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June 09, 2005

msn toolbar mini-review

Last night I tried the MSN toolbar's tabbed browsing feature and said of it "it sucks." Today, after another 15 minutes of use I've revised my opinion some; it _really_ sucks :-) Now, I'm not digging into this too much because it's just too painful (and I don't have a lot of motivation to start with) so I might be mistaken about some of this. It's all still just first impressions.

Here's what sucks. First, the flickering of the entire UI when moving between tabs is just horrible. It's enough to give me seizures. Each time you move to a new tab, the entire browser seems to pop in and out of existence. I've got a pretty fast Pentium m with 2GB of RAM in this machine, I'm running the latest and greatest windows update on XPSP2 and this is just awful.

The second problem is the focus stealing. Various IE dialogs steal focus when I'm loading tabs in the background. This is really annoying. The proper solution, I believe, is to hold that dialog modal to the tab (out of site) and flash the tab to indicate that that page needs the user attention. (We don't get this right either, but at least we don't steal focus like IE). Not only do dialogs steal focus, but tabs loading in the bacground themselves distrupts focus on the current page. Overall, this is just way too disruptive an experience to use for any length of time.

The next problem I have is the overflow mechanism. I know this is a tricky one, but their solution of adding the scroll buttons and allowing the currently selected tab to be made invisible is a usability nightmare.

Another problem is that with the default IE button set, menubuttons that become enabled or disabled when moving between different tabs cause the toolbar to shift around when switching tabs and that's just plain ugly. I guess that's what you get for just bolting on a tab implementation withough working through all of the ramifications.

Finally, using Alt+click to open new tabs seems just wrong. On top of that, it seems to fail some of the time for no obvious reason.

Oh, and one last thing, the toggle on the toolbar which determines whether or not your links open in the same tab or a new tab doesn't persist for the window, it's toggled off every time you switch tabs so so you have to remember to toggle it. It doesn't even persist for the tab you toggled it for. This only kind of sucks but is extremely aggrevated by the lack of middle-mouse for open new tab or context menu for open in new tab. Not only that, but with the buggy keyboard modifyer, you can't even count on that to work.

This sure feels "alpha" quality to me. I'm surprised that MS would ship something so broken as a final product. Maybe I'll say more after I've used it a bit more. We'll see.

How was your experience with it?

update: I know I should be focused on Firefox bugs and not IE bugs, but check this out. With the new MSN toolbar, go to here and open any of the examples (located in the upper left corner of the screen) in a new tab.

update2 Ugh. It's so much worse than I thought. Wanna lose some data? Try going into and leaving fullscreen mode with multiple tabs. Try hitting ctrl+w with multiple tabs.

This is just a really poor implementation. I've stopped counting the show-stopper level bugs and I'm gonna just uninstall and move on now. What an embarrassment.

Posted by asa at June 9, 2005 09:59 AM

"I'm surprised that MS would ship something so broken as a final product."

Case in point...

Windows ME

Posted by: Daruku on June 9, 2005 10:48 AM


I use IE 20% of the time at work for IE specific sites, I was excited about this and thought it would make my 20% away from Firefox a bit better.

It's worse, the shakey UI is just terrible, even worse is when you have other 3rd party toolbars installed as well.

I uninstalled it, and am happier with a window based IE that works, than this shoddy tab browsing.

Posted by: Jed on June 9, 2005 11:09 AM

I wonder if it is truly tabbed browsing, or if they are just grouping multiple instances of IE under a single interface, hence the "flickering" when you switch tabs.

Posted by: Jeremy Flint on June 9, 2005 11:49 AM

I installed it just to mess with Windows Desktop Search (disabled everything else). Anyone have any thoughts on that? It seems Ok if you don't let it index just _everything_, I'm going to try it out a bit more...

Posted by: Aaron on June 9, 2005 12:12 PM

Asa, you are so right, it does suck.

Posted by: Alex on June 9, 2005 12:34 PM

rofl, tell us something we didn't know. :-)

Now, a review of Copernic Search or X1 would be far more interesting.

Posted by: Jugalator on June 9, 2005 12:37 PM

Yeah, I don't really need a toolbar in IE, ever! Anyways what are they using? that looks like flash but it's not.. That's cool

Posted by: Jmack on June 9, 2005 01:02 PM

Firefox still steals my text cursor as I'm writing an URL in a new tab while a previous page hasn't finished loading (say, gmail). This is with 1.0.4 under SuSE Linux 9.2 Pro.

