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Internet Explorer 10 Platform Preview 1: Hands On

  • Category: Software
Date:4/13/2011

By Michael Muchmore

The team behind Internet Explorer have argued that the fast cadence of release schedules from competing browsers like Google's Chrome and more recently, Mozilla's Firefox, create too much churn and headaches for developers, who have to stay on top of frequent changes in browser capabilities. But that didn't stop them from releasing the first "Platform Preview" for Internet Explorer 10 (IE10) today, which Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's head of IE, said was already three weeks in development.

IE9 was just released in its final form last month at the SXSW music and tech conference in Austin. But the IE team said today that showing pre-release software in meaningful updates every 8 to 12 weeks is a better way to go than to release a full-blown new browser on the world every couple of months, as Google does and Firefox plans to.

Hachamovitch's keynote remarks and post on the IEBlog also reiterated the team's mantra that a browser must be optimized for the underlying operating system. This contrasts with the approach taken by Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, all of which develop versions for the three prevalent desktop OSes—Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Microsoft claims those browser makers dilute their efforts by having to accommodate the multiple OSes, but Firefox chief Mike Beltzner countered this claim:

"Mozilla has always believed that the full, modern, open Web should be accessible by as many people as possible, which is why we have continued to invest in cross platform development. If a platform is capable of supporting the technology used by tomorrow's Web pages, then it's worth our time to support it. This doesn't really dilute our development efforts as we use a common set of technologies which we can compile on any platform that provides a development kit."

What's New in IE10?

Leaving the hardware acceleration controversy aside for a moment, just what's new for IE10? Not much for the end user, at this point: The new version 10 preview, as with the Platform Previews for version 9, sports none of the browser's "chrome," or interface elements—just an underlying Web rendering engine. That means no bookmarks, history, or even a Back button. And very few sites currently take advantage of the new HTML5 capabilities supported in IE10 Platform Preview: CSS3 Multi-column Layout, CSS3 Grid Layout and CSS3 Flexible Box Layout, CSS3 Gradients, and ES5 Strict Mode.

The IE team has graciously provided some test pages that demonstrate these capabilties, however, at the IETestdrive site. They've also added new speed demos, including a new Fishbowl benchmark and a paintball game. I took the browser out for a spin using these and other non-Microsoft tests.

Speed Tests
First I'll compare the three big current browsers—using Microsoft's new speed demos—and then I'll run some alternative performance benchmarks from other sources. Of course, keep in mind that I'm comparing IE pre-release code to released versions of the other browsers. This is intentional, in order to show what kind of improvements we can expect compared with what's out there today. I tested using a medium-powered laptop, the Dell XPS M1330 with a 2.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 3GB RAM running 32-bit Windows 7 Ultimate.

On Microsoft's new Fishbowl benchmark, you can now choose a lot more settings than you could in the earlier FishIE test: you can add a video background and effects like shine and shadow on the bowl as well as HTML5 audio of the filter sound. And you can now go up to 2,000 fish. With everything turned on and 50 fish loaded, IE10 PP1 clocked in at 40 frames per second, compared with 12fps for Chrome 10. Surprisingly, Firefox 4, which also uses hardware acceleration, came out a tad faster than IE10 PP1, at 42fps. IE9 took much longer to load the test, and then swung up and down between 38 and 56fps.

Possibly the best demonstration of hardware acceleration is the new Paintball demo, which splats colorful paint blobs across text on the screen. On this test, IE10 displayed the paint shots in rapid fire, taking 30.36 seconds to deliver 171.97 paintballs per minute. On the same test and PC, Chrome 10 was noticeably slower to shoot, took 67.94 seconds to shoot 76.83 paintballs, and didn't display the intro page correctly. Firefox 4 did display the intro page correctly, but not the test itself or the result numbers.

Moving to non-Microsoft speed tests, on the widely cited SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, IE10 PP1 excels, with a time of 244ms compared with Firefox's 280ms and Chrome's 285ms. On Mozilla's Kraken, Firefox was the winner, with a time of 6770ms. Chrome wasn't too far behind, taking 8473ms to complete. IE10's 14905ms showed a slight improvement over its predecessor's 15050ms. And on Google's V8 benchmark (version 6), IE10 scored 2367 (in this benchmark a higher score is better), compared with Firefox's better 3568 and Chrome's leading 8280.

Continue reading: HTML5 Support

HTML5 Support
With the lauch of IE10 Platform Preview 1 came five new HTML5 proof-of-concept demos: Strict Mode, Tweet Columns, Griddle, CSS3 Flexbox Flexin', and the Grid System. The first is really just a developer tool for testing whether code complies with the ECMAScript 5 standard exactly. ECMAScript is a fancy name for JavaScript. The test actually doesn't prove anything about IE10's standards support, but just lets developers see whether their code complies.

The Tweet Columns demo is a lot more interesting for the end user. It shows support for CSS3 multicolumn support using a grid of Twitter feeds. You can set the number of columns, their widths, and heights, using radio buttons. IE9 failed to display more than one column, but IE10, Firefox 4, and Chrome 10, could, though I managed to trip up the last when choosing a different column height with five columns—only three showed up. The demo also can show an auto-tweet feed, all the browsers could accomplish.

Probably the most real-world test, and the most revealing of differences in standard support is Griddle, created by the makers of the Dribbble site, an asset sharing site for designers. The demo uses CSS3 Grid Layout and CSS3 Flexible Box Layout. Both Firefox and Chrome failed to load this test site, showing that no one has 100 percent HTML5 compatibility yet.

The Flexin' test showed that more subtly: Though each of the browsers could align and justify text boxes correctly using CSS3 Flexbox, the dotted line border was not uniformly displayed in Chrome and Firefox when the boxes were rearranged. A final test, the Grid System, uses CSS3 Grid Alignment to reproduce a site layed out in a grid. IE10 was the only browser of the three that could handle this.

A non-Microsoft rough guide to HTML5 support is HTML5Test.com, which reports how many HTML5 features are acknowledged, though not necessarily correctly carried out. On this test, IE10 PP1 shows no improvement over IE9, scoring 130 with five bonus points out of a possible 400. By contrast, Chrome leads this test with 288 point and 13 bonus points, and Firefox does well, with 240 points and nine bonus points.

What Next?
With the release of IE9 less than a month behind us, this onward charge to IE10 at MIX11 took me by surprise. It's nowhere near the watershed that last year's unveiling of IE9 was—that release brought a vastly out-of date browser within shooting distance of completion, with improved JavaScript speed and HTML5 support. IE10 Platform Preview doesn't bring major performance boosts over IE9, and whether it will change the interface significantly is anyone's guess at this point, though I'd say that's not likely.

It's nevertheless encouraging to see that Microsoft isn't letting up on making the browser better, especially since I have noticed some oddities in its performance occasionally. In any case, the company needs to keep on top of developing its browser, given the surge of Chrome adoption and the continuing progress of Firefox.


This hands-on preview is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.