Internet Explorer 9 in Public Beta

After more than a year of anticipation, the latest browser from Microsoft, Internet Explorer 9, just entered public beta. Bringing with it the most extensive overhaul since IE 7, this version of the most popular web surfing software quietly rolls up its sleeves and gets the job done – but not without a few glitches.

Answering one of the more common complaints about IE – its lack of compatibility with standards – IE 9 features better support for HTML 5 and other web standards. It also boasts a much faster JavaScript engine. In fact, IE 9 is faster overall. And anyone who needs to support it will be pleased to hear that it’s also more secure. Let’s take a closer look at each of these statements.

If you’ve already started working with HTML 5, you can use the video, audio, and canvas tags secure in the knowledge that they’ll be rendered correctly by IE 9. The new browser also handles DOM, CSS3, and ECMAScript5 much better than its predecessors.

As to the speed, you can chalk that up to IE 9 supporting full hardware acceleration. This means that the software taps into the computer’s graphics processor to perform some of its tasks. This takes a part of the load off of the main processor, which speeds things up nicely. IE 9 is only the second web browser, behind Firefox 4, to offer this feature. And if you want to keep your browser running fast, you’ll appreciate the new Add-On Performance Advisor, which tells you if a particular add-on is slowing your browsing session by more than a fifth of a second.

Security and stability features include tab sandboxing, which prevents a single tab crash from taking down the whole browser. Notifications now appear at the bottom of the browser, and won’t prevent you from browsing. There’s also a Download Manager, which speeds up the process of installing downloads by relying on reputation-based security. So well-known files will cause fewer warnings.

Despite all of these changes, it’s probably the user interface that will attract the most attention. It is surprisingly minimalist. Starting from the left, the back button is now larger than the forward button. The location bar and the tabs now sit on the same line. This could cause problems if you like to have a number of tabs open at the same time. Microsoft may have anticipated this issue; you can now drag a tab to create a whole new browser window – rather like Chrome’s “ripping” feature.

That’s not the only nifty trick you can play with tabs in IE 9. If you have Windows 7, you can also pin specific sites to its desktop taskbar by clicking and holding a tab, and then dragging it into place. The site’s favicon turns into the icon for the site on your desktop taskbar. If you need to resurrect closed tabs and previous browsing sessions, there’s an entirely new “New Tab” page. It also gives you quick access to the sites you visit most frequently.

So what happened to all of the stuff in the Command bar? It’s been moved into the Tools menu. Likewise, the status bar is hidden, though you can re-expose both it and the Command bar by right-clicking on the Tab bar.

While the new Tools menu has been given a clean, usable layout (probably in anticipation of increased use), the Internet Options menu has become a bit of a mess. And it’s not the only mess associated with the IE 9 beta; one reviewer noted that it “crashed with disappointing frequency,” though the session recovery feature on the new tab page worked well at resurrecting closed tabs.

All in all, to judge from the beta, IE9 very much looks like a step in the right direction for Microsoft. It’s sure to give Firefox and Chrome a run for the money.

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