Posted by: fyo on June 9, 2005 01:24 PM

8.1 MB to get tabbed browsing and integrated searching into IE?!! Admittedly, it comes bundled with "Windows Desktop Search," but seriously...

Posted by: MarbleheadMan on June 9, 2005 01:26 PM

Maybe I'm crazy, but maybe Microsoft did this deliberately.

When talking about Firefox, a significant number of people say "Tabbed browsing? Why would I want that?". Of course, once they try it they love it. :-)

But now how many IE users will download this crappy toolbar, and come away with the impression that tabbed browsing is a terrible idea? Once people try a concept and get a negative impression, it can be hard to change their minds. [How many people tried old versions of Mozilla or Netscape 6 and still say Moz/FF is slow and bloated? The first attempts at streaming video made people laugh at "postage stamp" jerky video for years.]

I wouldn't be surprised to see one of the MS-friendly trade rags publish an article about how tabbed browsing isn't all that great. Of course, when IE7 is released these same rags will talk about how MS has revolutioned browsers by adding working tabbed browsing. :-)

Posted by: Tinfoil McHat on June 9, 2005 01:52 PM

that DHTML art site causes firefox cpu usage to get stuck at 99%. had to use the task manager to kill the process.

Posted by: sineral on June 9, 2005 02:30 PM

Uhm: have you looked at FF's tab overflow solution lately? It still and after all these years sucks and bigtime. Tabs get squeezed together to tiny thingies and then disappear in the void behind the close tab icon. I find it hard to believe that anything could actually suck more than that.

Posted by: JP on June 9, 2005 03:51 PM

But Asa, are you saying its not all super happy wonderful like the flash file on depicts? ;)

[...] "Ever been frustrated managing all those open Internet Explorer windows?"

I suppose it would be wrong of me to wish that some 1337 h4x0r would edit the page so that the sentence that follows is a link to ;-)

Posted by: Limulus on June 9, 2005 04:30 PM

like JP says, firefox has still some flaws in its tab system (including some focus stealing scenario that you so disliked with MSN Toolbar). That product might be bad but I'm sure your time would be spent better on improving your product rather than downing others

Posted by: Mathieu Pellerin on June 9, 2005 05:55 PM

Oh will you guys cut the crap? Seriously. Nearly every time Asa writes a critique, several people turn up to suggest that he spends time improving Firefox instead of complaining about other products.

Asa works at the Mozilla Foundation for enough of his day to justify having a *personal weblog* where he can write about his thoughts and opinions of anything he likes. Anyone saying otherwise presumably ignores the fact that writing a blog post about a tabbed browsing toolbar leaves more than 23.5 hours with which to perform other activities.

Posted by: Ben Basson on June 9, 2005 06:23 PM

Ben Basson,

You are defending Asa, the head of QA and testing for Firefox, the guy who didn't bother performing a simple regression test on a 7 year old bug.

Asa doesn't have nearly enough focus on QA at the moment, diverting himself with activities like blogging and SpreadFirefox. And the lack of quality, whether as a result of lack of time or sheer incompetence, shines through.

To Asa:


Posted by: Joe Coder on June 9, 2005 06:40 PM

No, I'm defending his right to post on his personal weblog about things other than Firefox. Congratulations on missing the point entirely. As far as I'm concerned, work hours are 9 to 5. If Asa wants to play with IE toolbars and review them on his own time, good on him.

It's a bit hypocritical to be posting on his weblog saying that he could be working on improving Firefox when your comments come at the opportunity cost of doing something useful.

Posted by: Ben Basson on June 9, 2005 06:48 PM

JP wrote:
>Uhm: have you looked at FF's tab overflow solution lately? It still and after all these years sucks and bigtime. Tabs get squeezed together to tiny thingies and
>then disappear in the void behind the close tab icon. I find it hard to believe that anything could actually suck more than that.

u could always get tabmix that has multirow tabs. thats the big difference between the two. in firefox, if u dont like something, write an extension that changes it. in ie, if u dont like something, switch to firefox.

Posted by: Grayson Mixon on June 9, 2005 07:51 PM

"We don't get this right either, but at least we don't steal focus like IE."

FF steals focus when a site on a tab requires basic authentication. The auth dialog is also displayed if you are not currently on that tab.

