File Under: Browsers

Review: Internet Explorer 10 Bests the Competition on Windows 8 Tablets

Webmonkey.com in IE 10 on Windows 8. Photo: Screenshot/Webmonkey

Windows 8 is here, bringing with it a brand new version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser.

Internet Explorer 10 is the first release of Microsoft’s once-dominant browser that’s built for use on touchscreen devices and, while IE 10 is the default browser on all Windows 8 machines, it’s on tablets that IE 10 really shines.

I’ve been using Internet Explorer 10 on a Samsung tablet running Windows 8 for over a month now and I can say that, while Windows 8 overall may be something of a mixed bag (see Alexandra Chang’s review on Wired’s Gadget Lab blog, which closely mirrors my own experiences with Windows 8) IE 10 is not only a nice browser, it’s currently the best experience on Windows 8 tablets.

There may come a time when Firefox and Chrome catch up to where IE 10 is now on Windows 8 tablets, but at least for now neither take full advantage of Windows 8′s touchscreen interface the way that IE 10 does. If you’re planning to get a Windows 8 tablet, IE 10 is the fastest, stablest option and, thanks to some nice touch features, the most fun to use.

The entire IE 10 experience on a tablet revolves around gestures. By default the browser launches in Windows 8′s full-screen mode with little chrome or UI to see. To get to many features you need to use gestures — swipe down from the top and you’ll see the tab bar with thumbnail previews; swipe up from the bottom and you’ll see the URL bar.

Initially the URL bar at the bottom bothered me. I eventually adjusted, but I still think reversing those two positions, or having both at the top would make IE 10′s other potentially confusing interface changes feel a little bit less jarring.

Even better than the up and down gestures is IE 10′s Flip Ahead feature, which makes it possible to navigate the web by swiping to the left (a bit like Opera’s FastForward feature). The left swipe gesture — like flipping the page of a book — tells IE 10 to follow any “next” buttons on the page, loading the next page without clicking anything. It doesn’t always work because the web is full of poorly coded pages and sometimes Flip Ahead doesn’t see a “next” link. However, when it works Flip Ahead feels so completely natural and obvious that I constantly found myself trying to do the same thing in Mobile Safari on iOS (which, sadly, does nothing of the sort). Note that turning on Flip Ahead means your browsing history will be sent to Microsoft to help the company improve how it works.

Internet Explorer 10 adopts at least one idea popularized by Apple’s iOS — the ability to pin sites to your start screen. It’s nothing more than a bookmark really, but it makes getting to your favorite sites and apps a bit quicker and makes them feel more like first-class citizens on the start screen.

It’s worth noting that, protests not withstanding, Microsoft has indeed shipped Internet Explorer 10 with Do Not Track web tracking protection enabled. There is a way to disable it when you first start IE 10, but it involves choosing the advanced setup option, which most users are unlikely to do.

IE 10′s tablet interface did end up supporting Flash, despite Microsoft’s initial claim that it would not. However Flash support in Metro mode is limited to a whitelist of approved sites, so YouTube videos work, but other sites, like Rdio, do not.

There’s also a version of IE 10 that runs in Windows 8 desktop mode, though on the desktop there’s not nearly as much to recommend IE over competitors. From tests I’ve seen around the web IE 10 benchmarks well on the desktop and, as we’ve looked at before, it has much improved web standards support, but without the touchscreen features there’s not much to recommend IE 10 over alternatives like Chrome or Firefox. If you’re an IE 9 fan looking for a solid update, IE 10 has you covered, if you’re already a happy Chrome or Firefox user there’s nothing in IE 10 on the desktop that’s likely to tempt you.

Unfortunately — and this may well be IE 10′s fatal flaw — there’s no way to make IE 10 the default app for the Windows 8 Metro UI and another browser the default for the desktop interface. It’s all or nothing.

For now IE 10 is better on touchscreens and more or less on par in the desktop interface, but both Chrome and Firefox release updates every six weeks, while feature-adding IE updates tend to be years apart. That means odds are Chrome and Firefox will reach feature parity on touchscreens before IE 10 sees a major update. Still, for the time being at least, IE 10 can claim the crown on Windows 8 tablets.