For the first time in a while, I turned my PC on. Inspired by Phill’s blog post about a bug he found in the recently released Internet Explorer 7, I decided it was about time I bit the bullet and downloaded IE7 for myself. And while I was at it, I thought I might as well download and install Firefox 2, which although not officially released is being made available for people to try before it actually goes public. This, then, is a running commentary on the installation and first impressions of both browsers, as used on my Windows XP Home SP2 computer.
The first thing I noticed was the file size of the installers. FF2’s 5.4MB file looks quite miniscule next to IE7’s 14.8MB – it doesn’t bode well for IE7 even at this early stage, with Microsoft’s patented “excessive bloatedness” rearing its ugly head again. On the slightly sunnier side, IE7 downloaded a lot faster than FF2 did, despite its larger file size.
As the IE7 installer runs, the first thing I see is a clash of colours in the hues of blue used in the install program. Small point, perhaps, but it just doesn’t seem to be using the same colour scheme as the rest of Windows, it’s just too cyan. Next, it downloads the latest updates for IE7. Now, is it just me, or shouldn’t a newly downloaded installation file direct from Microsoft include all those updates already? Obviously too much to ask. The installation process itself was lengthy, to say the least – there was much hard disk chuntering, a little desktop flickering, but other than that the installer itself was fairly uncommunicative. The progress scroller was the sort you get when starting Windows, which gives you absolutely no indication of how much further it has to go, and the messages it gave to describe its current operation were spurious and uninspiring. And then it rounds off with the obligatory “You must restart your computer” message – some things never change.
One restart later, and I notice that the icon in my QuickLaunch bar has changed – the ‘e’ logo now has a ring orbiting it, reminiscent of the Netscape Navigator progress icon from ages gone by! IE7 starts off by recognising that this is the first time it’s been run, and gives you some basic setup options. The most surprising is that the Phishing filter is listed but not checked, meaning that it’s not enabled by default – why on earth would anyone NOT want that enabled??
The interface of IE7 has been given a substantial overhaul. We are finally blessed with tabs, giving IE users the same sort of navigational bliss as Firefox and Opera users have enjoyed for some time. The tabs themselves are a little on the large side for my liking, but at least they’re there. The default search engine is Live Search, which uses yet another hue of blue. One impressive feature though is the web page scaling – a conveniently placed button in the bottom right corner of the browser allows you to scale the page up or down, giving you far more control over sizes than IE6, and even scales images and proportions too, much like Opera. It’s not perfect by any means, as scaled sizes appear to be done on the fly, so on my slightly older computer scrolling around a scaled page is more jerky and processor-intensive than normal. I also tested the scaling using my own web page, which uses a combination of relative and absolute positioning – when scaled normally the page displayed perfectly, but when scaled up the layout went completely haywire, in contrast with Opera’s perfect scaling of the same page.
I also revisited a page I created a while back to showcase how CSS and PNG images can be used to create some interesting effects. I was pleased to see that IE7 now supports PNG transparency nicely, although for some unknown reason the spacing at the top of the page seems to have got lost… Still, it’s a start.
IE7’s handling of tabs is interesting, to say the least. For a start, when opening a new tab you are shown a message saying “You’ve opened a new tab” – useful, if you happen to be completely new to the idea and need reminding every time what it is you’ve just done. Also worth noting is that to close a tab you need to be viewing it – tabs that are not being currently viewed have the close button hidden, which I would find rather frustrating. It does however make up for that somewhat with the Expose-like ‘Quick Tabs’ button, top left, which gives you a visual preview of what’s on each tab. Very useful, and here each tab gets its own close button too. And for those of you who like having an excessive number of tabs open at once, there is a limit to how bunched up they’ll get – once you reach a maximum number of tabs they start to scroll, left to right, so that the tabs don’t just become unreasonably small and impossible to use.
Something that I’m sure a lot of people will miss is the menu bar, which is present in pretty much EVERY other Windows program. The commonly used File, Edit, Window, etc. menus have been completely removed, and what was within them have been moved to a series of rather unorthadox buttons on the right of the toolbar at the top of the browser – now pretty much everything comes under either ‘Page’ or ‘Tools’. Given that in every other program if you want to copy some text you automatically go to Edit -> Copy, moving it to [Page button] -> Copy seems rather an odd interface design choice. In addition, the well-used Favourites menu has been replaced with a very small star icon, which when clicked opens up a menu showing you your favourites. This, again, seems unnatural, and I fancy it will take a while for people to find it – I’m quite proficient with computers, and it took me a good 10-20 seconds of confused staring to figure out what they’d done with the favourites!
All in all, I’m sure IE7 is a vast improvement on IE6. We are told that IE7 is more secure, more compliant with web standards, more accessible, more functional. But how will the public take to it? How long will it take users to find all those useful features that have been hidden away? And how long will it be before some hackers come along and spoil Microsoft’s day again?