Posted by: Sander Goudswaard on June 9, 2005 11:45 PM

A little OT, but does anyone have any news on the patching efforts for the latest bug?

Posted by: David Naylor on June 10, 2005 01:07 AM

> That product might be bad but I'm sure your time would be spent better on improving your product rather than downing others

Asa's not a coder. But yeah, Asa, stop doing stuff like sleeping and having a life, Firefox needs you! Voicing opinions about stuff is for pussies.

Posted by: tveidt on June 10, 2005 03:38 AM

I installed the software, which took about 5 minutes with the number of options asking me whether I wanted to add search functions to my desktop and browser. Why cant one make a piece of software that just does one thing ? I just wanted to try the tab browsing… and no it will not let me install just that. Installer says : must add search function. Then on top of that, it asked me whether I wanted to make MSN my homepage… grrrr… this is just supposed to be in installer. I am happy with my homepage thank you and I don’t want anything else. What if every piece of software asks you whether you want to change the homepage to it’s manufacturer ? Ok then finally the installation ended, and now I had a search bar that I didn’t want and I could not opt out of.

Then I played with it, for less then 5 minutes. Yes that’s all it took me to go back to control panel, Add/Remove software and install the buggiest software/add on I have used. OK I use a lot of software everyday, I am a system network administrator, so part of what I do is try things… like how I tried Firefox and fell in love with it… yea ! Yes what the Ctrl+click all about. Why could I not left-click on a link and there was no option to ‘open link in a new tab’. That was annoying since MS didn’t tell that you had to Ctrl+click on a link. Then it kept opening tabs more than once. Yep I click on a link and then I had 3 tabs… why ? I also had times when the tab will pop up as a pop-up style window ! I only wanted to open the link.

I experienced all the issues that this blog identifies too. The whole browser kept flickering when I opened a tab and at times it ‘shook’. I am running a fast 2.5Ghz P4 Dell machine to test it and I didn’t think that it should do that. I happily have 10 tabs opened in Firefox and no problems ! Yep nothing of this sort.

So I close the browser, and decide to install it. I had running Firefox, Photoshop and Illustrator. Will the uninstall went ok. Then when I finally clicked the last button ‘OK’ things went horribly wrong. Firefox crashed, my Photoshop crashed and illustrator just disappeared. Then I tried to open FF again, it just wouldn’t and I had to press the shortcut 4 times before I got a ‘Feedback dialogue box’. I cancelled it and then it ran again. Has anyone experienced anything similar ? I have never had this problem. My system was stable – installed MSN tabs – uninstalled it – then my software started crashing !!!!

I am not going to bash Microsoft, because I use it a lot during my day, but this piece of software is very poor. It just seems like MS decided to compete with FF on this arena hastily.

Posted by: Arun on June 10, 2005 04:35 AM

For goodness sake - if you want hassle free tabbed browsing use Opera!


Posted by: Wally on June 10, 2005 04:51 AM

Joe Coder,

You are completely right about the regression tests, and the security bug was a QA failure.

But you cannot take away from Asa his tremendous experience in browser UI. His criticisms are constructive, and valuable.

You should try to base your opinions on the content, not the source.

Posted by: asdf on June 10, 2005 06:49 AM

I feel embarrassed for Microsoft. What causes the largest software company in the world to release such a crappy product? I really don't get it. Surely, they realize that the product sucks. Surely, they can see that it's buggy (at best) and triggers epilepsy (at worst.)

I'm confounded.

Posted by: Fitz on June 10, 2005 06:50 AM

I see some people critisizing Asa on using the MSN toolbar and writing a review. But, as the figurehead for the organization, this does several things. First, he has an obligation to check out the competition. Don't want to find out that what Microsoft has done is revolutionary, and that Firefox will be left behind. That is clearly not the case, but that is not the point. Remember that IE is our competition. Also, this opens up a dialog, like we have here, which is vital to an open source project.

I installed this, and uninstalled it the same day. I couln't get the tabs to work, and they were even hard to use and find. Too many extra toolbars and icons were installed in open windows, including in regular Windows Explorer. And I would see an annoying switch of the pointer while it was "thinking" and indexing. Short answer is that I am positive that the experience will improve in IE7. It literally has to, since it is a big stinking pile right now.

