Microsoft trumpets IE 11 for Win Phone 8.1, but reviews are mixed

Some users commenting about Windows Phone 8.1's browser complain about how it handles tabs

A "reader" feature in IE 11 for Windows Phone 8.1 reformats web pages so text is easier to read

A "reader" feature in IE 11 for Windows Phone 8.1 reformats web pages so text is easier to read

Microsoft crowed about advances in Internet Explorer 11 for Windows Phone 8.1 earlier this week, but so far reviews from users are mixed.

Microsoft detailed in a blog various security, privacy, speed and interface enhancements to the browser, but people aren't completely happy with the way it works on the upcoming version of the smartphone OS.

Windows Phone 8.1 is available in a developer's preview version and is due to ship in final form in the coming months. Non-developers can install it as well by following these steps.

There are several recurring complaints from commenters, many focused on the way IE 11 handles Web page tabs, which unhappy users described as erratic, confusing and inconvenient.

Some found that the browser opens and closes tabs too slowly, and that it often arranges them in arbitrary order, making it hard for people to find specific ones when a bunch of them are open.

Several users also complained that tabs and Web pages reload too frequently and without the user prompting the action, which at times can be inconvenient and make navigating open pages confusing and slow.

Overall, the consensus from those complaining about the browser's handling of tabs is that this worked better in previous versions, where it was clearer to users how many tabs were open and in what order, and without them being automatically reloaded.

Another complaint mentioned by some users is difficulty in using Web page menus that respond to "hovering over" by a mouse in a desktop browser, an action that can be replicated in IE 11 in Windows 8.1's "Modern" touch interface by pressing and holding those links.

A user also commented that he reported a bug in the way the browser deals with Web forms, which he said makes it impossible for him to submit forms on the sites he frequents. The user said he's been waiting several weeks for Microsoft to respond to his report.

Asked for comment, a Microsoft spokesman said via email that "a fix is coming" for this Web forms bug, and he also confirmed that the browser lacks a "badge" that in previous versions let users know how many tabs were open.

He also said that the menu "hovering" capability exists in IE 11 for Windows Phone 8.1 but that it may sometimes require that users hit the "back" button to make it work properly. "We will continue to look at improving this scenario in the future," he said.

In Microsoft's blog post, published Wednesday, Amin Lakhani, IE program manager, described the IE 11 upgrade for Windows Phone 8.1 as "massive" in the areas of "quick site access, fast and fluid browsing, safety and privacy, and accessibility."

In the area of quick access, IE 11 now lists users' most frequently visited sites in response to a tap in the address bar, and if users try to type into the address bar, IE 11 takes an educated guess of which URL they're going to enter. "It is one of those things you can't imagine living without once you have it," the official wrote.

The upgrade also lifts the limit on the number of browser tabs users can have open, from a previous maximum of six, and it places more prominently the buttons to access open tabs and refresh them.

IE 11 on Windows Phone 8.1 will also now sync a variety of elements with users' IE browsers in Windows 8 tablets and PCs, including their favorites, history, passwords and open tabs. "You can now quickly pick up where you left off when you switch devices, and finally say goodbye to emailing yourself links," Lakhani wrote.

Another enhancement applies to website shortcuts pinned to the smartphone's Start screen. The icons used to be static screenshots, but now they'll be dynamic live tiles showing updated elements from the sites, like recent headlines and images.

Other additions to the browser include the ability to remember passwords, a "swipe" action to go back and forward and a "reading view" that strips certain non-text elements from Web pages and reformats them in a way to make it easier for users to read their text. It's also now possible for users to save downloaded files from the Web.

In the area of safety and privacy, IE 11 on Windows Phone 8.1 adds the ability to browse privately in certain tabs so that no record of Web page visits is kept. This also improves the browser's data savings tool, Microsoft says.

Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst, said Microsoft needed to do a lot of improvements with the Windows Phone IE browser and that the work is not finished, although this upgrade addresses important issues.

"What Microsoft is doing in terms of reducing bandwidth and speeding up the experience is definitely in the right direction," he said via email.

"One of the promising pieces is addressing the live-tile refresh problem for websites pinned on the front screen. Some of that will require cooperation of website content owners, so it may take time to realize the full potential of this feature," he added. "I think synching with PCs and Windows tablets is also an important differentiating feature."

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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