Those who have written off IE as being slow and old-looking are in for a surprise. The just-released Internet Explorer 9 beta is dramatically faster than its predecessor, sports an elegant, stripped-down interface and adds some useful new features.
(Note: IE9 will only be available for Windows Vista and Windows 7 -- those still using XP will have to stay with IE8.)
With the release of its beta, Internet Explorer now joins the other major browsers -- Firefox 4 beta and Chrome -- in using a stripped-down interface. Web pages take center stage, tabs are at the top of the browser and unnecessary buttons and controls have been removed.
Like those two competing browsers, IE9's interface is spare and clean-looking, although the Bing toolbar, which runs by default, adds a bit of clutter. If you're a fan of toolbars in general, and Bing in particular, you'll find it useful; otherwise you can easily remove it.
The top and sides of the browser are transparent, using the Windows Vista and Windows 7 "glass" feature.
Access to IE9's features is available via three small icons on the upper right-hand side of the screen. They consist of a Home button, a button for using and managing Favorites, and a Tools icon in the shape of a gear, which gives you access to all of the browser's other features, including tools for setting your options, printing, zooming in and out, managing your security level and add-ons and so on.
IE9 also makes good use of another popular feature -- when you open a new tab, rather than go to a blank page, the tab opens with the thumbnails of pages you've visited most frequently. As an added attraction, a bar at the bottom of each thumbnail shows how frequently you've visited the page -- a long bar for one you've visited a lot, a shorter bar for those you've visited less frequently.
From this page, you can also reopen tabs you've closed in the current browsing session or reopen the tabs from your last session.
IE9 gets speedy
On my machine, IE9 completed the SunSpider benchmark in an average time of 432 milliseconds, faster than Firefox 4 Beta 4, which completed the test in 535ms. IE9 still lagged behind Safari, which completed the benchmark in 387ms, Opera (343ms) and Chrome (322ms).
With this beta, sluggishness is no longer a reason to avoid IE; not only does it outdo Firefox, but it's also close enough to the leaders so that it's now a reasonably speedy browser.
IE9 also uses hardware-accelerated graphics and video. The only other browser to do this currently is the Firefox 4 beta. (The developer version of Chrome 7 features hardware acceleration, so that it appears to be in the works for that browser.) If you go to Microsoft's IE9 Test Drive site, you'll find a variety of tests that Microsoft built to test the speed and compatibility of its browser. (Of course, it should be no surprise that IE9 significantly outperforms Firefox 4 beta on them, given that Microsoft built the tests.)
Integration with Windows 7
IE9 offers some features for Windows 7 users that aren't available to those who use it in Windows Vista. The most compelling of these is the ability to "pin" a Web site to the taskbar by visiting the site and dragging its URL to the taskbar. The site's icon then appears in the taskbar; you only need to click that icon to launch IE9 and visit the site.
At that point, your browser will appear to be branded by the site: IE9 will automatically color the forward and back buttons with the colors of the pinned site and will display the Web site's icon on the upper left of the browser. Web developers do not have to do any programming to accomplish this; IE 9 does it automatically.
At first, this doesn't seem as if it's particularly important; after all, you can always visit those sites by typing in their URL, or visiting them from your Favorites list. But in a world in which Web sites are becoming applications, it puts all of your Web-based apps within easy reach.
In addition, Web developers can use Windows 7's Jump List to add site navigation and additional features to the pinned icon. When you right-click on an application's icon, you can choose from a variety of options -- such as music controls on a media player. With IE9, Web site developers can, for example, put navigation on a pinned site's Jump List, so that you could immediately visit the sports section of a news site by clicking it in the site's pinned Jump List.
Microsoft has somewhat of a problematic history getting Web sites to develop special features. In IE8, the company introduced Web Slices -- which allows you to get "slices" of Web pages delivered to the browser -- but few sites ever built them. So it's not clear at this point if developers will flock to use the IE9 Jump list capabilities.
By the way, one downside to pinning a Web site is that the pinned site launches its own browser instance rather than appending itself as a tab to your already-open browser. So if you run several pinned tab sites, you'll have to switch from browser instance to browser instance, rather than switching from tab to tab.
IE9 includes another small extra for Windows 7 users: It makes use of Window's Snap feature for individual tabs. So if you tear a tab away from the browser and drag it to the side of the screen, it automatically resizes the tab, which is now in its own window, to fill half the screen.
Double-duty address bar
IE9 has borrowed more than its tabs-at-the-top clean look from Chrome. To highlight the change, Microsoft has a new name for the address bar: One Box.
Whatever you call it, it works much like Chrome's: As you type, it searches through your browsing history and Favorites and displays matches, so you can more quickly find a site or launch a search by selecting what you want and pressing Enter. You can also type in a search term and press Enter, and it will perform a search using your default search engine.
Microsoft has added a twist to this feature to protect your privacy. If you want, as you type, your search provider can look at what you're typing, and suggest likely matches. By default, this behavior is turned off, so that keystrokes aren't sent. However, you can turn on the feature if you don't mind your keystrokes being sent to the search engine.