Posted by: T on June 10, 2005 07:13 AM

Firstly, Asa can express whatever the feck he wants to express in his own time and webspace. Secondly, this msn toolbar really is a piss poor hack that reeks of desperation. Bluntly, it isn't a solution, it hasn't been thought through and definitely hasn't been tested.

It amazes me that the prospect of getting a modern, fully functional and utterly free web browser, one with decent tabbed support and extensibility, seems to make some folk wet themselves with anxiety. FF isn't perfect, but it *is* much better. Go look at avantbrowser, which smells more like IE and handles tabs as well as any browser does. Or even Opera, which isn't bad at all. But whatever you do, don't bother with this hopeless MS cludge, it is unfinished.


Posted by: resyk on June 10, 2005 09:00 AM


I'm not surprised. I have a friend who used to work for MSN tech support and had some insights into how the whole MSN(the one you pay for) & Messenger development plays out and let me tell you, it is a mess and a half, everything from flat out scamming customers to garbage code. Atleast for the MSN side of MS, it is all about the money. They didn't give a rat's ass about customers or if it was a solid product.

Posted by: Anonymous-l on June 10, 2005 11:18 AM

The toolbar only works because of the inherent security weaknesses (e.g. no security at all) in Windows message handlers and hwnd ownership.

Basically it exploits the same bug that I can make in 200 lines to co-opt the window of Norton Antivirus (or any program, really), create a new textbox, flood this textbox to get Local Server access and then take it over.

Such a hack would be nearly impossible to install on non-win32 platforms due to all the security you'd have to jump through in order to so-extensively hack another program's GUI.

Posted by: HopeSeekr of xMule on June 15, 2005 07:17 AM

Opera is the best tabbed browser, give it a chance, IE and Microsoft is always trying to create the standar but just fools and MTV fans believe in such software..

Posted by: Jaime Costecho on June 16, 2005 12:43 AM

If you want a tabbed interface for IE download Avant (

you get all the 'features' of IE in a tabbed environment. No flashing, No MSN. I've been using it for ages and find it easy to use. It also has good filtering features so you can block popups, activex etc etc.

Posted by: ken clark on June 16, 2005 01:09 AM

Tinfoil McHat:

I think this is spot on. I haven't tried the tabs but they sound horrendous. MS would not release something this bad unless they were trying to scare users away from tabs.

They tried something vaguely similar with Java a few years back. Thankfully that failed. Lets hope this does too - I'm sure it will.


Posted by: Robin Massart on June 16, 2005 03:45 AM

I've been using TABs in IE for some time, but inorder to do that, I use a shell called Avant Browswer, its been solid for me, and the fact that when I close it, and re open it, even afer a reboot, every single tab loads up at the exact point I left off at, on that particular site in the tab. I've been using Avant for my tab's and I have put other people on it, and they love it. I can honestly say, I've had little to no issues using Avant and recomend it to anyone who has to use IE and wants tabs!

Posted by: Robert on June 16, 2005 04:42 AM

Guys, you cant be serious about tabbed fact IE has tabbed browsing many years ago. Of course, not from Microsoft.

Try using 3rd party products like Slimbrowser ( Its a 1.5M download, has tabbed browsing and many good features (pop-up blocker, search engines integration, hidden sites, URL Filtering, skins, etc.)

Posted by: Alvaro on June 16, 2005 05:00 AM

What's up with PC Magazines online review of MSN Toolbar (,1759,1593457,00.asp)? They gave it 4 out of 5 stars. After what I've read here, it sounds like it doesn't deserve even 1 star.

I'm not the experienced techies the rest of you are, but when FF won't work for me (like with our web apps), I use Maxthon which runs on the IE engine, is free, tabbed, has the tab reload feature that Avant has, a "reopen last closed tab", max number of tabs option, along with a lot of other cool features.

I haven't tried Avant and some of the other solutions mentioned here but I wonder how Maxthon measures up based on your experience if any of you have tried it.

Posted by: novicetechie on June 16, 2005 11:08 AM

Just to add to Avant and Slimbrowser, I'd like to mention Maxthon ( as a tabbed interface to IE.

::shrug:: I ve only got my own experience with it, but it seems okay. I'd be interested in any contras people might have about it.

Posted by: Michael Birks on June 16, 2005 01:37 PM

Whoops. My Bad.

Sorry, novicetechie.

Posted by: Michael Birks on June 16, 2005 01:39 PM

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