is fast and pretty accurate, too. They also allow you to remove headers and footers to give you extra room, and live margins to change how it’s printed on the fly. Some nice new features.

Standards

The big rallying cry among programmers these days is “Standards Now!”. Well, IE7 is complying – sort of. There will be more across-the-board accepting of standards – including hack fixes (so long, Box Model Hack!), as long as your page is using that STRICT doctype. They will even finally start accepting CSS2.1 child selectors and allow Hover over elements aside from anchors. But the implementation is far from complete, and they admit it. Plus, as stated above, they will still render most other doctypes in the same manner as IE6 does. It’s half-assed if you ask me, but it’s far better than the 101 hacks it takes today to make IE work.

Concerns

Well, it’s been out only about 2 weeks and there is already a security update for it. That was one of the major hits against Internet Explorer in the past, and not a good sign for the new version. I stand corrected – See comments below.
Eventually, the Windows Vista version will allow you to disconnect it from the rest of the OS to prevent many types of virus/trojan infections, but the current Windows XP version doesn’t have that. A nice feature to have to give you the extra protection from hackers who love to target IE.
Okay, so it IS a beta, so there are bound to be things wrong with it. Functionally, they are on the right track thanks to the better browsers which came before them, especially Safari and Firefox. But there is still a lot IE7 needs to do to be as good as those upstarts. First and foremost, they need to overhaul the interface again to make it actually make sense. Then, give us a way to make it standards-compliant regardless of the doctype.

I’ve seen many comments to them about things that need to be fixed, and to their credit they DO seem to be listening. Will it really matter when IE7PR comes out? Who knows. But they have made some changes – many good, some bad, some REALLY bad. See below for my quick summary:

What I Liked

  • Improved Adherence to Standards Much more web-compliant, at least if you are using the strict Doctype.
  • Tabs – imperfect implementation of them, but at least you won’t have 1,001 Explorer windows everywhere
  • Favorites – Okay, this panel is nothing new, but what I did like was the fact that as you scroll over your favorites, there is a button that allows you to actually delete that one without right-clicking. Minor, but a nice touch.
  • Great Print Preview – the interface actually makes sense and works. Why couldn’t they do that with the BROWSER interface?

What I Didn’t Like

  • Overwrites IE6 – In all of this time, they haven’t figured out a way to have multiple versions on one OS?
  • Back Asswards Interface – They redesigned the interface, but I think Picasso was the usability guy. Buttons that used to be together have been separated, others are in weird places, menus are missing, non-logical groupings of commands…
  • A Gummybear Factory Exploded! – There are at least 3 different styles of buttons: gels, ‘classic IE’, icons – and they don’t match. I guess the cut-and-paste from other browsers into Photoshop made its way into live code.
  • Tabs – If you are used to Firefox, Safari, Camino, Opera or even Netscape, the lack of adaptability of these tabs will annoy you. For example, you can’t change the tab which gets focus when they are opened – it’s always the newest tab.
  • Lack of Tooltips – usually not a big deal, but when you release a demo with incomplete documentation and new places for things, don’t you think tool tips when you hover would be helpful?
  • Slow – I know it’s a beta, but this browser is very slow to start up and to react. Not good for a bare-bones installation.

Final Thoughts

Basically, IE7 is an amalgam of the other popular browsers, taking their most popular features and trying to jam into the familiar IE architecture. They have improved many things, and kudos for them finally doing so. There are still many steps to go, however, and I hope that they seriously listen to the feedback that they’re getting. To be honest, they haven’t converted me from Firefox and I can’t see that they will when this comes out for real. However, at least when I am testing for IE rendering, I’ll have less aggravation doing so.

Linkage

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2 Responses to “IE7 – Firefox’s Evil (and Inferior) Clone?

  • To see the file menu, you only need to hit the ‘alt’ key on your keyboard. It doesn’t need to be permanently on.

    As to the security patch, please go read your link. It isn’t for IE7. It won’t even install on IE7 (or IE6). It is an IE 5.01 patch…

  • Al, thanks for pointing that out – I missed the section that it was 5.01SP4. And thanks for the tip regarding the menu, although that’s not necessarily intuitive. Still, good to see that keyboard commands are still valid.

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