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Revisiting Internet Explorer

Monday, October 25, 2004;

If you're sick of reading about baseball and politics, you can get an hour's reprieve at 2 p.m. ET today, when I host my Web chat on personal-tech issues.

Er, except... well, actually, I've been known to delve into both those topics as well. So there really is no escape, at least not for this week. And probably not the next. (I'm not even going to speculate on the odds of another drawn-out election count like 2000, lest I make myself ill.) Submit a question or comment early if you can't stop by during the chat.

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E-letter Archive

As part of my review of Google Desktop in yesterday's column, I had to switch from my usual Web browser and e-mail client (Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird) to Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Outlook 2003. I had to do that because Google Desktop only searches the Web and mail archives of Microsoft's Internet software -- although Google says it's working to add support for other Web and mail software.

It was painful, but instructive, to make this switch for a week. In this e-letter, I'll talk about my reintroduction to IE; next week, I'll cover life in Outlook for a week. Part of my dissatisfaction was aesthetic and subjective, but part of it was reasonably objective -- such as tasks that required more steps or took more time than in other programs, or which simply could not be done.

The biggest thing I had to give up in IE was tabbed browsing, in which a user can view multiple Web pages within one window (here's an animation of how this works in one browser). I keep hearing from readers and colleagues who don't see how this is better than just opening multiple browser windows. Now that I've had to switch back from tabbed browsing to multiple-window browsing, I can better explain the advantages of one over the other.

If you only ever view one Web page at a time, tabbed browsing is useless. But if you routinely open multiple browser windows, the difference is readily apparent. Without tabs to organize multiple pages in one frame, I found myself taking much longer to switch among different Web pages I'd opened. Instead of clicking on one Windows taskbar button for my browser, I had to scan multiple IE taskbar buttons, one for each open page.

The IE buttons were scattered at random across the taskbar and, thanks to all the other applications I had open, identified by only the first two letters of each page title ("wa...", "My..", "Ms...", "Sla...", "The..."). (In Windows XP, this is a little better, as that operating system groups one program's multiple windows under a single taskbar button if the taskbar is starting to crowd up.)

I could still Alt-Tab to switch among all the open IE windows, but this wasn't as quick as looking over a row of tabs. First, you can only see the name of one open window at a time, while every tab in a browser window can be read at once. Second, tabs include site icons such as ESPN.com's red "E," while IE windows all appear as the same generic IE icon when you Alt-Tab through them -- you have to read each site's name, causing a further, if slight, delay.

Lastly, tabbed browsing allows you to open a group of Web pages at once, with a single click. No such option is available in IE.

All this combined to cause me to open fewer IE browser windows and explore fewer interesting links. A Web browser's job -- like that of most other programs -- is not to discourage me from using it.

One other thing about IE really bugged me last week. In most competing browsers, double-clicking on part of an address selects just that segment -- the "www," "washingtonpost" or "com" in "www.washingtonpost.com" -- while triple-clicking selects the entire address. In IE, double-clicking selects the entire address, and triple-clicking does nothing. Doesn't sound like much of a difference, except that most of the time I'm going from one "www.com" site to another, and I don't want to have to retype the "www" and ".com" in each site, or wait a moment for the browser to figure out that it should add them on its own (as IE will).

HDTV Clarity

The future of high-definition television cleared up slightly last week. Intel, which had announced its intention last winter to develop a semi-flat-screen technology called LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon), said on Friday that it was sticking a fork in that project.

That pretty much eliminates one once-promising contender in the race to lower the costs of thinner-screen TVs that would offer most of the slimness of LCD and plasma sets without the high price (click here for an example of my own reporting on this). On the upside, at least it's one less thing we (probably) no longer have to contemplate in future HDTV decisions.

Listen Up!

Time for the Rob Pegoraro Overexposure Watch: I had a couple of radio appearances last week, so if you'd like to listen to me hold forth on various tech topics, you can listen to me on Kojo Nnamdi's Tech Tuesday show on NPR affiliate WAMU (88.5 FM), and a Web radio show called "The Mac Night Owl."

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)

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