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Internet Explorer 10: Analysed and benchmarked

Software & AppsFeatures
by Michael Muchmore, 30 Jul 2012Features

Windows 8's browser, Internet Explorer 10, leads a double life. You can run it in Metro, and it can also be run in the traditional Windows desktop view. Underneath, however, both use the same rendering engine. This engine has been considerably improved, in terms of both its speed and support for new web technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3. Maybe even more significantly, IE10 isn't just the browser for Windows 8, it actually becomes the underlying engine which powers Metro style applications that use HTML5 and JavaScript. When you realise that, it becomes clear that Internet Explorer 10 is a crucial piece of the Windows 8 puzzle.

At the moment, Microsoft is only making the preview version of IE10 available for Windows 8 Release Preview, but upon release, it will be available for Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Server 2008 R2, and Windows Server 2012. To try out Windows 8 and IE10, head to the Windows 8 Release Preview download page.

Microsoft made a big push with IE9 for more standards support, and indeed, that browser version far outstrips what IE8 offered. This is of particular importance for Windows 8's role as a tablet operating system, even though the Metro (the touch-tablet-centric part of Windows 8) guise of IE10 will include the Adobe Flash plugin built-in, as Google Chrome does. But more and more sites are relying on HTML5 to take over that plugin's functions.

One gauge of HTML5 readiness is the HTML5Test.com site, which reports a score based on how many HTML5 features a browser supports, along with bonus points for non-standard-specific extras like video codecs. Out of a possible 500, IE9 earns a score of 138, compared with 414 for Google Chrome. IE10 changes this picture considerably, with a score of 319 (and 6 bonus points). That’s pretty close behind Firefox 14, which notches up a count of 345. Opera 12 racks up a tally of 385, incidentally.

But that score isn't the whole story. Far from it. HTML5Test.com merely checks that a feature is recognised, not whether it's correctly implemented. On the IETestdrive site, Microsoft has published dozens of proof-of-concept demos showing exactly what a lot of these HTML5 features can do. You can peruse the IEBlog to read about the tons of work the IE team has done to add bleeding-edge support to the browser. Though it's often stated that Chrome and Firefox are ahead of IE in HTML5 support, some of the test drive demos show that those browsers haven't yet implemented every capability. One example is Touch Events, which lets a web page respond to gestures.

Atop all those underlying web technology updates, however, there's an app interface you use to browse the web, and the main changes here are in the Metro version of IE10. Let's look at how this clean, minimalist design, full-screen, touch-friendly new interface handles your daily browsing needs. After that, I'll look at some comparative benchmark numbers.

Metro Internet Explorer 10's Interface

Like other Metro applications, this flavour of IE10 runs in full screen view, letting your web pages take over completely. To access any browser controls, you do what you'd do with any other Metro app: Right-click, or on a tablet, swipe in from the bottom or top of the screen. This drops down large thumbnails of all your open web page tabs, along with a Plus sign button to open a new tab, and a "…" button that offers InPrivate browsing or lets you close all tabs except the selected one.

After a right-click or swipe on a tablet, in addition to the tab thumbnails along the top, your address bar pops up along the bottom of the screen, complete with a back arrow and buttons for refreshing, pinning sites, settings, and forward. The placement of the back arrow at the leftmost point, and forward as the last button on the right, is well-suited to tablet browsing, but on a laptop or desktop, having them next to each other would be better.

The Pin button, looking like a pushpin, works quite differently compared to IE9 under Windows 7. It creates a tile on the Metro start screen that opens the browser to the pinned page. This seems to detract from IE9's emphasis on pinning sites to the taskbar. The Metro tiles I created by pinning only showed the standard IE tile. It would be preferable for websites to be able to customise this, although one way around this is for sites to build an app.

For certain sites the settings wrench button is already graced with a Plus sign, meaning a "Get App for this Site" choice is added to its context menu. When I went to Cut the Rope's website, this option took me to the Windows Store to install the app. But I still came across several sites that do have apps, yet don't have this option from the wrench icon.

The setting wrench button offers two more important actions: Find on page, and View on the desktop. The first is thankfully also available via pressing the familiar Ctrl-F key combo – a shortcut I use incessantly. The infobar along the bottom shows how many find hits there are, and those are all highlighted on the page itself. The View on desktop choice will be indispensable for those who need traditional Windows features like overlapping windows and toolbars.

