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9/16/2010
04:36 PM
Jim Rapoza
Jim Rapoza
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Review: IE9 May Be Best Version Yet

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9, now in public beta, improves on previous versions of the browser, but most of the new features simply catch up to Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera.



Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed
Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed
(click image for larger view and for full photo gallery)
With the browser wars back and more competitive than ever, the next version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer may be the company's last chance to stop the falling fortunes and market share of the browser.

And based on tests of the recently released public beta, IE 9 is shaping up to be the best version of the Microsoft browser yet. But that may not be enough to stem the advances of the constantly innovating and improving competitors such as Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome.

That's because, while IE 9 is much improved over previous versions of IE, very few of the new features in IE 9 are new to the current browser market. In fact, most of the new features in this beta release are simply a matter of IE catching up to Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera.

When launching the beta of IE 9, the first thing that one notices is the interface, which is much more compact and streamlined. The other thing you notice is how much the IE 9 interface (just like the beta of Firefox 4) resembles Google Chrome. At this point, despite its still low market share, we can probably crown Chrome the winner of the interface battle of the browser wars, as most competing browsers have emulated it in some (or many ways).

No matter where it comes from though, this new interface for IE 9 is welcome. The much less cluttered interface makes it easy to get up and running on the web with little interference. Like many other browsers, most menu items have been combined into a single tools menu icon.

Probably my only complaint with the interface is the decision to put tabbed windows and the address bar in the same row. As you open many windows in the browser, this row can quickly become very tight. Also, there was no longer a menu item to launch a new browser window. I either had to hit ctrl-n on the keyboard or right-click a link to open it in a new window.

The old Quick Tabs feature has been downplayed and turned off by default (though it can be turned back on) and the old New Tab window has been completely revamped.

Now when opening a new tab in IE 9, the user sees a collection of sites that they regularly visit along with a color-coded fever bar indicating how often the site is visited. This worked fine but I would have preferred more options to customize the new tab page, such as the ability to move site icons within the page. Right now, I could only choose to never show a certain site.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed
Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed
(click image for larger view and for full photo gallery)
One of the nicer new interface features is only available to Windows 7 users. With Pinned Sites, I could click on the site icon within the address bar and drag it to my Windows 7 taskbar. This made it possible to quickly launch that site or web application from the taskbar and also let me choose to add the web application to my Startup folder so it would launch when Windows launched. Also, when a pinned site is launched, the browser window works almost like a separate application, down to its own unique icons and look based on the web site's properties. I could see this getting a lot of use by developers, especially in conjunction with some of the offline capabilities of HTML 5.

The IE 9 beta now also makes it possible to conduct a search directly from the browser's address bar. This feature, which has been in all versions of Google Chrome, is a good addition for the many of us whose first action in a web browser is to conduct a search.

One feature that IE 9 is currently implementing better than its competitors is the notifications bar. The notifications bar now pops up in a bottom screen window that manages to be both informative and unobtrusive, providing information on things such as downloads, passwords and add-ons.

However, while this notification was well implemented, the IE 9 beta provides almost no information on status of page loading. Whenever I ran across a site that was having a problem loading, there was no feedback from IE.

IE 9 also addresses one of the biggest weaknesses that Internet Explorer has had for a long time, namely the presence of a good download manager. Now, users of IE can easily view content downloaded through the browser and can also pause downloads in progress and restart failed downloads.

Another nice feature was the Add-on Performance Advisor. When I first launched IE 9, it looked at the plug-ins and add-ons I had (such as the Adobe Reader add-on) and made suggestions on their impact on browser performance and gave me the option to disable these add-ons in order to improve performance.

Speaking of performance, in the current browser wars, every browser maker likes to tout the supposed speed enhancements and advantages of their newest browser (despite the fact that for most users the difference in speed between the fastest and the slowest of the modern browsers is usually measured in times less than a second). And IE 9 is no exception.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed
Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed
(click image for larger view and for full photo gallery)
During my regular usage of this beta of IE 9, its overall performance and reliability proved to be good. As a regular user of Chrome, Firefox and Safari, I didn't notice any major performance issues with IE 9, and it definitely was an improvement over IE 8, especially when launching new pages and tabs. However, in some tests such as Futuremark's online Peacekeeper benchmark, IE 9 was still behind most of the competition.

While IE 9 is following the browser tech curve in some areas, one place where it is right on the cutting edge is in its use of hardware acceleration to improve overall browser performance. This feature, which is also implemented in the betas and alphas of most competing browsers, lets the web browser tap the computer's graphics processor to help with video, images and other graphics intensive applications. This is something that games and graphics applications have been doing for a while now and, while not that impactful right now, will be a major factor in the richer web that will be enabled by newer technologies such as HTML 5.

And when it comes to standards such as HTML 5 (which actually is not yet a full standard) and other current web technologies, the IE 9 beta definitely shows improvement over its predecessors. In the Web Standards Project's Acid3 test, the IE 9 beta scores a very good 95 out of 100, which is right behind the 97 that the Firefox 4 beta scores and the perfect 100s that Chrome and Safari have earned.

Of course, the one area where IE 9 comes up well behind all of its competitors is its lack of broad platform support. IE 9 will only run on Windows 7 and Windows Vista. All Windows XP users are out of luck. Compare this to most competing browsers, which run on Macs, Linux and Windows 7, Vista and XP.

However, if you are a Windows 7 or Vista user and you want to try out the new beta of Internet Explorer 9, go to www.microsoft.com/ie.

FURTHER READING:

Can IE9 Halt Explorer's Decline?

Microsoft Unleashes Windows Internet Explorer 9 Beta

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