The right-click presents a problem for sophisticated web users, however. In all other browsers, including IE9 and IE10 on the desktop, right-clicking opens a menu offering information and actions. In fact, one of IE's hallmark features has been Accelerators, which you get to with a right click. For Metro IE10, those are all gone. I often right-click on an image to see its pixel size or source URL, but the Metro version of IE puts a stop to that. Instead, doing so (or holding your finger down on a tablet) opens a simple context menu offering Copy, Copy link, Open link in new tab, and Save to picture library.

When you click in Metro IE10's address bar to start entering a URL, coloured tiles showing your frequently visited and pinned sites pop up above it. Once you start entering characters, popular site suggestions pop up in smaller blue tiles. One convenience that certainly warms the cockles of my heart, which Microsoft has finally included in a browser, is Paste and Go. This saves you a click every time you enter a URL from the clipboard, but unfortunately, it's only in the Metro version, not the desktop one.

Page zooming works well in both touch tablets, with an "unpinch" gesture, and on the desktop, using Ctrl with the mouse wheel. Firefox, too, supports pinch zoom, but the response was smoother in IE10. The Ctrl-plus and Ctrl-minus keyboard shortcuts still zoom in and out, too. And another welcome touch is pop-up blocking – this worked well for blocking automatic advertising popups, but if I specifically clicked on a link that opened a window, I was taken to a new tab. Since it's full-screen, there are no overlapping windows; for that you need to go to desktop IE10.

Another expected browser convenience included in Metro IE10 is password saving. But say goodbye to History and Favourites managers (or go to the desktop for them). Hitting Ctrl-H or Ctrl-B does nothing. The new browser does, however, handle downloads with the same security and options to run or save as IE9. But again, Ctrl-D doesn't open the non-existent download manager, and I wish that in addition to Run and Close, there was a Show in Explorer choice after a download; you'll have to simply open your Downloads folder.

As with any well-behaved Metro app, IE10 takes good advantage of the Share charm. I could send any webpage link – along with a thumbnail preview – via email, or, using the People app, I could share it as a Facebook post or Twitter tweet. This integration does indeed help facilitate the easy sharing of pages that strike your fancy.

One thing missing here is any help on the new tab page – there’s simply none. When I opened a new tab without entering a URL and tapped on the screen, I got a completely blank white page with a cursor, and on a touch tablet you don't even get the cursor. Sure, I could right click on the laptop or swipe in from the edges on the tablet, but no interface should ever display a blank white screen. Hopefully at release Microsoft will add pointers helping users get back to something useful.

The tab system works adequately, and makes sense for touch input, where it's probably better than standard browser tabs across the top. But on a desktop, this tab system is less immediate than the typical browser tabs. Another choice I'd like to see from the … menu is the ability to reopen closed tabs, since you don't get this on the new tab page.

Desktop IE10

Heading over to the desktop version of IE10, you'd be hard pressed to detect any difference from IE9. Of course, the underlying page-rendering engines are the same new, faster, more standards-supporting ones used by the Metro form of Internet Explorer 10. As we'll see on the next page, there are performance differences, too.

Performance

To see how IE10 compares with the other two leading browsers, Firefox and Chrome, in terms of performance, I ran a few standard industry JavaScript benchmarks – SunSpider, Google V8, and Mozilla Kraken, along with a couple of tests of hardware acceleration from Microsoft's IETestdrive site. I used a lovely new Toshiba ultrabook to handle these tests, sporting a 2.5GHz Core i5 processor and 6GB of RAM, running 64-bit Windows 8 Release Preview for the first four tests, and a Windows 8 tablet (specs below) for the last one. No apps beside the browser were running during testing.

The first test I ran was good old Sunspider; most browsers are optimised up to the hilt for this JavaScript benchmark. Nevertheless, it's a good opening ante speed test. A striking thing I noticed was that the desktop version of IE10 consistently delivered a score of about 10ms better than the Metro version. Not really a significant difference, but perhaps worth noting. What was significant was how much faster IE10 was compared to Chrome on this test, beating Google’s browser by nearly 100ms – a third again faster. Of course, we must remember that this is a preview version of a new OS, and Microsoft engineers have had more time and access to optimise their browser. Firefox on Windows 8 Release Preview was only marginally better than Chrome on this test.

Sunspider 0.9.1

Milliseconds (lower is better)

Internet Explorer 10 (desktop)

146

Internet Explorer 10 (Metro)

155

Firefox 14

225

Google Chrome 20

237

The next test I ran was Google's V8 (v.7) JavaScript benchmark. One would certainly expect Google's own browser, Chrome, to ace this one. And indeed that turns out to be the case: Chrome achieved more than double IE10 Metro's performance on this test. Again, I saw the disparity between Metro and desktop IE performance, with the benefit going to desktop. Firefox came in second here, making the whole result set in line with what I've found in Windows 7 tests for these browsers.

Google V8 Benchmark Suite, Version 7

Score (higher is better)

Google Chrome 20

13170

Firefox 14

8058

Internet Explorer 10 (desktop)

6215

Internet Explorer 10 (Metro)

4887

Mozilla's Kraken benchmark takes longer to run and the organisation claims it's a better representation of actual web browsing patterns. In this benchmark, we see a similar pattern as for V8, but with an important difference. Chrome again comes in first and Firefox second, but this time Metro IE10 beats out its more traditional alter-ego. Perhaps there's something to that "real-world" stuff after all.

Mozilla Kraken 1.1

Milliseconds (lower is better)

Google Chrome 20

2445

Firefox 14

2984

Internet Explorer 10 (Metro)

5339

Internet Explorer 10 (desktop)

6337

A final performance test I ran is from the IETestdrive collection, Psychedelic Browsing, a test of a browser's use of graphics hardware to accelerate web page rendering. This test spins a colour wheel as fast as the browser can handle, and plays a spacy sound effect using HTML5. For this one, both flavours of IE10 got an identical score. The score of 1,815 RPM certainly shows evidence of hardware acceleration, since browsers without it normally only muster results in the double digits. It seems that IE10 is limiting the result of this test, however, since I got an identical result on different systems.

Psychedelic Browsing

RPM (higher is better)

Firefox 14

5786 (no sound)

Google Chrome 20

3466 (correct sound)

Internet Explorer 10 (desktop)

1815 (correct sound)

Internet Explorer 10 (Metro)

1815 (correct sound)

A newer IETestdrive benchmark of hardware acceleration is the Particle acceleration affair. I ran this on a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 Windows 8 tablet with 4GB of memory, running 64-bit Windows 8 Release Preview. This displays a rolling sphere of molecule representations, and reports draw time, frames per second, and a score. I recorded the highest score observed, since the benchmark runs continuously.

HTML5 Particle Acceleration Benchmark

Draw Time (milliseconds - lower is better)

FPS (higher is better)

Score (higher is better)

Internet Explorer 10 (Metro)

16.7

60

55911

Internet Explorer 10 (desktop)

13

60

60561

Google Chrome 20

24

42

46442

Firefox 14

7

60

60073

Achieving 60 frames per second is a pass for this test, since that's the screen refresh rate of the LCD. Firefox was surprisingly good here, beating out Chrome and achieving the fastest draw time, but IE10 on the desktop attained the highest observed score (although only just).

Conclusion

When you're browsing the web, you don't really want to think about or see the browser's interface: You want to see the web page you're visiting. The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 takes this view to the extreme, as when you're on a page, you only see the page – there's zero browser interface. And with web sites becoming more like applications all the time, this immersive view is more important than ever.

Web apps, too, need more than simple web page display in order to be fully functional, and IE10's much-improved HTML5 support allows them to do nearly anything an installed application can. Finally, for all this to happen in a way that will please users, it's got to be fast. IE10 is fast, but it wasn’t the leading browser on most of my tests. And I was surprised that the desktop version made a better showing than the new Metro version. Perhaps this is because Microsoft has had longer to optimise the desktop version, or the Metro version introduces another layer on top of the OS kernel. In any case, this is not the last word, and optimisations often come along late in the development cycle.

There's no doubt that IE10 is the fastest, most web-standard compliant, and leanly interfaced version of Internet Explorer we've ever seen. And while it doesn't lead competitors like Chrome and Firefox on some of these measures yet, it's still pre-release software. I like the direction this browser is moving in, and, when the final version of Windows 8 arrives, Internet Explorer 10 may well top the leaderboard.

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